Archive for January, 2000

Yitro 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Along the way out of Egypt, Moshe meets up with his father in law, Yitro, who also brings to him his wife and sons, who have apparently been “back home” in Midian during the liberation events. Yitro sees that Moshe is taking on too much as the leader of the people, and gives him advice on how to set up a community organizational structure so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly. In the third month out of Egypt, God calls to Moshe and tells him to prepare the people for a great revelation at Mount Sinai. After three days God reveals Godself on the mountain, and with smoke and lightening and shofar blasts the Ten Commandments are spoken, in the sight of all the people at the base of the mountain.

“You shall set boundaries around [it] for the people, saying ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge, for the person who touches the mountain will surely die.’ A hand shall not touch it, for he shall either be stoned or thrown down. Whether it is an animal or a person, they shall not live; upon the extended sounding of the shofar, they may go up the mountain.”
(Exodus 19:120-13)

Before the giving of the Torah, Moshe is told by God to instruct the people to prepare themselves, both physically and spiritually. Mount Sinai becomes a kind of restricted holiness zone, and anybody who approaches the sacred mountain prematurely will die- whether for disobedience or because of the “holiness energy” in that area is unclear. The mountain becomes almost “radioactive” with Godliness, and the people must be exceedingly careful around such great power, just as we would be around an source of powerful electric or heat energy. Still, after the giving of the Torah, this Godly energy will pass, and then the mountain becomes just like any other.

It is hard for those of us in the modern world to conceive of “holiness” being a palpable, almost dangerous presence, as the Bible seems to present it. Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen (lived in Russia, died in 1926; his Torah commentary is called
Meshech Hochmah) reminds us that extraordinary events do not necessarily make a place intrinsically holy:

    The Blessed Holy One desired to root out from among the Israelites any remnant of thoughts of idol-worshipping, and to implant in their hearts the strong faith that nothing in Creation has any special holiness except from the Blessed One, the Source and Wellspring of holiness in the cosmos. This was so that the Israelites would not make a mistake and [think that because] Mount Sinai in itself was holy, that was why the Torah was given on it. [Thus] they were told that immediately after the receiving of the Torah, when the Shechina departed, the mountain would be as any ordinary mountain, with flocks and cattle herding on it. The holiness of the mountain lasted only when the Shechina was on it. (Source: Itturei Torah)

The Meshech Hochmah’s emphasis is on the last part of our verse, where Moshe is told that the flocks and herds will return to graze there just as they would on any other mountain; this reading implies that this is quite deliberate on God’s part, to educate the Israelites, who had just left a society that worshipped animals, people, places, the sun and the moon. According to the Meshech Hochmah, God was worried, as it were, that the Israelites would confuse cause with effect; they would think that it was only on <this> special mountain that the Torah could be given, and thus they might end up revering the mountain as much as the Torah!

Rather, the mountain is special only when it becomes a place where the Divine and human beings reach out to each other; even if Sinai is a preeminent symbol of encountering the Divine in our tradition, it is only because it is the preeminent symbol of Torah, which in itself is a “meeting place” for God and people. Torah means more than just the five books of Moshe; Torah in its broadest sense is striving and struggling after God in the pages of our sacred texts, which include Bible, Talmud, Midrash, philosophy, halacha, poetry, songs, prayers, and more. Torah includes the commentaries and poetry being written today- if a text causes you to stop, slow down, think about your life in a new way, inspires you to deepen your Jewish commitments, connects you to Jewish history and community, and gives you a nudge towards more Godly Jewish living, I’d call that Torah. Torah, to me, is a text valued not only by its antiquity or its authority, but also by the effect it produces in a person’s soul.

Torah is portable, lives in our communities, and serves as the link between generations; perhaps that’s why the ancient rabbis saw Torah study, rather than sacred mountains, as the place where Jews go to meet the Holy One. Consider the following passage from the Talmud:

    Rabbi Halafta, of K’far Hananiah, taught: When ten persons sit together and study Torah, the Shechina hovers over them, as it is written: “God is present in the divine assembly.” (Ps.82:1)

    Where do we learn that this also applies to five? . . . [prooftexts are then brought to demonstrate that the Shechina is present for five, three, and two people learning Torah.]

