Pinchas: Pay Attention

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 29:1)

Good afternoon! I’ve heard it said that we read the Torah year after year not because the Torah changes, but because we change from one year to the next. Texts and ideas will speak to us in new ways as we navigate the course of our lives over time. Thus, a few years back, when writing about this week’s Torah portion, I interpreted the commandment of shofar in this week’s portion using the first part of the commentary from Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. (See below for links.)

This year, however, I found something interesting in the later section of the commentary. Briefly, the background of the discussion is the idea that the shofar sounds, especially the t’ruah, or short rapid notes, sound like crying. Sefer HaHinnuch points out that in different parts of the world, sobbing or crying may have various expressions according to the local culture (I’m paraphrasing) and thus at an early stage of Jewish history people would blow the various shofar sounds in accordance with what crying or wailing sounded like locally. A later sage then standardized the shofar sounds across the Jewish world, and thus the combination of sounds you hear in one synagogue is likely to be very close to what you’d hear in another.

Now, many people, myself included, have taught the idea that the shofar sounds are likened to crying in order to arouse our compassion and awareness, and in turn feel a greater call to be agents of healing in the year to come. This particular commentary, however, points out the particularity of suffering: there is no one way to cry, no single modality of emotional expression, no universal sign that another person feels broken and alone. Some cry aloud, others perhaps quietly, and yet others may cry internally, inaudible to others without focus and curiosity. Some cultures are loud, some are stiff-lipped, some are decorous and others value overt expression.

Thus the different shofar sounds- tekiah, shevarim, t’ruah– and the various combinations of the sounds are a reminder that compassion isn’t about applying rules, it’s about paying attention to the people around you. Every cry arises from a unique soul and a unique set of circumstances, and so being present to those cries requires remembering that the Divine is One, but humanity, made in the Divine Image, is infinite in its diversity.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Beha’alotcha: Miracle of Liberation

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to God,they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs . . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 9:10-11)

Good morning!

I have no reasonable excuse, not even a note from my mother, for my absence from drashing. It’s good to be back!

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotcha, which has the semi-famous commandment of Pesach sheni, or the “Second Passover,” which is an opportunity to bring the korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) on the 14th of the second month if you weren’t able to do so on the 14th of the first month, the usual date. According to the medieval textbook Sefer Hachinuch, the second Passover was observed by making the Passover sacrifice and eating matzah and bitter herbs, but one didn’t have to get rid of all the chametz and it didn’t last a week.

So it’s an interesting anomaly: there are lots of time-bound commandments related to the various holidays, but there’s no opportunity to hear the shofar a month after Rosh Hashana or sit in a sukkah a month after Sukkot if for some reason you weren’t able to do it the first time. Ditto lighting the Hannukah lights or hearing the book of Esther at Purim. You get your chance for the mitzvah, if you miss it, well, next year in Jerusalem, but this year you’re out of luck. So what’s so important about the Passover ritual that you get a second chance?

Sefer Hachinuch says that the events of Passover show that the One who rules the world must have created it: the plagues, manna, and splitting of the sea are all acts of overturning the laws of nature and therefore show there is One who created according to Divine will. At the time of the Exodus the whole world saw these miracles (according to Sefer Hachinuch) and it’s so fundamental to the Jewish religion that there is a Creator- and the world is Creation- that everyone must bring a Passover offering, even a month late, because we remember this truth through the contemplation of these extraordinary miracles. Sefer Hachinuch even says that if you converted to Judaism or became bar mitzvah (old enough for the commandments) after Passover, but before Pesach Sheni, you would bring the Second Passover offering.

Nowadays we don’t bring a korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) so there’s not much practical application of Pesach Sheni. However, let’s go back to the interpretation of the Sefer Hachinuch and add to it. We can certainly have different understandings of the miracle stories in the Torah- I personally tend to think they are metaphors or mystical teachings not to be taken literally. Thus what’s important to me is not whether the sea literally split in two, but that the Exodus represents an overturning of the usual way of the world, which is that Pharaohs rule and slaves are trapped.

God’s presence in the story changes the laws not only of physical nature, but also of human nature, in that the oppressed go free and the powerful are humbled. This, to me, is indeed a fundamental article of faith for Jews: there exists the possibility of liberation from what and who oppresses. The powerful can cause tremendous suffering, but that is not the only possibility: if the sea can be split, then so to can the enslaved be free, if we but remember who we are and why we are here.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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

Comments (1)

Ki Tissa: Show Me Your Presence

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

And he said: “Show me, now, Your glory!” The Holy One replied: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the Divine Name before you . . . . (Shemot/Exodus 33:18-19)

Good morning! Good to be back. So much going on in this week’s Torah portion, most famously the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets, but also Moshe’s plea, after the post-Calf reckoning, on behalf of the Israelites and himself. Moshe asks God not to destroy the Israelites, reasoning that it would be bad PR to destroy a people that God had just liberated from slavery.

