Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol: Turning the Hearts of Parents and Children 

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Hagadol 

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Greetings! This week we’re reading the second chapter of Leviticus, spelling out the various kinds of offerings and detailing the inauguration or dedication ceremony for Aharon and his sons when they become priests. 

It’s also the Shabbat before Pesach, traditionally called Shabbat Hagadol, the “great Shabbat,” perhaps for the penultimate verse of the special haftarah, or prophetic reading, for the day. In that verse, the prophet Malachi promises that Eliyahu [Elijah] will come on the “great and wondrous” (some translate nora, wondrous, as awesome or fearful) day of the Lord. Nobody knows who Malachi was- the name just means “my messenger”- but we can assume he lived in the early second Temple period, as he calls the people to faithful and loyal worship there. 

The anonymous prophet stresses the idea that on the Day of the Lord, those who do evil will be requited and those who do good will be elevated. The final verse of the haftarah speaks of a reconciliation between parents and children: 

 וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.

The Lord shall turn the hearts of parents to their children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. (Malachi 3:24

“Utter destruction” is not a nice place to end a prophetic reading, so in synagogue, verse 23- the one about sending Eliyahu- is usually repeated. The haftarah’s connection to Pesach seems obvious: just as there was a “great and wondrous” overturning of evil in the days of the Exodus from bondage, so too will there be a “great and wondrous” day when hypocrites, oppressors, thieves and corrupt leaders of Israel will be overturned. 

So what does turning the hearts- of parents towards children, and children towards parents-  have to do with the great day of the Lord? 

Rashi says he heard from a rabbi named Menachem that this passage means that the Holy One speaks to the children, with love and persuasion, to go to their parents and tell them to hold to the ways of the Divine. So “turning the hearts of the parents” means that sometimes it’s the children who encourage the parents to grow spiritually, or to stick with the Jewish tradition, and not just the other way around. Notice that “children” doesn’t necessarily mean young children: this passage implies that spiritual exhortation and Jewish learning is not a one-way valve from elder to younger, but that the whole family- or really, anybody across generations- can share knowledge, wisdom, and encouragement. 

The Pesach seder is often thought of as an educational event for children, with questions, rituals, special foods, songs and stories all brought together to hold the interest of kids who probably wouldn’t be interested in a purely intellectual discourse on the meaning of ancient religious history. Maybe it’s also true that when parents (and other adults) see their children- of any age- wrestling  with making meaning out of our texts and traditions, it can inspire them in ways that rabbis, cantors and professors probably can’t. 

Rashi reminds us that “from generation to generation” means that older generations, or those thought of as teachers and role models, must also embrace being students as well. Modeling lifelong learning fulfills the words of Ben Zoma (whom we shall soon meet again at the Pesach seder): who is the one who is wise? The one who learns from everybody. That’s an ideal for our Passover seder and all year round. 

Have a happy and healthy Pesach! 

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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Waving Our Gold

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023 

 Torah Portion: Vayakhel-Pekudei

 וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב, וְכָל-אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַיהוָה.

Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make a wave offering of gold to יהוה, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants —gold objects of all kinds. (Exodus 35:22) 

The Torah portions Vayakhel and Pekudei are often joined together, and tell the story of Moshe’s call for donations to build the Mishkan, the actual construction of the Mishkan, and an accounting for the donations. All kinds of materials are needed for the portable Sanctuary, including gems, precious metals, different kinds of wood, fabric, and animal skins. In the verses above, there’s an interesting anomaly: those who brought donations of gold did so as a “wave offering” to God, but this is not how the donations of silver and bronze are described just a few verses later. 

Now, what’s a wave offering? It’s typically associated with the bringing of the omer, which is a sheaf of barley brought in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot (late spring/early summer) and displayed or waved by the priests on the altar. There are other examples of the wave offering, but for today let’s just notice that the donations of gold were waved or held up and displayed by the priests, but silver and bronze were not. A few chapters later, in the accounting of the donations, gold is again called zahav hatenufah, or gold of the wave offering (translated as “elevation offering” by Sefaria) but bronze is also called tenufah, wave offering, in this later chapter.  

