Nitzavim: A Call to Return

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there the Holy One will fetch you. (D’varim 30:4)

Good afternoon!

In a few days we’re going to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and while there are myriad interpretations and understandings of the sound of the shofar, I think most would agree that it has something to do with jarring us out of complacency, reminding us to think about what kind of people we want to be, and calling us back to God and our better selves. Jews have been sounding the shofar, with this same basic message of wake up-think-return, for thousands of years, and the message, ever year, is more or less the same: wake up-think-return.

Every year the message of the shofar is the same: wake up-think-return, but every year we, as individuals and as a community, might be complacent about different things or have gotten off track in different ways. The message is more or less the same, but the response is timely, personal and unique. The shofar is not innovative, new, creative, contemporary, technological, ideological, political or much different in 2016 as it was in 1816 or 1016. I would even say that this is precisely its power: in a world obsessed with the latest celebrity tweet and the slightest twitch of the 24-hour news cycle, the shofar is ancient, wise and relevant because it asks not the latest and loudest question but the most important one: how shall we live in the year to come?

This week’s Torah portion, always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, contains beautiful language of return, especially the verse at the top of the page, which can be read not only in its plain sense of geographic return to the land of Israel but also as a metaphor: no matter how far you feel from God, from Torah, from the Jewish community, from your own sense of soul and self, you can return. No matter if you’ve gotten so far astray from your ideals that you feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, you can return. No matter if you feel like an outcast or exile, you can return. No matter if the previous year had mistakes, misfires, misdeeds, or missed opportunities, this year you can return and choose a deeper and holier life.

It’s such a simple message: wake up-think-return, yet simple isn’t the same as easy. Looking within, asking ourselves hard questions, turning ourselves back to the Source- definitely not easy, or comfortable, or quick, or painless. Yet that’s what Jews do, year after year, generation after generation, called back by a technology that’s never needed an update and could not be improved with new features. The shofar will call us: wake up-think-return, and the promise is: return is possible, from the ends of the earth or wherever we think we are. If we but take the first steps back, from there the Holy One will fetch you.

Wishing all of you sweet blessings in the New Year,

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 Tetzei: The Pain of the Dispossessed

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one — when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses . . . . the birthright is his due. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15:17)

Good morning! It’s been a while since I’ve found the space to write a drasha but I haven’t given up the enterprise just yet!

This week’s portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of various laws, including laws of war, criminal and civil regulations, and laws defining membership in the Jewish people. One law in particular, quoted above, struck me as a potent metaphor in a time of highly divisive and polarized politics. First, let’s understand the plain meaning of the law: if a man has two wives (not a current Jewish practice anywhere, I believe) and loves one but not the other, he can’t disregard normative inheritance law in favor of the children of the beloved wife.

That’s because the first-born gets a double portion of the inheritance, so that he can in turn become the head of the family when the father dies. This is, quite literally, a law that preserves patriarchy, but in its context, perhaps it’s not as unfair as it seems, since the first-born had additional responsibilities along with privileges.

If you’re now thinking, “but wait! didn’t Jacob favor Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel?,” well, you’re right on target, but hold that thought for a moment.

What’s striking about this law is how it explicitly acknowledges and seeks to prevent the destructive effects of someone feeling unfairly cut off from their due. Again, in our worldview it might not be seen as perfectly egalitarian for the later-born sons (and never mind the daughters!) to receive less than the first born, but in the world of ancient Israel, this was the norm, and a system that allowed for family patriarchs to provide for and protect the clan. Arbitrarily favoring one son over the other would tear families apart. In fact, that’s precisely what happened when Jacob favored Joseph over his older sons- they threw him into the pit and sold him into slavery, not the intended result, I would imagine.

Whether or not this law is a response to the emotional failings of the patriarchs in Genesis, remembering what happened to Joseph, how he was resented by others and the pain that brought to the entire family, gives us a powerful image for the present day. Here in America, there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who feel cut off from their birthright, not given access to what they feel is their due as Americans. On the left you have Black Lives Matters taking to the streets to demand fairness in justice and opportunity; on the right you have whole geographic areas where the white working class has been devastated by deindustrialization, poverty and the neglect of the coastal elites. Social change has left many people with traditional religious values feeling unsure of their place in a rapidly evolving legal and moral landscape, while other groups, such as transgender men and women, are urgently demanding recognition and rights as equal citizens.

It’s not picking sides in the culture wars to say that there are lots and lots of people in America who feel like the child of the unloved mother, at loss to say what happened to their birthright and mad as hell about it. Taking the metaphor one step further, we can react like Joseph’s brothers- with tremendous resentment and anger- or we can try to figure how how to share greater blessings with all.

It’s going to be very hard to address the pain in our country, but if we don’t figure how how to make our fellow citizens feel loved equally and treated fairly, we’re headed, like Joseph, down into a dark pit. Fixing the conflict in our national family is going to require hearing each other with compassion and setting aside prejudices of right and left, color and sexuality, religion and ideology. It’s going to require seeing each other as brothers and sisters, not as deplorable and not as evil, but as children of the Living God.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S. See here for a good explanation of how this law hearkens back to the Genesis story, and others have discussed this as well.

