Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean? In our study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These 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.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's parsha illustration marks my last for Beth Sholom. It's inspired by storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver's insistence that we, as contemporary Jews, "try to look Leviticus in the eye – to take it on its own terms. No rationalizations. No mutations. No metaphors. ... Look directly into the fire at the bottom of the altar, and without flinching tell it: 'Go ahead, make my faith.'" Leviticus is hard. Much of Torah is hard. That's partly why it's been a privilege to create weekly parshiyot illustrations for the past 112 weeks (just over two full cycles). Torah study of all kinds demands we look long and hard into the flames, even when it's easier to look away. In so doing, we can spot the threads of personal or communal significance that run through Torah's black fire on white fire like pure threads of techelet, here radiating heavenward amidst a burning offering. Todah rabbah for looking and reading with me. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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!

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTetzeiHow do we react to evil when we confront it in our lives?

For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration captures the fear that permeates much of the parsha. "...all Israel will listen and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:21) Our ancestors stoned to death wayward children and cut off the hand of a woman who inadvertently touched the "private parts" of a man other her husband – their moral code was clearly a corporeally enforced one. Fortunately, this violence would be reconsidered and tempered by the rabbis. 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.

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26

CoverDesign_VayikraA strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean?

In our communal study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These 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.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork credit: Illustration of an 'olah offering by Christopher Orev Reiger.