Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Whether we are reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland, we immediately recognize something all great works of literature tend to share in common — all mark out their protagonists as heroes from the outset.

So who is the real hero in the Moses story? When we turn to Hollywood, whether with Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s recent epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) or with Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), the cinematic consensus appears to point to attributing star status to Moses as hero par excellence. But is that always the case, especially in this week’s reading? It can be argued that the real hero — the one who takes the greatest risk and catalyzes the greatest shift in the narrative — is actually the Priest of Midian, Jethro, because he is Moses’ greatest teacher and his father-in-law.

When Jethro hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that encompasses everything from that moment to what a teacher and student share in study to this day.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's illustration attempts to depict what is fundamentally impossible to depict, the theophany at Sinai. It is taught that each Jew alive today is connected to one of the 600,000 souls present at Sinai for matan Torah, "the giving of Torah." According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, we can only access that transformative, defining moment "when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world." That’s a nice reminder that we should all make a little more space for awe and wonder. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

One of the greatest malaises of Western civilization to this day was captured by Ernest Becker (1924-1974) in his book, Denial of Death. Becker points to the reality we know all too well, that we shield and mask death from our lives until it is too late. What we seek to mask, according to Becker, is a deeper anxiety of death and mortality, which itself is the result of an evolutionary clash between our will to survive and the peculiar survival strategy to cope with the ultimate futility of that survival urge.

And so, without any denial possible any longer, on his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Torah is our primary Jewish lens to bring meaning to our own confrontations with endings and new beginnings.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is a wallpaper-like pattern featuring different icons associated with the story of Joseph, which we conclude in Parashat Vayekhi. The eyes symbolize Joseph's vision and prognostication; the tears reference the weeping he does in moments of loneliness, forgiveness, and joy; the heart is a symbol not only of the profound love Jacob felt for Joseph, but also for the big-hearted actions taken by Joseph as Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pinhas"No matter how small a religion is, there will always be people within it who find some reason to break away and make it even smaller, a process that, of necessity, ultimately means conflict."

This comment was offered by Reza Aslan, controversial sociologist of religion and host of Believer.

So do we accept that belief as manifested in world religions is, for Aslan, mostly equivalent to zealotry – the shadow side of every religion? The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Zelophehad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is an abstract depiction of the five daughters of Zelophehad. "The daughters of Zelophehad...stood before Moses and before Eleazar the kohen and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." (Numbers 27:1–2) These sisters are often championed as proto-feminists because they "opened the future for all women." Here, their five figures emerge from the ground – going against the grain. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I recently quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_YitroRevelation marks a unique aspect of Judaism, and the modern German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig astutely noted that it exists in symbiotic relationship with Creation and Redemption. But what are the degrees and nuances of Revelation?

Sinai may be Revelation's apogee, but can we develop a deeper appreciation for its subtler nuances? Jewish liturgy suggests that Creation is ongoing daily – but what about Revelation, especially between people? This week, we turn to a series of subtle revelations shared in encounters with remarkable religious figures.

When Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian, Jethro, hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that inspires remarkable religious leaders, the Moses and Jethroes of today, as evinced in the remarkable work of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem, whose revelatory mandate is to share wisdom and foster peace.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's artwork attempts to capture something of the drama of the Mount Sinai theophany. "And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice." (Exodus 19:18–19) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28–50:26

facebook_coverdesign_vayekhiConfronting our own mortality can often give rise to unseen blessings in our lives and the lives of those we love. At the close of Genesis, during Jacob's final hours, he conducts a stocktaking of his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Just as it opens with blessing, Genesis closes with it – so may we all be blessed in our own ongoing journey into communal life that emerges through Exodus.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. "But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh's head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn." (Genesis 48:14) Jacob’s crossover blessing is traditionally understood as yet another example of the Torah showing the younger son displacing the older. Contemporary Biblical scholars also surmise that the account was written to foreshadow the future power of Ephraim’s descendant, Jeroboam (c. 960 - 910 B.C.E.), who would become the first king of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_PinhasRobert Byrd (b. 1917) once remarked: "To the American people I say, awaken to what is happening. It is the duty of each citizen to be vigilant, to protect liberty, to speak out, left and right and disagree lest be trampled underfoot by misguided zealotry and extreme partisanship."

Zealotry can be uncovered everywhere in our age, from politics to sport, and so surely it is also the shadow side of every religion. The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Tzelafchad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork riffs on the popular propaganda posters of artist Shepard Fairey. Here, we see the Israelite Pinhas, who brutally murders another Israelite and his Midianite lover to express his disgust for their violation of G-d's directives. Here, one side of Pinhas' face is rendered in reds and browns and the other in shades of blue and grey. His anger is apparent on both sides, but our read of the man is colored by, well, the color. Hero or fanatic? Freedom fighter or terrorist? In a time of increased political and ideological fractiousness, it often seems as though the "facts" have become less important than the filters through which we view them. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Metzora -- Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

CoverDesign_MetzoraFrench author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) once remarked:

"Society is a republic. When an individual tries to lift themselves above others, they are dragged down by the mass, either by ridicule or slander."

Slander is at once a spiritual and physical disease. In Numbers 12, Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. But slander appears in Parshat Metzora, too, albeit less plainly. The signs of the metzora (commonly mistranslated as "leper" in last week’s parsha) really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement. The recipe for return (or becoming "clean" again) may strike the modern reader as magical. A detailed ceremony is described whereby the priest brings together two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread, and a bundle of hyssop as an offering.

But this spiritual malaise is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease of tzara’at is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the sacrifice of "two, live clean birds" described in the opening passage of Parashat Metzora. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.