Mishpatim: A Nation of Laws

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Mishpatim 
 
You shall not tolerate a sorceress . . . . . (Shemot/ Exodus 22:17)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, literally means “laws” and has many commandments related to civil, family and criminal law, along with a stunning story of communal revelation at the end. The idea of religious law- or any law for that matter- is sometimes disparaged and set against spirit, or morality, or freedom, but I think Judaism would say that it is a well-ordered and just society that allows for individual morality, spirituality and creativity to flourish. Without fair laws, we are subject to individual and group passions and prejudices, the defects of which hardly needs elucidating. 
 
For example, the verse above is translated a little too nicely by the Jewish Publication Society as quoted. It is literally, “a sorceress shall not live.” Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the Torah and the ancient leaders who held to it absolutely opposed anything connected to other deities, magical powers, or the occult, and it is hardly surprising that such practitioners were condemned. 
 
What is more surprising is our tradition’s insistence on due process for those it found most abhorrent. To wit, Rashi says that our verse teaches that witchcraft is a capital crime, but only if there is a proper beit din, or court proceeding. Now, in no way am I endorsing the death penalty for witchcraft (or anything else in America today) but I think we can learn from this our tradition’s moral commitment to avoid the injustice of the mob. Again, witches were one of the things the Torah hated most- but there is still no possibility in a Jewish view of justice for people to take the law in their own hands, since it is precisely a duly constituted court that can consider evidence and cool the passions of violent anger and hatred. 
 
At this point, I can guess that the objection would be: well, courts didn’t protect anybody during the Salem witch trials, or countless trials and inquisitions, did they? True enough, but the laws of evidence, testimony and conviction in Jewish jurisprudence would rule out most hearsay, rumor or rush to judgment. That’s the whole point: a nation of laws slows down the passions of the mob so that justice is not tainted by prejudice, fear, bigotry or politics. No system is perfect, but when I read in the Torah commentaries that even witches got their day in court, I am powerfully reminded that the Jewish ideal is to hold up reason in the place of fury. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that the verse above should be upheld literally, but only that its interpretation teaches us a powerful Jewish value: that those calling for blood and vengeance rarely have justice as their motive and never have justice as their result. Every person, created in God’s image, is entitled to the equal protection of a nation of laws, and it’s every person’s responsibility move society closer to that ideal. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Yitro: An Altar of Earth is Enough

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Shmot/ Exodus 20:22)

Good morning!

Well, it’s one of those days when I thought I knew what I wanted to drash in the Torah portion, and then Sforno, a commentator from Renaissance Italy, came along and completely changed my direction. The most famous part of this week’s Torah portion is the revelation and “Ten Commandments” given at Sinai, but after the drama of that story, the people withdraw from the mountain and a few more commandments are given regarding building altars and worshipping.

One of those rules, quoted above, is a prohibition on building an altar of hewn or carved stone. The previous verse says that an altar of earth is fine for the sacrifices, but this verse clarifies: if you want to make a stone altar to God, don’t use tools to carve or shape the rocks. I’ve always understood this verse to teach the separation of iron tools, which are reminiscent of iron weapons of war, from the stones of a place of worship. To wit: you can’t build an altar of God, a place of peace, with tools of war (or symbols of tools of war.) The means must be appropriate to the ends: one can’t build a peaceful or holy community using weapons, be they words, policies, attitudes, theologies or anything else that can be used for cruelty or domination.

On the third hand, as it were, Sforno says this verse isn’t about the iron tools, it’s about the intentions of the builders. He connects this verse to the previous one, which says simply, “make an altar of earth,” to emphasize that we do not need to make elaborate, expensive spaces for prayer and worship. The prohibition on hewn or carved stones is about redirecting the people’s attention to the spiritual focus of their offerings rather than building an externally impressive altar.

Let me be clear: there is a value in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah (I wrote about it a few years back), or making the commandments beautiful, which is a great thing. It’s why we have a colorful prayer shawl or a silver kiddush cup or decorated candlesticks, for example. This verse isn’t saying that our ritual objects or prayer spaces should not be pleasant and attractive- they should. The verse is rather saying that connecting with the Holy is a function of the intentionality of the people, not the ornamentation of the prayer space. We should also compare this with the cultures of other ancient peoples, who built huge temples and ziggurats and pyramids for the glory of their gods, but who treated their slaves as less than nothing. In contrast, the God of Israel: my people who were slaves will be free. For them, an altar of earth is enough, and they will find great blessing there.

