Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Michael Ross' Bar Mitzvah

Shalom. My name is Michael Ross. I'm an eighth grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco and I am becoming a bar mitzvah this Shabbat, 11 Elul 5777.

A bit about me:
I love to play the electric guitar, and have been taking music lessons at The Blue Bear School of Music for six years. My preferred music genre is rock, but I also play jazz in the Brandeis band. I love cars, and am interested in engineering and modern technology/machines, especially computers. I also play tennis.

My parsha is Ki Teitzei. It contains the greatest number of laws of any parsha in the whole Torah – 74, including laws regarding humane treatment of animals and of the most vulnerable members of society, as well as laws curbing animal instincts such as incest and rape, even during war. Some laws address how we are to treat people and their property, and others how we should please and serve God. We are told to keep all of our disputes between people and not involve nature or animals, again even during war. These laws were all meant to raise the Israelites and ultimately the rest of the world from a selfish and brutal state to an elevated state of community and society.

I have family and friends coming from all over the world, and I look forward to sharing this experience with them and with my Beth Sholom community in which I've grown up.

I hope to see you this Shabbat when I become a bar mitzvah, a son of these many commandments!

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.

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.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt (b.1884) was one of the most outspoken women on human rights and women's issues in the White House during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband.

This week, in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings:

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for God, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Balaam's faithful and unfairly castigated donkey at the moment she sees the angel. "The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field." (Numbers 22:23) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Report From Dublin

Rabbi Glazer recently participated in Philosophizing Monotheism, a conference at the National University of Ireland, Dublin. On his return to the States, he shared the inspiring report below.



The wonderful conference was the culmination of an ongoing relationship I have been cultivating with a group of Israeli academics. I've done so with a few intentions in mind.

Ireland2Firstly, I aim to increase the intellectual and spiritual exchange between Israeli and Diaspora scholars that has been challenged recently by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially the arm of the movement that calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Secondly, it is essential that we collaborate across our Jewish spheres on academic projects that will shape the future thinking of Judaism and monotheisms more broadly. Thirdly, to further the awareness and integration of these collaborations, I hope to publish and disseminate gleanings from the ongoing exchanges taking place in Israel, Europe, and America.

Aside from having the gift of focused time to present, listen, reflect, question, and dialogue with each other for uninterrupted hours on end, this was a unique meeting of scholars and philosophers of religion from many walks of life, all sharing a passion for what I call Critical Judaism and Critical Religion. To be able to interrogate the core of our respective monotheistic religions in freedom without fear of persecution is a relatively recent modern phenomenon. On the one hand, this gathering recalled the medieval, magical moments of Convivencia during a golden age of Spain (if not the one usually spoken of), when philosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were in constant fruitful exchange and allowed each other's theological thinking to challenge, influence, and inspire each other. On the other hand, as Irish philosopher Dermot Moran commented, my theological investigations (which coincide with his research on Dionysius and Don Scotus) put me in the good company of Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, both of whom were excommunicated for their heresies from their modern communities. Alas, today we live in a very different world. Such accusations of heresy would demand a kind of caring and religious literacy that seems to be rapidly dissolving, especially in the religious spheres of America.

Ireland1Over these days we were blessed to spend together, I came to realize the gift of scholarly exchange from my vantage point as a scholar-rabbi, especially with Israeli colleagues, living both in Israel and in the European Diaspora. They all equally appreciated my perspective, especially when it turned to questions of the future of religious institutions and applications of critical thinking. The quality of conversation and the feeling that our reflections about God, the world, and humanity matter could not be more urgent and inspiring. At this juncture, being in Ireland, presenting in English, and thinking through all the layers of monotheisms, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, mysticism, Hasidism, and its abiding influence on the big questions in philosophy of religion like ethics, justice, cosmotheism, conversion, and doubt will continue to resonate with all of us as we part ways. After a year of planning, we all experienced a light that only appears when scholars from across religious and philosophical boundaries come together in free exchange.

I am grateful as well as for my training at the Center for the Study of Religions at University of Toronto, which really paved the way for this kind of exchange. One of the most remarkable moments for me came in reuniting with a colleague from graduate studies at the Center for the Study of Religions, Mahdi Tourage, (an Iranian refugee to Canada in 1986) to see how decades later we both remained attuned to so many parallel theological concerns in our respective traditions of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms. It was both inspiring and alarming that Mahdi's courageous paper could only be accepted at a forum like this one given that his insightful, critical thinking remains on the margins of the Islamic academe. Ironically, as we discussed this situation at length, he shared with me the struggle that even renowned Jewish scholars of Islam like Aaron Hughes experience with their remarkable critical scholarship, most recently, with Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity. Clearly, the more opportunities there are to normalize and disseminate this kind of critical discourse on the philosophy of religions, especially in Islam, the better the world is poised to enable the evolution of monotheisms.

