Toldot: The meaning of MItzvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

I’m pleased to note that this d’var Torah will be sent out by the Jewish Federation of North America as their weekly Mekor Chaim Torah portion email.

I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs- inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:4-5)

The Torah portion Toldot is best known for the interactions between Yaakov and his brother Esav, but it’s also the story of their father Yitzhak, who in turn reenacts some of the narrative of his father, Avraham. Yitzhak, like Avraham, has to leave where he’s living because of famine, but instead of going down to Egypt, he visits the land of Philistines, again like his father did on a different occasion. In fact, Yitzhak hears a Divine voice telling him in no uncertain terms not to go to Egypt, but instead to stay in the land of Israel, which he will someday inherit because of the merit of his father Avraham.

The verse quoted above lists all the ways that Avraham was committed to the service of God, but note the wording:  Avraham didn’t just “obey” God, but kept God’s “charge,” “commandments,” “laws,” and “teachings.” The medieval scholar Rashi, assuming that the Torah doesn’t use words superfluously, understands each of these four things as a separate category. For example, following the usual definition in rabbinic thought, Rashi understands “My laws,” chukotai,  as referring to practices without an obvious rational basis, such as the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in a garment. (How Avraham could have observed a law given in the Torah many years later is a discussion for another time.)

Yet it’s Rashi’s definition of mitzvotai, “My commandments,” which is most surprising. Everybody knows that mitzvah means “commandment,” which in turn means something distinctly Jewish like lighting Shabbat candles or blowing the shofar. That’s not at all how Rashi defines mitzvah in this passage. He says mitzvah means “things that, even if they weren’t written down, would have been appropriate to command, like [the prohibition of] stealing and bloodshed.”

In other words, mitzvah doesn’t just mean commandments with specific Jewish content, but also broad and universal moral principles, ones which rational people can figure out for themselves. Well, you might ask, if those broad moral principles, like not stealing, cheating or hurting others, are so obvious, why do they need to be part of Judaism at all?

To me, we include universal moral principles in our mitzvot, commandments, for two reasons. The first is that our behavior is judged by others; to live a good life is akiddush Hashem, literally “making holy the Name,” but understood as something which increases respect for the Torah and God of Israel. The second reason is thatmitzvot are opportunities for spiritual awareness; we take ordinary actions and raise them to Heaven when we remember that something as simple as paying our workers on time or respecting another’s property is a mitzvah, a holy act.

To put it another way, everybody on earth is expected to be a good person; Judaism teaches that being a good person is inseparable from living a holy life. Holding on to our goodness in a world of cynicism is no easy thing. Perhaps that’s why observing a universal moral code is part of Avraham’s greatness and merit; he was willing to live a God-centered life in all his deeds, both ethical and ritual, and thus became the spiritual father of three great religions.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chayei Sarah: Varieties of Courage

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah 
Now Adonijah son of Haggith went about boasting, “I will be king!” He provided himself with chariots and horses, and an escort of fifty outrunners.  His father had never scolded him: “Why did you do that?” (1 Kings 1:5-6)
Good morning! 
The inspiration for this week’s Torah discussion is perhaps the most famous usage of the word “chickens**t” in my lifetime. For those who haven’t been following, Jeffery Goldberg, a well-known journalist who often writes about Middle East affairs,reported that some unnamed official in the Obama administration referred to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “chickens**t” for various putative reasons. In response, many supporters of the PM expressed outrage at the crudeness of the expression and what it implied about national relations with Israel. (Googling this imbroglio yields tens of thousands of hits.) 
One popular expression of this anger at the unnamed official was an image floating around the internet showing Netanyahuand Obama in their youths- Bibi in his commando uniform and the President laying back, smoking a cigarette. (You can see that here.) Now, please note, we’re not going to get into whether one side in this political debate is more chicken than the other. Rather, I’m interested in the notions of courage behind the accusations from both sides, and in particular, that image, linked above, of the commando versus the civilian, clearly implying that one who was courageous in battle certainly couldn’t be a “chickens**t” in politics. 
Now we’re ready to go back to the text. There are two haftarot that deal with the final days of King David- this week’s and thehaftarah for Vayechi, at the end of the book of Genesis. Both of these haftarot are chosen to contrast the scene of a Patriarch at the end of his days with that of King David on his deathbed. This week we read of Avraham’s tremendous concern for his legacy and persistence in finding a proper wife for his son, while in a month or so, we’ll read about Yaakov blessing each of his sons with a unique blessing before he dies. 
Contrast those images with the mighty David close to death; this week we read, as in the verse above, of a struggle between his sons and their associated court factions due to the fact that David never named his heir. In the following chapter (the haftarahfor Vayechi) David’s charge to his son Solomon includes a general exhortation to obey Divine commands but also gives very specific instructions for revenge and murder. Let me make this plain: David may have been the most valiant warrior of his generation, but he did not have the moral clarity or courage to confront the unworthy son who acted as king while his father was still alive. Even more poignantly, it seems that David could not let go of resentments, hatreds, and bitterness on his deathbed; it take tremendous strength to face one’s mortality and let go of unsettled scores, but that’s a kind of courage David apparently didn’t have. 
My point here is that there are simply different kinds of courage, perhaps without correlation in any particular life. David had battlefield courage, but it seems he had very little ability to change his own behaviors or confront his children with their misdeeds (or his own failings as a father.) The ancient rabbis said that the real “mighty one” is the one who can conquer his own inclinations (Pirkei Avot 4:1), which I understand to mean a fearless moral inventory, introspection with unblinking honesty in order to master the self before going out to battle with the world. David won most of his battles on the field, but few of his battles with his own worst impulses. On the other hand, I’ve known people who would make lousy soldiers, but who confronted their own lives, and deaths, with tremendous dignity, forgiveness, acceptance and peace. I’ve known people who risked their careers, honor, status and wealth by speaking truth to power, and I’ve known people who never sought to change the world, but who examined their own failings with extraordinary effort. All these things are heroic; the world needs us all to be fearless in our own way. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayera: Fearless Welcome

