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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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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