Ekev: Scattering our Idols

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain.    (Deuteronomy/D’varim 9:21)

Good afternoon!

Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, continues with Moshe recounting the history of Israel from the Exodus to their present moment on the edge of the Land. At Sinai, you may recall, the Israelite became anxious at Moshe’s absence and built the Golden Calf; upon his return from the mountain, Moshe burned the idol, ground it up, scattered it upon the waters, and made the Israelites drink of mixture. (Cf. Exodus 32:20 )

Let’s note two things here. First, while Moshe reminds the people of their ancestor’s great sin (the generation of the Exodus had died out and their children were preparing to inhabit the Land), he doesn’t remind them of the humiliation of having to drink the bitter potion of the ground-up idol, mentioned in the Exodus account. (Compared by some to the “ordeal of bitter waters,” or sota, found in the book of Numbers.) If we learn nothing else from this Torah portion, we learn to be careful in how we remind people of past events; it seems like the Torah portrays Moshe as thoughtful about his own reaction to the idolatry while letting the most difficult part go unremarked.

The second interesting thing about this verse is its seeming redundancy: why would Moshe need to burn, break, grind, and then scatter the idol- a four part process?

The ancient rabbis took Moshe’s actions as a positive requirement, saying that “this teaches that purging idolatry requires grinding and scattering to the wind or casting to the sea.” (Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah, quoted in theTorah Temimah) Yet this just begs the question again: if we had to destroy the idol, why wouldn’t just breaking it or melting it be enough?

Perhaps this long process- breaking, grinding, scattering- is really about the process of confronting our own deeds. If we think of idols not as physical things but as representations of our own mistakes, misdeeds, misdirected loyalties and missed blind spots, then the image of Moshe grinding and scattering the Calf is really about a long process of looking right at where we went wrong. The Israelites couldn’t just remove the Calf and say it everything was OK; they needed to take their false ideas about God and humankind and take some time to reflect on their mistakes. “Grinding and scattering” means: when you find an idol, which is probably within you, be thorough and fearless in uprooting it and making sure it can’t be used again.

Think, for example, how often fear, or hatred, or resentment, or anger, is merely transferred from one place to another unless we’ve done real work in uprooting these controlling emotions. The Christian theologian Dietrich Bohnoeffer coined the famous phrase “cheap grace,” by which he meant the forgiveness we quickly grant ourselves without doing a proper amount of soul-searching and atonement. That’s why the rabbis said an idol needs to be ground and scattered: because any internal transformation that’s quick and easy is no transformation at all, and we can do better.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Va’etchanan: Law and its Limits

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you . . . .(Deuteronomy/ D’varim 6:18)

Hello again, it’s a beautiful afternoon in the Hudson Valley and I’m delighted to find a few minutes to offer a Torah thought. I am in the middle of transitions and new challenges and can’t promise a commentary every week, but things should settle down after the Jewish holidays in the fall. Till then, well, I’ll do my best.

Now, onto this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, which continues Moshe’s review of the history of the Israelites since the Exodus some 40 years earlier, for the explicit purpose of reminding them of their obligation to the One Who redeemed them from slavery. To that end, Moshe also reviews the events at Sinai, and recapitulates the Ten Things That Were Said (e.g., aseret ha’dibrot, ten utterances, AKA ten commandments.)

Yet in the middle of all this exhortation to covenantal loyalty comes a verse which reminds them that the law is not the end, but the beginning of a moral life. “Do what is right and good,” from the verse quoted above, is understood to be a basic principle of Judaism: it’s not enough to obey the letter of a legall code or set of spiritual disciplines, but one must also fulfill the spirit of the law, which often requires going beyond a standard of strict adherence to formal standards.

A famous example of this comes from the Talmud [Bava Metzia 83a], wherein workers who broke a barrel of wine were hauled before the judge in order to hold them liable for the damage. Their shirts had been taken as collateral, but the judge, the sage known as Rav, ordered not only their shirts returned but their wages paid. Rav made explicit that his standard was not only the law that workers are liable for damage but the principle that we treat human beings with dignity and relieve their suffering, even if that requires us to go beyond the law. Yes, it would have been legal to take the worker’s shirts, but it would not have been right, nor humane, nor compassionate, nor consonant with larger Jewish ideals of justice and generosity.

Of course, one problem with “do what is right and good” is that it’s a lot easier to know if our actions comply with a specific law than it is to know if our actions are consonant with larger and more abstract moral principles. To which I say: nu? since when is it supposed to be easy to be a mensch? No, it’s not easy to stretch ourselves to go beyond the law (any law, be it Jewish, American, international); it requires active, imaginative empathy for others, humility about our own righteousness, and great generosity. None of those things are easy to discern or to do, but if we are to live in a world balanced with hesed, rather than a world limited to strict justice, it’s the only way.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Matot: Vows and Consequences

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:Matot

Dear Friends:

Many of you know this, but for those who don’t, I’m beginning a transition from the congregational rabbinate to a new role as Director of Spiritual Care Services (e.g., chaplaincy) at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. I will be starting part-time at the hospital, directing a team of chaplains and interns, in August, and then join up full time after Sukkot. In the meantime I’ll do my best to offer some Torah commentary.