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera
But when she came up to the man of God on the mountain, she clasped his feet.Gehazi stepped forward to push her away; but the man of God said, “Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress.” (2 Kings 4:27)
Good morning! 
Sorry it’s been a while since I got myself organized enough to get to the keyboard. I could list all the reasons, but that’d be kvetching, and who needs that? 
Onward and upward. 
This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which is a series of dramatic narratives concerningAvraham and his family, concluding with the famous binding of Yitzhak on the altar. However, as rich as those stories are, this week something in the haftarah caught my eye. The text from the prophetic books has several obvious links to the Torah portion, especially the theme of miraculous childbirth. In the Torah portion, of course, it’s Sarah who bearsYitzhak, but in the haftarah, the prophet Elisha announces the birth of a child to a woman from Shunam, a small town in the north of Israel. 
This woman- known only as the Shunammite woman- is both wealthy and hospitable, going so far as to build a small guest room for Elisha, who apparently visits with some frequency. In gratitude, he offers to do her a kindness; she doesn’t ask for anything, but Elisha’s servant Gehazi points out that she has no son, so Elisha announces that at that season in the following year, she will have a child. 
So far, so good, and again, the connections to the story of Sarah and Avraham are clear. Then tragedy strikes: some years later, the child dies while visiting his father in the fields, and the Shunammite goes to find Elisha. When she draws near, she falls at Elisha’s feet, butGehazi pushes her away (see verse quoted at the top.) Elisha to Shunem and revives the child, but for today, let’s notice the two contrasting reactions to the approach of an obviously distraught, grieving mother, who has just ridden hard and fast to find a healer. 
Gehazi’s impulse is to push the woman away, perhaps to protect his master, Elisha, from her emotions, her pain, her grasping or sweat or tears or cries. Elisha is not afraid of any of those things, and in fact seems to be especially solicitous of her precisely because she was in distress. 
To me, the reactions of Gehazi and Elisha to the appearance of the Shunammite woman represent two tendencies within religious communities: the first is to police and protect the boundaries of the community, defending it against anything threatening,  unruly, uncomfortable or unpredictable, while the second option, embodied by Elisha, is to embrace and include human beings in all their messy imperfections, because in doing so, we enrich and fulfill our own humanity. To be fair, all groups have boundaries of some sort, but many individuals and communities succeed in welcoming those who are seeking healing, feeling broken, unsure of their faith, and in search of balm for the vicissitudes of life. 
The greatness of Elisha, it seems to me, is not that he raised the dead boy- he’s clear that’s God’s doing, not his own- but that a distraught and bitter friend threw herself at his feet, demanding redress for her suffering, and he didn’t recoil in the slightest. The real inspiration of this haftarah is not in the miracles, which are not our doing, but the character of the prophet, who can be our model for a true spirituality of welcome, acceptance and kindness, teaching us to reach out and embrace those who may have nothing to give but the opportunity to love. 
Seen this way, the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is not divine miracles but human compassion: as Avraham welcomed the strangers to his tent at the beginning of the portion, so too the Shunammite woman went out of her way to welcome Elisha into her home, and just as the angels heard Yishmael crying where he was in the wilderness, Elisha meets the Shunammite women in her pain, reaching to her and lifting her up. Perhaps that too is a miracle, but a miracle of the spirit, one which any one of us could enact this very day.  
Shabbat Shalom, 

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T’shuvah, Hope and the Struggle for Justice

Shalom Friends, Neal here.

Well, I’ve fully transitioned into the new job at Vassar Brothers Medical Center and so far, so good. Eventually I’ll get access to all the parts of the computer systems that I need to and then we’ll be doing even better!

I do hope to write more consistently in the future- don’t give up on rabbineal-list quite yet.

