Vayeshev: The Darkness of our Dungeon

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Vayeshev
When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped Yosef of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:23-24)
This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Yosef and his descent down into Egypt. When we first meet him, Yosef is an arrogant young man, seemingly unaware that his dreams of dominance strike his brothers as arrogant and aggressive. Yosef’s famous striped (or colored) coat, given by their father Yakov, is a source of friction and jealousy, so when the brothers enact their plan to kill Yosef- later reduced to merely selling him into slavery- they first strip his coat, the symbol of their father’s unequal love and Yosef’s unique status among the brothers. Taking Yosef’s coat was a way to humiliate him, to take his sense of identity and confidence, to break his spirit and force him to recognize that he is no longer the master of his own fate. 
Lest we think that such humiliation and determination to break a prisoner’s spirit is a harsh relic of the ancient past, this past week Americans were reminded that we, too, have blood on our hands- both the blood of innocents and the metaphorical guilt associated with extraordinarily cruel attempts to break prisoners with torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee released part of a report (only a small part, really- most of it was classified) in which we learned in great detail how the CIA tortured prisoners captured in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Key finding and quotes here.) 
Let’s be very clear about three things: first, this was physical and psychological torture. Not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but torture, meant to inflict extraordinary suffering. Torture like beatings, forced standing on broken limbs, simulated drowning (aka “waterboarding”), freezing people to death, stripping them naked and chaining them to the wall, forcing fluids into the anus as a way of “rehydrating” prisoners on a hunger strike, threatening prisoners or their families with sexual abuse, religious humiliation and so on. See here and here for more details, and remember, this information were from the CIA’s own documents. 
Second, the Senate report shows clearly that torture never worked. There was never a “ticking time bomb” scenario, never a time when torturing one person could be shown to have saved others. All claims to the contrary are undercut by the CIA’s own documentation. John McCain, of all people who should know, points out the obvious: people will say anything to get the torture to stop. 
Finally, please remember: even if you believe (and I hope you don’t) that accused terrorists deserve no due process, no mercy and no protections of the Geneva Conventions, the CIA admits that at least 26 people we tortured were completely innocent- just the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See the last item on this list of findings.) We tortured innocent people, again and again. 
This week’s Torah portion twice portrays Yosef doing down into a dark place of imprisonment- first the pit his brothers prepared, and then later, Pharoah’s dungeon, where Yosef was sent after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. God was with Yosef in Pharoah’s dungeon, but the baker imprisoned with him wasn’t so lucky, and died at his captor’s whim. When we think about the abuse of power that results in arbitrary suffering, confinement, and death, we cannot, after the release of the Senate report, think of other places, other times, other countries other Pharaoh. We must instead reflect on our own duties as citizens to say, loudly and clearly: not in my name, because this is not the America I love, and I will never again support those in power who abuse their power so cruelly.
This week’s Torah portion isn’t only about Yosef and his brothers. It’s also about us, right now, and the moral imperative to call our country to account for terrible crimes committed in dark and secret dungeons where men like Yosef suffered unimaginably, sometimes for no reason at all. 
We can do better. Please don’t look away, but click the links, learn more, and think hard. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest. 

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Vayishlach: The Logic of Violence

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Vayishlach 

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis/ Bereshit 34:30-31)

