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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Shabbat Zachor: The Tragedy of Revenge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Zachor

“After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. . . ”  (Book of Esther, 3:1-2)

Good evening!

This week we observe two related liturgical occasions within a few hours of each other. On Shabbat morning, we read a special concluding Torah reading and a special reading from the prophets, each related to Amalek, the enemy nation of the Jews whose descendant is the antagonist of the Purim story. These readings, calling us to “remember [zachor] what Amalek did to you,” give the Shabbat before Purim its name.

Then, a few hours later, after nightfall Saturday night, Purim begins, and we read the scroll of Esther, with its famous hero, Mordecai, and its villain, Haman, both mentioned in the verse above, which contains the plot device which propels the story to its conclusion: Haman is incensed that Mordecai will not bow to him as the king’s viceroy. Yet it’s not at all apparent why Mordecai won’t bow to the king’s second-in-command; after all, Avraham bowed to the visitors in the desert and to the residents of Hevron. There are other examples in the Bible as well; it is not an obvious Jewish principle of the times that one would not bow before a man of high station.

So something else is going on, and I believe it’s found in the family trees of both Mordecai and Haman. We learn from the verse above that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek who was slain by the prophet Samuel after being defeated by the first king of Israel, Saul. (Cf. 1 Sam 15- this is the haftarah for  Shabbat Zachor.) On the other hand, we are told that Mordecai is a direct descendant of Kish, and a man of the tribe of Benjamin. (Cf. Esther 2:5)

Who was Kish, you might ask? Kish, since you asked, was the father of King Saul, meaning Mordecai himself is of that royal, albeit deposed, family. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:1-2.) Now, to be clear, the genealogy of Mordecai is not meant to be taken literally; Kish lived hundreds of years before Mordecai, not just a few generations as in the text. I think the abbreviated list of ancestors is meant to give us the highlights of the family line and tell us something important- namely, that the enmity between Haman and Mordecai goes way back to the time of Saul and Agag. It is entirely understandable that Mordecai would not bow down to a descendant of his familial enemy- and it is equally understandable, but not justifiable, that Haman would seek to humiliate and destroy a man associated with defeating the king of his own family’s history.

So what do we do with all this? Shabbat Zachor reminds us of Amalek and Agag, thus putting in context the seemingly arbitrary hatred of Haman and unbreakable pride of Mordecai. Perhaps these historical reminders give the story of Esther a tragic element, in that long-simmering resentments broke out in such a way that tens of thousands died in the cycle of revenge and defense. Ironically, while the readings of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the evil of Amalek, they also humanize, to a degree, the Amalekite Haman, who is now seen as the willful prisoner of a long-standing cycle of violence and war. This does not excuse his evil choices, but does help explain them.

On Purim, we laugh as the wicked Haman got hung from the gallows he made for Mordecai; but every other day of the year, we are to refrain from rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies. It is a tragedy that hatred persists over generations; on Purim our joy overcomes our sadness, but it by no means diminishes the fundamental Jewish obligation to heal hatred when we can, and fight it when we must.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Neal

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Vayikra: Witnessing and Justice

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

If a person sins, as he has heard the declaration of a curse, and he is a witness by seeing or knowing, yet he does not testify, he shall bear his transgression . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5.1)
Good afternoon! 
We’re starting a new book of the Torah this week, the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, so called as it has many, many rules for the priestly class (e.g., the Levites) and their offerings and sacrifices. Our opening portion also has some laws pertaining to various civil infractions; the opening verses of chapter 5 describe several scenarios of accidental, negligent or inadvertent transgression, such that a special sin-offering was required after the fact. 
The first verse of chapter 5, above, is hard to translate and there is much commentary on the matter, but the basic idea is that if somebody heard a public declaration- the “curse,” as above- that anybody who knew anything about such-and-such matter was to come forth and testify, if in that case one has relevant information and didn’t testify, it’s a sin and requires atonement in the priestly service. Most commentaries agree that this is about testimony by a third person who is neither plaintiff nor defendant, so it’s about coming forward to help with somebody else’s dispute rather than confessing one’s own crime or sin. 
Now, we might think that this is hardly a radical concept. In American law, there are various scenarios in which testimony can be compelled, perhaps even with the threat of contempt of court. What’s interesting to me, however, is that the duty to testify is not only a civic matter but a religious one. We have an affirmative obligation to be constructively involved in resolving conflicts and quarrels, despite the fact that such involvement may bring about discomfort, rebuke, and strained relationships. I remind readers that Judaism is not primarily concerned with rights- such as the right to be left alone or the right to stay silent- but obligations, in this case, the obligation to say what we know so that justice is done. 
To put it another way, when we speak the truth, despite the cost and thus help conflicts be resolved fairly, we are partners of the Holy One in bringing about peace and righteousness. Peace and justice are not just good ideas; they are the core of a Jewish spiritual consciousness. Peace and justice are inseparable; we may think we are “making peace” but withdrawing from the hard work of addressing conflicts, but over the long run, peace rests on justice, which requires the participation of every brave and willing soul. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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