As for himself, Moshe to see God’s “glory,” or kavod, which usually means something like direct or revealed presence. The response, quoted above, is interesting: God says, I will pass my goodness, tuvi, before you, not kavod, glory or immanent presence. Perhaps Moshe was caught up in the same need for some sort of defined external experience or perception of the Holy that caused the people to build the Calf, and God instead redirected him to experience the Holy in internal moral and spiritual qualities. In other words- you need not look for the Holy out there when you can experience the Holy in good and giving relationship.

If that were all these verse taught- dayenu, it would be enough! Yet as usual, our friend Rashi brings a deeper dimension to God’s reply to Moshe’s request. You can find the full translation here, but the basic idea is that God wanted to teach Moshe the order of prayer, which began with Moshe’s invocation of the merit of the ancestors but needed to include the qualities of Divine goodness and mercy, which God proclaimed while Moshe was hidden in the rock. (These are prominently quoted in our prayers on the Days of Awe.) Rashi says that Moshe thought that the “merit of the ancestors,” or zechut avot, was depleted or finished, and therefore there was no more hope, so God revealed Divine goodness and mercy, which doesn’t depend on the merit of our matriarchs and patriarchs.

On the one hand, this is a midrash, or interpretation, which explains the one of our central prayers: you may remember that the Amidah, or standing prayer, begins with calling out to God as the God of our ancestors Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov- and in my versions our matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah as well- and has a central section, during the week, asking for goodness and various forms of blessing. The idea is Moshe thought that the merit of our ancestors wasn’t enough, so God showed Moshe that there is Divine goodness which doesn’t depend on it. Therefore, our prayers begin with zechut avot, but don’t end there.

On a deeper level, I think Rashi’s comment speaks directly to our greater Jewish experience in the modern world. How many of us do Jewish because it was something our parents or grandparents did, as a way of honoring them and furthering their legacy? How much of contemporary Judaism is taught as a historical practice which obligates merely out of accumulated precedent? Moshe suspected, and in Rashi’s reading, God confirmed- that’s not enough. We also need the experience of the Holy in our own lives, not just in the memory of the lives of those who came before.

Many of us have ancestors who lived extraordinary Jewish lives of courage, devotion and sacrifice- but it may not be enough to sustain a life’s journey. Like Moshe, who suspected that the merit of the ancestors was exhausted, to truly revitalize ourselves and our communities we each have to find and feel the Divine Presence for ourselves, in our lives and our loves and our deeds and our doing, if we’re going to make it on the long journey forward.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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

Leave a Comment

Shabbat Zachor: Remember to Wage Peace

Good afternoon! I’ve been absent from commenting for far too long- maybe the world is so crazy I just don’t know what to say, but I do have a commentary on Shabbat Zachor published in this month’s Voice, the Jewish paper in Dutchess County. I shall return to the drashing blogosphere!

Now, on to Shabbat Zachor:

The holiday of Purim is not just one day of costumes and parties, but perhaps more properly understood as a drama of fasting and feasting unfolding over the course of a week, and not just because that’s how long it takes to assemble our mishloach manot (gift baskets of food given on Purim).  The drama of Purim begins unfolding on the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor–  the Sabbath of Remembering.  What we remember on Shabbat Zachor is not, in fact, what happened in Shushan in ancient Persia but what happened to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. We remember by adding an additional text to our Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 26:17-19)

It seems fairly straightforward at first glance: remember the evil deeds of the nation Amalek, how they ambushed the weakest Israelites, and take action to “blot them out” from the earth. Lest there be confusion about what “blot out the memory” of Amalek means, our haftarah, or prophetic portion assigned to this Shabbat, tells the story of the first king of Israel wiping out the Amalekites in war: man, woman and child, and only getting in trouble with the prophet Samuel because he spared the king and the animals. These passages help put the Purim story in a larger historical context, as the villain Haman is descended from Agag, the king that Samuel executed, who himself is an Amalekite.

We hardly need contemporary political events to be troubled by the thought that a mad king could declare a genocidal war. Some commentators have insisted that Amalek no longer exists, so the commandment is no longer in force. Others have seen it as a warning not about any particular people or nation, but about evil more generally: “don’t forget,” in this reading, means “don’t be complacent.”