    From where do we learn that this applies to even one person? From the verse: “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.” (Ex.20:24) (Pirke Avot 3:7)

So perhaps we can take the insight of the Meshech Hochma one step further- not only did the temporary specialness of Mount Sinai come from the Holy One, rather than from some intrinsic qualities of the mountain, but even the holiness that flowed from God did so because it was at that place the Israelites learned Torah for the first time. Safe from the oppressive Egyptian army, they were able to open up their hearts to Torah, to the Godly way of living, to the idea that human life is more than mere material existence.

In that place, at that moment, because of their kavvanah [spiritual intentionality], the people were able to encounter the Divine. This is not to say that we can’t experience awe at the beauty of Creation on a mountaintop- of course we do and should !- but that Jewish spirituality is portable, depending much more on the orientation of one’s heart than the location of one’s feet. Perhaps the truly extraordinary event that took place on Mt. Sinai was not that the Divine revealed Itself to humans, but that humans received in humble awe the monotheistic teachings of Torah, which would from that moment on challenge the Jewish people to strive for ever greater spiritual heights.


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Beshallach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once the Israelites have left their slavery, Pharoah has a change of heart and decides to chase after them with his army. The Israelites come to the Sea of Reeds, but are able to cross on dry land after God parts the waters, which then come together and drown the pursuing Egyptian army. Moshe sings his “Song of the Sea,” and Miriam leads the women in dance and rejoicing. Still, the people are dissatisfied with conditions in the wilderness, and repeatedly complain, despite the fact that God provides them with “manna” and water. At the end of the parasha, there is a dramatic battle with the nation Amelek.

“God said to Moshe: ‘See here, I will rain down for them food from heaven, and the people will go out and collect a daily portion every day. Thus I will test them, whether they will follow My Torah or not.'”
(Exodus 16:5)

The Hebrew people have escaped to freedom in the wilderness only to find that there is no food or water in the desert; they complain and even nostalgically recall the food they ate in Egypt as slaves. They seem to blame Moshe for their troubles; he, in turn, reminds them that it was God who took them out of Egypt. God responds that God will provide food from heaven- the “manna”- as much as each person needs, with a double portion on Fridays so that the people do not need to gather on Shabbat. Each day the manna will fall, and whatever is left over will go bad; the people must collect their portion every day, and not attempt to hoard it.

The 15th century Sephardic Torah commentator R. Yitzhak Abarvanel (d.1508) notices a fundamental problem with this verse: when we say that someone is being “tested,” we assume that they are going to have to do something difficult. The classic example from the Torah is in Genesis 22, when God “tested” Avraham by asking him to bring his son Yitzhak as a sacrifice. However, as Abarvanel points out, God’s beneficence in providing the miraculous “food from heaven” seems like an act of lovingkindness, not a difficult challenge! What kind of test is it to provide someone with food and water that they simply collect without any trouble at all?

Nevertheless, the plain meaning of the verse is that God is giving Israel some kind of temptation or challenge. Rashi interprets the phrase “follow my Torah” as applying specifically to the instructions pertaining to the manna. Thus, for Rashi, the test that God gives the Israelites is whether they will follow the specific commandments not to leave the manna over till the next day, and not to go out collecting it on Shabbat. (See verses 16:19-27)

Other commentators understand the test in broader terms. Ibn Ezra understands the test in light of the first part of our verse, which says that one’s portion of manna must be collected every day. Ibn Ezra imagines God saying that the test is “so that they will rely on Me every day.” Similarly, Ramban writes a long commentary on this verse, in which he expounds the drama of the Israelites’ situation. They were in the desert wilderness, a “wilderness of snakes and scorpions,” taken there out of slavery by an unfamiliar ancestral God, who each day provided a strange food that neither they nor their ancestors had ever seen before. The people didn’t know if this invisible God would in fact provide food every day; they only received it one day at a time, with no assurances for the future. Under those circumstances, writes Ramban, the test is whether they would follow God even if they only had one day’s supply of food.

Philosophically, then, Rashi sees the test as one of obedience, whereas Ramban sees the test as one of faith. However, either approach answers Abarvanel’s question- yes, providing the Israelites with sustenance is an act of beneficence, but these too can be tests. To put it another way, the test of the Israelites was not a test of endurance or sacrifice, but a test of character under conditions of plenty. Freed from the need to work hard every day just to eat, would they grow spiritually, or would they become spiritually lazy?

Different aspects of this challenge can be inferred from the different commentator’s interpretations Ibn Ezra says that the test for the Israelites was to rely on God every day; turned around, we can understand this as the challenge of practicing gratitude, of becoming alive to the wonder of our continued existence. Every day we can wake up and be thankful for what we have- or we can take our situation for granted, and forget the Source of All Life.

