Archive for February, 2000

Ki Tissa 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

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.

OVERVIEW
Parshat Ki Tisah is much less thematically consistent than the previous two Torah portions. It begins with instructions for taking a census and a half shekel contribution from the Israelite adults, and continues with more instructions for making the worship implements for the Mishkan, telling us along the way about the craftsmen who will make them and how to dedicate these unique objects. After that, God reminds Moshe to tell the people about the holiness and importance of Shabbat. The largest part of the chapter is the story of the Golden Calf: the people, upset at Moshe’s delay up on the mountain, make a statue of a bull or cow and venerate it as their liberator, apparently with Aaron’s cooperation. Both God and Moshe are rather upset by this, and although Moshe rebukes the people harshly, he also prays on their behalf to God, Who speaks of punishing them. Finally, Moshe goes up the mountain again and beseeches God to reaffirm the Covenant and give Moshe a unique experience of God’s presence. With great drama, God shows Moshe God’s “back” but not God’s “face,” and does reaffirm the Covenant and its ritual and ethical stipulations.

IN FOCUS
“And God spoke to Moshe: You shall speak to the Israelites, telling them that they must guard my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you through your generations, to know that I am God who makes you holy.”

(Exodus 31:12-13)

PSHAT
In this passage, from 31:12-17, God restates the centrality of Shabbat, the seventh day, for the religious life of the people. It is not only a “sign” of the Covenant between God and Israel, but also a reminder of God’s role as the Creator, who finished Creation in six days and “rested” on the seventh. Although we who live today would consider Shabbat to be part of our religious or ritual lives, and thus separate from the legal structures of society, the ancient texts list severe punishments for the violation of the Shabbat laws. Our passage tells us that Shabbat violators were to be put to death; the post-Biblical rabbis made so many rules of evidence and intention that it would be almost impossible to carry out such a sentence. Still, in the Biblical conception, Shabbat was not merely a day of rest for personal enjoyment, but a fundamental norm of Israelite life.

DRASH
There is an interesting ambiguity in verse 13, above; it’s not clear who is the subject of the verb “to know.” Clearly, the Israelite nation is the subject of “guard my Sabbaths,” but at least a few medieval commentators thought that it was other nations who would then know that Shabbat was the sign between Israel and God. The 10th century philosopher, communal leader and Torah scholar
Saadia Gaon, in his commentary on Exodus, merely points out that “to know ” in our verse implies the future tense; he doesn’t specify who will know that Shabbat is the sign of the covenant.

However, Ibn Ezra, in his “short” commentary, written a few centuries later, says that Saadia’s interpretation is that Jews will be known through the observance of Shabbat- other peoples will see the Jewish shops closed and nobody working on the seventh day and will come to understand the unique character of the Jewish people. Rashi’s perspective is similar: he writes that “to know” means that “the nations will come to know that ‘I am God who makes you holy.’ ” In this interpretation, Shabbat is a “sign” between God and Israel so that everybody else will know about the covenant; we might also assume that the public observance of Shabbat is also a demonstration of the goodness and wisdom of the Torah, and therefore praise for the God who gave such a Torah. In a sense, if we follow this interpretation of our verse, Shabbat is part of the Jewish mission to be “a light unto the nations,” or living demonstration of faithfulness to the Holy One.

However, although Ibn Ezra reports to us what he thinks Saadia meant in Saadia’s commentary, he himself has a different approach. Ibn Ezra says that the meaning of our verse is “that you will come to know that you are made holy to Me.” Ibn Ezra backs this up by pointing out that there is a known practice to study Torah on Shabbat. Presumably, studying Torah, which a person can do with greater freedom and dedication on Shabbat when they’re not at work, is a way that we come to “know” about our relationship with God.

I would propose another possible nuance to Ibn Ezra’s reading. Ordinarily, one might assume that a religious person would take on a particular observance or practice because she felt that God commanded her (however we understand that process to happen) to do so. Yet maybe sometimes we come to “know” God- that is, feel close to or experience holiness on an emotional or spiritual level- through the actual practice of rituals and observances themselves. It’s like a cycle that builds on itself; we reach out to God through ritual and observance, and in those very moments of extending ourselves we come to know for Whom we are reaching. An example might be two lovers who take a weekend holiday together; they clearly love and desire each other before they go away (one hopes) but in the very act of creating special space for each other and spending time together they come to know and love each other more deeply (again, one hopes.)

