Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

One of the greatest malaises of Western civilization to this day was captured by Ernest Becker (1924-1974) in his book, Denial of Death. Becker points to the reality we know all too well, that we shield and mask death from our lives until it is too late. What we seek to mask, according to Becker, is a deeper anxiety of death and mortality, which itself is the result of an evolutionary clash between our will to survive and the peculiar survival strategy to cope with the ultimate futility of that survival urge.

And so, without any denial possible any longer, on his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Torah is our primary Jewish lens to bring meaning to our own confrontations with endings and new beginnings.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is a wallpaper-like pattern featuring different icons associated with the story of Joseph, which we conclude in Parashat Vayekhi. The eyes symbolize Joseph's vision and prognostication; the tears reference the weeping he does in moments of loneliness, forgiveness, and joy; the heart is a symbol not only of the profound love Jacob felt for Joseph, but also for the big-hearted actions taken by Joseph as Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. 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.

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.