Terumah: A Clear Vision

I am pleased to note that this Torah commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America as part of its Mekor Chaim weekly email.

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:  Terumah

It [the lamp and its parts] shall be made, with all these furnishings, out of a talent of pure gold. See and then make the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain. (Shemot/ Exodus 25:39-40)

The Torah portion Terumah is all about the building of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary and its vessels and implements, constructed from the people’s donations of precious stones, gold, silver, bronze, fabrics, skins and wood. The instructions given to Moshe are very detailed, describing the tent-like outer walls and the instruments of worship such as the altar, table, basins, Ark and lampstand, or menorah.

The instructions for the seven-branched lampstand, beginning in 25:31, give us the basic shape many will think of as a symbol of the Jewish people and the State of Israel: seven branches, symmetrical, three branches with lamp cups on each side and one in the middle. On the other hand, the details are hard to construct with precision, at least from the verses in the Torah, and in fact there is a great deal of discussion among the ancient rabbis about the exact shape and form of the golden menorah.

This difficulty seems to be acknowledged in the verse above, wherein Moshe is told to make the menorah as he was shown on the mountain. According to some rabbinic interpretations, Moshe was shown a visual image of the menorah, perhaps even a pattern of fire from heaven, in order to correctly grasp the shape and design.

These midrashim, or ancient commentaries, which suggest that Moshe was given a vision of the menorah in addition to instructions, suggest that as the leader of the people, he had to “begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey famously taught. Note that we commonly use the word vision to mean not only a graphic representation but also a sense of purpose, a better future imagined for ourselves and our community, or a clear idea of what we’d like to become by doing something important and meaningful.

Thus, we might say that Moshe had to have a vision of the menorah in both senses of the word, because as a leader he had to have a vision for the Mishkan, the people, and the journey they were about to undertake. Moshe had to be able to see ahead to the people’s success in becoming a free people in their own land, and tell the people in clear terms how their vision as a community might become reality.

The menorah was, and is, a symbol of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation, guided by the light of God and our common purpose as a people. The image of Moshe seeing the pattern of the menorah- indeed, envisioning the entire Mishkan- in all its details is an image of leadership, for a true leader helps her community imagine greater things and a brighter future. A Jewish leader sees not just what to build, but why it’s important, and invites the entire people to unite together, towards building something holy and lasting, according to a powerful vision joined to a call to action. That was leadership in Moshe’s days, and no less in ours.

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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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong. . . . . .   (Shemot/ Exodus 23:2)

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Mishpatim is mostly civil and criminal laws, along with instructions about how to apply those laws. Some of the laws and instructions are oriented toward ordinary citizens, while some, like the first verses of Chapter 23, seem to be for the regulation of judges and officials. The context of verse 2, quoted in part above, seems to be fairness in judging, forbidding the judge or official from taking the side of either rich (because of influence) or poor (because of sympathy) in a dispute. Rather, according to what seems to be plain meaning of the text, the law must be applied fairly, without regard to the social standing of either plaintiff or defendant.

So far, so good, and would that we lived in a society that truly applied its laws fairly, as is, I believe, our American ideal. On the other hand, there’s an interesting interpretation of the verse above that gets into the details of the ancient Jewish judiciary, which I think will in turn impart an important moral challenge. According to some interpretations, “don’t side with the mighty” really means “don’t side with the majority,” meaning in turn, that a judge on a panel of judges must speak up, even against the majority opinion. Sforno goes on to say that “don’t follow the majority to do wrong” means don’t be the tie-breaking vote in a capital punishment case, because if a criminal is condemned by a one-vote majority, it’s the same as being condemned by a single judge, which is not part of the ancient Jewish judicial system.

This strikes me as a profound recognition of the humbling and awesome power of life and death inherent in judicial, political and military systems, a power which cannot be held by a vote of just one, lest that one judge be misguided, biased, or influenced by external factors. Many contrasts with modern life might be made, but one in particular that comes to mind is the current use of computer algorithms to determine drone strikes in the war against terror groups. These “signature strikes” are often determined by computer analysis of certain behaviors, which indicate a possibility of terrorist affiliation. Note, however, with some of these drone strikes, we have no idea who we are killing, or if they have any terrorist links at all, or how many civilians are killed along with any possible enemies.

Counter-terrorism policy will be debated by experts, but I hope all Americans engage the moral questions inherent in the actions done in our name. The deliberation and clarity needed to condemn a criminal in the days of the ancient rabbis stands in stark contrast to a world in which computer programs mete out life and death in a flash, on the other side of the world, blowing up people whose names we may never know. “Do not follow the majority” became “do not let a bare majority decide to kill;” I wonder what the sages would say about letting software make life-or-death decisions without much human input at all? Arguments can be made pro or con, but the question cannot be avoided.