Following Ramban, we can ask ourselves how willing we are to take spiritual risks when the future is not assured- do we follow a Godly path despite the detours and unfamiliar terrain such a journey must inevitably entail? Do we demand absolute predictability- which, after all, is the one thing the Israelites had as slaves in Egypt- or are we willing to take things “one day at a time,” opening ourselves to faith?

Another commentator, Hizkuni (France, d.1250) quotes an interpretation that the test was to see if the Israelites would use their time to study Torah, now that they had leisure time on their hands. That question applies as directly to our age as it does to the Torah story under consideration. [What do we do with all the time saved from our modern ‘time-saving devices? Do we watch another episode of ER, or use the time to make the world a better place or to grow spiritually? ed.]

Finally, returning to Rashi, we can infer that gifts carry with them responsibilities. The manna was a gift from God, but God asked that it be treated with respect and reverence. Do we, in fact, appreciate with reverence the gifts we have been given, and act accordingly? If the manna was symbolic of the sustenance we all too often take for granted, we can ask ourselves if we give back to God, though acts of charity and compassion, some of what has been given to us.

To cultivate the quality of wonder; to practice gratitude; to act responsibly with all we’ve been given- that’s the test, every day.

Note: Yehuda Nachshoni’s book which elucidates different Torah commentaries was helpful to me in preparing this column; the specific chapter in Nachshoni which discusses these issues was pointed out to me by R. Robert Wexler at the University of Judaism.

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Bo 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The dramatic contest of wills between God and Pharoah is coming to a climax: the plagues upon Egypt become steadily more punitive, culminating with the death of the first born. Before the final plague, Moshe and Aaron are given instructions by God to make a sacrifice, and to place the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Further instructions are given to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs; this becomes the source of our Passover traditions. The firstborn of the Egyptians are struck dead, and this is the final blow to Pharaoh, who sends the entire Israelite people out in the middle of the night. Commandments concerning Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn are given as a remembrance of the Exodus.

“He [Pharoah] called for Moshe and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Up and depart from among my people, both you and the Israelites with you! Go and worship God as you have spoken! Take also your flocks and your cattle, as you said, and go- and bless me too! “
(Exodus 12:31-32)

The death of the first born is the final, most terrible plague that God brings upon the recalcitrant, stubborn Egyptian monarch and his people. After the previous afflictions upon Egypt, Pharoah had offered partial freedom or small concessions to Moshe, but now, finally, even the deified king Pharoah must admit defeat. He surrenders almost unconditionally, allowing Moshe to take all the Israelites and all of their property and leave behind forever the bonds of slavery.

That Pharoah should finally concede to Moshe, as the agent of God, is not surprising; we knew that was going to happen from the very beginning of the slavery narrative. What we might not have expected was Pharoah’s request for a blessing from the man who has humbled and frightened him, the man he had previously scorned and ignored. It’s true that Pharoah had already conceded Moshe’s ability to mitigate particular plagues; for example, he asks Moshe to plead with God to remove the frogs (8:4-7). Still, one might have expected Pharoah, even in the moment of his defeat, to have sent Moshe and the Israelites out as fast as possible, simply to get rid of them- why does this tremendously proud man, revered as a human god, ask for a blessing? What does he think Moshe can do for him at this point?

There is no consensus among the commentators, either traditional or contemporary, as to what exactly this verse means. Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash, thinks that Pharoah is asking Moshe and Aaron to intercede and pray to God so that Pharoah, as a firstborn, will not die. This seems like a request for immediate action- i.e., pray for me right now, so that I won’t die like all the other firstborn.

Other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, , think that Pharoah is asking Moshe for prayers and blessings when he and the Israelites make their sacrifices in the wilderness, as Moshe had spoken of several times before. (For example, 8:22-25) This interpretation probably takes into account the “flocks and cattle” mentioned in the same verse; since Pharoah knows the Israelites will sacrifice these animals to their God, he asks for a prayer at that time. Ramban seems to agree with this line of interpretation, only adding that the blessing on a king includes his kingdom. He also quotes a midrash from the same sources as Rashi that has a slightly different twist on it: please pray that all the retributions will end, that I will no longer be punished on your account [now that you are leaving.]

