Archive for May, 2000

Bechukotai 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

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.


Bechukotai begins with a short description of the rewards and blessings that will follow from obeying the laws of the Torah. The promised rewards are followed with a somewhat longer section of curses, which will be the punishment if the people do not keep God’s ways. The parasha, and the book of Leviticus, ends with laws pertaining to the valuation of gifts to the Temple, which might include land, animals, or even the worth of one’s own person.


“If you will walk in My decrees and guard My commandments and do them, then I will provide the rains in their proper times. . . . ” (Leviticus 26:3)


The post-script to all the laws of the book of Leviticus is a straightforward theology of reward and punishment: if Israel follows the Torah, good and blessing will follow, but if Israel does not obey, God will send all sorts of calamities down upon the people.


Let’s leave to one side the question of Heavenly reward and punishment; it is an important and controversial topic, but for this week let’s focus on the verse which introduces this portion, quoted above. (However, for a discussion of some of the theological issues related to this parasha, see our archived Reb on the Web discourse. )

Rashi and others note that verse 3 seems to repeat itself. Rashi points out that “walking in [God’s] decrees” might be understood to mean “performing the commandments,” but then the verse goes on to say exactly that- “guard My commandments and do them.” So Rashi, based on an earlier midrash, will tell us that “walking in God’s decrees” means “labouring in Torah study.” Thus, Rashi reads the verse like this: “if you will labor in Torah study and keep the commandments and perform them. . . ”

This idea is picked up by many of the other commentators as well; the Ohr HaChaim lists no fewer than 42 (! !) reasons why Torah study is understood to be “walking in God’s decrees.” Two of my favorites are #1 and #3. The first reason that the Ohr HaChaim gives for the Torah’s linkage of “walking” and “God’s decrees” is that we should discuss Torah even while just walking along our way, just as the verse in Deuteronomy says: “and you should speak of them. . . while walking on your way.” (Deut. 6:7, part of the first paragraph of the Shma.)

I like this because it suggests that fulfilling the Torah (however one understands that to happen) in a rote, automatic way isn’t enough- one has to let Judaism permeate one’s being, so that spiritual thoughts and topics just naturally occur while doing other things, even just walking along. Religion isn’t just a matter of doing a bunch of commanded rituals, or confined to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, but should live and breath in our lives. Furthermore, notice that we should talk about what we’ve learned and what we’re doing- not taking it for granted or accepting it automatically, but sharing it, processing it, turning it around, getting new ideas and refining old ones all the time.

The third homiletic meaning of this verse, according to the Ohr HaChaim, is based on the famous teaching that Torah study can happen on 4 “levels”: the plain meaning of the text (pshat); the homiletic or moral expounding of the text (remez); the midrashic or imaginative interpretation (drash); and the secret, mystical meaning (sod.) Based on this concept, the Or HaChaim writes:

    These four methods between them account for what our sages call the 70 facets of the Torah. Each of these 70 facets is perceived as being a “path” one walks in the study of God’s teachings. The lesson is that the approach to Torah study should be along a variety of paths.

Thus, not only should we be letting Torah (understood broadly as Jewish teachings) permeate our everyday activities, we should learn the multiple meanings that Torah can encompass. Again, this suggests to me that learning is a dynamic, creative process- one doesn’t learn just one way of doing something, or only one interpretation, but one “walks a variety of paths,” paying attention to different ways of understanding and challenging oneself with new perspectives. In our day, in addition to the 4 “paths” of Torah interpretation, we might add: looking at historical contexts; feminist perspectives; viewing texts in the light of contemporary theologies; denominational perspectives; comparing traditional texts with modern ethical sensibilities; literary theory, and other ways of thinking that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Finally, one additional interpretation of “walking in God’s Torah” will help us pull these threads together. From the Chasidic anthology ‘Itturei Torah‘ (Torah Gems):

    “If you will walk in My decrees. . . ” [This means] that one must labor in Torah, according to Rashi. But why then the language of “walking,” since it could have been explicit: “If you will study, ” or “If you will occupy yourselves with Torah?” Because the “going” is the main thing. From the borders [going] all the way up from level to level, one gets to know the quality of laboring and investing oneself in one’s studies. (Translation mine.)