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: What God Did For Us, What We Do For the World

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, God’s people, how the Holy One had brought Israel out from Egypt. (Shemot/ Exodus 18:1)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Yitro is most famous for the Ten Commandments, but is also well-known for the character of Yitro himself. He was Moshe’s father-in-law, and is often called the first management consultant (just Google it, you’ll get quite a few hits) for his advice to Moshe about setting up an appropriate leadership structure for the people such that Moshe didn’t have to do everything himself.

Yet the Torah’s reintroduction of Yitro, in the verse above, is a bit more complex than meets the eye. First, what exactly did Yitro hear about that God did for Moshe and Israel? We might say it’s simply that he heard about the Exodus from Egypt, as in the latter part of the verse, but many commentators view that as additional information, as in, “Yitro heard about God doing XYZ and he heard about the Exodus from Egypt.”

Second, when did Yitro actually show up? The reason this is a question at all is that Moshe is described a few verses later as teaching the “laws and Torah of God.” Of course, reading the text we have now, the laws and Torah weren’t given for another two chapters! (Cf. verse 16) So there’s a legitimate case to be made that Yitro showed up after the Torah was given, and that the events of chapters 18-20 are not presented in strict chronological order. In fact, going all the way back to the Talmud, one view links the verse above with the view that Yitro shows up after Sinai, and that what he heard that God did for Moshe was the giving of the Torah itself.

Another view holds that what Yitro heard about was Israel’s defeat of Amalek, at the end of the preceding chapter. A third view says that Yitro heard about the splitting of the Sea and Israel’s crossing into safety; all three of these views can be found excerpted from their Talmudic sources here.

All these divergent readings have in common the idea that what Yitro heard about was so compelling and urgent that he had to come and join Israel, even for a while, for spiritual and not merely family reasons. Yet they have very different views of what might attract someone to the Jewish people; you might even say that the first and third views are about what God has done for us, whereas the second opinion, that Yitro heard about the defeat of Amalek, is about what the Jewish people can do for themselves, albeit perhaps with heavenly inspiration.

This, in turn, speaks to different understandings of the very meaning of Jewish existence: are we a people because God gave us the Torah, or were we able to receive the Torah because as a people we began to determine our own history and destiny? Is the giving of the Torah the foundational of our existence, or is our existence as a people, and ability to defend ourselves against the Amalek of our day, what enables us to have a Torah at all? You may note that in the commentaries, this question is not resolved, for of course it is not resolvable: it is not either/ or, but both/ and.

The Torah of the Jewish people is inseparable from our history- the Exodus, the journey to Israel, the establishment there of a sovereign nation- but our history also reflects a sense of holy purpose in the world. Our history as a people is more than just survival; it is a mission to bring light, justice and mercy to the world. My hope is that the Jewish people will be so zealous for these qualities that all sorts of people will come and say, I have heard about what God has done for you, and what you have done for God’s world- and want to be part of it.

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

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Bo: Remember This, Every Day

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. (Shemot/ Exodus 13:3)

Good morning!

This week the Torah brings the Exodus narrative to a point of high dramatic tension: the death of the firstborn is pronounced, the people are ready to go, and then there are pauses in the in the action for laws related to future remembrance of these events. Among those laws are the practices we associate with Pesach, including the prohibition on leavened bread, as in the verse above; one could reasonably say that Pesach is chiefly about remembering the Exodus story in its details and implications.

On the other hand, yetziat Mitzrayim, the “going out from Egypt,” is not just for one week in the spring. Our friend Rashi, basing himself on an earlier source, makes a nice little wordplay out of the verse above, reading “this day” as literally this day today, thus rendering the meaning of the verse: remember, today, that you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage. Rashi goes on to say that the verse thus teaches that we should remember the Exodus every day.

That, in turn, fits with other verses and sources which also teach that remembering the Exodus is an every-day, not just every-year, spiritual practice. D’varim 16:3 famously says “you will remember the the day you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life,” which became the basis of a discussion in the Mishnah about remembering Egypt even in the days of the Messiah (go here and scroll down to paragraph 5). That paragraph became part of the traditional Passover Haggadah, from which some of you may remember it, and explains the importance of the third section of the Shema, recited daily.

So there are at least two verses which are the source of daily Exodus remembrance,reified in the Shema, obviously a huge part of Jewish practice. Yet we can still ask why, of all the particulars of Jewish history, the Exodus deserves continual remembrance. One traditional answer is that our liberation from slavery is the foundation of the covenant at Sinai: we owe God our loyalty because of what was done for us. Others might say that the Exodus is the ethical basis of Judaism: we should always remember that we were slaves, so that we might have compassion for others, and have faith that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

While in no way discounting those or other answers to the question, I understand the Exodus as personal, not only national or historical. Egypt, in the story, is the land ruled by Pharaoh, who is not just a character but an archetype, a symbol of the human capacity for cruelty, domination, selfishness, greed, and moral blindness.