Despite the time crunch of two jobs and a busy family, the real challenge in writing a weekly commentary is finding teachings of hope and compassion in our tradition at a time when the world seems so cruel and dark. From kidnappings in Israel (of both Jew and Arab) to the war with Hamas to the apparently accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner in Ukraine, it’s hard to know the religious response to violence and conflict.

Yet as Ben Bag-Bag (yes, that’s really his name) said inPirkei Avot, referring to the Torah, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” This week’s Torah portion, Matot, has three primary topics: vows, in chapter 30; the war against the Midianites, in chapter 31; and preparations for the conquest of the Land, in chapter 32. (See link in second line above for translation of the parsha.) Let’s begin with vows and connect the first two themes of our portion.

Right at the beginning of our portion, Moshe is commanded to tell the people about keeping vows:

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is the thing Lord has commanded:  If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge . . . .

The rabbis notice the unusual phrasing “this is the thing,” [ze ha'davar] and offer an interpretation that “this is the thing” distinguishes how a sage annuls a a vow (another person’s vow, as a court procedure) from how a husband annuls a vow for a wife. (See Rashi on this versehere.) In other words, before we even get to the part which says that we must not break our vows, the rabbis inform us that there IS a way to be released from our vows! As my colleague Rabbi Gail Labovitzdemonstrates, the rabbis learn that the Torah permits the revocation of vows from a verse in which God repents of Divine anger against the people Israel, and if God needs to revoke vows, how much more the rest of us!

As Rabbi Labovitz points out, the rabbis have to find a way for people to annul their vows because people make rash, foolish, inappropriate and cruel vows. We act out of our anger, fear, hatred, anxiety or other emotions, and create situations with dire consequences. So the ancient sages created a safety valve in certain situations, to protect us from ourselves.

As I see it, among the vows which should be broken are vows of vengeance, and this is the subject of the next part of our Torah potion. At the beginning of chapter 31, God tells Moshe to “avenge the Israelites against the Midianites,” and let’s be clear, the verb used [nekamah]  means vengeance,  not justice, and the story that follows describes the wholesale slaughter of men and women alike. Apparently the desire for vengeance comes from the Midianites role in seducing Israelite men to idolatry (there’s some role for the Moabites there, too, but leave that aside for now.) inchapter 25.

Moshe is told to take vengeance for the Israelites, and then he will die. Regardless of what we believe about how a just God could possibly command bloody vengeance, it strikes me as a deep truth that vengeance leads to death for both parties. I’m not talking about a simplistic notion of a “cycle of violence,” though that may apply. Rather, Moshe will take vengeance, but it will not be a life-giving experience for him or the people Israel. Justice is focused, procedural, proportional, and grounded in personal or social values. Vengeance is an expression of rage, and brings with it collective punishment, indiscriminate violence, and the invitation to respond in kind. Vengeance cannot satisfy.

This is why the ancient rabbis allowed us to annul certain vows- because we make them rashly, and then feel compelled to follow through. In Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other areas of conflict and war, cries of vengeance go up after every terrible act, but this solves nothing. Would that those who call out for blood would annul their own vows and seek justice instead. Justice may require war, but its aims are wholly different than revenge. That’s a hard and subtle distinction, but one which needs to be shouted from the rooftops and brought to the politicians, for the sake of our very world.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Korach: Seeing the Individual

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader.

“As for me, I have grown old and gray — but my sons are still with you — and I have been your leader from my youth to this day.(1 Samuel 12:1-2)

Good morning! I apologize for the spotty postings over the past few months, but I hope to be a more regular commentator over the summer.

The lines in bold above are from this week’s haftarah, an excerpt from the book of Shmuel in which the prophet Shmuel accedes to the people’s wish to have a king like other nations and peoples. Shmuel willingly, albeit reluctantly, turns power over to a king, in sharp contrast to Korach, the eponymous antagonist of this week’s Torah portion. Korach, you may remember, is a Levite prince who leads a rebellion of chieftains against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.

Besides the contrast of Korach’s power-grab with Shmuel’s faithful obedience, another interesting connection is in the prophet’s own history: Korach was Shmuel’s ancestor. (See here for more on t hat.) Korach divided the Jewish people, but Shmuel united them under a king. In a way, you might say he did t’shuvah for his ignoble predecessor.

OK, so far, so good. Yet the story doesn’t stop with the prophet Shmuel; if you refer to the verses in bold above, you see that in giving the people a king, he refers to his sons, who will still be with the people after he has died. One medieval commentator interprets this as Shmuel meaning “my sons will be able to impress upon you my Torah teachings after I am gone.”

Well, that would be nice, but the problem is, Shmuel’s sons were corrupt and evil men, and everybody already knew that long before the events reported in this week’s text. In fact, if you go back to chapter 8, you find that it’s precisely because Shmuel’s sons do not “walk in his ways” that the people demand a king- his sons are not fit for leadership.