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

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D’varim: All are Responsible

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. . . (D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1)

Good morning!

We begin a new Torah portion this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, D’varim– literally, “words,” as in the words that Moshe spoke to the Israelites before they crossed over into Israel. Rashi and others understand the theme of D’varim- both the Torah portion and the entire book- to be tochechah, or “rebuke,” to the people for all the times they forgot or angered God.

Rashi has several examples of this in his commentary on this opening verse but he also focusses on the word “all” in the verse: “these are the words [of rebuke, according to Rashi] that Moshe addressed to all Israel.” Rashi brings an almost comical example, which loosely paraphrased goes like this :

If people had been out in the market and didn’t hear Moshe’s rebuke, they could have said, “hey, you heard what Moshe said about this and that, and you didn’t object! But if we had been there, we would have answered him right back.” So Moshe brought all of them together and said, “see, you’re all here, if anybody has an objection, speak up!”

Now, your first question to Rashi might be: what market? They were out in the desert across the Jordan river! The anachronistic example tips us off that his commentary is not meant to be taken literally but rather as an illustration of the human tendency to believe that societal or collective problems are somebody else’s problem and responsibility, not our own. That is, if Moshe had rebuked me, I’d have a great answer as to why the difficulties of the Jewish people or the world at large aren’t my fault- but you other people have no answer for him!

The Torah portion D’varim is always read before the observance of Tisha B’Av, the sad memorial day of fasting and penitence. Tisha B’Av is in many ways the beginning of the season of the Days of Awe. We sit and fast and reflect upon the brokenness of the world precisely so we can take responsibility for our own piece of that brokenness, or at the very least, our failure to fix what we can, starting within ourselves. Whether it’s causeless hatred or the breakdown of social bonds or what seems like a massive failure of mutual understanding among various communities within our greater polity, the rebuke for these problems is on all of us. In a different (but not so different) context, Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”*

Moshe called all the people to account; nobody was permitted to say, “this doesn’t apply to me.” Should we be any different in deeply reflecting upon how to bring healing and repentance to a shouting and violent world?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*There are various versions of this quote but the gist is the same.

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

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Pinchas: The Sons of Korach Did Not Die

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas 

But the sons of Korach did not die (Bamidbar/Numbers 26:11) 

Good afternoon! 

A brief thought about individual moral responsibility: near the beginning of this week’s reading, Moshe and Elazar his priestly nephew are told to make a census of the people, so the Torah recounts a geneology by clan. It’s mentioned that Datan and Aviram, Korach’s co-leaders in rebellion against Moshe, were descendants of Reuven, and further mentions that they were swallowed up by the earth along with 250 others. So far, so good, if somewhat grisly and unpleasant. 

Then we’re told that Korach’s sons did not die along with the others. (Cf. 16:32)

Wait, what? 

Since the verse implies but does not explicitly say that Korach’s household was taken down into the earth, Rashi seems to read it both ways. Basing himself on amidrash from the Talmud, Rashi says that at first, Korach’s sons were involved in Korach’s fight with Moshe, but then they had a sense or feeling of repentance, so they were put on a special high level of Gehinnom.

Gehinnom generally means the place of punishment or purification of the dead, so how can Rashi say they didn’t die but were in a high platform in hell? Doesn’t sound like such a great reward to me! 

Going back to the source in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 110a) we find that Rashi left out the last part of the midrash: yes, Korach’s sons went to Gehinnom but they dwelled in a spot where they could sing songs, presumably to God. A later commentary says that on the merit of their songs they were lifted from Gehinnom(then again, maybe by definition if you can sing you aren’t in Gehinnom), but even so, it’s an astounding interpretation. 

What do we learn from the peculiar image of Korach’s sons singing songs of praise on a high (and presumably not too unpleasant) level of Gehinnom? Well, first, note that Rashi says that it was enough that they had a “sense” or feeling of repentance. In the midst of a crisis, in which they had to choose between their father and the the leader of their people, they had a stirring of conscience, and that was enough to separate them from the mob. 

Second, note that having a conscience may not save you from an unpleasant fate- they did end up in Gehinnom, after all- but that you can retain that conscience, that moral spark at the core of your being, even in hell (or in a police state, or in the Gulag, or the any other totalizing and demoralizing environment). As long as you have even an inchoate feeling of moral responsibility, you are not “dead,” you have retained your humanity, and won a victory by force of spirit alone. There were Jews who practiced Judaism under pain of banishment and prison in the former Soviet Union, who refused to let an evil regime have dominion over their souls; they and countless other resisters of the mob show us what it means to sing songs even in a place that’s just a better level of Gehinnom

Korach’s sons were not immortal; “did not die” here is best understood as the death of the spirit, the death of one’s humanity. Because they refused to let the realm of violent power struggles define who they were, because they made a difficult choice to keep conscience alive, they lived as morally powerful people, even in Gehinnom. That choice will not always be as dramatic for us as it was for them, but the decision to live as a human or kill the best part of ourselves by joining the mob is a choice we face, in bigger or smaller ways, every day. 

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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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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