As I’ve written many times before, Pharaoh and what he represents is not only an external enemy, but part of the human condition, an internal struggle we all face in liberating ourselves from fear, egocentricity, closed hearts and shuttered minds. That we have the potential to leave the “narrow place” of Egypt, to overthrow Pharaoh in all his forms and guises, is the faith without which Judaism makes no sense. We have to remember, today and every day, that Pharaoh doesn’t win in the end- not then and not in the future, not in our hearts and not in the world, if we can muster daily the courage of our ancestors to make the world better for our descendants.

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: Rivers of Blood

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera 
 
Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 7:23)
 
This week we begin the plagues upon Egypt, along with the famous subtext of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. What caught my eye this week is Pharaoh’s reaction to the first plague, that of turning the river into blood. After the Egyptian magicians did something similar, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” or “hardened” [vayehezak, from the word for strength] and he paid no heed to Moshe and Aaron. Then the Torah adds another detail: the verse above, we see that he turned and went into his palace, and literally “didn’t put this on his heart either,” 
 
“Either?” What else did Pharaoh choose to ignore? Some commentators suggest that gam le’zot [e.g, “this too” or “this as well”] refers to the fact that there are two miracles described in Chapter 7, one of turning the rod into a snake and one of turning the river into blood. So “this too” or “this either” could mean that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against believing in these two miracles; he didn’t take heed to either one. 
 
That’s a very plausible and simple way to read the text, but in the light of recent events, it occurred to me that Pharaoh is choosing not to see two different things when the river is turned to blood. First, according to the simple reading of the text, he is turning away from Moshe’s demonstration of God’s power, and therefore turning away from Moshe’s message of liberation for the Hebrew slaves. Yet in a very real sense, the river was “turned to blood” long before Moshe and Aharon showed up: you may remember that at the very end of Exodus 1, Pharaoh orders all the male Hebrew babies thrown into the river, in order to break, reduce and demoralize the people. 
 
Remembering this, it seems to me that Pharaoh paying no attention to “this either” implies that the plague of turning water to blood has no effect on a man who is already morally cold to the blood he ordered spilled into that same water. To put it another way, there was already a river of blood and the hearts of the rulers were hardly broken, so why should a parlor trick matter? Pharaoh goes home and sets nothing on his heart, because his heart has already learned to ignore the suffering around him. 
 
Lest you think I am describing some uniquely morally deformed monarch, whose example is far removed from the ordinary citizen who may be reading this, let me remind you that at approximately the time that the world’s attention was focused on the horrific attacks on journalists and Jews in Paris, another militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, was murdering hundreds, if not thousands, in Nigeria. The Syrian civil war rages on, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and blood is spilled daily in Iraq, Congo, and Sudan, to name just a few of the ongoing conflicts in the world. There are rivers of blood being spilled, and it’s so easy to go home and set nothing on our hearts, because it’s so far away, and so complicated, and there’s not much we can do anyway. . . . . 
 
All of which might be true, but the day we stop caring is the day Pharaoh wins. 
 
“Let my people go” means envisioning a world without rivers of blood. That world seems far away, but the whole point of Exodus is to remind us that Pharaoh doesn’t get the last word. Freedom and justice and peace are possible, but only if we don’t turn away and go home. 

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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Shemot: Total Commitment

Torah Portion: Shemot
 
The Lord said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales! (Shemot/ Exodus 4:6)
 
Greetings from the frosty yet ever beautiful Hudson Valley! 
 
Sorry about not drashing last week but glad to be back. 
 
This week we begin the book of Exodus, which begins with sufferings of the Israelites and continues with the story of Moshe’s birth, adoption into Pharaoh’s household, spiritual awakening and flight to Midian. While caring for his father-in-law’s flocks, Moshe is called by God at the burning bush, but seems skeptical that the Israelites will believe him- not only that he was commissioned by God but also that redemption is at hand. So at the beginning of Chapter 4, God gives Moshe two signs: first, his rod turns into a snake, and second, that his hand is afflicted with tzara’at, the scaly skin blemish much discussed later in the Torah. (There’s one more sign for the Israelites, turning the water of the Nile into blood, but that is promised for later and not demonstrated in this part of the story.) 
 
It’s understandable that Moshe would doubt that the Israelites would believe him when he reports God’s promise at the burning bush, and it’s also fitting within the narrative that the sign to convince them would be the staff turning into a snake and back. Within the theology of the Torah, the symbolism of the staff becoming a snake suggests God’s dominion over nature- especially those aspects of nature associated with Egypt’s gods, as the Torah imagines them- which will be more fully demonstrated in the story of the plagues. So if Moshe wanted to show the Israelites that the God of Avraham was going to redeem them, a miracle like that of the staff would be just the thing. 
 