Gathered outside the conference center in the top photo (left to right) are: Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Itzhak Benyamini (University of Haifa), Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Mahdi Tourage (University of Western Ontario), Raphael Zagury-Orly (Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), and Joseph Cohen (University College Dublin). Elad Lapidot (Humboldt Universitat, Berlin) and Maureen Junker-Kenny (Trinity College, Dublin) participated, but were already off to other conferences by the time of this photograph.

Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Facebook_CoverDesign_ParashatVayikraIt was recently reported that some Bible teachers at a Californian Christian seminary cited the lack of recycling bins on campus as a pure expression of their faith – namely, that by using up resources as quickly as possible, they were hastening the coming of the Lord and the New Creation. With the rise of Jewish start-ups like Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah, it appears as though a swath of the Bay Area Jewish community is taking a very different tack. How can such diverse reading communities justify their reading of the Hebrew Bible as authentic?

Ellen Davis argued in her agrarian reading of the Bible, that "when the biblical codes are reread in light of the contemporary agrarian writers, it is evident that Torah is setting human life in the larger context that Aldo Leopold once termed 'the land community,' arguing that we may understand our situation differently, and more realistically by extending the boundaries of ethical consideration 'to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land'."

That is the challenge being posed to us as we enter into the Book of Leviticus [Vayikra]. It describes in great details the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, which include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

The namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch is a calling to extend the boundaries of ethical consideration to all sentient beings as a blessing.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration shows the skull of a bull – an ascent offering, or ‘olah. Parashat Vayikra includes detailed laws regarding cattle sacrifices. The Hebrew word for a sacrificial offering is korban, the root of which means "to be close to someone/thing." Most contemporary readers of the Tanakh are removed from the act of slaughter, making it difficult for them to appreciate that the killing and burning of korbanot were not merely (brutal) means of atonement; they were essential parts of a sensual, celebratory communion with the Divine (that concluded, appropriately, with a meal). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

A Visit From Rabbi Yonatan Neril

facebook_achshavyisrael6_december2016This past Sunday afternoon, December 18, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented its seventh program, "Israel's Environmental Challenges and the Relevance of Jewish Teachings." Just below, Achshav Yisrael committee member Eileen Auerbach provides a full report and some photographs snapped during the gathering.

* * * * *

Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Jerusalem, spoke to a group of over 30 attendees.

Rabbi Neril sees the global ecological crisis as more than a scientific or political problem. He says it is also a religious and spiritual challenge. He and his organization in Israel are mustering forces from international interfaith leadership to address environmental crises. He described a situation both in Israel and in the United States where clergy leaders only rarely address climate change to their congregations.

Rabbi Neril itemized the positive efforts being made in Israel to address use of gas and petroleum fuels, issues around water conservation, agriculture, food consumption, and the impact of pollution on the Israeli environment.

The attendees repeatedly expressed concern about the future of environmentalism in this country in light of the incoming Presidential Administration, and Rabbi Neril described how his organization does not work within the political establishment in Israel, saying, "the government is how we got where we are," and he doesn't expect political entities to create positive environmental change. Instead, his organization is establishing goals through faith communities, reaching people through educating them about spirituality, values, and the environment, and encouraging religious leaders to address their congregations directly.

During the active post-presentation discussion, one of the attendees, Louise Lipsey, from Congregation Kol Shofar's Green Team, encouraged attendees to look into a local group, Interfaith Power & Light, which responds to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energy.

Rabbi Neril is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. His columns can be accessed by clicking here.

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Check out some photos from the program below, and visit the CBS Facebook page for more.

ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.
Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers


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Israel’s Environmental Challenges and theRelevance of Jewish Teachings

Buy your tickets our upcoming Achshav Yisrael program!

interfaithcenter "Israel’s Environmental Challenges and the Relevance of Jewish Teachings" will take place on Sunday, December 18, 3 - 5 p.m., in Koret Hall.

Join Achshav Yisrael and Rabbi Yonatan Neril to learn about ecology in Israel and what Jewish wisdom has to teach us about environmentalism. Rabbi Neril will also describe his ongoing work to catalyze a transition to a sustainable, thriving, and spiritually-aware society through the leadership of faith communities in Israel.

