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.

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.

Emor -- Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

CoverDesign_EmorIn a candid moment, the renowned American scholar of the Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels (b. 1943), once remarked that her research of these early religious texts taught her something interesting:

These ancient stories in religion speak to our desire. But they move us toward hope.

Where might one experience this correlation between desire and hope that really speaks to us about Judaism as a religion? Is it through interpersonal ethics? Familiar customs? Or, on the other hand, through rituals that deepen the human-divine relationship? Holiness calls out to us, but how and when do we hear the call?

The second section of Emor, literally “speaks out” and addresses us in describing the annual callings to holiness: a weekly sabbatical retreat; an annual paschal offering on the 14th of Nisan as well as the seven day cycle of Pesach (Passover) beginning on the 15th of Nisan; the gathering and elevating of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover to its culmination in Shavuot; the primal cry of the shofar on the 1st of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah; followed by a fast day on the 10th of Tishrei; culminating with a seven-day festival for dwelling in booths while dancing with the four species on the 15th of Tishrei and then the after-party of the Eighth day of Assembly marking the pilgrimage route home with Shemini Atzeret.

By contrast, the first section of Emor speaks to laws pertaining to Temple service of the high priest.

All in all, there is something about sacred time that speaks to each of us differently, yet the sacred somehow finds a way to take place in our lives through the Jewish calendar and the synagogue.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the many harsh directives that appear in Parashat Emor, directives that exclude many Israelites (e.g., the deformed, disabled, or sick) from full belonging and that command our ancestors to stone to death various offenders. From Leviticus 24:13-14: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him." Holiness may call out to us, but in the stratified and severe worldview of our ancestors, it has the voice of a potentate. So, again, with the wrestling! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Counting the Omer

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Gif_Omer1Another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone. The next Jewish holiday on the radar of many Jews is Rosh Hashanah, but even if we ignore the "minor" holidays and observances -- if, for example, you won't be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz (July 24) -- Shavuot is a big deal, and it's just over a month away!

Shavuot is such a big deal, in fact, that we have a countdown until it arrives...or maybe it's better called a "countup"? The 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot is referred to as the omer, and it's a mitzvah (commandment) to count the days as they pass (Sefirat HaOmer).

So what's an omer, and why are we counting it? Way back in the days of the First Temple, an omer (a sheaf, or an ancient unit of measure) of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering to HaShem, an expression of gratitude for the harvest season. The Omer period begins with this barley offering, and the Torah dictates the aforementioned counting:

Gif_Omer8 Gif_Omer5You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In the Torah, this counting seems connected only to the agricultural calendar, a way of reckoning when the wheat harvest should begin (i.e., when the count is completed, on Shavuot). Over time, however, Shavuot became associated with the giving of Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. In fact, for contemporary Jews, Shavuot is more closely associated with divine revelation than with agricultural bounty.

Likewise, the counting of the Omer has also taken on metaphysical significance. Today, the Omer is interpreted as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. Writing for MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

"While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one."

The remarkable transformation from close-minded slaves to liberated souls prepared to receive Torah didn't come easy for our ancestors, and it doesn't come any easier for us. To help Jews carry out the spiritual and personal work of the Omer, Jewish mystics of the 16th century assigned the weeks and days of the Omer count to particular characteristics or emotions, drawing on their knowledge of Kabbalah and the sephirot of the Tree of Life. The Chabad website includes a detailed primer about how observant Jews should "examine and refine" each attribute or feeling as they move through the Omer season. It's worth exploring this approach to the Omer; it has mystical roots, but it's a remarkably practical self-improvement system and offers us a wonderful way to make the season meaningful, even profound.Gif_Omer15

The animated GIFs that accompany this post are highlights from graphic designer and artist Hillel Smith's GIF the Omer: Best Omer Ever project, "a fun, daily typographic Omer counter" that Smith has launched as part of his ongoing effort "to create new takes on traditional forms, melding ancient practices with a contemporary aesthetic."

We encourage you to visit GIF the Omer regularly to check out more of Smith's animations. (You can even opt to subscribe for daily email updates.) And, hey, if you decide to start working the Omer program, so much the better!

Image credits and captions:
All GIF artworks by Hillel Smith, 2016
From top:
Day 1 of the Omer
Day 8 of the Omer (Note: 8 = ח)
Day 5 of the Omer (Note: Numeral systems depicted include Arabic, Burmese, Braille, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Sundanese, and a bunch more.)
Day 15 of the Omer (Note: 15 = טו)