So why, then, does God enact the second sign on Moshe himself? Surely another miracle involving some aspect of nature would be just as effective in convincing the Israelites without perhaps discouraging or overwhelming Moshe, who seems rather reluctant to take this role even without sudden impurity on his body. 
 
Another sort of miracle might be just as good at convincing the Israelites, but maybe it was Moshe who needed to be shown, not only that the commission was real but that the privilege of leadership would be not leave him unscathed. Later in the Torah, there will be detailed rules for the separation and purification of the metzorah – the one who has an eruption of tzara’at- which perhaps suggests that Moshe is being indirectly told that to  shepherd the people and confront Pharaoh will leave him too feeling separated and alone, afflicted spiritually with the moral burdens of leadership. Maybe the impurity on Moshe’s hand is a symbolic representation of the impossibility of leadership while “keeping your hands clean,” understood as not having to make any difficult compromises or troubling decisions. 
 
We know that Moshe will eventually become repeatedly discouraged with the task of shepherding Israel; even a prophet of his stature must learn that doing the right thing may not always earn one popularity or acclaim. So perhaps at this very first stage of his mission, God seems to be telling Moshe: are you prepared for the sacrifices and struggles of fighting for justice and leading a fractious people? Are you prepared to feel separate and alone when you articulate a vision of a world according to a higher law and deeper hope? Are you prepared to feel outcast, like a metzorah,  when you call out the people’s mistakes and misdeeds? In today’s parlance, are you all in
 
That’s the question: to take on a holy mission is to risk everything comfortable. Are we- you and me- all in
 
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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Vayigash: The Breakthrough of Conscience

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.(Bereshit/ Genesis 45:1)
Good morning! 
 
Two weeks ago I used the image of Yosef being thrown into the pit by his brothers to reflect on the recently released Senate report on American interrogation techniques used by the CIA. Some call these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” some call it “torture,” some defend the CIA as doing what it had to do to protect the country, and others, including the Senators who released the report, believe that harsh interrogation never worked. A quick Google search will reveal different arguments around the report, but for today’s purposes I want to reflect on the fact that the controversy seems to have gone away in a matter of weeks. I got some pushback from couple of friends and colleagues for writing that Torah commentary, but mostly, like the furor in the media for a few days after the report was released, the Internet has moved on to other things. 

Yet I can’t help but feel that this is no ordinary partisan political narishkeit. We learned that American interrogators broke people physically and mentally, froze them to death, shackled them on shattered limbs and drove them near mad from sleep deprivation and near-drowning- people who in many cases were not “terrorists,” but suspects, proven guilty of no wrong, and in at least 26 cases, guilty of nothing other than being misidentified. Yes, sometimes innocents suffer during war, but I was always taught to believe that America didn’t make it a policy to break the bones of prisoners and captives. 
 
Back to this week’s Torah portion. After being sold into slavery, Yosef rises up in Pharaoh’s court and becomes the Viceroy, with the power of life and death in his hands. His brothers come to seek food, but do not recognize him, and after an extended period of testing their priorities and loyalties, Yosef finally reveals himself after Yehudah’s heartfelt plea to spare the life of Binyamin, the youngest brother. Countless commentaries have been written on the emotional dynamics between Yosef and his brothers, but for today I’d like to imagine that Yosef breaks out in in tears because his conscience finally overwhelms his desire for vengeance. He could have had his brothers imprisoned or killed, and he seemed to enjoy testing them, playing a game of cat-and-mouse, trying to see if they would turn on the favored younger son Binyamin the way they turned on him. 
 
Yet at some point Yosef decides it’s enough, it’s not worth it, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to become what his brothers were when they treated him so cruelly. He has them in his power, but can no longer tolerate what he is becoming by the abuse of his power. 
 
What is so shocking to me about Senate report is that we’ve all just moved on- there is little outcry anymore, as far as I can tell. Maybe our world is such a cruel place that 26 innocent prisoners just can’t shock the conscience, or maybe the pundits and partisans have succeeded in covering up all the real issues in smoke and confusion, but three weeks later, I’m still hoping that somebody with great moral standing will be like Yosef, pricked into conscience, able to stand up and say, “no more games, this is not who we are, we shall not sink to the level of our enemies.” I’m still hoping that someone will say: the very test of our society is to use the power of life and death wisely; there can hardly be a more important concern.
 
The story of Yosef is the story of a man who had every opportunity to take cruel revenge but caught himself, so that he didn’t become that which he hated. That is his greatness, and his example. 
 
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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