So why does Shmuel say, “I have grown old, but my sons are still with you?” We might  understand him as saying that his sons might someday be worthy men, or perhaps he’s saying they can teach in his name even if they are otherwise not of good character. (If we demanded only spiritually perfect teachers of Torah there wouldn’t be very many.) Then again, maybe he’s just in denial about how corrupt they really are, which is understandable for a parent.

Whatever the reason that Shmuel brings up his (no-goodnik) sons, bringing them into the story deepens our understanding that we cannot judge another by tribe, name or lineage. Korach was a Levite, a cousin to Moshe and Aharon, yet despised his birthright and perverted his role of leadership. Shmuel was descended from this demagogue- and was one of the greatest leaders and uniters of the Jewish people. Yet his own sons were corrupt and greedy men, who are remembered only for their avarice.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching to the effect that God created humankind from one man and one woman so that nobody could ever say, “my father is better than yours.” We learn that again this week, along with is corollary: children should never be judged by the parents, but we must instead see people as unique and responsible for their own character. Collective judgment is alien to the belief that we are all created in the Divine Image, and each of us is responsible for making that spark of Divinity manifest as best we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Emor: Offering the Best

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor 
And when a man offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord for an explicit vow or as a freewill offering, it must, to be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 22:21)
Good afternoon! 
I apologize for the late and sometimes sporadic posting of new commentaries but we’re going through a busy period and I hope  over the summer I’ll be able to post more consistently. 
Now, on to this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The portion contains laws regulating the lives of the priests, who must follow strict rules around eating, appearance and family life, as well as laws stating that the animals used in the offerings must be without blemish or disfigurement. The Sefer Ha-Chinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments, quickly dispenses with the idea that somehow it matters to God whether the animal has a blemish or not. Rather, we must understand that these commandments are solely about training the human mind and heart in the best way- it’s not really for God that we make (well, made) the offerings at all, but for the sake of orienting our consciousness towards the Sacred and true. 
More specifically, according to this interpretation, the reason we offer an animal without blemish is that we will reflect more on the general meaning of the offerings- an awareness of God and our place in Creation- if we offer something that is perfect according to its own kind. The Sefer Ha-Chinnuch says that we are “shaped by the force of our actions,” and so if we offer something valuable and beautiful, it will have a greater affect on our consciousness than if we offer something we didn’t really admire or want anyway. 
That’s all very nice, but how does this apply to us? We no longer relate to the Holy through the practice of agricultural offerings, and I’m glad for that. We do however offer something even more precious, which is our time, attention, focus, effort, and love. We offer our deeds of compassion and generosity, so the question becomes, will they be given with a full heart, or begrudgingly? We shape ourselves by what we do, so will we pray and meditate and learn with the best of ourselves, or as an afterthought? Of course, even our best efforts, most heartfelt prayers, most dedicated learning or most gentle acts of compassion are never truly “without blemish,” but that’s not a problem. When we give our best, we grow fastest, and learn deeper, and love truer, in relationship with the Holy One as with each other. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Metzorah: Honoring T’shuvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora 
The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:14)
Good morning! This week’s Torah portion is very hard to grasp. The primary topic is tzara’at, or a scaly outbreak on human skin or even human houses, which is certainly not “leprosy” as such but is better understood as a physical manifestation of a spiritual or moral condition.  Our Torah portion describes in great detail the ritual of purification and reintegration of the one afflicted, and out of that ritual, one detail stands out. 
As noted above, while performing the purification of the metzora, [the person with tzara'at], the priest puts some of the blood of the animal offering on the ear, thumb and toe of the person being brought back into the community. It’s easy to pass over this small part of a complex passage, but please note, the only other instance of sacrificial blood being put on the ear, thumb and big toe of a person is back in chapter 8, when Moshe performed rituals to dedicate Aharon and his sons as priests. (Cf. Vayikra 8:23-24.)
Let’s leave aside for today the question of why both the metzorah and the priests get ritual blood on those specific places. Instead, let’s simply take at face value that the metzorah returning to the camp is comparable to the priest being dedicated to a life of holy service. The ancient rabbis assumed that one afflicted with tzara’at had been speaking slander and gossip about others- they make a pun that metzorah is like motzie shem ra, or slander. 
While the connection between skin outbreaks and slandering others is clearly a post-Biblical midrash, it does add great moral weight to the comparison which the Torah itself makes between the now-purified metzorah and the dedication of the priests.  Looking at the rituals with the perspective of the ancient sages, we see that one who was sent outside the camp, presumably to reflect on his misdeeds and repent of the harm he caused others, is admitted back into the camp with great and serious ceremony- because that’s how much Judaism honors t’shuvah, reflecting on our deeds and making amends when we must. 
There is a teaching that a ba’al tshuvah, one who has turned his life around, stands in a place that even the purely righteous one cannot. This is why the Torah compares the returning metzorah to the inauguration of the priests: a truly repentant person is on a spiritual level worthy of the same great honor given to the High Priest, who makes atonement for the entire people. 
Seen this way, the complicated purification rituals make moral sense. The rituals show us what to take seriously, what we should honor:  namely, mercy, forgiveness,  reconciliation, and t’shuvah. These are among the greatest virtues to which we can aspire. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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