Balak: A Better Way

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Balak
 
Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aharon the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:9)
 
Hello again! It’s good to be back with a Torah commentary, but today, I actually don’t have much commentary. The Torah sages who crafted our liturgy clearly have something to say about this week’s portion, but me, not so much.  
 
Let me explain. The Torah portion, Balak, is mostly not about the eponymous king of Moav, but about his hired sorcerer Bilaam, he of the famous talking donkey. Bilaam tries to curse Israel, doesn’t really succeed, and in the end predicts Israel’s victory. The portion ends, however, with a much darker story, that of the death sentence pronounced upon the Israelite followers of Baal-Peor, portrayed as one of the gods of the Moabites, whose women had tempted Israelite men into this particular form of idolatry. Pinchas, a priest and Moshe’s great-nephew, saw an Israelite man and a Moabite woman apparently flaunting their relationship right at the Tent of Meeting, and responded as above, by taking up his spear and impaling the both of them. 
 
The rabbis are stuck with the fact that Pinchas is, in the Torah text, praised by God for his actions (at the beginning of the next portion), so they tell us exactly how terrible and disgraceful the man and his Moabite lover really were, even imagining them engaged in physical relations right there in front of everybody in the holy place. There are all kinds of commentaries about how the zealotry of Pinchas was holy and righteous, how it lead to miracles and saved the people, how it was exactly the right response to terrible idolatry.
 
And yet. . . there’s the haftarah chosen for Balak, which reminds the people to remember how God saved them from Bilaam’s curse. This selection from the prophet Micah also enjoins the people to respond not with extraordinary ritual devotion, but instead to remake themselves morally, to express gratitude and fealty to God through becoming Godly in their qualities: 
 
“The Holy One has told you, O people, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God . . .” (Micah 6:8). 
 
Concluding the haftarah with this verse is also a response to the violent zealotry of Pinchas and his ilk in every generation. That’s why I don’t need to say much in response to Pinchas or anyone else who would presume to love God by hating people; the prophet Micah and the rabbis who chose his words simply say, there is a better way, and nothing more need be added. 
 
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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Korach: Two Kinds of Power

 

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 

Torah Portion: Korach 

 

Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader. (Samuel 12:1-2)

Good afternoon! 
 
It’s a late in the day drasha, so rather than detailed textual commentary I’ll offer a more general thought about the conjoined stories of our Torah portion and haftarah. Both stories are about power, politics, and authority, which are not always the same thing. In fact, in the Torah portion, the rebel Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon on the basis of a political claim: that all the people are equally holy and should therefore share in the leadership. Korach claims political or hereditary standing equal to Moshe and Aharon, but the text makes clear that his moral claim was weak indeed, as he and his comrades are portrayed as divisive, violent and self-serving,
 
The haftarah is also about power and authority: the people want a king to fight their battles, and finally accept Saul on the basis of his military victory over the Ammonites earlier in the chapter. Samuel, the prophet and political leader, had tried to set up his sons to succeed him, but they turned out to be ethically and spiritually unworthy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Samuel warns the people about the dangers of monarchy after personally experiencing the problematic nature of hereditary offices. Samuel also pleads for vindication from the people that he has never been corrupt, greedy or abusive, thus not too subtlety making a distinction between the spiritual standing of a prophet and the legal standing of a king. To put it another way, he says: you have asked for a king who can fight for you, but someone who can be aggressive and command armies will wield that power in ways that are not always for your benefit. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. 
 
When Moshe reminds Korach that he’s already a Levite, and set apart for a special role in serving God, I think he’s reminding us that there’s more than one way to be effective in the world; not all power is political. It’s easy to forget that in an election year, when all the news is conflict and posturing, but let’s remember that there are people changing the world who seek no high office, including spiritual leaders, teachers, researchers, organizers, and role models of great human depth and compassion. That kind of power is unlimited, shareable and cannot be acquired by force. There can only be one king, but we can have as many moral leaders as we have people willing to put themselves forward for the common good. 
 
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: Seeing Angels

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The angel of the Lord never appeared again to Manoach and his wife. — Manoach then realized that it had been an angel of the Lord. (Judges 13:21)

Good morning!

Last year at this time (on the Torah reading calendar) I wrote about one of the less heroic figures of the Bible, Manoach, the father of Shimson (A.K.A. Samson.) In the haftarah for the portion Naso, Manoach’s unnamed wife is visited by an angel, who announces that she will bear a son and instructs her to raise him as a nazirite. This provides the thematic link to the Torah portion, which relates the relevant laws: one who takes a nazirite vow refrains from alcohol, cutting one’s hair, or any contact with the dead. (I also wrote about the nazirite laws a few years back, see here.)

The structure of the story is somewhat amusing: the angel appears to Manoach’s wife, she tells Manoach everything the angel said, and then Manoach gets excited and asks God to send the angel again. The angel comes back, explains the instructions to Manoach directly, and in reply Manoach offers him dinner, which the divine being refuses, telling Manoach to making an offering to God instead. The angel ascends in the flames of the burnt offering, and that’s when Manoach finally realizes the true significance of his interlocutor.

Seen one way, it’s funny how Manoach comes across as a bit dense when it comes to identifying angels, but read another way, the verse above is rather sad: it is only after further interaction is impossible that Manoach realized the extraordinary nature of his guest. Note the order of our verse: it is only after we learn (and I think Manoach realizes this too) that he will never see the angel again that Manoach is fully conscious of his failure of insight and missed opportunity.

