Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

How do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

John F. Kennedy once suggested that "as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

To live by gratitude is our greatest challenge and dearest hope.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of Parashat Ki Tavo's dark and despotic venom. The parsha includes threats aplenty and bleak visions of the future that will befall the Israelites should they not "fulfill all [God’s] commandments and statutes." (Deuteronomy 28:15) Here, the venom dances across the picture like ink in water. 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.

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Facebook_CoverDesign_ShelachLecha"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

facebook_coverdesign_kitavoHow do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features an opened pomegranate, one of the seven species brought to the Temple for the bikkurim offering."And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you." (Deuteronomy 26:1–2) Because the pomegranate is also associated with Rosh Hashanah, it seemed only appropriate to feature it now. 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.

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

Facebook_CoverDesign_ShelachIn his renowned treatise, The Art of War, Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu (544 BCE - 496 BCE) remarks:

"It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Give them instructions and care for them. Thus doubled agents are recruited and used."

How does Torah understand espionage?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzizit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) again things we have come to take for granted is a spiritual opportunity, a chance to make lasting and meaningful connections.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a graphic representation of the eroded self-esteem of 10 of the 12 Israelite spies who reconnoitered Canaan. "There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes." (Numbers 13:33) To the right of the 10 grasshoppers are two pillars representing Joshua and Caleb; these can also be seen as a sideways equals sign, a riff on the fact that Joshua and Caleb viewed themselves (and the rest of the Israelites) as equal to the task. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.