Rabbi Neril is the founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (Jerusalem). He was also the the editor and lead author on two books exploring Jewish environmental ethics. A Bay Area native, Rabbi Neril received his BA and MA from Stanford University with an environmental focus, and he was ordained in Israel.

Rabbi Neril’s presentation will be followed by facilitated “break-out” group conversations. An Israeli appetizer buffet and refreshments are included.

Parents, please note that childcare for kids one year and older will be available on-site for the cost of $5 per child. This fee can be paid on the ticket sales page.

Tickets are $10 per person and are available for purchase at: www.universe.com/israelienvironment

AchshavYisraelLogo ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.
Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, David Herrera, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, and Lucia Sommers

Shul School Is Back In Session!

ThinkingMattersOur popular Thinking Matters: Modern Jewish Philosophy mini-course series kicks off a new semester next week!

Below, we provide an overview of September – November 2016 Thinking Matters course offerings. (The full 2016–17 mini-course overview can be accessed by clicking here.)


Join our impressive line-up of local star teachers and CBS experts to wrestle with today's urgent questions of Jewish philosophy. Can there be such a thing as a Jewish philosophy, or a philosophy of Judaism? How does Judaism relate to the broader question of the relationship of ethics, religion, and theology to philosophy? (For an introduction to Jewish modern thought and philosophy, we recommend Steven Katz's essay, "Eliezar Berkovits & Modern Jewish Philosophy.")

Details and readings for upcoming Thinking Matters single classes and mini-courses are included below.

All classes meet on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8 p.m. All sessions are FREE for CBS members, but students are encouraged to make a donation to CBS. For nonmembers, each single session is $12. Alternatively, nonmembers can purchase an 8-session pack for $84, or the full semester subscription for $180.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER ONLINE


Elie Wiesel and the Problems of Holocaust Representation
September 22 & October 27
(Sessions continue in 2017: January 12, January 19, February 2, March 2 & 30, & April 20)
(8 sessions w/ Dr. Michael Thaler)


Course Description: Elie Wiesel is universally recognized as the leading voice of Holocaust commemoration and interpretation. This course will highlight significant differences in content and message between Wiesel's original Yiddish memoir, Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), which is known only to a handful of scholars, and the universally acclaimed French (La Nuit) and English (Night) versions. Dr. Thaler will also compare Wiesel’s work of Holocaust representation with the accounts of other key witnesses, both Jews and non-Jews, including Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird), Tadeusz Borowski (This Way To The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), Charlotte Delbo (None Of Us Will Return), Jean Améry (At The Mind’s Limits), and Primo Levi (Survival In Auschwitz). Additionally, to examine the impact of Holocaust narratives on younger American Jewish writers, we shall look at Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am.


Jewish Thinking & Activism In Black Lives Matter
November 3
(1 session w/ Ilana Kaufman)


Course Description: Jewish identity. Jewish values. Black lives. They all matter. Thinking about and reflecting on Jewish identity and values, Ilana Kaufman will present experiences from field work and data, and delve into interesting community dilemmas connecting who we are as Jews and the Racial Justice movement.

Readings: TBD

Ethics In Sacrificing One Life For Another
November 17
(1 session w/ Rabbi Doug Kahn)


Course Description: "Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only], he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,' until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: 'Your brother should live with you' (Vayikra 25:36) – your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's.'" (Bava Metzia 62a) This one-session class wrestles with the ultimate ethical issue – saving one life at the expense of another. Rabbi Kahn will examine how Jewish law was applied to agonizing life-for-life situations during the Holocaust and continues to be relevant in today’s world.

Readings: None


CLICK HERE TO REGISTER ONLINE

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.

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.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak2"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24: 5).

Renowned Italian author, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once tellingly remarked, "I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it." So how do we react each time we enter into our sacred spaces of worship and re-read and re-cite the renowned opening verse above?

These are the words recited this week in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings.

How do we move along this path to the Promised Land when we feel blocked from all sides? In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve G-d as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for G-d, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork shows Balaam blessing the Israelites as cloaked figures look on (maybe his Moabite patrons?). The illustration was drawn with bold lines, loose handling, and close cropping to increase energy and tension, hopefully conveying something of the prophet's enthusiasm – the word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning 'possessed by a god.' Only one eye is open and Balaam's mouth is agape, a literal take on the text: "The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye." (Numbers 24:3); "The Lord placed something into Balaam's mouth." (Numbers 23:5). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.