Commenting on the verse above, Ramban, a 12th century commentator, explains the gold was a “wave offering” because those who brought it would hold it up to show the importance or rarity of their donation, or perhaps the priests took it from the donors and held up the gold to show the others how praiseworthy these donations were. He also suggests that since so much bronze was needed, it also was considered an especially important or noteworthy donation, and could be waved or held up as well, thus explaining the later verse from chapter 38.

It’s certainly true that gold was an important material for the Mishkan, and it’s certainly admirable that men and women literally took it off their bodies to give to an important communal purpose. On the other hand, the long lists of materials to be donated in these Torah portions is also understood to teach that every donation is precious and important, and even more, that a Sanctuary for the Holy requires the participation and inclusion of the entire community. 

Perhaps the Torah is simply reflecting an age-old tension: worthy causes need widespread support, but the wealthy can give more than others. Does that mean they should “wave” their donations around and draw attention to themselves? In an ideal world, probably not, but in our world, wealthy donors are feted and honored. Maybe the real lesson of the golden “wave offering” is that we can acknowledge the generosity of major donors while placing the far greater emphasis on finding ways for anybody to participate in crucial communal projects. There were so many things needed for the Mishkan- from yarn to wood to gems to skins- that everybody could bring something, and receive the honor of building something holy. That’s a model for our times as well, when needs are so great, and so many have so much to give.

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Ki Tissa: False gods

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023 

ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4) 

Things get complicated in this week’s parsha, but as usual these days we’re going to focus on one little detail to see what we can learn from it. To summarize the story so far: after leaving Egypt, the Israelites come to the base of Mt. Sinai, where they have a great revelation. Moshe stays up on the mountain to receive more commandments, including how to build the Mishkan, and on the 40th day, the people get anxious wondering where he is and what’s going on. 

That’s when they gather against Aharon, at the beginning of chapter 32, wanting answers. So Aharon gathers up their gold and makes the Golden Calf, perhaps just wanting to delay the forthcoming rebellion, but things quickly spin out of control. Look at the verse above: it begins with “This he took from them and cast in a mold”- that “he” is clearly Aharon. Then in the next clause, “they said: this is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 

Who is “they” who said “this is your god?” Rashi and others point out that it says “your god,” not “our God,” and quotes an earlier midrash to suggest that it was the erev rav, or “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites who left Egypt during the Exodus. That would explain “your god;” a group of people who came from a culture of polytheism and religious images could easily revert to their previous beliefs when they thought that Moshe had abandoned them. As several commentators have suggested, they probably thought Moshe himself was a divine figure and were making a replacement for him. 

Now, on the one hand, blaming the Golden Calf on non-Israelite fellow travelers seems a bit too convenient in getting the Israelites off the hook. After all, it was just 40 days earlier that they’d heard the command at Sinai not to make any graven images or bow down to other gods, and here they are, caught in the act! It seems to me that an important point of this story is the universal human capability for error, fallibility, self-justification and false consciousness, even just a few weeks after a literally earth-shaking revelation. 

On the other hand, maybe Rashi has a point. We don’t want to blame others for our own misdeeds (like making idols), but it’s also true that there are always people who take advantage of anxiety or fear, and say, “this is your god,” for their own purposes. “This is your god” can mean “this will solve all your problems if you only obey me,” or “this is the only way to think about things,” or “this should be your ultimate allegiance.” Think of all the advertisers who take advantage of human insecurities about appearance, wealth, or social standing, and sell them the false gods of materialism, status-seeking and impossible standards of physical perfection. Even worse, think of all the times throughout human history when dividers and demagogues took advantage of social anxiety and stoked it with fear of the other, with hatred of another nation or people, with ugly or violent rhetoric, pushing people towards the false gods of nationalism, nativism, religious chauvinism, irredentism or ideological extremism. 