In the arc of the story of Shimshon, Manoach is a comic foil to his much more insightful and worthy wife, who is, after all, the actual subject of the angel’s instructions. Yet in his obtuseness, he is all of us, at one time or another. Who among us has not regretted misapprehending the unique gifts of a friend, teacher, loved one or new acquaintance? Who among us has not said, “this was an angel” about someone who who was, perhaps only briefly, part of one’s life? Some of my deepest regrets are that I only understood someone’s depth and gifts after the opportunity to learn and love had passed.

We are not typically visited by divine messengers with explicit instructions for unusual circumstances, but every day we do have the chance to be more open to the extraordinary qualities of our friends, loved ones and neighbors. For Manoach, realization came too late, as it often does, but this very moment we can choose to see with new eyes the holy souls all around us, and be grateful for the chances to connect that are not yet lost.

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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Bechukotai: Healing The Deepest Hurts

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts (Jeremiah 17:1)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is the final portion of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. It’s also a very difficult text, having two themes which are hard for many contemporary Jews to interpret, the first being the material rewards or punishments due to Torah observance or lack thereof, and the second being the monetary valuation of people according to various ranked criteria, for the purpose of the payment of vows.

The haftarah, or prophetic text, is from the book of Jeremiah, and seems at first glance to reinforce the theme of faithfulness to God being rewarded and idolatry punished. The verse quoted above begins a long passage describing Divine anger to be visited upon the people of Judah who have worshipped idols and false gods; they will be overthrown and exiled from the land of their inheritance.

So far . . not so good. The metaphor of guilt inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved on a tablet with the cutting edge of a gemstone tool, seems to indicate that the offense of the people of Judah was as permanent as etching in stone. It’s a hard, cold, stark image, implying that some misdeeds permanently disfigure a human heart, leaving an irreparable spiritual flaw. Yet after several more verses in which the faithful person is praised and the idolator condemned and shamed, the haftarah concludes in a different voice, not the third person description of the sinner but a first person, and personal, prayer:

Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; for You are my glory.  (Jeremiah 17:14)

It’s important to remember that a Torah or haftarah reading was chosen by the ancient rabbis to begin and end on certain verses. It’s not an accident that a prophetic text with such an apparently harsh view of sin- engraved upon the heart, like letters in stone- ends with a prayer for healing. This is not an esoteric message: yes, some of our mistakes and misdeeds cut deeply into our own hearts and into the hearts of those we hurt, but we also believe in a God of healing, Whose power is made manifest in the transformation of the human spirit.

Bad things happen when people choose badly, but I believe the point of the haftarah is that we are not condemned to carry the burden of guilt forever. Sin may be as deep in our hearts as engraving in stone, but unlike stone, we can turn back to the One who heals. We believe in a God who heals with love and forgiveness those who truly seek to return, renew, and rebuild themselves, their families and their communities. Of course, a theology of Divine forgiveness has a strong moral corollary: if God can heal the pain engraved in our hearts, shall we not more freely forgive others who feel equally ashamed?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said it well: if you believe you can damage, believe you can fix!

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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Acharei Mot: The Torah of Everyday Kindness

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot

And you shall not profane the Name of your God . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 18:21)

Good afternoon!

Glad to be back after a short absence.

Acharei Mot is a difficult portion, with many laws in tension with contemporary sensibilities (though contemporary sensibilities are not necessarily a benchmark of moral aspirations) and other laws which seem rather anachronistic. To wit, the first part of the verse above refers to consecrating or sacrificing children to an ancient pagan deity- hardly a common concern in Poughkeepsie, I hope. On the other hand, the second part of the verse, quoted above, refers to a much more general ethical concept, “desecrating [or: profaning] God’s name,” usually referred to by the Hebrew phrase chillul Hashem. Technically, this commandment- not to do anything which dishonors God, Torah or Israel – derives from a verse a bit later in the Torah (Leviticus 22:32)- but the basic idea appears in several places.

Without going into all the details, for today it’s enough to note that chillul Hashem– profaning God’s name- occurs when people do things which would cause others to question or denigrate the Torah or God of Israel. An example discussed in the Talmud is that of a great Torah scholar not paying the butcher on time. For an ordinary person, a late bill might harm our reputation but doesn’t cause disrepute for Judaism or the Jewish people, but a great Torah scholar, though, is judged on a higher level. How he (or she) pays the grocer is indeed a demonstration that Torah learning which is not transformative in kindness and integrity may cause others to think badly of Judaism itself.

What brings this to mind is the first yahrzeit of my mentor and friend R. Allan Schranz, who died a year ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Schranz was a brilliant orator and wonderful teacher, who served very prominent pulpits in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but what l also remember about my visits with him were the bagel shop guys. Let me explain: before he got sick, I’d visit him several times a year at his synagogue in Midtown Manhattan, and he’d often take me to a bagel shop around the corner. Every time we went there, he was greeted warmly with “hi Rabbi,” from every person who worked there, who smiled when he entered and seemed happy to see him. It didn’t take many visits to figure out why: Rabbi Schranz took care to treat everybody he met with kindness, respect and dignity, from the bagel shop guys to the security guard at his synagogue to people he’d recognize on the street in his neighborhood.

Wearing his trademark fuzzy black velvet kippot – which he tried many times to convince me to adopt, never succeeding- it would have been a chillul Hashem if anybody perceived the local rabbi, paragon of religious Judaism, as disrespectful or arrogant. The opposite was true: he performed a kiddush Hashem, “making God’s name holy,” in his everyday interactions: people saw that a religious Jew was thoughtful, gracious and ennobling of others, which in turn demonstrates that a foundation of Torah is kavod habriyot, human dignity. To show that our everyday actions are suffused with the humane values of Judaism is a mitzvah not just for scholars, but for anyone who wants to make the world more holy, one kind interaction at a time.

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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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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