Tazria: Seeing Ourselves

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/ Shabbat HaHodesh

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 13:2)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion is difficult, concerned mostly with scaly skin eruptions and the ritual impurities of garments. However, as I and many others have written about (here and here, for example), it’s important to note that the Jewish tradition has always seen these skin afflictions as the outward manifestation of an inner condition, perhaps the sin of gossip, in one view, or more generally a kind of spiritual unreadiness to be in community after encountering the boundaries of life and death.

This metaphorical reading of the scabs and skin eruptions is important to keep in mind when we look at the verse above, which reminds us that one cannot “diagnose” these problems in oneself or another. The person with the eruption must be brought to the priest. Again, see links above for my comments in the past on this, but for today let’s just say that the Torah seems to be teaching us how hard it is to truly see ourselves, and how sometimes the job of spiritual leadership is to help us see ourselves more honestly- after all, we’re all blemished in some way or another! The Talmud, in Mishnah Negaim, explicitly uses the language of “seeing” to teach that we cannot “see” certain problems in ourselves, but must go to another to be truly “seen.”  Note as well that in Biblical times, this role was reserved for the priest, but today might be a spiritual leader, wise elder, trusted friend or specialized counselor- the priestly role can be assumed by anyone with humility, love and compassion.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra pointed out that in the verse above, the one who is to be brought to the priest is adam, a human, rather than an Israelite, citizen, or even just “man.” He reads this to teach that anybody, Israelite or not, must be brought to the priest if they have a scaly skin blemish. One would instantly ask why a non-Israelite would be brought to the priest for purification, since they have no obligation to be ritually pure for bringing sacrifices, so Ibn Ezra says all humans are brought to the priest lest an Israelite contracts impurity through them.

On the other hand, contra Ibn Ezra, perhaps the verse says adam, human, because it’s reminding us that it’s a universal truth that people need help “seeing” themselves; by definition, we don’t know when we’re self deceived. (See, for example, psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the fundamental attribution error). For all of us who are adam, humankind, it’s much easier to see the blemishes of others and hard to see our own; thus the Torah teaches that we must not rush to judge others but help them find those they can trust and do the same ourselves. The Mishnah quoted above wisely suggests that we can’t even see the blemishes in our own families, presumably because we’re too close and can’t be even slightly objective.

The good news, of course, is that our Torah portion isn’t about proclaiming others as blemished or plagued, but finding healing from that which afflicts us all. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody goes through cycles when we feel more or less distant from our better selves. The Torah says: see each other like priests, with a heart of love and service, to bring each other back into relationship with God and community. This is what it means to be adam, a human being.

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

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Shemini: Blessing the People

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Shabbat Parah

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:23)

Good morning! Sorry my commentaries have been sporadic lately; I thank you for reading when I’m able to write!

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, has three main themes: the conclusion of the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests, the tragic death of Aharon’s sons and subsequent rules for the priesthood, and the dietary laws at the end. While the first chapter of the portion feels rather technical with all sorts of. . .um, meaty details about the ancient offerings, there’s actually a story being told.

To wit: at the end of the previous week’s portion, in Vayikra chapter 8, Moshe is commanded to do some special rituals for Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, to dedicate them as priests, after which they are secluded in the Tent of Meeting for a week. After the end of that week, we begin this week’s portion- on the eighth day, from which our portion gets its name- with Moshe bringing out Aharon and his sons from the Tent, promising them that the Divine Presence will appear to them today (verse 9:6), after they do more animal offerings of the various types. They do that, and when Aharon is finished, he comes down from the Altar and blesses the people (9:22), then he and his brother go into the Tent of Meeting again, and they come out together and bless the people again. (9:23).

Then, and only then, does Moshe’s promise come true: the Divine Presence appears as a fire, consuming the offering on the altar. This foreshadows the next chapter, in which the heavenly fire takes the lives of Aharon’s apparently errant sons Nadav and Avihu.

That’s a powerful literary moment, but between Moshe’s promise of the Divine Presence and the appearance of the fire from heaven is a great deal of technical detail about peace offerings and atonement offerings and burnt offerings and all the rest, so if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a bit when reading verse after verse of ritual particulars.

Yet the story behind the details embodies powerful Jewish teachings. Note well that Moshe promises Aharon that the Divine Presence will appear, but it does so only after Aharon “comes down” off the Altar and blesses the people- not once, but twice. It’s not the ritual itself that opens Aharon to evoke and perceive the Divine Presence, it’s coming out of the private and holy space to bless the people, which I take as a metaphor for religious leadership that is not as much concerned with personal mystical experience as it is concerned with service to others. Aharon doesn’t just commune with the Presence in the set-off space of the Altar, but “comes down” from his place of privilege to bless the people, share his experience with them and raise them up.