As so many others have said, it’s not where you are, it’s where you’re going, and the fact that you’re putting effort in to get there. As long as you’re “on the path,” and investing yourself in the learning process, that’s the main thing. All of these commentators are suggesting that Jewish growth happens over time in a process of interaction with the texts and traditions- you get out of it what you put into it, like any other educational or developmental process. “Walking” in Torah study means not staying in one place, but growing and learning and deepening one’s perspectives throughout one’s life.

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Behar 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

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 Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and ethical balances to free-market dangers. The Sabbath of the Land, called shmitta, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a “Jubilee” year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders. Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parasha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.


“If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him- sojourner or resident- and he will live with you.” (Leviticus 25:35)


If you see someone falling into poverty or getting into trouble, you must help them, even to the extent of taking them into your home. The commandment starts with the terminology of “your brother,” (i.e., a fellow Israelite, or perhaps someone from your tribe or clan) but in the end seems to imply that we must help any person in trouble, Jew or non-Jew.


Terse and idiomatic, it’s not clear from our verse what situation the Torah is addressing: is this a case of indebtedness, as would seem logical from the surrounding verses? If so, is it specifically directed at the creditors, exhorting them to be judicious and merciful with their financial power? Or is it a more general commandment to the Israelites, encompassing any kind of trouble or “falling low” that might happen to a person?

Let’s begin by comparing several translations and seeing how the translation itself is an interpretation:

Jewish Publication Society

“If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side. . . . ”

Reading this, one would think that the verse is directed to creditors; they must not treat “kinsmen” as if they were non-Jews by evicting them or seizing their property, because “one who mortgaged his land or sold it to another became, in a real sense, a tenant on his own land.” Alternatively, one must not turn a “kinsman” into a “resident alien” by evicting them; one must be compassionate and find a way to keep the poor “by your side” and in the community.

The Orthodox Artscroll translation and commentary sees the commandment to help in more general terms, but agrees with JPS that the point is to help people maintain their status as productive members of the community:

“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him- proselyte or resident- so that he can live with you.” (Emphasis added.)

Everett Fox, in The Schocken Bible, translates the verse in a way that implies that we must extend assistance to “our brother,” the sojourner, and the resident-settler equally:

“Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty), and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him (as though) a sojourner and a resident-settler, and he is to live beside you.”

This translation seems to turn around the potential ethnocentrism of the verse: just as you would help a sojourner in need, you also need to help the person close to you. It’s fascinating to think that the imperative of helping someone within one’s community might be derived from the classic idea of welcoming the stranger, and not vice versa.

The idea that this verse teaches equality in social ethics is made explicit by Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Bible, an interpretive translation according to traditional Jewish sources:

“When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native Israelite.

On the other hand, the New Revised Standard Version, a reliable and scholarly but not Jewish translation of the Bible, renders our verse with a somewhat different twist:

“And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you.

This is almost the opposite of the JPS translation; the interpretation here is that the consequences of becoming so poor that one needs social assistance is that one becomes like a “stranger and a sojourner,” rather than keeping one’s full status in the community.

One might be tempted to argue that a Christian translation could be biased towards seeing the Torah laws as harsh and punitive, while the Jewish translations, based as they often are on traditional Torah commentary, are more oriented towards finding the maximum charity and compassion in our verse. However, at least one Jewish translation, the old Soncino Chumash, renders the verse with the same meaning as the NRSV:

“And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee, then thou shalt uphold him; as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee.”

The commentators and translators disagree about the extent of our obligation to help those in need: do we give special consideration to the members of our community, or do we help all equally? ( Which might spread out our resources quite thinly.) Is there an inevitable social consequence to poverty, or must we find a way to keep the poor and the well-off on exactly the same social level?

