Behar-Bechukotai: What Do We Do With Rebuke?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

I am proud that this week’s commentary was first published as the Mekor Chaim weekly email by the Jewish Federations of North America. 

The Torah portion Bechukotai, often doubled up with the preceding portion, is not easy reading. A big portion of the text is called tochecha, or rebuke, which here means detailed descriptions of blessings and curses from Heaven that will ensue if the Torah is either followed or disregarded. For many contemporary Jews, linking sin with suffering is both an intellectual and moral impossibility: intellectually, we know that many good people suffer without cause, and morally, we cannot blame God for the choices of human beings which cause pain, grief and despair.

So perhaps it makes more sense to read these the tochecha as descriptive of the people’s spiritual or emotional experience rather than as a promise of Divine retribution. A people that makes itself worthy by acts of justice and compassion will feel itself blessed, but a society built on idolatry (worship of vain things), greed and oppression will tear itself apart and feel itself to be in a hostile cosmos. While at first glance the blessings and curses seem to be economic in nature- blessing comes from the land and the curses are when the land no longer produces- the text also makes clear that ultimate blessing is a sense of the Divine in our midst:

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:12)

Conversely, the rabbis imagine that the ultimate punishment is the loss of a spiritual center:

And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins,  and I will break your proud glory. . . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:18-19)

In this case, they interpret “proud glory” (or “pride of your power”) as referring to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was “broken” not once but twice in Jewish history. While it’s hard to imagine God breaking the Temple to make a moral point, the ancient sages believed that losing the Temple, the symbol of Jewish spirituality and vitality, was a greater calamity than bad harvests or military defeat. Without reading these words literally- as a promise of Heavenly retribution- we can read them with great empathy, as expressing the experience of those who lost the sense of the Divine Presence when Jerusalem was overthrown.

So what do we do with these difficult texts? First we should to allow ourselves to be moved by the intense spiritual longing in the Torah and its commentaries: the feeling that the poetry conveys is that the ultimate blessing is nothing material but the Divine Presence itself, and when that is lost, hardly anything else matters. Second, we should allow the tochecha to challenge any moral complacency we have about ourselves or our community: are we really as individuals or a polity doing all we can to be loyal to the Torah’s values of justice and mercy, or are we letting these things slip from us without a care? Are we going to a society which makes and shares the blessing, or do we deserve the rebuke these verses offer?

These are hard questions, but nothing important was ever easy.

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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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim: Authentic Atonement

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:6)

Good morning!

This week we have a double portion, the first of which is rules for Yom Kippur and then lots of laws of sexual conduct, and the second of which is beautiful ethical principles and then lots more laws of sexual conduct.

Going back to the beginning of the first portion, Achrei Mot, the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, is instructed to purify himself before doing the complex rituals of offering atonement sacrifices on behalf of the people. Not only that, but as in the verse above, before he can offer a sacrifice of atonement on behalf of the entire Israelite community, he has to do so for himself, and his household. Presumably, not only is the Kohen Gadol’s personal offering an example of repentance and humility for the rest of the Jewish people, but it’s also a matter of kavannah, or personal focus/ intention/ mindfulness. After all, how can he be completely spiritually present in offering atonement for the nation if he has not fully atoned for his personal mistakes and misdeeds?

The issue of leadership and collective atonement is actually in the news this week, so let’s look at current example. Perhaps just in time for Achrei Mot- Kedoshim, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he expressed a personal “deep repentance in my heart”along with prayer for the dead of WWII, followed by a collective regret:

on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II. (full text of speech here.)

Now, to be fair,  he did say later in the speech that his country’s actions “caused suffering” in Asia, and his people “felt remorse,” but still, one is struck by the lack of apology or explicit acknowledgement of Japan’s aggression and imperialism. His personal “deep repentance” is appropriate, but while a Prime Minister is not a priest, I and many other commentators (go forth and Google) felt that he missed an opportunity to be a true leader, to go against his parliamentary pressures and express a real apology on behalf of the nation he represents. That would have taken personal and political courage, but what else is leadership?

Yet debates about what a politician should or shouldn’t have said are endless, but ultimately the real question is: what about the example of the Kohen Gadol applies to us, who do not lead nations or occupy high office? First, let’s note the order in which the Torah presents the High Priest’s atonement offerings: first for himself, then for his family, then for his people. We cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do- if the people’s job was to think hard and humble themselves on Yom Kippur, then the job of the Kohen Gadol was to go first, to show the way in taking his own moral inventory.