Yet the commandment to blot out Amalek isn’t as simple as it seems, for it is balanced by another commandment found earlier in Deuteronomy:

When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.  (Deut. 20:10)

Please note that the commandment above- to offer terms of peace before making war- has no exceptions, not even for Amalek; this opinion is codified by no less than Maimonides, the greatest legal sage of medieval Judaism. To be clear, offering terms of peace, according to the ancient texts, doesn’t mean equal coexistence or détente, but more like surrender and becoming a vassal city to the Israelites, along with accepting general commandments of justice and rejecting idolatry.

Yet even that definition of peace redefines our relationship to the memory of Amalek, a nation which cannot be understood as categorically, inherently evil and worthy of destruction if they, too, are  capable of accepting peaceful surrender and taking upon themselves just laws. The rabbis even point to certain clues in the story of Saul’s battle with Amelek to suggest that he offered terms of peace before the battle, which they rejected, thus leading to war.

So what, then are we remembering on Shabbat Zachor? Perhaps we are remembering that despite our anger at being ambushed on the way out of slavery, or any other grotesque historical injustice, we still have an obligation to avoid war if at all possible. Perhaps we must remember that even Amalek, or its contemporary manifestations, is not ontologically evil, but comprised of human beings who are capable of repentance and given the choice of blessing or curse, as are we all. On Shabbat Zachor, we remember what Amalek did to us, but if there’s going to be peace in the world, we also have to remember what the advertisements say about every investment opportunity: past performance does not guarantee future results, so offer peace before waging war.

 

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

Comments (4)

Nitzavim: A Call to Return

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there the Holy One will fetch you. (D’varim 30:4)

Good afternoon!

In a few days we’re going to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and while there are myriad interpretations and understandings of the sound of the shofar, I think most would agree that it has something to do with jarring us out of complacency, reminding us to think about what kind of people we want to be, and calling us back to God and our better selves. Jews have been sounding the shofar, with this same basic message of wake up-think-return, for thousands of years, and the message, ever year, is more or less the same: wake up-think-return.

Every year the message of the shofar is the same: wake up-think-return, but every year we, as individuals and as a community, might be complacent about different things or have gotten off track in different ways. The message is more or less the same, but the response is timely, personal and unique. The shofar is not innovative, new, creative, contemporary, technological, ideological, political or much different in 2016 as it was in 1816 or 1016. I would even say that this is precisely its power: in a world obsessed with the latest celebrity tweet and the slightest twitch of the 24-hour news cycle, the shofar is ancient, wise and relevant because it asks not the latest and loudest question but the most important one: how shall we live in the year to come?

This week’s Torah portion, always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, contains beautiful language of return, especially the verse at the top of the page, which can be read not only in its plain sense of geographic return to the land of Israel but also as a metaphor: no matter how far you feel from God, from Torah, from the Jewish community, from your own sense of soul and self, you can return. No matter if you’ve gotten so far astray from your ideals that you feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, you can return. No matter if you feel like an outcast or exile, you can return. No matter if the previous year had mistakes, misfires, misdeeds, or missed opportunities, this year you can return and choose a deeper and holier life.

It’s such a simple message: wake up-think-return, yet simple isn’t the same as easy. Looking within, asking ourselves hard questions, turning ourselves back to the Source- definitely not easy, or comfortable, or quick, or painless. Yet that’s what Jews do, year after year, generation after generation, called back by a technology that’s never needed an update and could not be improved with new features. The shofar will call us: wake up-think-return, and the promise is: return is possible, from the ends of the earth or wherever we think we are. If we but take the first steps back, from there the Holy One will fetch you.

Wishing all of you sweet blessings in the New Year,

RNJL

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

 

Comments (2)

Ki Tetzei: The Pain of the Dispossessed

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one — when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses . . . . the birthright is his due. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15:17)

Good morning! It’s been a while since I’ve found the space to write a drasha but I haven’t given up the enterprise just yet!

This week’s portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of various laws, including laws of war, criminal and civil regulations, and laws defining membership in the Jewish people. One law in particular, quoted above, struck me as a potent metaphor in a time of highly divisive and polarized politics. First, let’s understand the plain meaning of the law: if a man has two wives (not a current Jewish practice anywhere, I believe) and loves one but not the other, he can’t disregard normative inheritance law in favor of the children of the beloved wife.