Good morning! 
This week’s Torah reading has several well known narratives: the first is the putative reconciliation between Yaakov and his estranged brother Esav; the second is the story of Dinah, Yaakov’s daughter, and the vengeance of her brothers upon her oppressors; and the third is Yaakov’s return to Beth-El and reaffirmation of his covenant with the God of his fathers. 
It’s the second of these that seems appropriate for mention today. In short, Yaakov and his camp dwell near the clan of a man named Shechem and his father Hamor. Shechem sexually assaults Dinah, bringing shame and dishonor to her family, so her brothers Shimon and Levi trick the men of her clan into circumcising themselves and then massacre them during recovery. The verses quoted above are the end of the story: Yaakov confronts his sons with the terrible implication of their deed, and they answer back with their understandable- but not really justifying- motivation. 
Note that Yaakov doesn’t exactly tell Shimon and Levi was morally wrong to trick and kill the men of Shechem’s camp. Rather, he points out that it was very, very unwise, since now his family will have a bad reputation and may be at the mercy of stronger forces. On the other hand, we have a strong hint that he really did think Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing: at the end of his life, on his deathbed, Yaakov refers to Shimon and Levi as mean of wanton violence and he curses them for their anger and wrath. (Cf. Bereshit 49:5-7
My sense is that Yaakov knew that Shimon and Levi, still hot with emotion, could not be persuaded of their guilt in perpetrating a crime upon innocents. Yes, Shechem raped or seduced Dinah, but even if one argued that Shechem deserved to die for what he did, that hardly justifies killing the men of his clan, unless one reasoned that they would strike back in retaliation, which in turn merely proves Yaakov’s point about the cycle of violence. So rather than denounce his sons as criminals, he tells them what he thinks they might be able to hear: that they were unwise and party to unforeseen consequences. 
Shimon and Levi answer their father: “should our sister be treated like a whore?” as if one crime naturally justified another in a world that respects only brute force. It’s the impeccable logic of violence, but I think Yaakov is trying to make the point that there is rarely perfect justice in this world, and sometimes we have to settle for the justice we can in order to avoid greater crimes and more bloodshed. 
There is no perfect justice in this world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the justice we can achieve; it means that everybody, on all sides of a conflict, may have to take some share of the responsibility in avoiding further cycles of violence and retaliation. It means that in an America where all too often, minority communities experience the police as using unjustified force, resulting in needless deaths, wisdom dictates humility and contrition on the part of those who wield force. There is no perfect justice in systems created by fallible human beings, but the logic of retaliation and rage only ensures further injustice upon innocents. Human beings are experts at finding justification for their baser actions, but breaking cycles of violence means backing down, even at the cost of honor. 
We can always find reasons to hate. The hard part is pushing hate aside to measure our response to tragedy, so that the pursuit of justice is not merely a cover for the logic of vengeance. The difference between justice and vengeance is the most important thing in the world at times like these, and the responsibility of everyone who cares about a decent world for our children. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayetzei: Humility of Knowledge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Leah had weak eyes . . . (Bereshit/ Genesis 29:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is really the beginning of the story of the Jewish people: Yaakov flees to his uncle Lavan, marries two of his cousins (Rakhel and Leah), has lots of children with his wives and their maidservants (!), and by the end of the portion is headed back to the Land of Israel. Among the most famous stories in Vayetzei is Lavan’s trickery in getting Yaakov to marry his older daughter, Leah, before her younger sister, Rakhel, whom Yaakov loved and desired.

Rakhel is described as beautiful, but we only learn that einai Leah rakot, “Leah’s eyes were weak,” [alternatively “soft,” or “tender”]. A famous midrash quoted by Rashi explains that Leah’s eyes were weak or soft because she had been crying, assuming along with other folks that if Yaakov were going to marry her younger sister Rahkel, then she’d have to marry his older brother Esav, who was not thought of as a particularly admirable character by the ancient rabbis.

On the one hand, the midrash has a certain logic to it- two sisters for two brothers, and the Torah itself mentions that the elder should be married before the younger- but on the other hand, what a great example of the human tendency to create great imaginary dramas before all the facts are in. Taking this interpretation at face value, Leah was crying over something that not only didn’t happen, but might not have been planned by anybody!

We so often think we know what others are thinking, and sometimes react to something that is purely an assumption or projection. We so often make up our minds that disaster looms ahead- and it might, but it might not, or might not be as bad as we think, or we might be much stronger that we assume. What is so poignant about the image of Leah crying over her marriage to Esav is that the text gives us so little reason to assume this was her fate; I wish she had at least asked her father about his plans before crying her eyes out!

An aspect of the virtue of humility is knowing what we don’t know- and knowing that there is much that we don’t know can leave us much more open to what is, rather than what we want, fear, assume, project or imagine. If there is much I don’t know, then there is much to learn, and many questions to ask, and the possibilities are endless.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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