Archive for June, 2000

Shlach-Lecha 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

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.

Shlach-Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

OVERVIEW

As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, spies are sent ahead to scout out the Land. They return with a discouraging report, and the people believe that it will be too difficult to possess the Promised Land. They long to return to Egypt; God wants to destroy the faithless people, but Moshe persuades God to relent. Instead, God lengthens their wanderings to 40 years, so that none of the generation of the Exodus will enter the Land. The parasha ends with various laws of sacrifice which will take effect when they are settled in the Land; the final paragraph contains the commandment to attach fringes [tzitzit] to the corners of their clothing.

IN FOCUS

“And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them. ‘ ” (Numbers 13:32-33)

PSHAT

The story of the spies is one of the dramatic highlights of the book of Numbers; it contrasts the fearful majority of the reconnaissance team, with Calev and Yehoshua [Joshua], who urge the people not to be afraid- these heroes of faith believe that God will protect the people and bring them into the land. In the verses quoted above, the fearful spies are telling the people that the land of Israel is filled with giants, or semi-divine beings, who will surely defeat the Israelites if they attempt to settle there.

DRASH

One of the greatest teachers of Torah of our age, Nechama Leibowitz, z’l, in one of her essays on this parasha, asks an important question: how did the spies know what the “giants” thought of them? They don’t report any interaction with these bizarre “Nephilim;” if they really were giant beings, then one could understand the feeling that “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” but how did they know if the “giants” even noticed them?

Unfortunately, although Nechama Leibowitz posed this great question, she didn’t give any hint as to an answer. Not only that, but it seems that this question has been around for a very long time. The contemporary Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, in the Jewish Publication Society commentary, quotes a midrash from the ancient rabbis, in which God rebukes the spies:

    “I take no objection to your saying: ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ but I take offense when you say ‘so we must have looked to them.’ How do you know how I made you to look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels!” (based on Numbers Rabbah 16:11)

On the other hand, Rashi says that the spies reported overhearing the giants talking to one another, saying that “there are ants in the vineyard that resemble human beings.” (Rashi is also quoting an ancient midrash, this time from the Talmud.) Rashi answers our question directly, but doesn’t address the feeling I get from the text that the spies were reacting out of panic and insecurity rather than objectively reporting what they saw. On the other hand, perhaps Rashi is trying to emphasize their lack of confidence; after all, an ant is even smaller and more easily crushed than a grasshopper!

The European commentator R. Yaakov ben Asher, (d. 1343; known as the Ba’al HaTurim) quotes a midrash which makes the spies seem almost delusional. In this version, the spies report that:

    “. . . One of the giants ate a pomegranite and tossed aside the husk, and all 12 spies entered it and sat down in it. . . we sat down in it like grasshoppers.”

Now, that must have been one humongous pomegranite! If you’re smiling and thinking to yourself, “what a silly story,” I think you understand the force of this midrash. I think the very absurdity of this midrash is a clue as to its meaning: it’s silly and ridiculous to project your own insecurities onto others, thinking you know what they think about you. As the earlier midrash said more explicitly, maybe the spies appeared as angels!

I think we can also hear in this midrash the fear the spies must have been feeling; desperate to avoid the challenge of going up to the land, perhaps they found themselves saying anything that came to mind, even if it was biased to the point of absurdity. Many of us have had those moments when our insecurities have overwhelmed our reason- we might even consider the possibility that the Ba’al HaTurim is portraying the spies as so fearful as to be pathetic, objects of sympathy rather than scorn.

On the other hand, consider the imagery of this midrash in more symbolic terms: the spies arrived at their self-assessment as grasshoppers by sitting down in the “husk” of the pomegranite. Perhaps the image of the outer shell or husk which surrounds the spies when they sit in it is a hint that their real problem is that they don’t look any deeper into things, seeing only outward appearances. Based on the outward appearance of things, this rag-tag bunch of former slaves could never enter the Land; seen with the eyes of faith, even “giants” couldn’t stop them.

Again, the spies present themselves as more tragically flawed than deliberately disruptive; paralyzed by fear, thinking of themselves as weak and ineffectual, they could see only the surface reality of physical strength, not the spiritual truth of their destiny as dwellers in the Promised Land. Seeing only the outer husk of things keeps us from moving forward; having faith in ourselves and faith in the Holy One enables us to grow, evolve, and become what we’re meant to be.

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Beha’alotcha 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

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.

Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

OVERVIEW

This parasha is thematically diverse, beginning with the Menorah in the Mishkan, then proceeding to a description of the dedication of the Levites as assistants to the priests. The Israelites celebrate the Pesach holy day in the wilderness, but some men can’t bring the sacrifice, due to ritual impurity, so God gives them a second chance, a month later. Then the Israelites complain about their diet of heavenly Manna – so God, apparently frustrated sends them so much meat that it comes out their nostrils! Aharon and Miriam speak slander against of Moses and his wife; Miriam is stricken with a scaly skin outbreak, and sent out of the camp.

IN FOCUS

“The meat was still between their teeth when [the people] began to die. God’s anger was displayed against the people, and God struck them with an extremely severe striking. He named the place “Graves of Craving” [Kivrot HaTa’avah], since it was in that place where they buried the people who had these cravings. From Graves of Craving, the people traveled to Chatzerot. . . .” (Numbers 11:33-35)

PSHAT

After the people demand meat from Moshe- they were apparently unsatisfied with having all their food sent directly from Heaven!- God sends a huge flock of quail for the people to eat. The Israelites collected all the quail they could, intending to eat meat like gluttons, when God sends a punishment for the people’s ingratitude and lack of faith. Thus, the place where they stopped was called “Graves of Craving,” because people died there because of their craving for meat.

DRASH

This is not the first time we see a significant place name in the Torah. For example, in Genesis 28:19, Yaakov sets up a pillar to mark the place where he had his amazing vision of the ladder to heaven; he then calls the spot “Bet-El,” or “House of God,” reflecting the theophany which occurred there. Academic Bible scholars tend to see these names as history retrojected back onto the text, an explanation of a name or tradition that was already old by the time the Torah was set down in writing.

The Torah itself simply tells us the meaning of a name in a straightforward fashion, as above: Kivrot-HaTa’avah got its name because the “Cravers” [the mita’avim] of meat, who did not appreciate or acknowledge the tremendous miracle God was giving them, died and were buried there [in kevurot, graves.] The moral of the story in its “pshat” reading might be that not being able to appreciate our blessings can bring potentially deadly results.

It’s not so distant from contemporary society: think of how many people have had heart attacks or strokes from a lifetime of stress, trying to “make it” with ever greater material and career success. Pausing to appreciate what we have is such a seemingly basic principle that it’s easy to forget; this story confronts us with the potentially dire consequences of “cravings” far in excess of what is appropriate for a balanced and joyous life.

In fact, we are urged to pay special attentions to our “cravings” by no less a figure than R. Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chassidism (d. 1760) – usually known as the Ba’al Shem Tov. (Sometimes even Besht for short.) His grandson, R. Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, author of Degel Machane Ephraim, quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov on this verse:

    . . . Kivrot-HaTa’avah, this is the aspect of wisdom, for there the people buried their cravings. The explanation is that anyone who attains the quality of wisdom can thus make as nothing all of their cravings, from the greatness of his/ her cleaving to the Holy One of Blessed Name. (from Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, translation mine.)

In order to make a midrash, the Ba’al Shem Tov reads “Graves of Cravings” literally- the “cravings” themselves were buried. For the Besht, attaining wisdom means knowing what to “crave” and what to not crave. A central aspect of his overall teaching is that one should yearn to feel close to or “cleave” to God, and when one does, one’s material and physical desires assume a different perspective. I don’t think this is the same as “overcoming” or “conquering” a desire, which implies great or painful struggle, but simply being so filled with a religious spirit that material desires don’t become the most important thing in life.

Nor do I think this implies an absolute rejection of creature comforts or physical pleasure, but rather just keeping things in perspective, nurturing a consciousness of what is long-lasting and what is momentary. In another place, the Ba’al Shem Tov writes:

    I have placed God before me always (Psalm 16:8). . . “shiviti“, this is the language of “equallness”. [A pun which doesn’t work in English- sorry.] Anything that happens to a person, should be equally OK with him. Whether people praise him or humiliate him, and thus with other things. In eating too, whether she eats tasty things or ordinary things, everything should be equal to her, to deprive the Evil Urge of anything [to use against a person.]
    (
    Tziva’at Ha Rivash, #2, translation mine.)