The 16th century commentator Chaim ben Attar*, known as the Or HaChaim [“Light of Life”], says that Pharoah’s request for a blessing- as opposed to simply a reprieve from the plagues- meant that he wanted something positive, a “cure,” as it were, not just the removal of the problem. Perhaps the idea here is that Pharoah wanted Egypt to be somehow changed for the positive after their terrible experience.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Torah commentary used in almost all contemporary Reform congregations, illuminates not only the practical meaning but the religious and literary significance of this verse:

    Pharoah now acknowledges that God has dominion over him. The first meeting of a Pharoah with Jacob, upon his arrival in Egypt, [cf. Gen. 47] brought words of blessing, and so does the last- with Moses, upon this departure from Egypt.

Whatever Pharoah is asking Moshe to do for him- and it’s not quite clear- the remarkable thing is that the man who hardened his heart and ignored the suffering of his slaves is now acknowledging (even if only for a moment) that he is not, in fact, an invincible god-king as he presents himself previously. Yaakov’s blessing of the earlier Pharoah seemed to be the friendly meeting of equals; the earlier Pharoah seemed to be more humble, more open, more down-to-earth. The later Pharoah’s asking for a blessing seems to be an act of desperation and fear, illustrating the tragedy of arrogance. The Pharoah who stands cowering before Moshe missed so many opportunities- opportunities to act generously, to change his mind, to soften his heart, to learn from others, to acknowledge spiritual truths. He didn’t, and now must beg for help.

I see Pharoah is a tragic figure, and not merely a villain, because one can almost sense the fear in his voice as he asks his former adversary for help and salvation as his world crumbles around him. He must know, even if he wouldn’t admit it, that this disaster is his own fault; as Plaut points out, asking for a blessing means that he finally understands who is the real Sovereign. Of course, another cruel irony in the story is that his hard-earned humility proves to be fleeting; once the Israelites are gone, and the present punishments removed, his arrogance reasserts itself and he decides to chase after them. (Chapter 14)

The tragedy of Pharoah is not so much that he is a great man brought down by that special kind of over-reaching arrogance that the Greeks called hubris, but that for all of his trappings of kingship and deity, he is just an ordinary person, with ordinary human stubborness, pride, and selfishness. Consider his final change of heart after sending the Israelites out; how many times have people resolved to change their behavior in the midst of crisis, only to revert to old patterns once the immediate dangers have passed? Pharoah is the alcoholic lying in a hospital bed after crashing the car, vowing never to drink again, or the abusive husband who pleads with his wife to come back to him, because this time he’s really changed. Pharoah almost grasped the truth: that transformation of the self for the better requires effort all the time, not only desperate prayers in times of crisis. He almost grasped the truth, but apparently he wasn’t willing to face the personal consequences of holding on to this crucial insight.

Consider also all the other aspects of Pharoah’s personality that seem all to common when viewed as extreme examples of everyday tendencies: How often do we only ask for help when it’s too late? How many times have we all come to realise the truth in somebody else’s words only after we’ve stubbornly rejected them over and over? How often has each of us waited until crisis strikes before approaching God? How many of us have let our egos and self-centeredness get in the way of our generosity and compassion?

Last week I presented the idea that the story of Moshe, a shepherd with a speech problem, can be understood as the story of every human being who is challenged by God to become an instrument of Divine service, despite our frailties and limitations. Pharoah is Moshe’s opposite- instead of answering the call of the Divine, he resists it at all costs. If Moshe is the exemplar of relationship with God, Pharoah is the exemplar of spiritual blindness and immaturity. The tragedy is that he had opportunity after opportunity to grow and change, but could not or would not overcome his own worst character traits. The cartoon figure Pogo’s words were never more true than in the case of Pharoah: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Chaim ben Attar: born in 1696, died 1743 (Morocco). He is called the “Or HaChaim,” after his somewhat kabbalistically oriented Torah commentary of that name, included in many editions of Mikraot Gedolot.

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Vaera 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The previous parasha ends with the Israelites suffering greatly in servitude to Pharoah; rather than heed God’s instruction to let his slaves go, Pharoah increases their workload and even refuses to give them straw for the bricks they must make. Moshe goes back to God, and in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God reassures him that the Israelites will indeed be delivered by God’s own action. The plagues upon Egypt then commence, but Pharoah will not be moved. Eventually, God “hardens” Pharoah’s heart, and the plagues upon Egypt continue, becoming more wondrous each time.