Sforno reminds us to put first things first: we can and should certainly make our mitzvot beautiful, but we should never make things glorious for reasons of ego or vanity. Simplicity and humility can also be beautiful; better an altar of earth than the greatest architecture on earth if the point of prayer is misplaced.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Bo: The Hours Go By

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt: “Braggart who let the hour go by.” (Yirmiyahu/ Jeremiah 46:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, which concludes the story of the plagues and sets up the actual Exodus from Egypt, including the laws and practices of the Pesach or Passover ceremony. (See here for summary). The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the theme of judgements against Egypt, but from a much later time period, when King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon was marching west to expand his empire. The prophet Yirmiyahu saw the Babylonian king as an instrument of Divine vengeance against Egypt, although in the end, the Babylonian invasion was hardly good for the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah, which suffered conquest and exile.

The verse quoted above is a taunting mockery of the Pharaoh of Jeremiah’s era, but it’s a bit hard to translate. It seems to imply that Pharaoh made a lot of noise, but when the hour of battle against the Babylonians came, he wasn’t able to live up to his boasts (Rashi), or perhaps Pharaoh brought destruction upon his people when the “hour passed by,” according to my reading of the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary.

Either reading works when connecting this verse to our Torah portion this week, and even more, to our own lives and challenges. Pharaoh, as I’ve written many times before, is the archetype of a human being alienated from their spiritual nature: narcissistic rather than generous, avenging rather than forgiving, an ego driven by power-over rather than a soul nourished by service. Pharaoh is every petty dictator or abusive boss or selfish manipulator, or even more precisely, those qualities in every person. He epitomizes what Martin Buber called the instrumental relationship of “I-it,” using people for his own ends rather than seeing others as equals, created by God with their own gifts and purposes. Because his ego is driven by power, rather than love, the challenge that Moshe presents- let my people go to serve God in the wilderness- must be shut down ruthlessly. How can Pharaoh let the people go for their own purposes when the very nature of power is to see people as mere instruments of our own will?

Pharaoh is a villain, to be sure, but he is also a tragic figure. Ten times he had the opportunity to do the right thing, to change course, to see clearly the end result of his chosen course, but he let the hour go by. Of course, we have the famous conundrum that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but we can understand this as God giving Pharaoh the courage or fortitude to be able to choose the right path out of conscience, not mere fear of the plagues.

That, to me, is the core of the story: the tragedy of letting the hour of choice go by, until destruction or disarray is assured. How many of us have made the mistake of failing to choose when choice was possible, when there was yet a chance for better way at work, at home, with their health or wealth or relationships, but the hour passed by? What Douglas MacArthur said about failure in war is true about life more generally. To wit: that the history of moral and spiritual failure can almost be summed up in two words too late.

Yet for most of us, most of the time, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to seek forgiveness, or grant it; it’s not too late to reorient ourselves to love and justice, it’s not too late to fix what we’ve broken and take courageous stands where we must. For most of us, the hour has not passed by, and great things await those who seize the day and make it holy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vaera: A Prophet to Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

The Holy One said to Moses, “See! I have made you master over Pharaoh, and Aharon, your brother, will be your prophet.” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:1)

Good afternoon!

Three years ago, I wrote about the verse quoted above (see here) but I think I understand it differently now. To recap: Moshe is getting commissioned by God to confront Pharaoh and demand the liberation of Israelites. Moshe tries once, Pharaoh mocks him and increases the workload, and so Moshe goes back to God to say, OK, now what? (This is all in the chapter 5 of Exodus, the end of last week’s portion.)

In a long passage at the beginning of this week’s portion, God reassures Moshe of the Israelite’s liberation, gives him Aharon, his brother, as a spokesperson, and places him “as a master” to Pharaoh, as above. The word translated as “master” is elohim, which often means a name of God but also can mean master or lord more conventionally, i.e, a human superior officer, as it were. That’s the way many commentators understand it, and of course some scholars stress very strongly that Moshe was not literally a God to Pharaoh, as there is only one God.

The problem is that the Hebrew seems to be missing a word somewhere; translated literally it would be something like “see, I have placed you Lord to Pharaoh.” Does that mean as a lord, or as a God, or as the older Jewish Publication Society translation has it, “in God’s stead to Pharaoh?” You can see what I wrote earlier, but these days I think we have to understand the first part of the verse in the context of the last part: Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh, because Aharon will be a prophet for Moshe. Other commentators, noting that Aharon later becomes a priest and Moshe takes the prophetic role of relating God’s word, seem to read this as Moshe will be like a Lord (or lord) and Aharon will be like a prophet (not actually a prophet), but I think that’s unnecessary.