This is your god is a timeless trap, sprung on the vulnerable whenever we let our guard down. We must resist not only being led astray by the idolaters of our day, but also the temptation to take advantage of another’s anxiety or fear by offering easy but illusory answers to life’s difficult problems. We can never fix the problems within ourselves by grasping easy answers or ideologies which circumvent the painful and slow work of cultivating virtues. Back in the desert wilderness, the people feared the journey without the leader who brought them there, but just a smidgen of patience and faith would have kept them going till Moshe got back. How many false gods have we accepted in our lives, false gods we would have rejected with just a bit more clarity of conscience and ability to abide uncertainty? That’s faith in action, and it clears out the idols from before us. 

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Shabbat Zachor: A Torn Garment

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023

 וַיִּסֹּב שְׁמוּאֵל, לָלֶכֶת; וַיַּחֲזֵק בִּכְנַף-מְעִילוֹ, וַיִּקָּרַע. 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore. ( I Samuel 15:27) 

Hello again! This weekend the Torah portion is Tetzaveh, mostly concerned with the garments of the priests, and the haftarah is for Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. Shabbat Zachor has a special additional Torah reading about Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people, and the haftarah continues the theme with the story of King Shaul’s war against Agag, king of Amalek in his day. The two stories of conflict with Amalek are connected to Purim because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a descendant of Agag, the antagonist of this week’s haftarah. 

Now that you have all that background, let’s ignore all of the Amalek/ Haman/Purim related themes for today and instead focus on the dramatic moment when Shmuel, the prophet, tells King Shaul that he has lost the kingship. Shaul failed to wipe out the Amalekites, which is a troubling command, which we can revisit another time. The text says that when Shmuel, the prophet, confronted the king about the failure to wipe out the Amalekites and all their animals and property, Shaul offered up the somewhat lame excuse that his troops wanted to offer the best animals as sacrifices to God and he was afraid of what they’d do if he, the king, didn’t let them have their way. Shmuel rebukes Shaul, saying that obedience is better than sacrifice – again, this is a story that’s difficult for modern readers- and tells Shaul that God has rejected him as king. 

When the prophet turns to go, we get the sentence quoted above: 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore.

What’s interesting here is that the Sefaria translation which I’ve adapted, says that it was Shaul, the king, who grabbed Shmuel’s garment, as Shaul wanted the prophet to go with him as he tried to fix his mistake. The Hebrew, however, is more accurately rendered as I’ve done above, with ambiguous pronouns. Rashi notices this too, and points out that even the ancient sages weren’t sure if it was Shaul tearing Shmuel’s garment- probably the simplest reading of the text- or the other way around, that Shmuel tore the king’s robe. 

The latter reading is plausible for two reasons. The very next verse has Shmuel comparing the tearing of the garment to the loss of the kingdom: 

And Shmuel said to him, “The LORD has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from you and has given it to another who is worthier than you. (15:28

Furthermore, Shaul’s garment gets torn by his successor, David, just a few chapters later. In chapter 24, Shaul sets out with thousands of men to find and kill David, but David is able to sneak up on him in a cave and cut off the corner of his robe. David then presents this as proof that he means the king no harm, as he could have killed him but didn’t. (See 1 Samuel 24 verses 1-21.) 

So it makes literary sense that it was Shmuel that cut Shaul’s robe when announcing that the kingdom is “torn from him,” as shortly thereafter, when David shows him the piece of cloth cut from his robe, Shaul is forced to admit that indeed, kingship is taken from him and given to David. In this reading of our verse, Shmuel’s action is a foreshadowing of David’s: when Shaul realized the two robe-cuttings were connected, he had no choice but to confront the bitter reality that he was trying to avoid. 