This point is reinforced by the image in verse 23 of Moshe and Aharon going into the Tent of Meeting- the place where the Holy was experienced- and then coming out again, to bless the people together, prophet and priest as equals in servant leadership (to use a current phrase but an ancient concept.) It’s not when they are in the Tent of Meeting, but have left it to be in community that Moshe’s promise of Divine Presence is fulfilled! To put it another way, Aharon is fit to be a priest when he understands that his job is to be a blessing for all the people, not just to be the master of ceremonies with rituals and offerings.

Personal religious experience is a wonderful thing, and I certainly hope we all have more of it. To me, however, a genuine spiritual experience changes us to the extent that we become vessels of blessing to the people around us; it’s nice to be holy when set apart, but the real challenge is to be holy in community. Even – maybe especially- the High Priest had to learn to come off his high place to be a blessing for others; surely that’s our challenge too.

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 Your Power

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra/ Shabbat Zachor

And Samuel said, “You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel…” (I Samuel 15:17)

Good morning!

This week we read a special maftir, or concluding Torah reading, and haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor for the commandment to remember what the Amalekites did to Israel on our way out of Egypt. The haftarah, or reading from the prophetic books, is from the book of Samuel, and also references the war between Amalek and Israel. In this case, Saul, the king of Israel, is commanded to go to war against Amalek and utterly wipe them out, but instead he kept the king as a prisoner and the animals for the troops to offer as sacrifices.

Samuel confronts Saul with his disobedience and kills King Agag himself, but not before rebuking Saul: however “small” you look to yourself, don’t forget you are king of Israel, and therefore held to a different standard than an ordinary citizen. Now, let’s set aside for a moment that Samuel’s command to Saul, to kill the Amalekites from king down to flocks, is not one we would regard as moral or legal according to current perspectives. Let’s instead take this one verse at face value: that a leader must remember they are not free to do as they please but are held to a higher standard of accountability than an ordinary citizen.

Anybody reading this can quickly apply that idea to current events, but I would take it one step further: that all of us, however “small” we may be in our own eyes, thinking our actions don’t matter, actually always have a chance to represent something bigger than ourselves. Every person can embrace a holiness of speech and nobility of action that demonstrates our consistent orientation to a higher and better path, regardless of the actions or pressures of others.

If you don’t like the way a particular leader or person is speaking or acting- don’t be small in your own eyes, but own your power to embody compassion, understanding and justice. Of course those who would presume to lead are held to a higher standard, but if we each hold ourselves to a higher standard, then perhaps we won’t be brought to a lower one by cynics, bigots and divisive demagogues. You may be small in your own eyes, but you are not. Never forget this!

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 Shekalim: Wise Leadership

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel/ Shabbat Shekalim

But in the twenty-third year of King Jehoash, [it was found that] the priests had not made the repairs on the House. So King Jehoash summoned the priest Jehoiada and the other priests and said to them, “Why have you not kept the House in repair? Now do not accept money from your benefactors any more, but have it donated for the repair of the House.” The priests agreed that they would neither accept money from the people nor make repairs on the House.  (II Kings 12:7-9)

Good morning!

Sorry I’ve been AWOL the past few weeks, fell behind after things got busy and never caught up. . .until Shabbat Shekalim, coming up this weekend. It’s so named because we read a special Torah reading and special prophetic reading concerning the collection of donations (taxes, really) for the building and maintenance of first the Miskhan, or portable Sanctuary, and later the Mikdash, or Temple in Jerusalem. (See here or link above for more details on connection to the calendar.)

The haftarah [text from prophets] for Shabbat Shekalim is especially interesting, because it’s all about the system of collections going wrong, and what it takes to fix it. Briefly, the priests were apparently mixing up the donations for the upkeep of the Mikdash with the money for their own sustenance, and not surprisingly, the Temple wasn’t getting fixed properly. So as in the verses above, the king put in a new system for collecting donations, instituted proper counting and oversight of money, and separated the accounts, as it were. 

This story has much to teach us about money and accountability; you can see here what I’ve written in previous years. What struck me this year was a larger issue of wise leadership: the greatness of King Jehoash was not just his cleverness in accounting systems, but the fact that he understood that good governance protects the people from their own worst impulses. In later Jewish terms, we’d say that he understood that even priests in the Temple have a yetzer hara, a selfish or egocentric inclination. This is simply a fact of human life, and so the wise leader understands the needs for checks and balances, along with moderation, deliberation, oversight, transparency and other institutional methods of limiting the damage that selfish, ambitious, vengeful or narcissistic people (most certainly including the leaders themselves) can do.

To put it another way: if even the holiest servants of God, the priests in the ancient Temple, could be tempted to misuse sacred donations, how much more so do all the rest of us need to be aware of our own capacity for moral self-delusion. Rabbinic texts suggest that the real genius of the yetzer hara is convincing a person that a sin is a mitzvah, and it’s something we’ve all done at times. Real leadership helps us understand our own fallibility, and seeks to build resilient systems which guard against our worst impulses so that we have the freedom and resources to become our better selves.

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: A Nation of Laws

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

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

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Yitro: An Altar of Earth is Enough

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

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

Good morning!

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Bo: The Hours Go By

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

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

Good afternoon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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