These are questions with parallels in contemporary political debates across North America. Yet all the commentators agree that willingness to reach out to a person in need is a basic religious value, and that economic power brings with it the responsibility to act justly. In fact, the Chafetz Chaim, paraphrasing an earlier midrash, says that in the World to Come, one will be questioned about all the observances that one kept or didn’t keep, but it will be a “great and terrible thing” when they ask if one kept the mitzvah of “strengthening one’s brother.” He continues by reminding us that there will come a moment in everyone’s life when a poor person, or a troubled person, or a desperate person, will come to you for help- at that moment, you have a choice, to help or not, to fulfill this basic mitzvah or to turn your back, to “strengthen your brother” (or sister) or to “let his hand falter besides you.”

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Emor 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

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.


Emor begins with laws directed at the kohanim, the priests. They must observe certain restrictions concerning contact with the dead; they are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. Just as the priests must be physically unblemished, so too the animals must be physical perfect. The major holidays are described in order. The parasha ends with laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, restitution of injuries, and punishment for cursing God’s name.


“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field in your reaping, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest- for the poor and the stranger you shall leave them- I am Adonai Your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)


When Israel becomes settled in the Land, those who are blessed with produce of the land must remember the poor and the homeless by leaving something left over after the harvest. This is the produce of the edges (“corners”) of the fields and also that which has fallen down and been left on the ground. This mitzvah reinforces the idea that wealth is given to a person to share with others; it also helps to preserve the dignity of the poor by allowing them to participate in their own sustenance. The last part of our verse reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God and we are but tenants on it; this theological idea will be revisited in the next parasha.

In our day, some farmers here in North America try to keep the spirit of this commandment by allowing church groups or volunteers to take a certain part of the produce of the field and bring the food to homeless shelters or soup kitchens, or by allowing those in need to come along to pick up what’s left after the farming machines have harvested most of the crop.


The verse commanding the Israelites to leave some of their harvest for the poor and the stranger is a wonderful verse and yet seemingly out of place. All of chapter 23, with the exception of this verse, is concerned with the holidays: Passover, the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Laws are given for the special observances of each holiday, as well as for the holiday priestly offerings.

So what’s this verse about the ethics of agriculture doing here, stuck between Shavuot and Rosh Hashana? As usual, explanations range from the simple and straightforward to the highly creative.

On the simple and straightforward side, Ibn Ezra explains that since Shavuot is the holiday when the first grain is brought, this verse reminds us what else we must do in that season. Other commentators, such as Hizkuni and the Jewish Publication Society, basically agree that this verse is here because the Torah is dealing with agricultural matters as they pertain to the first harvest of the season.

Rashi, on the other hand, takes a more homiletical approach. He quotes a teaching from an ancient rabbi, R. Avidimi, who proposes that the mitzvah of leaving the gleanings is stuck into the middle of the festivals in order to teach that anyone who leaves food for the poor in this manner is considered as if they had come up to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices there. In Biblical times, the three “walking” holidays were Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when Israelites were expected to ascend to Jerusalem and personally make offerings in the Temple. R. Avidimi equates the holiness of this central ritual – pilgrimage to the Temple- with the holy act of leaving the corners of your field for the needy.

Ramban has an even more interesting interpretation, in my view. He connects the “reaping” of our verse with the “reaping” of 23:10, which tells us about the Omer offering that the priests make in the spring. Verse 10 says that an offering from the new grain must be brought by the priests before the harvest may be eaten by the general public. This is usually understood as an acknowledgment of thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest, done before partaking of the new crop.

The connection between the “reaping” of the Omer and the “reaping” of our verse , according to Ramban, is that even this positive commandment to bring the offering of the Omer doesn’t overrule the commandment to leave the gleanings for the poor. In other words, don’t let your enthusiasm for the ritual commandments cause you to forget your moral obligations. We might even intpret futher; since the Omer offering is one of thanks, we might say that Raman is reminding us that thanks to God for our good fortune must be expressed by sharing that good fortune with those around us.

Notice that neither Rashi nor Ramban says that the ethical commandment in our verse is better or more important than the ritual holiday commandments on either side of it, nor vice versa. It seems to me that the challenge of balancing the ritual and ethical practices of Judaism is just that- trying to find a balance, upholding both a personal spirituality (symbolized by the pilgrimage aspect of the holy days) and an outer-directed effort to heal the world (symbolized by the commandment to leave the gleanings of the field.) As R. Avdimi teaches, both are holy, and as Ramban reminds us, both are necessary.