“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Go and tell Pharoah king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moshe appealed to the Lord, saying: ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharoah heed me- a man of impeded speech!'” So the Lord spoke to both Moshe and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharoah king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.
(Exodus 6:10-13)

Moshe complains to God several times before this that God’s mission for him- to proclaim to Pharoah that he must free the Hebrew slaves- is impossible, or too difficult, or that Moshe is the wrong man for the job. Moshe seems not only to doubt his own capabilities but he also comes across as a bit jaded about human nature: he points out that a slave people isn’t likely to believe the wild reports of a wandering shepherd regarding their redemption, and Pharoah is even less likely to heed seditious suggestions in the name of an unknown God. In this verse, as before, Moshe protests that he is not a fluent speaker; it’s not clear whether this means that he had a physical speech defect, or was self-conscious and inarticulate. (Cf. 4:10.)

Digging a bit deeper into the question of Moshe’s “impeded speech,” we find that even explanations of the term fudge a bit as to whether it is a physiological or emotional problem. In this verse, quoted above, the literal translation of Moshe’s complaint is that he has “uncircumcised lips,” which doesn’t help us at all. Rashi says that “uncircumcised” means “closed,” or “stopped up,” and gives several examples from other verses to corroborate this definition. However, he doesn’t say what it actually means to have “closed” lips- it could be a kind of thickness of speech, or it could mean that his words don’t flow very well, that he has inadequate rhetorical skills.

Moshe makes his complaint a bit differently in the earlier verse referred to: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, not yesterday and not from the day before, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (4:11) Kaved in this verse literally means “heavy,” and is sometimes also translated as “slow of mouth and slow of tongue,” or something like that. Once again, it’s not clear exactly what Moshe means; the only thing that’s clear is that Moshe thinks this condition disqualifies him from being God’s agent in the task of confronting Pharoah.

Nachum Sarna, a Biblical scholar, in his book Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, offers a third possibility. Moshe grew up as an Egyptian, speaking the language of the land- perhaps he’s trying to tell God that after so many years in the land of Midian, his fluency in Egyptian isn’t what it used to be. Thus, he doesn’t possess the language skills to engage in this task of high-level communication and negotiation.

After looking at the various interpretations of what Moshe’s protests, Sarna does something unusual for a Bible scholar (whether of the old-time rabbinic variety or of the modern academic persuasion): he tells us that the exact nature of Moshe’s problem really doesn’t matter at all. Moshe felt inadequate to address Pharoah as God’s agent; God replies that it’s God’s words, not Moshe’s, that will be spoken. To quote Sarna:

    To this, God replies with what in effect is . . the essence of Biblical prophecy. The chosen messenger conveys not his own word but the word of God, and he does so because he irresistibly compelled by a Force and a Will more powerful than his own. Prophetic eloquence is not a matter of native talent, but of revelation that derives from the supreme Source of truth that is external to the speaker. The facile talker, the golden-tongued, the consummate demagogue, is not the recipient of the prophetic word or the vehicle of its transmission. Prophetic eloquence is a divine gift bestowed for [a] purpose on him who is elected, often against his will, to be the messenger. In these circumstances, experience and talent are irrelevant qualities.

To me, this explanation of Moshe’s protests is reassuring and discomforting at the same time. It’s reassuring because we can take from it hope that indeed, despite our human limitations and frailties, we can accomplish our unique tasks in life. To be sure, most of us don’t have a destiny as dramatic as Moshe’s, but each of us is commissioned for <something,> and given tools and talents and challenges to meet as best we can. Moshe, despite his absolutely extraordinary life, is also just like all the rest of us: called by God to be a partner in the work of Redemption, called by a God Who has faith in us even when we don’t have faith in ourselves. It’s reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful, but implanted Divine Truth into a person “slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” If Moshe could rise to the occasion and speak words to Pharoah that would change the whole course of human history, then I too can rise to the occasion and express to the world whatever sparks of Divinity I have been given.

Yet this is exactly what is discomforting about these verses: they strip from us all our excuses, all our rationales for procrastination, all our lack of self-confidence masquerading as humility. By appointing Moshe, the man of “uncircumcised lips,” as a prophet-president-diplomat-preacher (i.e., a man completely dependent on words), God is telling the rest of us: you have to get on with your spiritual mission in life, despite your limitations, despite your self-doubts, despite all the problems that seem to be in the way. It’s much easier to shrug off the task as beyond our capacities, or to wish fervently, as Moshe did, that God would appoint someone else in our place. Not everyone is chosen to lead a nation of slaves to freedom, but each of us must consider seriously and apply to ourselves Rabbi Tarfon’s famous challenge: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)

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