The key word in verses 27 and 28 is karah ( קָרַ֨ע), to tear. You might recognize this as the same root or sound as kriah, which is the tearing of the garment at a funeral or upon hearing of the death of a loved one. Kriah is one of the most distinctive Jewish rituals of mourning, going back to Biblical times. Connecting the Shaul’s torn robe with kriah, the ritual of mourning, fits with the interpretation that it was the prophet who tore the king’s robes and not vice versa: perhaps the prophet was showing the king through the symbolism of tearing that he must accept his loss, and that grief would be a better reaction than resisting the new reality. 

In my work at the hospital, I often see patients or their loved ones who simply cannot accept what is plainly happening. We humans are often quite good at ignoring that which we don’t want to see, or denying that which we don’t wish to be true. Perhaps it’s even more true for people of wealth and power and privilege, who are used to imposing their will on others or getting their way in the world. In our case, a mighty king seemed to confess in the moment that his entire life had been upended, but soon enough went back to living as if he’d never heard what the prophet proclaimed. 

In this telling, King Shaul displays the most ordinary human fallibility: he denies to himself what he must, on some level, know to be true. He could have torn his garment in grief and humility, and perhaps not come to the tragic end that was the inevitable result of his fruitless attempts to hold fast to what was already lost. So in our own lives, when confronted with difficult truths, and we are shown that our robes are torn, as it were, the challenge is to mourn what is lost, but accept what we must. That is the path towards healing and renewal, and it starts with facing truth bravely. 

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Terumah: We Have the Tools We Need

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023 

Torah Portion: Terumah 

 וְהַבַּיִת, בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ–אֶבֶן-שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע, נִבְנָה; וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל-כְּלִי בַרְזֶל, לֹא-נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ

When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. (1 Kings 6:7) 

Sorry for missing out on last week, had to call out sick, but all good now. 

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is about the building of the Mishkan, down to its smallest details of decoration and architecture. The theme of building sacred space is carried on in the haftarah for this week, from 1 Kings, in which King Shlomo (Solomon) sends tens of thousands of men to Lebanon to bring back materials for the building of the Mikdash, or Temple, in Jerusalem. 

Now, you may remember that two weeks ago, when discussing the Torah portion Yitro, we learned that the stones of the altar of the Mishkan must  be made of unhewn stone, not fashioned by iron tools. Now look at the verse at the top, from this week’s haftarah: it says that the stones for the Mikdash were cut at the quarry, so that no ax or iron tool was heard at the site of the Temple itself. (See also the verse 1 Kings 7:9, which also explicitly says all the buildings were made of hewn stones.) 

Hmm, that doesn’t quite jibe with what we learned two weeks ago, does it? The JPS Haftarah commentary brushes off the contradiction, positing that the verse above is fully aware of the prohibition in the Torah, and this is the Biblical author’s way of harmonizing the verses. Many other commentators agree, including Rashi on the verse from chapter 7. He brings the same explanation to another verse from this week’s haftarah, verse 5:31. In both cases he explains that it’s not a violation to use iron tools at the quarry, just at the Temple itself. 

However, for our verse above, from chapter 6, Rashi brings a famous midrash to explain the “hewn at the quarry” contradiction. This is the midrash of the shamir, a unique creature that was set into the stone and shaped it, so that no iron tool was needed. (Some say the shamir was a kind of stone stylus that cut the rocks into their shapes.) The rabbis still have a problem, though. The various verses above say that the stones at the quarry were hewn, so one solution is to say that the shamir cut the stones for the Mikdash and the stones for the king’s palace were cut with iron. (Cf: Talmud Sotah 48b.) A third possibility mentioned by the rabbis in Sotah goes like this: if it’s permissible to cut stones at the quarry with iron, why do you need the shamir at all? Answer: the shamir cut the precious gems of the High Priest’s breastplate. 

What do we do with all this? A famous paragraph from Pirkei Avot says that there were ten things created just before twilight on the 6th day of creation- that is, they were the last things created and placed into the world. (Pirkei Avot 5:6, and check out the commentaries.) These are all miraculous things that can’t be explained by the laws of nature, such as the donkey that spoke to Bilaam or the ram that was caught in the bushes to be offered in place of Yitzhak. The idea is that these special phenomena were created once and put in just the right place to reveal themselves at just the right time, just once. 

