Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

How does any reasonable person react when facing "the lesser of two evils" or "an offer you can’t refuse"? When we find ourselves "on the horns of a dilemma," we are usually "trapped between a rock and a hard place" — this is a feeling we know all too well in life, whether in business dealings or with family and friends.

The earliest occurrence of "between a rock and a hard place" in 1921 America denotes being bankrupt — "common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California." (American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes V, 1921) More recently, Aron Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) was adapted into in the gruesome film, 127 Hours (2010). Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours that he spent trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident in April 2003. He survives precisely by opting for the "hard place" of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm.

Aside from these common usages of the expression, from Arizona and California to Utah, this week we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted as they are now trapped "between a rock and a hard place" — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being "between the devil and the deep blue sea"?

Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's collage-like illustration depicts the rock at Horeb during the night, with water still pouring forth from the place where Moses struck it. "You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it." (Exodus 17:6) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Nitzavim / VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once duly remarked: "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."

Life is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in Parashat Nitzavim. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year. As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, which belies a deeper calling to responsibility.

Reading Parashat VaYelekh, we consider another kind of responsibility – that of memory. As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of English artist and critic John Berger, who once observed that "the camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget."

Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance amidst our overly-surveyed lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:18 ("And I will hide My face on that day…"). In his book, God and the Big Bang, Daniel C. Matt points out that "according to the mystics, [the Hebrew word for 'universe,' olam], derives from the same root as ‘hiding,’ he’lem." Matt describes our relationship with God as a "cosmic game of hide-and-seek," and asserts that "divine energy pervades all material existence." Here, an atom, the basic building block of matter, is seen partially obscured by a scrim or some substance. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Facebook_CoverDesign_EkevWilliam Shakespeare once wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." If a beneficent Creator created the world, is it merely a question of thinking that accounts for why bad things happen to good people? We are disturbed by such moral calculus.

This week’s reading of Parashat Ekev provides us with an opportunity to challenge this ethical rationalization. In continuing with his legacy speech, Moses’ address to the Children of Israel takes on the following tone: If you fulfill these commands, then (and only then) you will prosper in the Land of Israel. Moses also points to moments of collective backsliding – the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korah, and the skepticism of the spies – not merely to point a finger, but also to offer an opening for the work of forgiveness by the Merciful One, a way to practice the power of return, known as teshuvah — a devotional posture all but absent from Greek philosophy. This spiritual practice of teshuvah is ongoing, and especially important as we approach the month of Elul that precedes High Holy Days. Within this description of the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey," we also learn about the beauty of the "seven species" (wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates).

This week then is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how each of us comes to terms with, or questions, this moral calculus in the ongoing journey of our relationship to the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by a passing mention in Parashat Ekev; we learn that the Israelites are aided in their conquest of the Promised Land by the tzir’ah. "And also the tzir'ah, the Lord, your God, will incite against them, until the survivors and those who hide from you perish." (Deuteronomy 7:20) Rashi and Nachmanides contend that the tzir'ah is a hornet, with Rashi further detailing that the insect "injected poison into [the Canaanites], making them impotent and blinding their eyes wherever they hid." Today, many frum naturalists assert that the tzir'ah is the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), the largest hornet species in Israel and the species on which this illustration is based. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe great American boxer Muhammad Ali once remarked: "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

When we turn to the repetition of the Law through its namesake (the Book of Deuteronomy, from deutero, meaning "repetition," and nomos, meaning "law"), we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly.

Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot.

Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of conviction emerging from repetition is how the Mosaic legacy is carried forward with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of Joshua. Behind him, loosely rendered, we see spectres of the Nephilim, the giants or fallen angels that reportedly inhabited the Promised Land. Unlike their ten scout companions, Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could conquer Canaan's fearsome inhabitants. For his bravery and virtue, Joshua would later inherit the mantle of Moses. "But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it." (Deuteronomy 1:38) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Matot / Massei -- Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Facebook_CoverDesign_MasseiParashat Matot

The final of the four tangible ways of measuring the intangibles of intentional community that I learned with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group."