This week I am honored to write the weekly commentary for T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, basing my thoughts on hope and faith on the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of Jonah, which you can find by going here:

Commentary on Jonah, Hope and Faith for Yom Kippur.

Astute readers of my weekly commentary (I assume that’s all of you!) will remember that I used themidrash about Pharaoh in 2010, but this year I go in a slightly different direction with it.

Wishing you all a peaceful and reflective Yom Kippur and a Sukkot overflowing with joy,


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Ki Tetze: Conquering One’s Eyes

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Good Afternoon!

Lots of interesting laws in this week’s Torah portion, including famous laws to return lost property to its rightful owner. These laws begin in Chapter 22 with an injunction against ignoring animals that have gone astray:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. . .  (D’varim 22:1)

The Hebrew is interesting, with a sort of double negative: “you will not see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and turn away from them.” Our friend Rashi says that “you will not see” means “covering your eyes, as if you did not see.” The difficulty he addresses is only implicit: if one really didn’t see, there would be no obligation, (we can’t act on what we don’t know about) so “not seeing” must mean one didsee, but chose to act as if one didn’t.

What makes Rashi’s comment even more interesting is the word he uses for “cover,” as in cover one’s eyes. He uses the word kovesh, a root which can mean cover or pave or but also means conquer or achieve victory over. Now, maybe I’m leaning too hard on one word,  but perhaps Rashi is suggesting that it takes some effort not to see what we don’t want to see. In the case of the lost animal or other possession, perhaps we don’t want to go to the effort to identify the rightful owner, or perhaps we choose not to see identifying marks that would obligate us not to keep what we  have found; the mind powerfully justifies what we want to do anyway!

The effort not to see what one doesn’t want to see is often not conscious, but indeed all of us choose to deny certain truths that on some level we know. These truths might be related to health, money, relationships, issues of social justice, poverty or suffering around us, but they are there, and we so often conquer our eyes and act as if we don’t see. Our world is warming and the seas are rising, but we conquer our eyes and turn away from the evidence here and abroad. Right here in America, there are serious issues of racism, inequality, unemployment, hunger and strife, but all too often, we conquer our eyes until images too powerful to ignore erupt on our screens and across the headlines.

The mitzvah of returning lost objects is not only about establishing trust among neighbors (see commentary linked in first paragraph) but also about training our hearts and minds to see things that we’d rather ignore. That, in turn, becomes an indispensable aspect of a mature and engaged life; we cannot fix what we choose not to see, and so healing the world depends on opening our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Re’eh: Poverty and Hope

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh
For there will never cease to be needy in your land. Because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand to your brother, the poor one and the destitute in your land. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 15:11) 
Good afternoon! 
The Torah portion Re’eh covers a lot of ground, from injunctions against idolatry to the laws of kosher animals to the laws of giving charity and taking care of the poor. Among the laws commanding us to care for the poor and needy is the one above, which points out that poverty is never going to be eliminated but must nonetheless be addressed. Poverty isn’t going to disappear anytime soon because, for one thing, human beings are radically imperfect, making poor decisions, gambling with their money, becoming addicts, plus sheer bad luck like droughts and economic instability. Another reason there will always be poverty is that people aren’t just imperfect, they are also sometimes terrible to each other, whether through political oppression, criminal acts or social injustice. 
Nevertheless, we can’t be overcome by despair and refuse to help those who need it. Despair is the antithesis of faith; faith does not mean a false hope of no suffering, but rather the refusal to give up on the meaning of our lives and deeds. Furthermore, it is action that renews our faith, not thinking through some intellectual theological problem- that’s why the verse says, “open your hand,” even with the knowledge that doing so will not be part of an ultimate solution to poverty even in the long run. 
We open our hands because it leads us to the truth that human kindness and connection and giving matter, right now, and doing those things changes us. Even if the rest of the world seems to stay the same- we are different. This may be why Rashi picked up on a subtle aspect of our verse above, the seemingly unnecessary word l’emor, “saying”, as in “because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand. . .” 
The verse makes perfect sense without the extra word: “because of this, I command you: open your hand,” but Rashi, quoting an earlier text, interpolates: 
Saying“- it is advice for your good that I am offering. 
What seems to be implied here is that by adding the word “saying,” the emphasis becomes: saying to you, for your sake. Rashi is using an unusual word to make a moral midrash, reminding us that a life of giving and loving-kindness is not only about our obligation to help the poor meet their needs, it is also the way we become the holy people we are meant to be. Of course we should help the poor for their sake, and of course charity or social justice work should not be a narcissistic exercise in feeling good about ourselves, but it’s also true that the only way to sustain a life of charity and activism is by having realistic hopes. I cannot eradicate poverty under current conditions, because I cannot change human nature. But I can help the poor of my city and the poor abroad by giving of myself and my resources, and in so doing, I change myself and bring light to the world. . 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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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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