One could argue that this is the rabbis throwing up their hands at miracles that can’t be explained, but if you look at the list in Avot, you’ll see that every one of these belief-defying marvels also has a strong and clear moral meaning. The ram was offered instead of Yitzhak because human sacrifice is theologically and ethically obscene. The donkey speaks to Bilaam because smart people who justify their immoral actions can be rebuked by the example of a simple pack animal, which serves loyally and without betrayal or guile. Proposing that all these miracles were created as one-offs, placed into creation at the beginning, isn’t about “we can’t explain this.” Rather, I believe the rabbis are saying “we’re not worried about how the miracle got there, because that’s not the point of the story.” 

The meaning of the shamir, the stone-cutting worm or whatever it is, isn’t about fabulous fantasy creatures. The deeper idea is that the Holy One cares how our sacred spaces are constructed, and gave us the religious and moral capacity to build beautiful, inclusive, kind, reverent Jewish spaces and organizations, if we will avail ourselves of the spiritual tools we already have. We can’t build a reverent and awe-filled community with cynical or immoral means. When it comes to synagogues and other spiritual organizations, there’s no separating process and product. That’s the moral point of the prohibition against hewn stones in the Temple. The shamir comes along not to fix a problem in the text, but to renew our faith that we have the tools we need already in hand.

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Yitro: Rough Stones

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro 

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro 

וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ

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. (D’varim 20:22) 

I hope everybody had a fruity and sweet Tu B’shvat. This week we’re reading the story of the revelation at Sinai: after the thunder and lighting and smoke and fire, Moshe and the Israelites are told they can make their offerings on simple earthen or stone altars. There’s one caveat: in verse 22 above, it says that if they make an altar of stone, they must not hew the stones with an iron tool. 

Rashi and other commentators quote a famous midrash on this verse, linking iron tools to weapons of war: a place of peace and prayer should not be made with tools that remind us of those made for violence. A few years ago, I wrote about another interpretation in the commentaries: the commandment to use only unhewn stones was about the sufficiency of simplicity in a place of worship. (See more on that here.

This year I noticed a comment from Rashi adding a third interpretation, one that seems especially relevant in these times of often bitter social and political division: 

And a further reason is: because the altar makes peace between Israel and their Heavenly Source, and therefore there should not come upon it anything that cuts and destroys. Now, the following statement follows logically: How is it in the case of stones which cannot see nor hear nor speak? Because they promote peace Scripture ordains, “Thou shalt not lift up against them any iron tool!” Then in the case of one who makes peace between a person and their spouse, between family and family, between a man and his fellow, how much more certain is it that punishment will not come upon him! (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:2).

The altar “makes peace” between humans and the Divine because it’s the place where various kinds of offerings are made to atone for sin, give thanks and celebrate wholeness and prosperity. The stones are not cut with iron tools so that people are reminded that if even inert rocks are rewarded (by not being hewn) for making peace and effecting reconciliation, how much more so is a person rewarded in the Heavenly realms! 

Jews are a famously fractious bunch, but what if we actively honored the peacemakers among us? What if we refused to let our synagogues and communities be places of exclusion, grudges, ideological conformity, violent speech, political bullying or spiritual snobbery? What if we built communities and societies to be like an altar of unhewn stones: humble places of peace and reconciliation and gratitude, where the values we honor are as obvious as the difference between rough rocks and magnificent masonry? 

I bet we could do it if we tried. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Beshallach: A Dark and Stormy Night

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

The first Torah portion in February, Beshallach, has an image made famous in illustrated Haggadot, Hollywood movies, even children’s craft projects. Who can forget the dramatic scene from movies like The Ten Commandments or The Prince Of Egypt, showing Moshe (whether animated or embodied by an over-the-top Charlton Heston), raising his arms in front of the astonished but frightened Israelites while the sea parts in front of them like a reverse tsunami? 