Besides the imperative to do our own work before rebuking others, let’s note that according to the commentators, the atonement of the High Priest also involved confession, which in Judaism is always a verbal enumeration of specific ways we fall short. Just as in our Yom Kippur liturgy, confession is explicit- we recite long lists in synagogue but it’s meant to be personal, something we apply to our own unique actions. This is where the contrast with Mr. Abe’s political speech (and so many other wishy-washy vague “apologies”) becomes apparent- there is little confession, little grappling with hard, specific truths, without which atonement and confession become a matter of “mistakes were made,” which leaves both parties incompletely reconciled.

The language of sin, atonement, and confession is difficult- it seems so archaic and “judgmental.” Yet here’s the beautiful thing: it’s not meant to weigh us down, but to unshackle burdens of guilt and fear, to leave us free, to effect reconciliation and promote a forgiving love. The only path forward to that forgiving love is speaking hard truths, but nothing could be more worth it.

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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Shabbat Machar Hodesh: Love is Infinite

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Machar Hodesh

Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” he shouted. “I know that you side with the son of Jesse-to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! (1 Samuel 20:30)

Good afternoon!

This week we’re reading an unusual haftarah, called Machar Hodesh, which is only read when Sunday is Rosh Hodesh, or the first of the month, based on a mention in the text of the following day’s new moon. This happens on an irregular basis (as far as I know), which makes this haftarah an unusual liturgical text, since most Torah readings or special prayers happen on certain days or times of the year and shape our experience of the flow of time and turning of the seasons.

The text of the haftarah concerns the relationship between David, future king of Israel, and Jonathan, his best friend, brother-in-law and son of the current king, Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and seeks to kill him. Jonathan is caught in the middle, and tries, in this text, to save David’s life by finding out if Saul still wants him dead, in which case David will flee the royal court. Saul figures out that his son is covering for David’s absence at the feast of the new moon and flies into a rage, insulting and shaming Jonathan for seeming to choose his friend over his father. In the verse quoted above, Saul is so contemptuous that he doesn’t even refer to David by name, but calls him “son of Jesse” and even implies that Jonathan is unworthy of his status as crown prince.

To be clear, there is a strong political component to Saul’s anger: he worries that David will seize the kingship, and if Jonathan is helping David, then Jonathan may be undermining his own claim to the throne. On the other hand, it’s hard not to read the verse above and feel pity for Saul’s jealousy and insecurity; on a purely emotional level, Saul falls into the classic human error of assuming that people are with us or against us, loved ones or enemies.

Yet love is not like that at all: politically, perhaps Jonathan would have to choose to support either his father or his friend as king, but spiritually, he can love and support both. Love is not a zero-sum game: loving one person doesn’t mean loving another any less. It takes maturity and courage to accept that our family, friends, colleagues and dear ones are not our exclusive possessions. To the extend that we recognize and affirm that love is an infinite resource, there is more of it in the world, and for what other purpose were we created?

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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Pesach: Redemption and Justice

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: 8th Day of Pesach 
 
Good morning! 
 
I hope all those who have been observing Pesach have so far had a joyous holiday. The Torah readings for the final two days of Pesach are, on the 7th day, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and on the 8th day (observed by most Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Diaspora, but no in Israel), we review the laws of the holidays in their seasons. Thehaftarot, or readings from the prophetic books, are also interesting choices for these days: on the 7th day, we read a great victory poem of David’s that is similar in theme to the Song of the Sea in the Torah reading, and on the 8th day, we have a messianic text from the first part of Isaiah, describing the qualities of the “shoot of the stump of Jesse,” e.g, a legitimate king of the Davidic line (Jesse/ Yishai is the father of King David). Among those qualities are wisdom and justice: 
 
The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him:
A spirit of wisdom and insight,
A spirit of counsel and valor . . .
Thus he shall judge the poor with equity
And decide with justice for the lowly of the land.
He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth
And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips.
Justice shall be the girdle of his loins,
And faithfulness the girdle of his waist. (Isaiah 11:2-5, abridged)
 
You might imagine, after reading the story of the Exodus from slavery and the escape across the sea, that the messianic image of Israel’s future king would be that of a mighty warrior, who can protect his people with the sword from any future Pharaohs. These verses seem to suggest that the ultimate salvation of the people Israel is not with military victory but with leadership that seeks justice for the poor. This is not just opposition to Pharaoh, but becoming the ethical opposite of Pharaoh.He enslaved the “lowly of the land,” and was thus proven to have no wisdom at all, for any kingdom built on injustice will eventually be overthrown. 
 
