Archive for Shemot

Shemot: The Renewal of Hope

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling . . .  (Shemot/Exodus 2:13)

Happy 2013!

For those also attuned to the calendar of Torah readings, we’re also starting something new this week, with the beginning of the book ofShemot, the story of Moshe leading the people to freedom and Mt Sinai. As many of you probably remember, Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s household and only became aware of the suffering of his people as a young man: the Torah says that he went out and saw an Egyptian captain beating a Hebrew, so Moshe killed the Egyptian, but “on the second day,” he saw two Hebrews fighting and tried to break up the conflict. (Cf. Shemot chapter 2:11-15)

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, in his book on Moshe, points out that the language of “on the second day,” connects the two incidents. He brings earlier commentaries to posit that perhaps the men were fighting over the proper response to Moshe’s daring act of rebellion against their Egyptian masters. One man understood Moshe’s act the previous day as the beginning of of the end of slavery, and a call to cast off their oppressor. The other man thought that Moshe was a fool who would get them all killed, because there was no hope of circumstances ever changing against the will of a great earthly power.

Now, this reading of our text relies on several interpretive leaps, but there is logic to it: by naming the day upon which the two Hebrews fought “the second day” or “the day after,” the Torah clearly links the two incidents, so it’s not such a stretch to say that the conflict itself may have been related to Moshe’s earlier action. Seen this way, the image of the two Hebrews fighting is a reminder that there are two approaches we can take to the problem of living lives of hope and action: we can believe that what is will always be, or we can choose to hope, and with hope, begin to change what must be changed.

There will always be a tension between pragmatic accommodation to the world as it is and an idealism which sees what might yet be. That’s the fight between factions in Egypt, but it’s also the struggle in every community and indeed within most individuals to balance our hopes and dreams against a sober view of the odds. Yet please note: the story ends with the Israelites marching out of Egypt, triumphant and free. The Israelites who scoffed at Moshe were wrong, which leads to the present day question: who among us who persists in cynicism is equally wrong? What might we achieve if we took the side of Moshe and really believed that justice can be made real and those who are low can be raised up?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Sh’mot: Sense of Self

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sh’mot

“The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Yosef being already in Egypt. . . . “
(Sh’mot/ Exodus 1:5)

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (1:8)

Greetings!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, Sh’mot- literally, “names,” from the recounting of the names of the sons of Yaakov in the first verse. Verse five seems fairly straightforward: the total count of Yaakov’s children and their families was seventy when they came down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection. Our friend Rashi points out that we don’t really need to be told that “Yosef was already in Egypt,” because Yosef and his family were included in the total of seventy, and besides, everybody already knows that Yosef was in Egypt, so why bring it up?

Good question!

Rashi’s answer is subtle: the verse mentions Yosef among the seventy descendants of Yaakov and again as “in Egypt” because it’s making the point that it was the same Yosef, as it were, who tended Yaakov’s sheep as a boy and then became Prime Minister of the great empire, all the while being steadfast in his goodness.

Now, we might have a discussion about exactly how admirable Yosef was over the years, but the traditional rabbinic understanding is that he is Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous one, so I think Rashi is saying that it’s especially praiseworthy that he retained this moral orientation while reaching the highest levels of power and status. According to Rashi’s interpretation, Yosef had an inner life, a core identity or grounding in moral principles that gave him a durable sense of self, whether he was a brash young boy or a commander of nations.

Now, let’s compare this to the next verse quoted at the top, about Pharaoh, who “did not know Yosef.” Rashi now brings a rabbinic debate about whether this was really a new king, or just a king who made new and unexpected decrees. In either case, Rashi doesn’t believe that the Pharaoh didn’t know who Yosef was. Rather, he acted as if he didn’t know who Yosef was. In other words, the Pharaoh, whether old or new, chose to disregard the legacy of the man who saved Egypt.

Comparing these two interpretations, perhaps Rashi is trying to make a larger point about the choices that people face: one can let the external circumstances of life draw you one way or another, or one can maintain a steadfast set of internal orientations, which in turn determine how one reacts to events. Are you like Pharaoh, choosing to forget that which you may have known just recently, as long as it’s tactically advantageous, or are you like Yosef, who (according to this reading) retained his moral compass even in a foreign land, even under extreme duress, and even when there was no power on earth who could hold him accountable for transgressions?

