Machar Hodesh: Blind Anger

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot/ Machar Hodesh

At that, Shaul threw his spear at him to strike him down; and Yehonatan realized that his father was determined to do away with David. (1 Samuel 20:33)

Good afternoon!

Well, this is unusual, but we’re going to mention King (well, not yet king) David two weeks in a row. That’s because this Shabbat we read the special haftarah called Machar Hodesh, meaning “tomorrow is the new moon,” which read when Shabbat is in fact the day before the new moon, or Rosh Hodesh. The haftarah begins its narrative on the day before the new moon, so there is a calendrical connection to the Shabbat rather than a thematic connection to the Torah portion.

I’ve written about Machar Hodesh a few times before (see here) but the brief recap is that Shaul is the king of Israel, Yehonatan is his son, David is a threat to Saul’s throne, and Yehonatan, David’s best friend, is caught in the middle. (So is Michal, Saul’s daughter, Yehonatan’s sister and David’s wife, but she’s not mentioned in the haftarah.) The haftarah tells the story of David escaping Saul’s jealous rage by leaving the court before the feast of the new moon, and Yehonatan’s attempt to ascertain whether it was safe for him to return and warn David if it wasn’t.

The verse above is taken from a scene at the feast at the palace after Shaul notices David’s absence and rages at his son for allowing David to leave, pointing out that David threatens Yehonatan’s future kingship as well. (Verse 31) Yet two verses later Shaul throws his spear at his very own son in anger! This make no sense: how can Shaul risk injuring, or even killing, his son if the reason he is angry is because he thinks Yehonatan is at risk of David usurping or killing him?

Now, we might say that Shaul didn’t strike his son with the pointed end of the spear, but only whacked him with the flat side, or threw it in the direction of Yehonatan but not right at him. Just a warning, perhaps? Well, maybe, but Shaul has already tried to kill David twice with the same spear, so it it seems that he’s using it dangerously. (See 18:11 and 19:10.)

This makes no sense, logically- why risk killing your son over his supposed inability to see his risk of being killed?. Maybe that’s the point: anger, rage, jealousy and other overwhelming emotions blind us to our true goals and often consume what we think we’re protecting. (See: Politics, American.) Lashing out in anger is by definition a reaction rather than a thoughtful action that arises out of one’s ideals, values or vision.

Rage destroys; it cannot fix. This is why Shaul is such a tragic but utterly human character: like most of us, the greatest challenge was not defeating an external enemy but mastering himself. The rabbis ask: who is mighty? They answer: The one who conquers his own inclinations. This is as true for kings as it is for you and me.

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

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Chayei Sarah: Comfort and Conscience

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. (1 Kings 1:1)

Greetings!

I have been on commentary hiatus too long and I hope to be back more consistently. The portion Chayei Sarah is a good one for jumping back into the waters, as the narrative is rich with opportunities for reflection and application. The Torah portion is mostly the story of Avraham sending his servant to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzhak, in order to secure a more proper heir and thus a legacy. These themes continue in the haftarah, which begins as King David is an old man, shivering in his bed. King David, like Avraham, has to secure his heir and legacy before he dies.

We’ll leave a full compare-and-contrast of the two stories for another year and just focus on the first verse of the haftarah, quoted above. This verse seems simple enough but elicits some interesting commentary. One view from the medieval scholars is straightforward: the verse mentions blankets being insufficient because blankets can’t warm by themselves, they can only ward off the cold air. So if the king is not generating his own warmth, the blankets aren’t enough. Rashi, on the other hand, quotes an older midrash from the Talmud to draw a moral lesson about conscience and its consequences:

Rashi: he never felt warm– Our Rabbis said, “All who scorn clothing do not benefit from them in the end (Berakhot 62b 30-31)”- because he ripped of the corner of Saul’s coat [he could not become warm through clothes]. And in the Midrash Aggadah [it says]: Rav Shmuel the son of Nakhmani said, “When David saw the angel standing in Jerusalem with his sword in hand, his blood went cold from fear (See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 43)”. (Translation from Sefaria.)

Rashi brings two different commentaries here, but they work together. In the second comment, Rashi seems to be saying that when a person sees death, or perhaps mortal danger, the blood runs cold from fear. The implication, as I understand it, is that David knows that his time is short and is cold from the fear or vision of impending death. Now, one could say that David was a brave warrior, who fought the giant with only a slingshot, and thus death should not scare him. Yet as a warrior he could have confidence in his own abilities and convince himself that he could defeat his enemy, but not even a king can defeat time and mortality.

What about Rashi’s first comment? This hearkens back to the struggle between David and Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul pursued David and his men, but when Saul went into a cave in which David was hiding, David sneaked up on him and cut off the corner of his garment as a way of proving to Saul that he could have killed him- but didn’t, and thus was not truly an enemy. (See here for full text.) Rashi quotes the Talmud to the effect that because David treated “clothing”- that is, Saul’s robe- with contempt, in the end “clothing”- that is, the bedclothes- could not avail him.

Well, OK, but David only cut the corner of Saul’s robe in order not to hurt him- surely it was better to cut the robe than to cut a person! So some rabbis say it was Saul’s tzitzit or ritual fringes that David cut, and thus he despoiled a holy garment, which in turn leads to his inability to enjoy warm garments in old age. In this reading, David’s sin was taking something holy- the fringes on the corner of Saul’s robe- and treating them with disrespect in order to make a rhetorical or political point in his dispute with Saul.

That’s a powerful image for this day and age, when so many of our shared values and symbols are mere objects in our partisan battles.  Another way we can understand Rashi’s two comments is contrasting the satisfaction of material goods versus the inherent good of a unburdened conscience. Think about it this way: David achieved power, fame, glory, riches and status, but at the end of his days, it was not material wealth- the blankets- that could comfort him. In fact, they left him cold, perhaps because he knew, on a deep level, that his riches were achieved at least partially by defeating and dethroning Saul, his mentor and father-in-law, in the first of David’s many wars. Thus Rashi’s two comments work together: David was cold from his vision of impending death and unable to derive “warmth,” or comfort, from his riches because he understood the moral cost of obtaining them.

Framed this way, I think Rashi’s comments show David’s chill as a cautionary tale, especially because the chapters that follow will show David’s family torn apart (not for the first time) by a struggle over those very same riches and power that bring David no warmth on his deathbed.

For us, the question becomes: how shall I live now such that I can someday die with peace of mind, sustained and warmed by love? What conflicts or hardness of heart can I now repair so I can live with myself until the end of my days? This is difficult, no doubt, but is there anything more important?

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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