Note also how this future king of Israel will strike at “the wicked:” with “the breath of his lips,” which seems to suggest a moral power, of speaking truth and proclaiming justice, rather than a purely retributive or judicial power. 
 
Thus we end the week of Pesach not only with a vision of hope, but also by reclaiming Israel’s moral purpose. We don’t recall the Exodus only to give thanks for our freedom- though that’s very important!- but also to remember what freedom is for. We read the words of Isaiah to be reminded that wisdom and justice are inseparable- there can be no peace for the land without justice for the poor and oppressed. Freedom means freedom from Pharaoh, but not freedom from responsibility. If the envisioned messiah is coming to judge the poor with equity and bring justice for the lowly of the land, then certainly our work over Pesach is to reclaim our hope in a redeemed world. Even more so, we recommit to redeem the world ourselves, countering Pharaoh with mercy, courage, vision and moral passion. 
 
Shabbat shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Let My People Go: Freedom, Slavery, Work and Worship

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: I am pleased that the Pesach thoughts below were published as part of the Spring edition of the The Orchard, a collection of divrei Torah, published by the Jewish Federations of North America.

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Most children or adults who’ve had even a little bit of Jewish education remember that that Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “let my people go!” We tend to think of the Exodus story as a struggle between freedom and oppression, between the liberator Moses and the despotic Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn becomes emblematic of all the tyrants, dictators, slaveholders, demagogues and corrupt authorities who have abused others from the dawn of history until today. It’s such a familiar story that we take it for granted, but it’s really quite astounding that the basic idea of our most familiar Jewish story is about God on the side of the poor and powerless, the broken and afraid.

This is hardly typical of either ancient or modern texts: think of the ancient myths that valorize heroes, kings, majestic beauties and extraordinary people with godlike powers. It’s not just an premodern problem: think of all the books and magazines you might see in a drugstore or supermarket, and think of who they put on the cover to get your attention. Very few popular magazine covers show us the image of the poorest of the poor, servants and slaves, the suffering and scarred, in order to proclaim the message: these are the people to whom attention must be paid!

If telling the Exodus story at Passover did nothing more than focus our conscience on those who are most often forgotten, dayenu, it would be enough. Yet that’s not the only message of the Exodus and Passover, as seen in the Torah itself. The beginning of Exodus 5 has Moses pleading with Pharaoh not only to let the people go, but to let the people go in order that they may worship God in the desert wilderness. In response, Pharaoh issues new orders to his slave masters, telling them to increase the workload of the Israelites, since wanting to go worship God is an obvious sign of their laziness and sloth. (Cf. 5:8)

The psychologist and theologian Richard Beck points to this as illustrating another polarity in the Exodus story: not only is there the contrast between slavery and freedom, but also, in the mind of Pharaoh, between work andworship. If Pharaoh is symbolic of all those who abuse others, making people into mere instruments of economic or political or military value, then the countervailing force is not only freedom, but worship, which I understand as not just ritual and prayer but as the development of a powerful spiritual consciousness. Knowing that there is a Source of hope greater than our current conditions can lead to courage, perspective, dignity and purpose. The last thing Pharaoh – or any abusive authority- wants is for the people to realize that there is a power higher than Pharaoh!

Of course, Pharaoh can see none of this: to him, spiritual consciousness is just frivolity, nothing that his servants need. In this day and age, when we are constantly pulled towards distraction by our devices and media blaring out from screens all around us, this contrast between work and worship takes on a whole new urgency. It’s not laziness to pray, meditate, study sacred texts and develop our deeper consciousness; in fact, it’s probably a necessary precondition to the really hard work, which is redeeming those still caught in oppression and despair.

The point of Passover isn’t just a nice meal with a good story. The point is to remind us who we really serve. The rituals, narratives, songs and foods of the Seder take us out of our ordinary routines into the realm of “worshiping God in the wilderness,” or seeing the world in a new way, refusing to be scared of Pharaoh anymore. Leaving Egypt- the “narrow place” of restricted vision- means imagining a world wherein the poor are important and the king is not, where meeting the Divine is our greatest goal rather than turning out more bricks and widgets. “Let my people go” ultimately means “let all people go;” Passover is a recommitment to that vision of a redeemed world, which we can only bring about by thinking new thoughts, seeing the world and ourselves differently than before. We see the world as it really is by telling the oldest and best story we have, as we have always done.