Pharaoh knew darn well who Yosef was; but in the Pharaoh world of instrumental values, loyalty meant nothing if power was at stake, so forgetting was easy. Yosef, on the other hand, chose to forgive when nobody could have stopped him from taking vengeance; he thought of others, and thought of the person he wished to be. That’s hard, but that’s the challenge of life itself: to know and nurture and realize the spirit within, so that we become who we truly are, children of Israel and inheritors of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shmot: Recalling the Ancestors

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

This week’s Torah portion: Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Greetings from snowy Poughkeepsie!

This week we read the famous story of the “burning bush,” where God appeared to Moshe and commissioned him to confront Pharaoh with the demand for freedom. As Nechama Leibowitz points out , Moshe demurs several times, protesting that he is unworthy of this great responsibility. (See the second link for the relevant verses and her learned perspective on this question.)

Among the answers Moshe receives to his protestations is a phrase which will be familiar to those with at least a little experience of traditional Jewish liturgy:

“And God said further to Moshe, ‘Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you . . . ‘ ” (Shmot 3:15, and cf. verse 6.)

This phrase, “God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov,” is quoted daily in the opening paragraph of the Amidah, or standing prayer, a core part of the daily and holiday liturgy. In fact, the Amidah is so basic to Jewish spiritual practice that in classic rabbinic commentaries it’s just called tefillah, or prayer. This, in turn, raises the question: why would God’s answer to Moshe, when Moshe was trying to wriggle out of his appointed tasks, be something that we’d turn around and use as our pathway to prayer itself?

As I see it, Moshe’s sense of unworthiness at the moment of theophany [revelation of Divine Presence] is not unique but paradigmatic. That is, we are to learn that if even Moshe was utterly humbled and discomfited by a deep spiritual experience then surely we too may have those feelings without shame or guilt- it’s a normal part of spiritual growth. Note, however, that this idea is actually contained in the words that were spoken to Moshe- God is identified as the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and this is not only reminds Moshe that he is a Hebrew and thus connected to the fate of his people, but also reassures him that just as the ancestors, each with their unique personalities and imperfections, could nevertheless have a relationship to the Divine, so could Moshe.

That is- when Moshe protests “who am I that I should to to Pharaoh?,” the answer is: you are you, just as Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov were themselves, each with their own faith but also their flaws and blind spots, which did not keep them from their spiritual destinies. In turn, when we, in our own prayer, praise God as the God of our ancestors, we are recalling not just the three patriarchs (and in many versions of the Amidah, the four matriarchs as well) but also Moshe, who was overwhelmed and frightened and humbled and confused, but who went forward from the bush, one step at a time, to achieve great things. That’s the key point, to me: we recall our ancestors not so that we will be exactly like them, but to be reminded that flawed people can nevertheless hear the call of the Divine and be transformed.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shemot: The Day of Redemption

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This week we begin the book of Shemot/Exodus, and there are two
traditions for which haftarah we read: Ashkenazim read from Isaiah and
Sefardim read from Jeremiah. We’ll look at the Ashkenazi haftarah
today, but I actually like the Sefardi one a little better- maybe next
year we’ll look at it.

In any event, the prophet Isaiah, in the first part of the book that
bears his name, alternates between castigating the people and
consoling them- but when he consoles, he uses beautiful images to
convey hope:

“And in that day, the Lord will beat out [the peoples like grain] from
the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt; and you shall be
picked up one by one, O children of Israel!

And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed
who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of
Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, in
Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:12-13)

You can see from the verses above an obvious connection to the Torah
portion- just as God took the people out of Egypt the first time, so
too will there be a great redemption from all the lands where the
Israelites have scattered in that era. The image of the Israelites
being “beaten out” of their exile like grain seems rather stark, but
it conveys a loving attention to each person, being collected as a
farmer collects grain. In other words, even though “redemption” in
Biblical terms means the people as a whole returning to their land,
the prophet says: each individual is important and will not be forgotten.