It seems to me that the in Saadia’s and Rashi’s reading of our verse, the spirituality of Shabbat comes from a sense of being dedicated to our task in the world around us- by observing Shabbat, after the manner of our community, we witness to the world that there is a greater truth than economic activity and material well-being. In this perspective, the crucial observances of Shabbat are the “don’ts” , or negative commandments: don’t work, don’t buy and sell things, etc. In Ibn Ezra’s reading, the spirituality of Shabbat is more in the “do’s”, or positive commandments: do study Torah, do pray with your community, do eat festive meals with loved ones and guests, do take the time to appreciate with wonder the world and people around you. In this way of looking at things, the “don’ts” create the space in which the “do’s” can happen, rather than being ends in themselves.

Ideally, Shabbat, or any other Jewish observance, has both an outer form and an inner experience; sometimes we can’t get to that more “spiritual” or inner quality of the practice until we’ve done it a bit and feel comfortable with it, at which point the relationship between outer forms and inner experience becomes clearer to us. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that a Jew isn’t asked to take a leap of faith, but a leap of action, alluding to the kind of “knowing” that comes after the doing. “Knowing” God can be like knowing a person; one has to take the time and make the space for any intimate relationship to grow.

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Tetzaveh 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

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.

OVERVIEW

Most of the latter part of the book of Exodus is concerned with the construction and operation of the <Mishkan,> or portable Sanctuary, yet within this larger topic the portions do have distinct themes. Last week the overall details of the Mishkan and its vessels were described; this week’s portion, <Tetzaveh,> is concerned with the priests (<Kohanim>) who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Rules and descriptions are given for the complex ritual garments of the high priest- replete with gold and adornments of precious stones – as well as a seven day period of sacrifices and rituals to sanctify the priests for services. The parasha ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered.

 

IN FOCUS

“You shall take the two <shoham> stones and engrave upon them the names of the tribes of Israel, six of the names on one stone and the other six names on the second stone, according to the order of their birth. . . You shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the <ephod>, remembrance stones for the tribes of Israel. And Aharon shall carry their names before God on his two shoulders as a remembrance.” (Exodus 28:9-12)


PSHAT

The garment called the <ephod> was kind of like an apron that Aharon, the High Priest, wore as he approached the Presence of God in the innermost parts of the sanctuary. The <ephod> was woven out of threads of different colors, and had shoulder straps with beautiful engraved stones (the <shoham:> stones) on them, with the names of the tribes of Israel listed by birth order: i.e, beginning with Ruven and Shimon and ending with Binyamin. Thus, when Aharon performed the priestly service, he carried on his shoulders the names of the tribes of the Israelite nation.

( Note: the names of Yaakov’s twelve sons became the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, except for Levi, who didn’t get a portion of land because his descendants became priests, and Yosef, whose tribe was “split” into the names of his sons Ephraim and Menashe.)

 


DRASH

The ritual garments of the High Priest seem to be rich in symbolic meaning- the problem is that the Torah doesn’t tell us what it is! Thus over the centuries many commentators have interpreted the different details of the priestly garments in all kinds of different ways, bringing mysticism, ethics, law, and imagination to bear on the problem of understanding the symbolism.

The contemporary Israeli Torah scholar Pinchas Peli, in his book of essays on the weekly Torah portion called Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, notes that the High Priest actually carries the names of the tribes of Israel in two places on his body. Not only were the names engraved on his shoulders, but apparently also on his breastplate, which had set on it not two but twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes.

Thus we read another verse which brings the idea of “remembrance:”

Aharon shall bear the names of the tribes of Israel on the Breastplate upon his heart when he enters the sanctuary, as a constant remembrance before God. ” (Exodus 28:29).