The image of Moshe splitting the sea all at once, like cleaving wood, is wonderful cinema, but, alas, Biblically incorrect. Read the verse closely and you’ll see where Hollywood departs from the text of the Torah: 

The pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Holy One drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground. . . (Exodus 14:19-22)

Notice the difference between the movies and the text? The Torah says that two things happened: there was a cloud of darkness upon the Egyptians all night, and during that time, an east wind blew upon the sea, driving it apart. Some rabbinic commentators say that the east wind dried out the seabed so the Israelites could cross, but the nuance here is that the moment of final escape from Egypt wasn’t actually a moment: it took an entire night of darkness and winds. 

The darkness seems like a replay of the 9th of the ten plagues prior to the Exodus (cf. 10:21), which can be understood as a moral condition as much as a supernatural event. Back in Exodus 10, we are told the plague of darkness lasted for three days, during which time people could not see each other. In other words, a society built upon oppression is one in which human beings cannot see each other in their full humanity. Not only are the oppressed not seen as fully human, but those who oppress deny their own souls, which are formed for compassion and which are defiled by exploiting another. 

So too, here at the edge of the sea, the Egyptian army is encased in a moral darkness, unable to draw close to one another, because an army bent on subjecting innocents has already denied the humanity in themselves. The full night of darkness, like the three days of darkness during the Plagues, has another purpose: it gives the Egyptians a chance to reflect, repent and choose a better course. The hours of gloom and east wind at the edge of the sea is God’s final plea to Pharaoh and his soldiers: stop now, think about it, don’t do this. We too often have opportunities to stop ourselves when on the wrong path, but like Pharaoh, plunge forward recklessly. 

The Sages noticed in verse 14:21 that the Torah doesn’t say “the waters of the sea” were split, but simply, “the waters,” and take this as hint that all the waters of the world, in cisterns and jugs and ponds, split along with the waters of the sea. Why would they offer such an unusual and unlikely interpretation? 

Because the crossing of the Sea of Reeds was a world-changing event, not just a pivot point of Jewish history. At this moment, the idea was reified that people are made in the Divine Image, with inherent dignity, and not to be oppressed as chattel. The Israelites moved forward with the radical idea that God is on the side of the oppressed, for justice, and not on the side of the slave-masters, for power. With the crossing of the sea, every brutalized population gained hope, and the seeds were planted for a new and revolutionary religious ethic of compassion, justice, and mercy. We’re far from that vision, but it leads us forward, then and now. 

(A version of this commentary will appear in the February Voice, the monthly paper of the Jewish Federation of Dutchess County.)

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Bo: Come to Pharaoh

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: It’s been too long since I’ve written my weekly Torah commentaries and I’m feeling inspired to start up again. There will definitely be one for this week and next week, but if when I miss a week, I wholeheartedly endorse my friend Rabbi Eli Garfinkel’s daily Torah Substack newsletter:

Eli is a master at drawing out great questions from the parsha! 

Now, back to Bo, this week’s portion

The portion begins with a command: God tells Moshe: בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה, come to Pharaoh, and tell him about the future plagues if he doesn’t release the people. 

The text says bo el Paro, “come to Pharoah,” but this is curious: shouldn’t it be “lech l’Paro,” or go to Pharaoh, not “come”? “Bo,” come, seems to imply that God is already where God wants Moshe to go, which is  Pharaoh’s palace. 

There are two ways to interpret this: 

  1. “Come to Pharaoh” means “come with me.” God is saying, I’m with you when you go to Pharaoh. 
  2. Bo el Paro means: I, the Holy One, am already there, even in Pharaoh’s palace. Going there, to that evil, arrogant, broken, delusional and doomed king, also means coming to Me. 

Both of these interpretations challenge us morally and spiritually. 