In the second verse above, Isaiah links redemption to the shofar,
saying that the “strayed” or “lost” [ha’ovdim] will be returned along
with the “expelled” [ha’nidachim.] To me, this suggests that t’shuvah,
or return to our spiritual core, our soul-roots, is always an open
possibility no matter how we “got off track.” Sometimes I just drift
from spiritual awareness- I’m so busy or so distracted by all my tasks
that I’ve lost connection with my own soul and don’t even know it.
Sometimes I’m “expelled”- that is, something (a loss, change, event,
disruption, etc) knocks me into a reactive, fearful or resentful
state- but either way, we are always called back to connect with our
deepest selves, a place of reverence for the Source of Life and an
orientation towards compassionate action.

We don’t always have a shofar to remind us to come home to most
centered self- but we do have reminders: daily prayer, meditation,
study, the practice of gratitude. “That day” of redemption can be
today- if your heart is open.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shemot: True Beauty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Speaking of arduous labor, this week we begin the
book of Shemot, or Exodus; the story opens with the Israelites in Egypt
and a new Pharaoh oppressing the people and setting taskmasters over
them. We meet Moshe, who grows up in the palace but soon flees Egypt
after striking an Egyptian captain. Moshe flees to Midian where he has
the famous encounter of the “burning bush,” where God appoints him to
confront Pharaoh and bring hope to the people.

Moshe doesn’t particularly want this commission, and argues with God
that perhaps someone else should be appointed. Finally, God agrees
that Moshe’s brother Aharon can serve as his mouthpiece and partner:

“[God] said, ‘Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levite? I know
that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you,
and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 4:14)

Rashi emphasizes how much it is to Aharon’s credit that he will greet
Moshe with great rejoicing upon Moshe’s return to Egypt- after all,
one might think that an older brother would resent a younger one for
having achieved such a high position (think Fredo Corleone) but Aharon
is portrayed as humble and wise in this regard.

This leads to our connection with the practical aspects of Judaism.
Rashi concludes his comment on the verse above by connecting Aharon’s
support of Moshe’s appointment as prophet to Aharon’s own appointment
as the “High Priest’ after the giving of the Torah. More specifically,
Aharon’s humility, his good-hearted acceptance of his younger
brother’s prominence, is linked to the bejeweled breastplate he wears
as Kohen Gadol [High Priest.]

To put it another way, Rashi sees the priestly breastplate as symbolic
of Aharon’s humility- in this view like an adornment of the heart-
which is most evident in how Aharon rejoices over his brother’s
spiritual achievement. This symbolism is brought into contemporary
Judaism by the “breastplate” which hangs over and decorates a Torah
scroll; in fact, most of the decorations on a Torah scroll are
evocations of the garments of the High Priest. (Cf. the Torah portion
Tetzaveh.)

Thus, we arrive at an interesting junction: the silver plates in front
of a Torah scroll recall not only the grandeur of the High Priest, but
the humility and lack of ego and resentment which made the first High
Priest worthy of the office. A beautiful decoration is linked to a
beautiful perspective: that we should rejoice in each other’s
achievements without envy or spite, which in turn reminds us that
beauty is more in actions than in objects.

Happy Winter Break to all,

RNJL

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Shemot: True Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where it’s almost winter! This
week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, or Exodus, which
starts off with a recollection of how the Israelites ended up in
Egypt, and quickly proceeds to a description of painful oppression
under harsh rule. Moshe is appointed by God to bring a message of
liberation to the people, and in his famous encounter with the Divine
Presence at the “burning bush,” Moshe hears that God has taken note of
how the Israelites are suffering under slavery:

“And the Lord continued, ‘I have marked well the plight of My people
in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters;
yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 3:7)

The opening words of God’s proclamation, translated by JPS as “I have
marked well,” are a doubling of the Hebrew verb “to see.” In Biblical
Hebrew doubling- in this case,”ra’oh ra’iti”- brings emphasis to the
action of the verb. Thus, another translations has been “I have surely
seen,” which also captures the alliteration of the Hebrew. The
sentence goes on to say: “I am mindful of their sufferings,” which
again is subject to translation choices: “ki yadati” could also mean
“for I know [their pains].”