A happy and healthy Pesach to all,

RNJL

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

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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building from the Heart

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: Vayakhel-Pekudei
 
Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity brought the offering of the Lord for the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 35:21)
 
Good afternoon! This week we are concluding the Book of Exodus with the details of actually assembling and accounting for all the pieces of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan and its vessels included gold, silver, bronze, fine fabrics, and precious stones, but the Torah emphasizes over and over that it’s not enough to have beautiful things- the Mishkan was made by those with wide hearts and generous spirit. To put it another way, if you want to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for the Holy, you can’t just have a nice physical structure, but you need the hearts and love of those who contribute and assemble there. 
 
This week’s Torah portion tells us that all the people gave, and they gave willingly and generously, even giving their jewelry and personal adornments. (Cf. verse 22, right after the verse above.) To me, these verses are key to understanding the idea of the Mishkan: it is a place, a thing in the world, but what makes it holy is the love and humility and selflessness that goes into building it. To make a place of experiencing the Sacred, the people literally had to take off their jewels and gold- the markers of status and rank- in order to join with others to meet the Holy.
 
So the Mishkan, in this reading, is less about all the details (as important as they were for later commentary) and more about the experience of the people who gave of themselves, and found an openness to the Holy as a result. This principle is no less true today: all great spiritual paths speak of losing yourself (in the sense of outer markers of the ego) in order to find a deeper, truer, realer self in relationship with others and with the Holy. 
 
To make this point even more explicit, I would call your attention to the awarding of this year’s Templeton Prize- a kind of Nobel prize for moral or spiritual excellence- to Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Archecommunities, which bring together people of differing intellectual abilities to live together in community. This is truly holy work, and explained beautifully in a series of short videos which can be found on this page, in which Vanier explains his philosophy of love, service, and becoming fully human. These short videos are beautiful and compelling, and illustrate the idea that what evokes the Divine in this world is not things but people, people who give with open hearts, and are forever changed. 
 
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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Ki Tissa: Moments of Decision

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
 
Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!” (1 Kings 18:38-39)
 
Good morning! 
 
I hope them’s that celebrated Purim this week had a happy and healthy holiday. 

We’re back to our weekly Torah reading and reaching one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Torah: the episode of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s subsequent encounter with the Divine Presence while stationed in the rock on the mountain. (You can see a summary of these events here.) In the haftarah, or prophetic reading, there is also an powerful theophany* narrative, this time orchestrated by the prophet Eliyahu (aka Elijah), in which the people are asked to choose between worship of the God of Israel and worship of the deity Ba’al. To demonstrate to the people that Ba’al is an empty idol, Eliyahu sets up a contest in which the God of Israel brings fire from heaven to burn his offering, while the offering of Ba’al is untouched despite the great efforts of Ba’al prophets. 
 
At that moment- when the people see the fire from heaven- they “fall on their faces and say, the Lord alone is God,” or, as you might have heard before, Adonai, hu ha’Elohim. That phrase becomes part of at least two important Jewish liturgical moments: the end of Yom Kippur, and the end of life, as part of the deathbed vidui, or confession. (You can see variations on this text here. Not every version includes this phrase, but most I’ve seen do.)
 
Now, what links these three things- a dramatic story of faith renewed on Mount Carmel, the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and the final moments of life itself? Perhaps this phrase- Adonai, hu ha’Elohim, or literally Adonai is the God or Deity- is meant to evoke the urgency of making spiritual choices. The story in Kings has Eliyahu urging the people to choose the God of Israel rather than a foreign god, and that text itself is linked thematically to the Torah portion, in which the people choose idolatry mere weeks after leaving Egypt. 
 
In our lives, we rarely have those kinds of fire-from-heaven moments, but we do have to make choices and commitments. (As Bob Dylan famously said, you gotta serve somebody.) At the end of Yom Kippur, after 25 hours of fasting and a day-long marathon of prayer and confession, this phrase suggests: you’re ready to make a real choice for the coming year. You can choose empty things, or Godly things. You can choose your higher nature, aligned with your Source, or you can choose business as usual. 
 
That choice becomes even starker at the deathbed. The dying one has so little time to choose anything but the most real and essential things, and for the families and loved ones, death is a stark reminder that the hours of our lives are finite, and may someday be reviewed with either regret or satisfaction. Adonai, hu ha’Elohim means; don’t make anything but God- the most real of all realities, the deepest Source, the truest truth- your god, or that which you serve. 
 
It is not likely that fire will pour down from heaven today in my vicinity (but if it did, it would sure help clear ice off the driveway.) It is inevitable, however, that I, along with everyone reading this, is given a choice about how to orient our precious, holy, and finite time and energy, which is another way of saying life itself. Judaism reminds us to choose wisely, before time runs out for choosing. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
*a ten-dollar word that means palpable revelation of God’s Presence.)
 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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