Nitzavim / VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once duly remarked: "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."

Life is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in Parashat Nitzavim. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year. As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, which belies a deeper calling to responsibility.

Reading Parashat VaYelekh, we consider another kind of responsibility – that of memory. As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of English artist and critic John Berger, who once observed that "the camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget."

Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance amidst our overly-surveyed lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:18 ("And I will hide My face on that day…"). In his book, God and the Big Bang, Daniel C. Matt points out that "according to the mystics, [the Hebrew word for 'universe,' olam], derives from the same root as ‘hiding,’ he’lem." Matt describes our relationship with God as a "cosmic game of hide-and-seek," and asserts that "divine energy pervades all material existence." Here, an atom, the basic building block of matter, is seen partially obscured by a scrim or some substance. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

American naturalist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting."

Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature, expresses the belief that everything in our world – even a drop of dew – is a microcosm of the universe. This transcendentalist notion is not foreign to Judaism, especially its more mystical streams. We open ourselves to such transcendence through the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes and, in so doing, daring to see beyond ourselves so that we can develop new relationships to all texts, even sacred texts of nature. It's all a question of how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration.

So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility. Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this locale. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by mystical visions. It features a stylized eye with retinal ganglion cells and filaments of muscle radiating outward. Of his transcendent experiences, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." His peer Walt Whitman described himself as part of a universal weave of "threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff." Rabbi Arthur Cohen writes of being pressed "to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence." Mystics, be they American transcendentalists, Hasids, or academics, are not lunatics; their practice is an enthusiastic response to the world as it is – radically interconnected, with each individual indivisible from everything else. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Nitzavim -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

facebook_coverdesign_nitzavimLife is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in this week's parsha. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year.

As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, lest its song be forgotten by the next generation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 30:3: "Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you." Our Jewish experience of exile, or galut, fundamentally shapes our national and corporate identity and imagination. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Facebook_CoverDesign_ReehWhat does it mean to really "see"? To better appreciate "seeing" – for which Parashat Re’eh is named – let us consider the experiential dimension of a quiet state of mind. The practitioner of Zen meditation sometimes experiences an event known as kenshō, literally meaning "seeing nature" and understood as an awakening from our fundamental ignorance. Experiencing kenshō is not the same as achieving Nirvana, but it does grant one a glimpse of the "real" reality.

While Zen practitioners turn to Buddha, Jews turn to Moses, as both seekers are yearning for guidance about how best to "see." Judaism starts with the act of looking back, of seeing what has come before with fresh eyes. In so doing, we can develop new relationships to all texts, even our sacred tomes. Whether or not we succeed depends on how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration. So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility.

Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this local. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of an advance guard of Israelites marching into the Promised Land. The forms of the soldiers are rendered so as to call to mind territorial maps – provisional, likely-contested borders sketched over the same plot of land. "For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it." (Deuteronomy 11:31) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar -- Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

CoverDesign_Behar_FacebookCycles are enticing, entrancing, and mesmerizing. The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked: "We might possess every technological resource... but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be ‘revolutionary’ but not transformative."

The seven transformative cycles that appear in biblical literature -- and feature prominently in this week's parsha -- recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

Now consider for a moment all of the people involved in getting a piece of produce you enjoy into your hand to eat. Where was it grown, and by whom? Farmers, truck drivers, storekeepers, men and women -- imagine how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Now consider all the ways in which this divine cycling has supported the creation of this fruit by creating fertile soil, clouds and rainwater, energy from sunshine, air. The key is to recognize and be mindful of our interconnectedness with all sentient beings of creation; only then are we called upon to elevate it and make it holy.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in all created sentient beings with those lines of filiation running most directly through our own awareness of these transformative cycles that embrace us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a simple celebration of the Jubilee year, a radical and remarkable concept deserving of more attention. Although the Jubilee (or Yovel, meaning ram's horn, which was traditionally sounded to proclaim the Jubilee's start) hasn't been observed by Jews for ages -- our rabbis ruled that Jubilee can not be observed as long as so many of us are living in diaspora -- there is much wisdom in the practice of radical release and rest. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Elise Taubman's Bat Mitzvah

Elise

Elise

Shalom! My name is Elise Taubman and I am a 7th grader at the Brandeis School of San Francisco. At Brandeis, I enjoy taking electives on computer programming and discussing Shakespeare with my classmates in my English class. The best part of school is that I get to hang out with a great group of friends, some of whom I have known since kindergarten. Aside from school, I enjoy singing with the Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco and dancing at my dance studio. When I really want to relax, there is nothing better than spinning yarn on my Kiwi (my spinning wheel). Time with my family is particularly important to me and I enjoy spending Shabbat dinners and holidays, such as Passover, with my family.

Over the last year, I have been preparing for the occasion of becoming a bat mitzvah. I have gained much from my preparation and learned about the struggles of commitment and time management throughout the process. My parsha is Behar, in which G-d describes the rules regarding the Sabbatical years, the Jubilee year and land ownership, among others. I enjoyed reading the different interpretations of Parashat Behar, and particularly meaningful to me was the Jubilee section which acts to remedy entrenched poverty and to restore power to the voiceless in society.

This year in 7th grade, I have been working on my Tzedakah project, alongside my bat mitzvah studies. In this project, two students at Brandeis work together to learn about a charitable organization. My partner and I chose Mitzvah Corps, which provides Jewish high school-aged teenagers with an opportunity to travel to poor communities around the world. Teens connect and learn about those communities and donate their time to help with projects in those communities. From this project, I have learned much about how even teenagers can make a difference in the world and I am looking forward to participating in Mitzvah Corps once I am in high school.

I want to thank Rabbi Glazer, who took time to help me prepare for my bat mitzvah. I also would like to thank my tutor Randy Weiss and my Saba for helping me chant my haftarah, maftir, and Torah service prayers. Finally, I would like to thank my parents and siblings for their endless support and nagging. I needed all of it!

I look forward to seeing you on Saturday.