A prophet is someone who relates a vision of Divine workings in the world: perhaps calling people to account for their misdeeds, perhaps offering them great comfort in times of suffering, perhaps harshly calling out hypocrisy or oppression, perhaps calling for repentance and stressing Divine forgiveness. The key point is that a prophet speaks not his own words but God’s. Thus even if, at the beginning it’s Aharon who speaks the words, the essential idea is that human beings will stand in the place of God to the oppressor, to the tyrant, to the arrogant, to the hypocrite, to the forces of Empire and greed.

Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh because at all times we need strong voices of justice and liberation to speak in holy, God-grounded outrage when there is suffering and oppression. There have been many who stood “in God’s stead,” as it were: Moshe and Aharon, the 19th-century abolitionists, Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu. Throughout history there have been countless souls, some famous, many not, who spoke for people against corrupt power, who stood in God’s stead and spoke prophetic words against the Pharaoh of their day.

If we don’t, who will?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Rabbi’s Statement on Islamophobia

Dear Friends:

And now, for something completely different. . . I am proud that the rabbis of Dutchess County are my friends and colleagues. Yesterday we released this statement to the media (see below) and it’ll be published in at least a few local and regional media outlets over the next week or so.

A Statement on Islamophobia by Rabbis in Dutchess County: 
It is the darkest time of the year, and many of us light lights.  We do so for religious reasons – light is a central theme in Hanukkah and Christmas – for practical purposes, so we do not stumble around in the dark. We kindle lights as a metaphorical ideal, because darkness is a symbol of ignorance and fear.  We can either choose to indulge in our worst human impulses, or choose to kindle a light and dispel the fears.

As rabbis and religious leaders in the mid-Hudson valley, we call upon all people in the region to resist the darkness of the soul, especially that which allow any group to become the target of demagogues and bigots. As Jews, we have had the experience of being new immigrants and of being a persecuted minority- as well as being barred from immigration because of baseless fears. Our history teaches us that no good can come of excluding, restricting, or monitoring a single religious or ethnic group. We urge this community and its leaders to continue to show solidarity and friendship towards our Muslim neighbors.

Rather than engage in cursing the darkness, we invite you to aspire to the better selves you have within you, and embrace the light that is the blessing of many diverse faiths in this season.

With prayers of peace for all people,

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz
Rabbi Kerry Chaplin
Rabbi Michael Fessler
Rabbi Paul Golomb
Rabbi Miriam Hyman
Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger
Rabbi Daniel Polish
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek
Rabbi Daniel Victor

See local media coverage with comments from Rabbis Berkowitz and Victor here and here.

Feel free to post and share, and thank you.

More Torah commentary soon!

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Miketz: Conscience and Memory

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, “I must make mention today of my offenses. (Bereshit 41:9)

Good afternoon!

This week there are three special days happening simultaneously, concurrently, and at the same time! (Props to the late and very great Jethro Burns for that joke, usually used when playing a melody that had more than one name.) Coming up tomorrow we have the Shabbat of Torah portion Miketz, Rosh Chodesh, and the Shabbat of Hanukkah. While there have been many connections made between Miketz and Hanukkah, this week I want to focus on one small comment made by a bit player that nevertheless leads to an important moral reminder.

You may recall that in last week’s reading, our handsome hero, Yosef, is tossed into the dungeon after his master’s wife falsely accuses him of sexual assault. In prison, he meets Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, whose dreams he correctly interprets. The baker meets a grisly end, but the cupbearer is released, only to forget Yosef’s request that he plead to Pharaoh on his behalf. In fact, the events of this portion are a full two years after the cupbearer’s encounter with Yosef in prison; he only remembers Yosef because Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that defy interpretation.

Because of Pharaoh’s dreams, the cupbearer wants to tell him about Yosef, but first he says, as above, “I must mention my offenses,” (literally, sins), before describing Yosef’s ability to correctly understand the symbolism of dreams. Yet it’s not clear what the cupbearer means here- what sins is he reluctantly mentioning? The commentators are divided: some say that the cupbearer is saying to Pharaoh, if I’m going to remind you that you threw me in prison, I’ll preface it by saying, it was indeed my sins that led to the punishment. This could be good manners- not implying that the king had made a mistake or was capricious- or good politics- who would dare criticize the man who can with a word imprison you or worse?

