Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

"Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

What does it take to pursue justice in an unjust world? I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who commented that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." Dr. King's message, as is so often the case, was inspired by a shared theology that emanated from the Hebrew Bible, and is plainly apparent in Parashat Shoftim.

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts an unsettled landscape with a road leading in the direction of a distant city. In fact, these hills are in Marin and the city skyline belongs to present-day San Francisco. Because of topographic similarities and the prominent role Jewish immigrants played in San Francisco's history, many Bay Area Jews view the city as our "American Jerusalem" and the region as our Promised Land. It's worth noting, however, that contrary to many claims, San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city is not a latter day iteration of Parashat Shoftim's city of refuge prescription. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked that, "Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy'."

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a riff on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a famous painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The art historian Malcolm Andrews describes Wanderer as a representation of "the gulf...between the human and the vast world of nature." In our version, the gulf is not so much between humanity and the rest of nature (although that dichotomy is central to the Hebrew Bible), but a gulf between one particular wanderer and the land he has been called to, but will never know. Here, Moses surveys the Holy Land from afar. "Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan." (Deuteronomy 3:27) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Web_Chen_9177The passion for truth behind the Torah’s pursuit of justice could not be stated any clearer than Moses' instruction: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20).

So, as we read in Parashat Shoftim about the primacy of justice, I think of philosopher John Rawls' definition of the concept in his work Law of Peoples (1999). Rawls is important as a thinker because he challenged philosophers to really begin to consider different models of global justice, eliciting questions like: Should global inequality be morally troubling? How might we lean towards a less unjust world?

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life. Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

There is no Shabbat handout artwork this week. Christopher Orev Reiger is unplugging in the mountains.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtHananWhat is empathy to you?

German philosopher Theodor Lipps (1851–1914) often reflected on the quality of empathy, or Einfühlung, seeing it as a key to understanding our aesthetic experiences as well as the primary basis for recognizing each other as thinking, acting creatures. Lipps contends that empathy explains the felt immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects. Because we unconciously project our interior states onto the external objects we encounter, we will perceive an object as beautiful if our internal experiences are positive and as ugly if our internal state is negative.

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the description of the theophany at Sinai in Parashat Va'et'hanan: "And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness." (Deuteronomy 4:11) This foundational episode of our religion is fundamentally impossible to depict – it is incomprehensibly grand and stupefying – but perhaps this hybrid supernova-eye imagery captures something of the moment's profound awe. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.