Chukat: Detours On The Way

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Reading: Chukat 
 
“They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 21:4)
 
Good morning! 
 
Sorry I’ve missed some weeks recently- we’ve moved offices and I just fell behind, that’s all. 
 
There is so much to choose from in our Torah portion, which begins with the famous (and mysterious) Red Heifer and continues with two chapters of strife, conflict, war, and grief as the Israelites travel through the wilderness. Today we’ll look at the verse above, which occurs shortly after the death of Aharon, Moshe’s brother, and immediately after a few terse lines describing a battle with the king of Arad. (21:1-3)
 
The few words of this verse don’t capture the full weight of the narrative: the Torah seems to be saying that the Israelites went from Mount Hor, near the kingdom of Edom, in what we would now call southwest Jordan, almost all the way back to Egypt, to the Sea of Reeds where they crossed when escaping Pharaoh. We know Mount Hor is near Edom- in the Torah’s reckoning- because just a few verses earlier, the place where Aharon died is called “Mount Hor, on the border of Edom.” (See 20:23
 
Archaeologists and historians have differing theories about the exact location of various places mentioned in the Bible, but for our purposes, you don’t need to know precisely where they went to get the sense that after the death of Aharon and a horrific battle with Arad, the Israelites were in retreat, emotionally if not geographically. The text says they were heading back west in order to “skirt” or “circle” the land of Edom, perhaps to avoid danger or because they weren’t allowed through, but one can only imagine the tremendous disappointment and discouragement they must have felt to be so close to the Land of Israel and yet moving further away.
 
The Torah describes this discouragement as vatik’tzer nefesh ha’am, literally “the spirit of the people was shortened.” Rashi imagines the people saying “we have to turn back just like our ancestors did 38 years ago!,” which would have been an unbearable burden. Yet as readers, we know the people were very close- just a few weeks, probably, from their camp across the Jordan River from which Moshe would deliver his final speeches (what we call the book of D’varim or Deuteronomy) before they entered the Land. 
 
This is the problem of hope: when our “spirits are shortened,” we are unable to see how far we’ve come but can only see the roadblocks and difficulties ahead. This is when bitterness sets in, and indeed, the Torah tells us that after their detour back to the Sea of Reeds, the people complained against God and Moshe about the manna, of all things. Change is hard, and take time, and is never without its challenges. Even this very day, today, as the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality – a goal that some have been working towards for a generation or more, there are those who react with bitterness and complaint and vow to resist. There will be detours, setbacks, roadblocks and challenges- it is to be expected with any big change. Even today, this week, as the nation has, with astounding speed after the Charleston massacre, begun to reckon with the racist legacy of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of resistance to integration, there is already a backlash to the backlash. There will be backlashes, arguments, political struggle and resistance- this, too, is to be expected, so let us never lose sight of our goal of reconciliation and equality for all. 
 
The Israelites were “short of spirit” even when their wandering was near its completion; all of us sometimes get negative, kvetchy and blaming when the journey seems long and never-ending. The challenge, then, is to remember that “shortness of spirit” is an opportunity for broadening one’s vision, making the spirit big and free and open and taking in the widest perspective possible. If our spirits can be made short, they can be made big, too- but only if we choose faith, hope and patience. These are not easy virtues, but who said a journey to the Promised Land would be 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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Naso: The Limits of Hearing

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Manoach pleaded with the Lord. “Oh, my Lord!” he said, “please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born.” (Shoftim/ Judges 13:8)

Good evening! This week’s haftarah is the story of the birth of Shimshon (usually called Samson in English), who grows up to be a great, albeit greatly flawed, hero of ancient Israel. The connection with the Torah portion is probably the laws of the nazir, or nazirite, a kind of special religious status that people could choose for various lengths of time. (See more about that here and go here for a light-hearted but insightful theory of why this haftarah was chosen for this portion. )

Among the laws of the nazir are refraining from alcohol and letting the hair grow uncut; these are the instructions that an angel gives to Shimshon’s mother in the opening verses of the haftarah. Manoach’s unnamed wife then repeats these instructions to her husband, who offered up the prayer above- to be instructed on how to raise the child, even though his wife has just told him what the angel said!

Not only that, but when the angel returns, Manoach asks again what his instructions are, even though he’s heard them from his wife, and the angel patiently repeats what he had said earlier. Perhaps there’s a teeny bit of angelic snark when he adds “she must observe all that I commanded her,” (verse 14) thus implicitly reminding Manoach that he’s already given these instructions once before, but nevertheless, the angel repeats the commands for raising their child and doesn’t overtly rebuke Manoach for needing to hear things again.

I’ve usually read this story with the thought that Manoach is not the brightest light on the memorial board, given that he seems not to understand fairly straightforward narratives and instructions. This year, however, I read this story in light of my work at the hospital, where I often encounter smart people unable to grasp simple but shocking statements, usually because they are overwhelmed by the changes and new realities implied by what they are being told. In its most poignant form, I’ve seen families listen to a doctor explain what can or cannot be done for a loved one and then turn to each other in almost blank incomprehension after the doctor leaves. They are not stupid, but rather not ready to hear that their loved one is near the end or that their family will face difficult challenges of caregiving, to give just two common examples.

In Manoach’s case, perhaps he had a certain dream for his child, a dream wildly interrupted by the angel proclaiming that his son will be a nazir who will save Israel from the Philistines, or perhaps after years of infertility he had given up on his hope for children and can’t quite believe that his quiet life will be turned upside down by parenthood after all. The important point for us is to see in Manoach someone who is taking in only as much as he can, under circumstances which might otherwise completely overwhelm his natural resilience. We’ve all been there, and all of us will someday have a chance to be a patient angel to another person when they need help in slowly awakening to a new and disorienting reality. Manoach isn’t just the father of a great hero, he’s also everyone who has desperately wanted the world to slow down when it’s moving too fast. This calls for great mercy and compassion, which may be easy for angels but requires thought, love and dedication from the rest of us.

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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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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