Again, notice that the relationship with God is central to the teaching; a person with a vibrant spiritual consciousness is less likely to desire things out of jealousy, or insecurity, or ingratitude, or arrogance. Returning to our story, recall that the problem with the complaining Israelites was not so much that they wanted meat, per se, but that they could not appreciate the food that they had, or its apprehend its source in Divine grace. To “bury their cravings” would have meant keeping things in proper perspective, seeing the good, rather than reacting out of negativity or insecurity. Had they been able to do that, perhaps they could have even turned their complaints into joy, choosing to see each day’s sustenance as a gift from the Holy One. This is the wisdom which the Ba’al Shem Tov urges us to attain.

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Naso 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

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.

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

OVERVIEW

If you belong to a community that celebrates two days of Yom Tov (the Biblical holy days of Rosh Hashana, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), then you’re reading a selection from the Book of Deuteronomy on Shabbat, which coincides with the second day of Shavuot. Conversely, if you belong to a community which celebrates only one day of those holidays (such as almost everybody in Israel, or Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues), then you are reading the next regular Torah portion, Naso, this Shabbat. Therefore, as a pluralistic and inclusive website, we will offer both communities a drash this week. We will revisit Naso again next week as well, and proceed from there.

Parshat Naso contains rules for the priests, for the clans of the tribe of Levi, for testing an unfaithful spouse, and for the Nazir, who is a person who has taken special vows of dedication to God. Then the heads of the tribes bring gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (compare this section to Parshat Vayekhel) and at the very end Moshe hears the Voice of God in the Ohel Moed, or “Tent of Meeting” at the heart of the Mishkan.

IN FOCUS

“When Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he heard the Voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the Testimony. And he spoke with The Holy One.”

PSHAT

Only Moshe enters the innermost sanctuary of the Mishkan, where there are two “cherubim,” or figures of divine beings, set above the covering of the Ark containing the tablets of the Torah which Moshe brought down from Sinai. There Moshe hears the Voice of God instructing him on how to lead the Israelites.

DRASH

Rashi notes that the verse specifically says that the Voice of God spoke “to him,” meaning Moshe, and interprets this to mean that even Aharon did not hear God in the tent. Rashi further proposes that because the text says “the Voice,” Moshe heard it as the same Voice he heard on Sinai, emanating, as it were, from the space between the two angel-figures. (No, not little naked babies with wings, but some kind of representation of a unique Divine beings.) Finally, Rashi quotes a midrash which says that the Voice did not go forth past the walls of the tent itself, so truly only Moshe could know what was going on in there.

Now, the latter midrash is rather amazing; ordinarily, any noise within the mere fabric of tent walls is pretty easy to hear outside the tent itself. So Rashi is going to great lengths to stress that only Moshe and no one else communicated with God within the Tent. To put it another way, only Moshe could perceive that the Voice of Sinai is the same Voice that guided the Israelites on their daily travels. This the Voice which emerges “from between the cherubim;” as Rashi would have it, from the space between them.

We learned in Exodus 25 that the two cherubim- whatever they looked like- faced each other. This image was once explained to me (I believe, but am not sure, in the name of Aviva Zornberg) as a metaphor for the holiness of human intimacy; these two beings face each other, and God, as it were, is found between them. For many people, intimate human relationships are where they find their greatest spirituality; the famous philosopher Martin Buber suggested that truly connective and equal interactions between people are a place where the Divine is revealed.

Thus, perhaps we can read in this verse (with Rashi’s help) a description of great religious integration- the kind that only a Moshe possessed in his day. Someone with the insight of a Moshe hears (perceives ? experiences? ) the commanding Voice of Sinai, the God of our Ancestors, the God of our Torah, as the same God who is the Source of human love. The awe one feels before the transcendent Deity is but the “flip side” of the warmth one feels in true human connections -these are two aspects of the same “spiritual experience.” Moshe understood the radical implications of monotheism- all of our deepest and most profound insights come from one Source, whether that Source is deep within us, found “between” us, or calling to us from the pages of Torah.

NJL

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Bamidbat 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

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.

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

The Book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, has a variety of themes and stories; it’s hard to figure out the overall structure of the book. It concerns itself with the organization and movement of the Israelite camp; laws of the portable sanctuary; laws for priests; laws of ritual purity; criminal laws; and laws of settling the Land of Israel. Significant narratives in Bamidbar include the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land; the rebellion of Korach and his followers; Bilaam’s attempt to curse Israel; and the daughters of Zelophechad standing up for women’s rights to inherit.

OVERVIEW

The first portion of the Book of Bamidbar is also called Bamidbar; it begins with a census of the adult men of each tribe, and a description of the order of the Israelite camp by tribes. The descendants of Levi are not included with the others, as they are responsible for the Mishkan, and thus have a special status within the nation. Within the tribe of Levi, the family of Kohath have certain unique duties pertaining to the vessels in the Mishkan.

