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.

Vayishlach — Genesis 32:4–36:43

facebook_coverdesign_vayishlachI recently had the pleasure of sitting with a Bay Area Jungian analyst who also happens to be Jewish. In a trialogue with a colleague of mine who also teaches Zohar through Lehrhaus Judaica, we together sought another way into our respective readings of scripture as a journey of the psyche, of the soul.

I've always been suspicious of how a Jew could reconcile his or her study of Carl Jung with the analyst’s apparent anti-Semitism – yet I continue to be surprised. This verse jumped out for us: "The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Genesis 27:22) Israelis today are only beginning to appreciate the influence of the remarkable psychologist Eric Neumann, who devoted much of his early thinking in Eretz Yisrael about the Jacob and Esau story in Parashat Toldot, as a pair of opposites that reflect the division between the inner voice of the spirit and the outer hands of action. For Neumann, this story of sibling rivalry is archetypal insofar as it also reflects the sense of inferiority, fear, and threat that invisible interiority experiences in relation to the hands of action symbolized by Jacob, and the skills of the extraverted symbolized by Esau. Having learned much from Jung, Neumann challenged his teacher’s understanding of the archetype that is the innate tendency, which molds and transform the individual consciousness.

This matrix influences the human behavior as well as ideas and concepts on the ethical, moral, religious, and cultural levels – Jung often referred to the archetype as a "primordial image." If such archetypes are inborn tendencies which shape human behavior, then how might this archetypal story in scripture explain the nature of human consciousness?

Neumann’s Zionism caused him to take leave of his teacher and return to the Holy Land. In so doing, Neumann experienced his own inner conflict that was captured most poignantly in this story of Jacob and Esau, leading him to conclude (but never publish) his feeling that what Jungian analysis misses is imbedded in this very story. Namely, that the one who wrestles with their conscience, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, is attempting to come to terms with what it means to be an "intuitive introvert." Neumann’s upbringing in the particular narrative of Zionism instilled a deep loyalty and passion for Israel, culminating in his aliyah. But while in Israel, Neumann struggled with his conscience, in attempting to formulate a way of balancing the particular pull of Zionism with the universal calling of the collective unconscious now living the dream in the Holy Land. Now that he and this early wave of pioneers were in the Holy Land, how were they going to tap into the richness of the collective unconscious that is liberated once the particularity of one’s identity is fulfilled?

Hopelessly hopeful for a reconciliation with his brother, Jacob returns to the Holy Land after his twenty year extended stay in Haran. While gifts and prayers are offered to appease his estranged brother, Jacob remains restless.

As he ferries his family and possessions across the Jabbok River, Jacob tarries behind and encounters the figure with whom he wrestles till daybreak. Jacob suffers a dislocated hip, but vanquishes this supernal creature who renames him as Israel, meaning "the one who struggles with the divine and prevails." (Genesis 32:29) This new name, Israel, suggests Jacob was struggling with no ordinary being, not merely with his conscience or the archangel of Esau, but with the divine itself.

To really be present to the community of Israel, henceforth, is for every one of us to dare to be engaged in our relationship with the divine as a holy "god-wrestler" like Jacob and to acknowledge that longing itself can be redemptive.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Jacob's mysterious nighttime encounter. I understand the story to be a metaphor for the clash between humanity's aspirational, metaphysical identity and our brutish, animal core – the vital and intimate relationship between the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara. The dynamic tension between the yetzer tov and hara drives all life, and, in this illustration, the abstracted faces of the interlocked combatants form an atomic nucleus. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.