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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Terumah: A Clear Vision

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

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:  Terumah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

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

Good afternoon!

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

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

Good evening!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bo: Remember This, Every Day

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

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

Good morning!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Vaera: Rivers of Blood

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

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

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

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