That’s because the first-born gets a double portion of the inheritance, so that he can in turn become the head of the family when the father dies. This is, quite literally, a law that preserves patriarchy, but in its context, perhaps it’s not as unfair as it seems, since the first-born had additional responsibilities along with privileges.

If you’re now thinking, “but wait! didn’t Jacob favor Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel?,” well, you’re right on target, but hold that thought for a moment.

What’s striking about this law is how it explicitly acknowledges and seeks to prevent the destructive effects of someone feeling unfairly cut off from their due. Again, in our worldview it might not be seen as perfectly egalitarian for the later-born sons (and never mind the daughters!) to receive less than the first born, but in the world of ancient Israel, this was the norm, and a system that allowed for family patriarchs to provide for and protect the clan. Arbitrarily favoring one son over the other would tear families apart. In fact, that’s precisely what happened when Jacob favored Joseph over his older sons- they threw him into the pit and sold him into slavery, not the intended result, I would imagine.

Whether or not this law is a response to the emotional failings of the patriarchs in Genesis, remembering what happened to Joseph, how he was resented by others and the pain that brought to the entire family, gives us a powerful image for the present day. Here in America, there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who feel cut off from their birthright, not given access to what they feel is their due as Americans. On the left you have Black Lives Matters taking to the streets to demand fairness in justice and opportunity; on the right you have whole geographic areas where the white working class has been devastated by deindustrialization, poverty and the neglect of the coastal elites. Social change has left many people with traditional religious values feeling unsure of their place in a rapidly evolving legal and moral landscape, while other groups, such as transgender men and women, are urgently demanding recognition and rights as equal citizens.

It’s not picking sides in the culture wars to say that there are lots and lots of people in America who feel like the child of the unloved mother, at loss to say what happened to their birthright and mad as hell about it. Taking the metaphor one step further, we can react like Joseph’s brothers- with tremendous resentment and anger- or we can try to figure how how to share greater blessings with all.

It’s going to be very hard to address the pain in our country, but if we don’t figure how how to make our fellow citizens feel loved equally and treated fairly, we’re headed, like Joseph, down into a dark pit. Fixing the conflict in our national family is going to require hearing each other with compassion and setting aside prejudices of right and left, color and sexuality, religion and ideology. It’s going to require seeing each other as brothers and sisters, not as deplorable and not as evil, but as children of the Living God.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S. See here for a good explanation of how this law hearkens back to the Genesis story, and others have discussed this as well.

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

Comments (1)

D’varim: All are Responsible

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. . . (D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1)

Good morning!

We begin a new Torah portion this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, D’varim– literally, “words,” as in the words that Moshe spoke to the Israelites before they crossed over into Israel. Rashi and others understand the theme of D’varim- both the Torah portion and the entire book- to be tochechah, or “rebuke,” to the people for all the times they forgot or angered God.

Rashi has several examples of this in his commentary on this opening verse but he also focusses on the word “all” in the verse: “these are the words [of rebuke, according to Rashi] that Moshe addressed to all Israel.” Rashi brings an almost comical example, which loosely paraphrased goes like this :

If people had been out in the market and didn’t hear Moshe’s rebuke, they could have said, “hey, you heard what Moshe said about this and that, and you didn’t object! But if we had been there, we would have answered him right back.” So Moshe brought all of them together and said, “see, you’re all here, if anybody has an objection, speak up!”

Now, your first question to Rashi might be: what market? They were out in the desert across the Jordan river! The anachronistic example tips us off that his commentary is not meant to be taken literally but rather as an illustration of the human tendency to believe that societal or collective problems are somebody else’s problem and responsibility, not our own. That is, if Moshe had rebuked me, I’d have a great answer as to why the difficulties of the Jewish people or the world at large aren’t my fault- but you other people have no answer for him!

The Torah portion D’varim is always read before the observance of Tisha B’Av, the sad memorial day of fasting and penitence. Tisha B’Av is in many ways the beginning of the season of the Days of Awe. We sit and fast and reflect upon the brokenness of the world precisely so we can take responsibility for our own piece of that brokenness, or at the very least, our failure to fix what we can, starting within ourselves. Whether it’s causeless hatred or the breakdown of social bonds or what seems like a massive failure of mutual understanding among various communities within our greater polity, the rebuke for these problems is on all of us. In a different (but not so different) context, Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”*

Moshe called all the people to account; nobody was permitted to say, “this doesn’t apply to me.” Should we be any different in deeply reflecting upon how to bring healing and repentance to a shouting and violent world?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*There are various versions of this quote but the gist is the same.

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

Comments (2)

Older Posts »