For Peli, the symbolism of the engraved names and the “remembrance” stones is a moral teaching about the perils and responsibilities of leadership. Sometimes – far too often- leaders get to their position and forget what they’re doing there, which should be serving and supporting the people to whom they are responsible. Aharon, the High Priest, who approached God on behalf of the people, must remember at all times that he is there for them, not for himself; he must carry the “names” not only on his chestpiece but in his heart, as a part of his consciousness. Peli sees in the <shoham> stones, which were on the priest’s shoulders, the idea that the leader must remember that he (or she, in our day) has the job of “carrying”- i.e., remembering and caring for- the people, rather than the all too common way of thinking that other people exist to serve and support those “on top.”

Perhaps we can extend Peli’s insight even further, not only to leadership but as a paradigm for all relationships of love and committment. According to Peli’s interpretation, the ritual garments of the High Priest served to inculcate within him the consciousness that his role was to serve and support others. This outward-looking orientation seems to me to be an essential aspect of a mature religious personality. Consider, for example, a famous passage from the Talmud that lists the acts that “guarantee” a person a “share” in the world to come (in other words, these are the acts at the top of the list of spiritual values). What’s on the list? Honoring one’s mother and father; acts of kindness; supporting the schools and synagogues; hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; helping a needy bride, and making peace between people. (Shabbat 127a)

In other words, just as the High Priest had to remember that his job was to care for others, as opposed to performing his duties for the glory and honor it brought him, a basic religious orientation is to always remember- bring into our consciousness- other people’s needs and circumstances. We have to “carry on our hearts” the needs of those around us if we want be spiritually effective; we have to remember that it’s a privilege to “carry on our shoulders” those who may benefit from the unique gifts we may be able to offer. It’s so easy in this “Look Out for Number One” world to slip into the mentality that others are here for our benefit rather than seeing a life of giving and service as a great gift we can offer to the world.

Authentic Jewish spirituality is never only about the individual’s inner encounter with the Holy; it must include an element of outer-directed love and service in the context of spiritual community. The most “spiritual” person in the ancient community of Israel (i.e., the High Priest) didn’t approach God only as an individual but brought with him the consciousness of his place within the entire nation. This is not to discount personal spiritual intentionality and devotion, but rather to propose it can’t be all there is in a Jewish religious life. If we’re not carrying with us the “names of the tribes of Israel” on our hearts, we’re not fulfilling our potential as part of a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

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Terumah 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

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.

OVERVIEW

The third “act” or major theme of the Book of Exodus now begins: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where sacrifices where offered and God’s Presence was felt. This portion and ones following go into great detail describing God’s instructions to Moshe as to how the Mishkan should be built and what the various components are, including the <menorah> or lamp and an altar for sacrifices. “Terumah” means something like “contribution” or “expected donation,” and thus the very name of this parasha conveys the idea that every Israelite was asked to contribute gold, silver, copper, wool, animal skins, precious stones, wood, and so on, so that the Mishkan would represent the efforts of the entire nation.

IN FOCUS

“This is the <terumah> that you shall take from them: gold, and silver, and copper. . . ” (Exodus 25:3)

PSHAT

Long before the actual building of the Mishkan, Moshe gets instructions from God dealing with both the social and architectural aspects of its construction. In our verse, God gives Moshe a long “shopping list” of construction materials that he will collect from the Israelites; gold, silver, and copper are at the top of the list, but he will also need to collect all kinds of other things as well, not just for the Mishkan but also for the special clothing that the priests will wear inside it.

DRASH

The famous 18th century preacher, the Maggid of Dubno, noticed that when King David wanted to build a permanent Temple in Jerusalem (a task that ultimately fell to his son Shlomo), he also mentioned gold, silver, and other precious metals as necessary construction materials. (Cf. 1 Chronicles 29). Could it be that God actually desires these things, which so many people have fought over and tried to amass? One could imagine God asking for God’s sanctuary to be made of plain materials, to teach the people humility and the priority of heart-orientation over precious-metals acquisition. The Maggid goes on to explain:

“Understand this, that God chose silver and gold and the like to build God’s Mishkan is not because God actually loves silver and gold- impossible! Rather, these things are valuable in the perspective of human beings, and when a person contributes to God something beloved, it is as if she gives her love to God. When all the contributions from all the Israelites were joined together, a dwelling place was made for the <Shechina>, as it is written: ‘He [King Shlomo] made its pillars of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple, in the midst of it inlaid lovingly by the women of Jerusalem. . .’ (Song of Songs 3:10)

It would have been fitting to command every Jew to give God his love, but how could one deal with such a spiritual matter, since every person’s love is deep in the heart? Thus God instructed [Moshe] to take for God a contribution in the form of a physical object, and along with the object the love is given over. . . . . ”
(Ohel Yaakov, quoted in Itturei Torah; my translation.)

Textually, the Maggid is picking up on the phrase “inlaid lovingly” in the verse from the Song of Song; the loving attention of the artisans who built the components of the Temple for King Shlomo is midrashically equated with the love that people gave to God when they donated valued things to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan in its day, the Temple in its day, and a synagogue or house of study in our day are all considered places where God’s Presence “dwells,” or is felt palpably. This is a powerful statement about the value of contributing to your local synagogue or study centre!

Theologically, the Maggid’s point is that what God really wants is not a physical sanctuary, but the love and devotion of each human heart. There is a famous phrase from the Talmud at the centre of much Hassidic thought: “God desires the heart.” (Sanhedrin 106b) The construction of the Mishkan, and later the construction of the Temple, which occupies page after page in the Bible, is here portrayed as a compromise measure! It’s a fascinating idea, again central to Hassidic and Mussar thought: God knows the desires of the human heart (for power, honor, money, and so on) and gives us a way to raise up those desires for holy purposes.

The lust for gold is a problem in the human community? Fine, then, let’s make God’s sanctuary of gold, so that when they give to God, as it were, they are raising up and making holy their seemingly “unspiritual” desire. Other examples of this idea from the classic texts include the idea that if one has a competitive streak, one should “do battle” with others in the realm of Torah, arguing vigorously for one’s ideas and interpretations, or if somebody really loves lots of gourmet food, let that person make the most beautiful meals for Shabbat and the holidays, inviting others to the table at sanctified times.

Please note, however, the end of the Maggid’s teaching: it would be nice if we could all be so spiritual all the time that we gave our love directly to God without any kind of intermediate steps, but as distractable human beings, it doesn’t seem to work that way. We need disciplines and structure and “baby steps” like prayer and study and mitzvot to be in steady relationship with the Holy One. What the Mishkan was about, in the Maggid’s interpretation, was creating a structure in which every person could participate at their own level- and that’s the necessary precondition for inviting God’s Presence into our community. We don’t all have to be super-spiritual types, we just have to give what we can.

Yet there is one more idea lurking in the Maggid’s interpretation. It seems to me that the Maggid is also implicitly challenging us with a question: do we really give that which we love and value to God? The Maggid suggests that it was gold in particular that God asked for in the construction of the Mishkan because that’s what people valued so much. In other words, it was a real sacrifice. Just think about it: a homemade cake might not taste as good as the most expensive bakery cake, yet it will most likely be more appreciated as a gift because the recipient knows that the giver extended him or herself to give it. As it says in another Mishna: “the one who gives much and the one who give a little are equal, as long as one directs one’s heart to Heaven.” (Menuchot 13:11)

I think the Maggid subtly extends this idea to our spiritual lives, and forces us to consider: do I give my best (time, effort, attention, presence, energy) to God, in the form of prayer, study, participation, care for others? Does study get my best attention or a few minutes of nodding off time? Is my spiritual community my priority or an afterthought? Do I give resentfully, or out of love?

Do I give my “silver and gold,” or the scraps left over? Just a question we all need to ask ourselves from time to time. . . .

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Mishpatim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

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.

OVERVIEW
Until this point, the Torah has been largely, though not exclusively, narrative. Now, after the story of the giving of the Torah, the text is largely, though again not exclusively, concerned with laws and behaviors. This parasha contains civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws- the Torah doesn’t seem to make the same distinctions that we do between civil and criminal, religious and secular legislation. Towards the end of the parasha, the holidays are reviewed, and God’s promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan is reiterated. Moshe makes a sacrifice in front of the entire Israelite leadership, and they have a wondrous vision of God. Moshe goes back up the mountain, and stays there in a cloud to receive the law.