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff" – the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees – on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

"One can find a squalid America as easily as a scenic America; a bitter, hopeless America as easily as the confident America of polyethylene wrapping, new cars, and camping trips in the summer."

For Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), the U.S. Attorney General (during his brother's administration) and U.S. Senator who was assassinated in 1968, camping is a scenic part of our American pioneering spirit (rather than a squalid one).

So when we read this week of the journey of the Israelites and the record of their forty-two station stops in encampments along the way to the Promised Land – from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan – we would be well served in reading into it a sense of real joy. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad – as proto-feminists – decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is concerned with worldly boundaries, the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pinhas"No matter how small a religion is, there will always be people within it who find some reason to break away and make it even smaller, a process that, of necessity, ultimately means conflict."

This comment was offered by Reza Aslan, controversial sociologist of religion and host of Believer.

So do we accept that belief as manifested in world religions is, for Aslan, mostly equivalent to zealotry – the shadow side of every religion? The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Zelophehad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is an abstract depiction of the five daughters of Zelophehad. "The daughters of Zelophehad...stood before Moses and before Eleazar the kohen and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." (Numbers 27:1–2) These sisters are often championed as proto-feminists because they "opened the future for all women." Here, their five figures emerge from the ground – going against the grain. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Facebook_CoverDesign_ShelachLecha"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_BeshalachAre miracles possible?

While the renowned medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides downplayed miracles as momentary exceptions when supernaturalism erupts into the dominant naturalism scripted by the Creator, one of our great modern thinkers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, sought to reclaim miracles as daily moments of radical amazement.

However we define miracles, we must confront them this week as Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

Where then do miracles and the traces of the miraculous resonate for us in our lives today?

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the Song Of The Sea, the victory song sung by the Israelites after their safe crossing of the Reed/Red Sea. "Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe." (Exodus 15:6) This is just one example of the Torah's favoring the right hand (or eye) over the left. This preference is shared by many other cultures, and neurologists believe it may be socially as well as biologically enforced. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Arlo Novicoff's Bar Mitzvah

Facebook_ArloNovicoffShalom, my name is Arlo Novicoff. I’m a 7th grader at A.P. Giannini Middle School. In my free time, I like to play sports and hang out in the city with my family and friends. I’m interested in traveling, good food, history, and math. This coming Shabbat, February 11, I will become a bar mitzvah.

In my parsha, Beshalach, Pharaoh frees the Israelites and they journey to the Promised Land. As they approach the Red Sea, Pharoah regrets his decision to release them and commands his army to bring the Israelites back as slaves. With Pharaoh's army behind them, the Israelites cry out to God and fear that they will be captured. Moses reassures the Israelites of God’s support by splitting the Red Sea, and they all cross to safety. Although the Israelites are now free, their journey is far from over. They face new challenges along the way, like lack of food, lack of water, and lack of confidence in themselves. Moses once again reassures the Israelites and God provides for them. As we conclude the parsha, the Amalekites attack the vulnerable Israelites and Joshua leads a small army to defend them.

I want to recognize my family who have supported me on this exciting journey. I would like to thank my bar mitzvah tutor, Noa Bar, for teaching me to chant Torah and haftarah trope and to Rabbi Glazer for helping me to prepare my d’var Torah - the discussions and focus were much appreciated. Thank you to Judy and the Chicken Soupers team, who welcomed me during my volunteer days in the CBS kitchen over the course of this past year – it has really opened me up to the realities some elderly people face in our city. Lastly, I’d like to thank the entire CBS community for being there for me from preschool until now. I look forward to seeing many of you next week at CBS!

Nitzavim -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

facebook_coverdesign_nitzavimLife is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in this week's parsha. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year.

As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, lest its song be forgotten by the next generation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 30:3: "Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you." Our Jewish experience of exile, or galut, fundamentally shapes our national and corporate identity and imagination. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Insta_CoverDesign_EkevWhy do bad things happen to good people if a beneficent Creator created the world?

