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.

Pesach – Day 5

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pesach5777"Roots, man — we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. … yeah — these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them? … I ain’t looking for them in synagogues … I can tell you that much." — Bob Dylan, 1983

Is the Messiah a person or a process of redemption?

In my forthcoming book on Bob Dylan’s gnostic theology, God Knows Everything Is Broken, I argue that the Hibbing bard fell prey to the allure of messianic personhood one night in a Tucson hotel room, as he described his own experience: "I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." Months later, Dylan again found himself alone in empty arena sound-checks. Through these solitary communions, he worked up a new song, "Slow Train," which served, amid larger questions with ineffable answers, as his own journey through a messianic process.

Meanwhile, many of his Jewish listeners turned a deaf ear to his next three albums. That's unfortunate, because they are necessary listening if you want to hear how Dylan’s "conversion songs" are inextricably linked to his ongoing, post-conversion work.

Following a few short years of "conversion," Dylan, in 1983, released "Infidels," a virulent self-critique, embarking on "a very personal battle to construct a world view that retains [his] faith in both God and humanity." Around this time, Dylan even recorded an album of Hasidic songs (the bootlegged out-takes are called "From Shot to Saved"). It is through the outreach of Rabbi Manis Friedman that Dylan found his direction home, and Chabad legend has it that the Hibbing bard prayed in a hoodie at the Crown Heights headquarters. During Dylan’s first appearance before the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson at his farbrengen, a traditional Hasidic gathering, the latter did not acknowledge the former because of his apostate status – only after Dylan immersed in a mikvah to return to his Jewish self would the rebbe smile at him at the next farbrengen.

While this "re-conversion" story is kept under wraps, Dylan’s public return to roots was still misunderstood as a returning of a secularist, or nonobservant Jew. Perhaps their singing spokesperson accepted the darkening spiritual awareness that "everything is broken." Yet the return to his Jewish roots, for Dylan, was more radical. Importantly, he returned not as a zealot, which "Infidels" rejects, but as a Jew devoid of Orthodox ideology. In his perennial reinventions, Dylan’s pendulum swings — not merely from one orthodoxy to another — but from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Already wobbling into heterodoxy in 1985, Dylan remarks: "Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you’re aware of the messianic complex, that’s … important … People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if He was here …"

Unlike the medieval Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia, who aborted his messianic meeting to convert Pope Nicholas III in 1279, Dylan’s modern messianic mission with Pope John Paul II in 1997 was met with equally dubious reception as the Vatican called him "a false prophet." Did Dylan believe his messianic search had evolved from personhood to process, to then dissolve the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Like every SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) seeker so allergic to setting foot in a synagogue, Dylan eventually returns home to the root of his soul. Being "aware of the messianic complex" demarcates the theology of Dylan’s songbook and enables its rapid shift, from the apocalyptic songs to those affirming a personal sense of gratitude for his redemption. This struggle to clarify the source of messianism emerges in many lyrics, for example, in "Pressing on to a Higher Calling" (from the 1980 album "Saved"), which points to the shift from personhood to process. Such a journey, especially when it is frustratingly circuitous, is only possible by struggling with messianism as a process.

So for Pesach, don’t leave home! Rather stay attuned during the seder. Open that door at home for Elijah and see there is really an internalizing shift taking place, from messianic personhood to process. It is an opening to that "kind of sign [each and every one of us] need[s] when it all come[s] from within"!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
(This piece originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California, April 7, 2017).

Artwork note: This week’s illustration depicts the Korban Pesach, or "sacrifice of Passover." Also referred to as the Paschal lamb, it figures prominently in Christian rhetoric, where Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, or Lamb of God. The illustration seemed a fitting accompaniment to Rabbi Glazer's examination of Bob Dylan's messianic search. 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.