IN FOCUS
“Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
(Exodus 23:9)

PSHAT
In the middle of a variety of laws which encourage people to help each other and uphold justice in society, Israel is reminded that a “stranger,” or “resident alien,” must be especially protected, because Israel’s own experience has taught them how easy it is to abuse the most helpless and marginal in society. Israel, more than anybody else, should be able to sympathize with the powerless, and act accordingly.

DRASH
The simple meaning of the verse, as explained above, is quite clear, and in fact this idea is repeated over and over again in the Torah, more than thirty times. The Torah seems to be teaching that justice grows out of compassion; having an open and sympathetic spirit seems to be a necessary prerequisite to constructing a fair and moral society. This seems right and good, so much so that it’s almost obvious that our religious texts should join compassion and justice together as inseparable imperatives.

However, for at least one great Torah scholar of the previous century, the simple reading of our verse wasn’t so simple. R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the “Elder of Slobodka,” (1849-1927) was the head of the famous Slobodka yeshiva in the Baltic region, where he taught Torah in the “mussar” tradition, which emphasized applied ethics, the development of positive character traits, and service to others. He didn’t read this verse as demanding sympathy for others, but deep identification with them, both in their joys and sorrows:

    Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression. Rather, the reason is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. “You shall love your fellow person as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)- truly just like yourself. A person’s relationships to others is not found to be complete unless he/she can feel himself and his fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation. (Source: Itturei Torah)

R. Nosson wants us to be so empathetic with other people that we experience their joys and sorrows as our own; it’s a whole deeper level of emotional connection, implying a tremendous effort to transcend our own egos and fears and desires so that we can be fully emotionally present with those around us. Textually, R. Nosson seems to be picking up on the unusual phrase “for you know the soul of a stranger.” The word <nefesh> literally means soul or spirit; most translations render it in this context as “feelings” or “experience” or something similar, following the “plain meaning” as above. R. Nosson seems to be saying that our task is not to “know the soul of the stranger” merely from our past experiences, but as an active part of the commandment- you are to “know the soul” of the people around you right now, in the sense of being deeply identified with their experiences, feeling their pain as yours, their happiness as your own.

To me this implies a whole different way of thinking about our existence in the world. Moral reasoning is based on the idea that each person is a unique, self-contained individual, who can choose to act in certain ways that will be either good or bad for the other individuals around her. Our choices about what is good or bad for the people around us is in turn based on the assumption that there is some things are valued as “good” and other things or outcomes devalued as “bad;” we might get those values from religion, rationality, philosophy, our schooling, our parents, and so on.

R. Nosson seems to be saying that the basic assumption of moral reasoning – that we are autonomous, choosing beings- isn’t enough, perhaps because our assumptions about what is “good” or “bad” might be incorrect, or our ability to rationalize problematic behaviors. Rather, we must attempt to experience just what others are experiencing, so that our decisions about how to treat others becomes not so much a choice based on rational factors but grows organically out of our own being. If we are happy when others are happy, we will, naturally, do what we can for their happiness, for in doing so we increase our own happiness, which is something everybody desires. Similarly, if we suffer along with others, we will work to relieve their suffering and with it our own- service to others becomes a structure for living and vice versa.

It’s a tall order, and perhaps not always achievable. Yet R. Nosson is onto something here- perhaps if we tried on the deepest level possible to connect with the life experience of others, some seemingly difficult decisions would become obvious. Feed a homeless person? If you felt his hunger as your own, of course you would. Protect a victim of spousal abuse? If you felt the blows and the pain as your own, of course you would. Visit the elderly and the shut-ins? If you felt their loneliness as your own, of course you would. The Elder of Slobodka imagined a world where we would have no excuses for not helping others- excuses would be irrelevant, for in his world, human beings would overcome all that separates them and reach out to each other with profound recognition of our shared destiny.

Can we imagine the same thing? Can we afford not to?

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