IN FOCUS

“And these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day God Spoke with Moshe on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aharon: the firstborn Nadav, then Avihu, and Elazar, and Itamar. These are the names of the sons of Aharon, the anointed priests, whose hands were filled for priesthood.” (Numbers 3:1-3)

PSHAT

Aharon’s descendants form the priestly class within the larger tribe of Levites; other Levites who were not specific descendants of Aharon performed other ritual duties and assisted the priests but did not perform the sacrifices themselves. Thus, after discussing the organization of all the other tribes, the parasha now focusses on the priestly clan, and begins with the sons of Aharon himself. The phrase “whose hands were filled” is an idiom meaning that these sons went through the dedication rituals for priestly service. (Why the verse mentions Moshe’s descendants when it’s really only concerned with Aharon’s family is a problem for another time.)

DRASH

Aside from our problem of mentioning Moshe and then not telling us anything about him, another interesting aspect of this passage is the apparently unnecessary repetition of information in verses 2 and 3. We learn twice that “these are the names of the sons of Aharon-” the passage could have compacted these two verses into one, which told us both their names and their status as anointed priests.

The Eglei Tal, a nineteenth century Hasidic text by rabbi Avraham Borenstein (a disciple of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the “Kotsker Rebbe,” for those who follow such things), notices these apparently extra words and uses them to make a midrash about the place of leaders in the Jewish community:

    Why does the statement “these are the names of the sons of Aaron” occur twice in two consecutive verses?  

    It is well known that in some other religions, priests are regarded as superhuman beings who are immune to error. For this reason when a member of these religions is ordained to the priesthood he is given a new name to signify that he is no longer the same as he was prior to his ordination, but has become a new person. Not so the Jews. Even the greatest Jew is regarded as a human being who is by no means immune to error. . . .

    We are indeed duty-bound to give due honor to scholars. However, we do so not because of their persons but only in order to honor the Law which they study and observe, just as we pay honor to a Scroll of the Law [i.e., a Torah scroll] not because of its physical character- after all, it is only plain parchment- but because the sheets of parchment from which it is made bear the sacred words of the Torah. We do not believe that the clay of which a Torah scholar is made is any different from the substance from which ordinary persons are formed.

    The statement “these are the names of the sons of Aharon” occurs twice, first in the naming of the sons, and then in the characterization of the sons as priests, in order to show that even after their anointment to the priesthood, the sons of Aaron did not receive new names but were still considered the same human beings as before.

    [quoted- with slight modifications – from Wellsprings of Torah, a delightful English anthology of Hasidic and Mussar teachings on the weekly parasha.]

This is a powerful lesson not only for leaders of the Jewish community but for “ordinary Jews” as well. Leaders- including, if not especially, rabbis and teachers!- must remember that as human beings, they can make mistakes just like anybody else. Jewish knowledge is just that- a specialized knowledge that can have a profound effect on someone’s soul, but does not turn a human being into some kind of perfect Divine being. Leaders and scholars can be jealous, petty, insecure, forgetful, and sometimes just drop the ball like anybody else.

Having said that, “ordinary Jews” (by which I simply mean those who do not currently occupy “official” positions of leadership), thus have a responsibility to watch carefully for the human fallibilities of communal leaders. This doesn’t mean one should cast a suspicious eye on everything someone says, but rather that one should expect that occasionally things won’t go perfectly, and thus one should never be afraid to point mistakes out in a gentle and supportive way. Recognizing the human imperfection of “even the greatest Jew” also implies the need to tolerate and forgive those imperfections in our leaders- we must forgive others for their imperfections just as we’d like to be forgiven for our own.

Finally, our midrash this week reminds us that no Jewish teacher is a “guru” or prophet; as a human being with limitations of insight and intellect, any particular teacher can offer only part of the greater scope of Torah. Perhaps this is why an ancient midrash teaches that one must learn Torah from more than one person. (Avot D’rabbi Natan ch. 3) A familar teaching from Pirkei Avot makes a related point:

    Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I have gained understanding.’ (Psalm 119:99) [Pirkei Avot 4:1]

A Jewish seeker should not rely on one teacher (or one website!) alone, but seek to learn Torah wherever they can, knowing that each teacher offers a unique perspective, but only part of a greater whole. New insights emerge out of a dialogue between teachers and students, with each learning from each other, in a spirit of openness and humility.

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