This problematic question perennially troubles us, and so too did it trouble philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his book Théodicée (Theodicy) (1709), written seven years before his death, Leibniz strives to develop a strategy that will clear God of the charge of being, as it were, the author of sin. The philosopher claims that although God wills everything in the world, his will with respect to what is good is decretory (decree-like), whereas his will with respect to what is evil is merely permissive. This implies that the Creator’s permissive willing of evils is morally permissible if and only if such permission of evil is necessary in order for one to meet one's moral obligations. Leibniz’s claim is that the evil that God permits is a necessary consequence of God's fulfilling his duty (namely, to create the "best possible world").

We may not be philosophers like Leibniz, but we are nonetheless disturbed by such moral calculus. This week’s reading of Parashat Ekev provides us with an opportunity to challenge this ethical rationalization. In continuing with his legacy speech, Moses’ address to the Children of Israel takes on the following tone: If you fulfill these commands, then (and only then) you will prosper in the Land of Israel. Moses also points to moments of collective backsliding – the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korah, and the skepticism of the spies – not merely to point a finger, but also to offer an opening for the work of forgiveness by the Merciful One, a way to practice the power of return, known as teshuvah — a devotional posture all but absent from Greek philosophy. This spiritual practice of teshuvah is ongoing, and especially important as we approach the month of Elul that precedes High Holy Days. Within this description of the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey," we also learn about the beauty of the "seven species" (wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates).

This week then is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how each of us comes to terms with, or questions, this moral calculus in the ongoing journey of our relationship to the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract image created using colors drawn from an aerial photograph of the Jordan River meandering through the Jordan Rift Valley, near where some (literalist) Biblical scholars claim the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land with Joshua. "Hear, O Israel: Today, you are crossing the Jordan to come in to possess nations greater and stronger than you, great cities, fortified up to the heavens." (Deuteronomy 9:1) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_PinhasRobert Byrd (b. 1917) once remarked: "To the American people I say, awaken to what is happening. It is the duty of each citizen to be vigilant, to protect liberty, to speak out, left and right and disagree lest be trampled underfoot by misguided zealotry and extreme partisanship."

Zealotry can be uncovered everywhere in our age, from politics to sport, and so surely it is also the shadow side of every religion. The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Tzelafchad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork riffs on the popular propaganda posters of artist Shepard Fairey. Here, we see the Israelite Pinhas, who brutally murders another Israelite and his Midianite lover to express his disgust for their violation of G-d's directives. Here, one side of Pinhas' face is rendered in reds and browns and the other in shades of blue and grey. His anger is apparent on both sides, but our read of the man is colored by, well, the color. Hero or fanatic? Freedom fighter or terrorist? In a time of increased political and ideological fractiousness, it often seems as though the "facts" have become less important than the filters through which we view them. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

Facebook_CoverDesign_ShelachIn his renowned treatise, The Art of War, Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu (544 BCE - 496 BCE) remarks:

"It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Give them instructions and care for them. Thus doubled agents are recruited and used."

How does Torah understand espionage?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzizit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) again things we have come to take for granted is a spiritual opportunity, a chance to make lasting and meaningful connections.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a graphic representation of the eroded self-esteem of 10 of the 12 Israelite spies who reconnoitered Canaan. "There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes." (Numbers 13:33) To the right of the 10 grasshoppers are two pillars representing Joshua and Caleb; these can also be seen as a sideways equals sign, a riff on the fact that Joshua and Caleb viewed themselves (and the rest of the Israelites) as equal to the task. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17-17:16

CoverDesign3_PartingSeaAmerican music legend Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia (August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995), best known for his lead guitar work, singing, and songwriting with the Grateful Dead, remarked in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview:

Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

So how does a reasonable person react when facing “the lesser of two evils” or “an offer you can’t refuse”?

This week, we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted, trapped as they are “between a rock and a hard place” — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being “between the devil and the deep blue sea”?

Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the waters of the sea split, relieving the Israelites of their predicament by allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing them. Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel then erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, the challenges continue to mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes manna to rain down each morning along with quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, whereas Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: CBS will soon launch a new Shabbat pamphlet that will feature original cover art inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract representation of the parting of the Reed Sea. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.