A softer reading along the same lines is that, just as we would not ordinarily mention another’s past sins after they have earned forgiveness, neither should we mention our own, but in this case, it was important and for Pharoah’s own good, since it would explain why he should listen to Yosef. A third reading is that that once the cupbearer is reminded of Yosef, he has a guilty conscience, since Yosef requested that he mention his plight to Pharaoh and the cupbearer didn’t do it. In this reading, the sin is forgetting Yosef, which he now implicitly confesses.

So what’s the lesson in all this? I think all three understandings of the cupbearer’s words have something to teach us about derech eretz, literally “the way of the earth” but meaning something like “the behavior to which that all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.” It’s not derech eretz to unnecessarily bring up mistakes that have been, or should be, forgiven. Don’t think of yourself or others as forever identified with a past misdeed; as Yosef himself shows, we all grow and mature over time.

On the other hand, if we understand the cupbearer’s sin as forgetting Yosef, I think we would agree that his conscience should bother him- as it should bother any one of us who have failed to extend proper gratitude to one who has shown us kindness, grace, insight, compassion, generosity, or forgiveness. Please note: nowhere does the Torah say that the cupbearer promised Yosef that he would plead his case. He did not break a promise, but simply failed to do the right thing when he had the chance. The cupbearers’ sin was not dishonesty, but ingratitude, which brings us back to derech eretz, or the lack thereof.

Perhaps the cupbearer is just a literary device to bring Yosef into Pharaoh’s court, but the few verses in which he appears show us a deeply human figure, one who, like all of us, forgets to do the right thing at the right time, forgets to help those who have helped him and doesn’t always know the right thing to say. Yet his conscience, his humanity, gets the better of him, and he remembers what he should never have forgotten. That challenges all of us to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayeshev: The Drunken Nazir

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

And I raised up prophets from among your sons

And nazirites from among your young men.

Is that not so, O people of Israel?

— says the Lord.

But you made the nazirites drink wine

And ordered the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:11-12)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion introduces Yosef and sends him down to Egypt, where he ends up in Pharoah’s dungeon, but what caught my eye this week was a line from our haftarah, which is taken from the book of Amos. The prophet Amos rebuked both Israel and its neighbors for their various sins and offenses, while still holding out the possibility of repentance. Among Israel’s sins was the corruption of religion and those who held to sincere spiritual convictions, such as the nazirites and prophets mentioned above.

A nazirite, you may recall, was somebody who took a vow not to have an wine or other intoxicant, not to cut their hair, and not to come into contact with the dead; this vow could be for various lengths of time. Rashi says that the word nazir refers to separation, and proposes that the nazirites referred to by Amos were men who separated themselves from a corrupt society in order to devote themselves to Torah study. (Yes, it’s an anachronism. Hold that thought for a moment.) So you might think that the problem with making nazirites drink wine was the breaking of their vow, but Rashi says the motive was to prevent them from teaching Torah, since one who is drunk is forbidden to instruct.

Another scholar, Ibn Ezra, says something a bit different, which is that the people forced the nazirites to become ritually impure, and then they drank wine. The comment is bit cryptic, but my sense of it is that first the nazirites became ritually impure, and then perhaps they went ahead and drank the wine, as if it didn’t matter any more. This might be like someone trying to avoid junk food who says, well, I ate the cake, might as well have the Cherry Garcia too- once one boundary is down, the others don’t matter.

Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra use midrash, or creative narrative interpretation, to illustrate how the best of us can easily go astray from our own ideals. Rashi thinks the nazirites were prevented from teaching the people not by force but by the attraction of a good party! “One who is drunk is forbidden to instruct”- one who doesn’t care enough about their teaching to be clear headed while doing it probably doesn’t deserve to instruct, at least not in spiritual or moral matters.

According to the commentators, these nazirites might have been nazirites in the classic Biblical definition (according to Ibn Ezra) or merely scholars with good intentions but insufficient discipline, as Rashi suggests. The prophet is rebuking the people for corrupting the nazirites and ignoring the prophets, but on the other hand, the commentators seem to suggest that the nazirites and prophets went along without too much struggle.So on a deeper level, the nazirites and prophets mentioned by Amos are anybody who gets distracted from their calling, anybody who forgets their purpose, anybody who gets easily discouraged along a difficult chosen path. They are not only characters in an ancient drama, but all of us, who so easily fall into the comfortable and fun, rather than that which is challenging and thus transformative. The good news, of course, is that the nazirites and prophets among us- along with the poets, artists, scholars, activists, gadflies, protesters, preachers and teachers- can always pick themselves up and return to their sacred task of calling us to a better way.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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