First, I found an image from the  Zohar that illustrates our first interpretation: Moshe was afraid of going to Pharaoh, because that inner chamber of the palace was a place of ultimate idolatry, an intensity of idolatry even greater than Moshe’s spiritual level. Because Moshe was afraid, The Merciful One said: Come, I’ll go with you. (The Zohar is, as always, more complicated than this, but this is enough for our purposes today. See here for more.) 

So here was Moshe, at the highest level of spirituality, according to our tradition, and even he was afraid to go into that dark space of human brokenness and pain and alienation. I’m a hospital chaplain, and that’s what we try to do too: go into the hardest, most complicated, most emotionally charged and painful situations, with some small faith that we don’t go alone. Yet this image isn’t just for chaplains: everybody is charged with being a person of hesed (great kindness) and rachamim (mercy), which often means pushing ourselves emotionally. It’s not easy to comfort the bereaved, or visit the sick, or help the poor, or be with people who are lonely or afraid, but perhaps if Moshe could go where he didn’t want to go, with faith that he doesn’t go alone, the rest of us can push ourselves a little harder too. 

Going back to our verse, the  second interpretation is also important. Bo el Paro, says the Holy One, I am already there, even in the most dangerous, evil, oppressive, idol-worshiping place on Earth- I’m already there. That’s a truly amazing idea: after all, Pharaoh earned himself a four thousand year old reputation for denying that there was any God but himself! His palace issued orders for murder and exploitation, but the Holy One was already there? 

Well, yes. 

So if Moshe was told, “I’m already there” in reference to the most terrible, idolatrous, morally corrupt place on Earth, I guess the rest of us should have some faith that we can find the Divine Presence in times and situations that aren’t quite that bad. It can be very uncomfortable to be with the dying or forlorn; it’s much easier to avoid conflicts and problems than confront them; some people have needs that can be overwhelming. Some people have done terrible things, and deserve the harshest rebuke. Yet: I am already there, so open up your mind and heart to find the spark of spirituality even in the most difficult situations. This is one of those truths that is simple, but never easy. Life often isn’t, but we go forward as best we can, and find the Divine in the most unexpected places. 

(Words adapted from a dvar Torah I gave at the annual meeting of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.) 

Addendum: for some grammatical/linguistic interpretations of this week’s verse, see here.  

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8th Day Pesach: Change Comes in Haste

Dear Friends, I am chagrined at my writer’s block these past few months but pleased that the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, my alma mater, published my Torah commentary in their weekly email. 

  Torah Reading:  Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17

  Maftir Reading:  Numbers 28:19-25

  Haftarah Reading:  Isaiah 10:32 -12:6

There’s an old saying about public speaking: tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Recapitulating the most important message you want to communicate is not a mystical principle and does readily explain the Torah reading at the end of the three agricultural festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This Torah reading includes Deuteronomy 16, a chapter which distills each holiday to its essence of observance and meaning.

Regarding Pesach, the Deuteronomy text reminds us why we eat matzah, the “bread of affliction:”

You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress-for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly-so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 16:3)

So far, so good: in this verse, matzah is the symbol of leaving Egypt in a hurry. Yet this raises a question: if matzah is the symbol of leaving Egypt in a hurry, why is it called lechem oni, the bread of distress? Isn’t leaving slavery in a hurry a wonder and miracle? Our friend Rashi, the great medieval sage, suggests that the “hurry” in the above verse doesn’t describe the Israelites, but the Egyptians. In this reading, the Exodus was a great blessing, but the reason Israel made haste was the Egyptian army fast pursuing them. Thus matzah symbolizes the leaving of Egypt (good), but the speed of leaving is a reminder of the forces of oppression, hence matzah as “bread of distress.”