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Kedoshim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

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.


Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parasha is a list of behaviours that are either holy or not holy. These laws are both ethical and religious, and sometimes both, as in the prohibitions against certain kinds of incest. Other famous laws in this section include the prohibition against putting a “stumbling block” before the blind, and the commandment to “love your fellow human as yourself.” Israel is commanded to be holy just as Israel’s God is Holy.


“God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to the entire Israelite community, and say to them: “You must be holy, for I, Y-H your God am Holy.” ‘ ” (Leviticus 19:1-2)


Holiness is understood here as related to, or as a function of, Israel’s relationship with God. Note also its inclusiveness; holiness is something that is every Israelite’s responsibility and potential.


The verses quoted above set off a lively discussion among the classic commentators, who want to know what holiness is, where it comes from, why every single Israelite is commanded to strive for it, and why God’s Holiness is the concept that introduces this whole section of Torah.

Rashi thinks that kadosh, which we translate as “holy,” means “separate,” and he sees this verse as the link between the previous parasha, which details sexual prohibitions, and this one. Thus, for Rashi, the crucial idea is that holiness is achieved by separating oneself from sexual immorality- he says (based on an earlier midrashic comment) that these following verses are so important that a big part of the Torah “hangs” on them, which is why every single Israelite had to be instructed and included.

Ramban on the other hand, sees kedusha, or holiness, in more general terms. As I understand his comments, he agrees with Rashi that holiness is linked to the idea of separation. However, he thinks that the issue here is not separating from sin- after all, you wouldn’t need a separate verse to tell you that!- but separating from things that are not “sinful,” per se, but bad in excess. Just as God embodies everything that is good and worthy, so we too should strive for an overall worthiness of character. Ramban gives the example of someone who can have sex with a permitted partner, or eat permitted foods- but does so in a way that bespeaks immaturity and coarseness of character.

This person (in Ramban’s example)- who does not live in a “holy” way, but isn’t an evil person either- is unenlightened or unspiritual, just living a kind of mere physical existence without awareness of spiritual virtues. Thus, for Ramban, this verse in the Torah is telling us to live our lives as gracefully and as consciously as we can- not just going through the motions of religious rituals and rules but striving for spiritual awareness and refinement of character.

The Or HaChaim (R. Chaim Ben Attar, an 18th century Moroccan commentator) writes a long exposition of this verse, most of which is similar to Ramban’s approach. Yet at the end of his comments, he offers an entirely different interpretation, based on the Zohar: “kedoshim ti’hiyu” [be holy!] is an invitation to become like the angels, who are called “kedoshim,” or “holy beings.” According to this midrash, before the Israelites built the Mishkan, [portable Sanctuary], the angels used to create a “dwelling place” for God in the heavens- but now that the Israelites have created such a “dwelling place,” they are like the Heavenly Hosts, with God’s Presence at the centre of their assembly.

I don’t think this midrash is proposing that that God literally “dwelled” in any one place; I read this as metaphoric language describing human spiritual potential. It is our “job,” as it were, to make God’s Presence felt in this world- when we do that, we ourselves become holy beings. We can either have God’s Presence in the centre of our “camp,” or we can have something else.

All the commentators agree on one idea: holiness is a function of how we act in the world.

This point was articulated beautifully by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, one of the great Jewish preachers of our age. R. Greenberg sees holiness as linked to all of the ethical principles in this entire section of Leviticus. Thus he writes:

Holiness. . . is accessible to all. Nor is holiness achieved by turning one’s back on society and the world. It is achieved in the midst of daily living. Holiness is not something apart from life, it is a part of life.

The Bible then proceeds to teach us that holiness is not an abstract or mystical idea; it is meant to be a principle which regulates our daily lives. How is holiness attained? By honoring parents, observing the Sabbath, doing kindness to the needy, paying wages promptly, dealing honestly in business, refraining from talebearing, loving one’s neighbor, showing cordiality to the stranger, and acting justly.

Holiness is the crucial dimension of daily living.

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