So the question is- how is it that the Torah portrays God as saying
that only now is their Divine notice of suffering and pain? Did God
not see or know before this? How, then, would the Torah understand
God’s transcendence if God’s knowledge is limited?

Rashi tackles this problem by implying that “for I know” means a
choice to do more than hear or know passively:

“This is similar to: ‘and God knew’ [cf. Exodus 2:25]. That is to say:
for I set My heart to contemplate and to know their pains, and I have
not hidden My eyes, neither will I block My ears from their cry.

Now, Rashi’s comment doesn’t really solve our theological problem,
because it still begs the question: so why did God decide to pay
attention now, and not earlier? Did God not know, or not care?

On the other hand- I think Rashi is telling us something about the
nature of compassion which is more practical than abstract theological
problems relating to Divine cognition. Rashi’s comment says that God
knew about the suffering (how could God not know?), but at some point
made a decision to pay attention, to contemplate, and to be fully open
to the reality of another’s suffering- which, to me, is much less a
description of how God knows something than a prescription for how
human beings should open themselves in order to truly see the reality
of other lives. Rashi seems to be implying that we will only arouse
ourselves to relieve the suffering of others once we truly understand
it, and thus acts of compassion and justice also require a decision to
open oneself emotionally- to remove the blocks from one’s eyes and
ears and set one’s heart in the proper direction.

We are all made in God’s image, which means that we can make the
choice to really see and truly understand the emotional, material, and
spiritual needs of those who suffer. It’s so easy to see, but not pay
attention; to know, but not care; to hear, but not respond. To walk in
God’s ways is to truly see, to truly hear, to truly know, and to set
one’s heart towards healing and justice.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shmot: Responsibility and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

One of the small consolations of a long commute is the chance to listen to audio
books that I might not get around to reading; this week, I’ve been listening to The
Fifth Discipline, a book about organizational development by the noted theorist Peter
Senge. He describes a game in which participants take on the role of retailer,
distributor, and manufacturer, and maps out how certain perfectly reasonable decisions will
invariably produce bad results for the whole system. More than that, what struck me was his
comment that after running this game for more than 20 years with executives and
business students, another almost invariable result is that when the system starts breaking
down, participants look for somebody to blame- it must have been somebody’s
fault, somebody’s incompetence, that led to shortfalls in supply or demand.

The point, of course, is that it’s easier to look for somebody to blame than to
examine how our own thinking and behavior may have contributed to the problem in front
of us. Nor is this a new phenomenon: at the end of this week’s parsha, after Moshe and
Aharon have confronted Pharaoh with the demand that he let the people worship God in
the wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload- but the people blame
Moshe and Aharon for provoking him rather than admit that no amount of obedience will
win the king’s mercy. It’s quite amazing to me that after Pharaoh has been killing their
boys for some time now, the people hold Moshe and Aharon responsible for Pharaoh’s
contempt, as if things had been just fine till they came along:

“They met Moses and Aaron standing before them when they came out from
Pharaoh’s presence. And they said to them, `May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you
have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his
servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 5:20-21

I don’t meant to blame the victim; it’s not an unreasonable decision to obey in
the hope that things won’t get worse. My point is that the situation was already bad when
Moshe and Aharon started to take risks to make things better- and blaming them for
Pharaoh’s oppression shows the desperate need of the people to believe that they has some
small measure of control over their circumstances. It’s easier to be angry at the
proximate source of disorder than to step back and realize that what needs to change is a
whole way of thinking- in this case, what needed to change was the faith of Israelites, or
lack thereof.

The signs and wonders that Moshe performed were as much for the Israelites as
for Pharaoh- to show them that a new day was dawning, and to strengthen their
courage for the upheavals to come. Major changes require patience, vision and courage; these
are, in fact, things we do have some small measure of control over. It’s easier to blame
another than to look at ourselves; but if we can find the fearlessness to do so, it’s
entirely possible that signs, wonders, and miracles await.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

A summary and more commentaries can be found here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/shmot_index.htm

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