An earlier description of matzah, from the book of Exodus, raises a related question:

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:39)

The imagery of these verses is very familiar from our telling of the story on the first night of Pesach: the Jewish people had to leave Egypt so quickly that they had no time to prepare, so they grabbed their kneading bowls and headed for freedom as fast as they could. That’s a compelling scene in the dramatic unfolding of the Exodus, but turning back to the beginning of Exodus 12, we find Moshe telling the people two weeks earlier that the final plague is coming and they must prepare for the miracle to come.

So if the people had been told to prepare weeks in advance, why didn’t they make some bread or other provisions? Rashi again provides a helpful explanation: the verse tells us they didn’t prepare in order to praise the people, who didn’t object that they weren’t ready, but”believed in God and went forward. ” Note well that Rashi’s two comments on these verses can be read together: the Israelites did know the Exodus was coming, trusting in the Divine Promise of freedom, but they left in a hurry when the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit.

Rashi’s commentary on the meaning of matzah hints at a truth about human beings: change is often forced upon us by circumstance, even when we know it’s coming. This is true in every realm of human life, including religion, economics, environment, politics, and health (personal and organizational): we know, intellectually, that things can’t go on the way they always have but we often don’t change our habits until we have no choice. That lack of choice often comes faster than we can ever imagine, sometimes in an instant. In a hospital, we often see patients confronting spiritual, relationship or moral distress only after a medical crisis and it’s easy to wonder: didn’t they know this was coming? One could judge another unfavorably for putting off these reckonings, but as a chaplain, I’ve come to see that it’s simply human nature not to cross the Sea, as it were, until Pharaoh’s army pushes you to the shore.

We make haste when we have to because as humans, it’s often too hard, if not impossible, to prepare for what we can hardly imagine, but then matzah comes along one week a year to remind us that we have what we need for the journey. Sometimes, as Rashi reminds us, all we can do is trust in God and go forward together, forgiving ourselves and each other our frailties and imperfections. Thus matzah is not only lechem oni, the bread of distress, but also symbol of our precious humanity, imperfect but more than sufficient, and in this we can rejoice.


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Vayeitze: Two Camps

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machana’im. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:2-3)

Good afternoon!

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Yaakov is a single man on the run from his brother, and by the end of the portion, he’s got two wives, two concubines, many children and much wealth as he heads back to the land of Israel. As he approaches the Land of Israel, he sees angels (literally “messengers”) of God, and names the place “machana’im,” or “double-camps,” a foreshadowing of the two camps into which he will divide his family as his brother Esav approaches a few verses later (but in the next Torah portion.)

The phrase machana’im, or two-camps, is not immediately clear from the context. Some commentators say the two camps were one for the angels and one for Yaakov and his family, but Rashi says there were two camps of angels. According to Rashi, one camp was for the angels who minister outside the Land of Israel, and one camp for the angels who minister in the Land. These latter had come to meet Yaakov, hence, two camps.

Now, that is a nice way of emphasizing the special relationship that Yaakov- and all his descendants, who are the Jewish people- have with the Land of Israel, but I also think it’s more than that. For Yaakov, the Land of Israel is where is family and destiny are, a family he’s been avoiding for twenty years since he stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. He was worked hard and lived by his wits since leaving home, but facing his brother and providing for his large family is a different set of challenges than the ones he’s had while living with his father-in-law.

In other words, what has helped him survive and succeed up until now may not be what he needs going forward- he now needs different angels, a different sensibility and sense of responsibility. This time, he cannot outwit his brother, but must humble himself and give respect to the one he deceived so many years before. Again, that’s in next week’s portion but the two-camps allusion is unmistakable.

There’s a business book with the title “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There:” the idea is that a set of skills or talents that help you rise to a certain station won’t be enough over the long term. This is even more true of the spiritual side of life: Yaakov’s angels outside the land may have gotten him much wealth, but only the angels of humility and repentance can lead him to offer that wealth to his brother as a peace-offering. The different camps of angels can be understood as different orientations or spiritual qualities which are needed at different stages of life. Yaakov was lucky enough to see the two camps, but guidance towards new ways of being is often right in front of us, if we too will choose to see it.

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


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