Archive for August, 2000

Re’eh 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

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.

Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)


Moshe sets before the people a blessing if they follow God’s ways, and a curse if they don’t. Both worship and eating of meat are to be somewhat centralized around holy places that God will choose. Moshe warns the people about false prophets, idolaters, and lawless, completely evil cities, which are to be destroyed. Laws for eating, tithing, loans, the Sabbatical year, Israelite indentured servants, and the holidays are reviewed.


“If there is a destitute person among your kin in any of your gates in your land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)


The context of these verses seems to be the Shmita, or Sabbatical year, during which loans are forgiven along with the well-known rest of the land. The Torah urges the people to make loans to the needy among them, and to eliminate poverty as much as possible. (Although a few verses later, it says that “there will not cease to be poor in the land”- is the Torah saying that this is an intractable problem? Or merely telling us to have realistic expectations of social change?)

The Torah warns against refusing to make loans in the sixth year of the seven-year cycle; since loans were probably paid back on a yearly crop cycle, loans in the sixth year were likely to be canceled by the Shmita the following year. Nevertheless, we are warned that a person will be held to account for their level of generosity in helping others.


Although the contextual meaning of these verses seems to be related to the situation of the Sabbatical year, according to Rashba* this passage is actually the basis from which the ancient sages derived the general commandment to give tzedakah. Although we are urged to give generously to a variety of worthy causes, including basic human needs, education, communal religious needs and so on, Rashi and other commentators see in verse 7 a kind of hint as to the priorities of our giving.

Look at the verse closely: first comes a “destitute person,” someone who is really desperately poor and needs our immediate assistance. (This is Rashi’s understanding of the word evyon.) Then comes “kin,” according to how closely related they are to you: a brother comes before a cousin, one’s child before an uncle, and so on. Then comes a poor person within “your gates;” again, Rashi says that a poor person in your town has priority over a poor person in another town. Finally, “in your land;” similarly, a poor person of the land of Israel (i.e., presumably a Jew) has priority over a poor person in another land.

Now, one might make an objection to these principles, saying that all humans should be equal in one’s eyes, and no class of persons should have priority in our scheme of giving. That would be an admirable sense of universalism, and yet I don’t think that this interpretation of these verses has anything to do with thinking lightly of our obligations to those who are not of our family, town, or community. Rather, I think this interpretation of these verses is all about apportioning responsibility for each other in realistic ways.

To put it another way, it’s easy to be in favor of saving the world, but it’s hard to have a consistent commitment to saving one’s city block, really caring for the people who live on it and attending to any problems. To be responsible for everything is ultimately to be responsible for nothing in particular, and I think that’s what this midrashic reading of our verses is all about. One former teacher of mine, R. Mordecai Finley, sometimes defined the very essence of Judaism as (this is a paraphrase) “find your little corner of the world and make it just and holy.”

While some will still be uncomfortable with what they perceive as the potential chauvinism of these principles, it’s important to note that Rashi at least doesn’t make distinctions between the Jews of “your gates” and the non-Jews. He simply says that proximity demands priority; if every well-off citizen of every town saw to it that their locality had food and shelter and job training programmes for the local poor, then theoretically one would never have to worry about the poor in another town, because they’d be helped locally. (Please note, this discussion has no bearing on whether help is delivered by private individuals, charities, or governments- that’s a separate debate.)

This last point is made somewhat humourously by a story of a rabbi going on a fundraising mission:

    R. Yaakov David of Amshinov came to a rich man to tell him that one of his (the rich man’s) relatives was poor and needed some help. The rich man didn’t want to help and claimed that this relative was only a very distant relative- he hardly knew him. R. David asked the man if he prayed every day. “What question is this, rabbi?! Certainly, certainly !”

    “If so, ” continued the great sage- “how does the opening blessing of the Amidah [“standing” prayer said at every Jewish service] go?”

    The rich man was greatly surprised, but he answered out of respect for the rabbi: “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Yaakov. . . ”

    The rabbi kept asking: “And who were Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov?”

    “Our forefathers!”

    “And when did they live?”, asked the sage, not letting up.

    “Upwards of three thousand years ago!”

    “Yes, that’s right, more than three thousand years ago. Yet despite all that you mention them every day and you ask the Blessed One for mercy and help and redemption on the basis of the merit of these ‘distant relatives’ – and now I come to you to ask for a little help for your relative who lives right now and you’re claiming that he’s too distant a relation?” (paraphrased from Itturei Torah.)

Point well taken!

* [R. Shlomo ben Aderet of Barcelona, d. 1310- quoted in Itturei Torah.]

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Ekev 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

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.

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)


Moshe continues to exhort the people not to forget God’s wonders and God’s Torah when they enter the land. Moshe’s theology is straightforward, though not unproblematic: if you follow the Torah, God will reward you with blessings in the land, and drive out your enemies. Moshe also reviews some of the earlier incidents when Israel was rebellious, including the Golden Calf and the making of second tablets. The parasha concludes with a passage which constitutes the second paragraph of the traditional Shema recitation; this paragraph reiterates the connection between piety and receiving God’s blessing.


“If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today- to love the LORD your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and God will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:10-17)


As mentioned above, the theology of the book of D’varim [Deuteronomy] seems to be rather straightforward: if Israel obeys God’s commands, and worships only God, then God will send blessings in the form of rain and agricultural abundance. The general idea of reward for good behavior and punishment for disobedience is a recurrent theme in the book of D’varim; here it is explicitly connected with the land producing abundantly for the people.


One can hardly compare the world we live in to the perfectly just world that the book of D’varim imagines. In our world, evil and greedy people abuse others and become rich and famous, living long and healthy lives; in the world of D’varim, the evil are punished by an active God who brings misfortune and disaster upon those who disobey the revealed moral law. There have been many attempts to struggle with this dilemma, all of which attempt to reconcile the belief in God’s justice with the reality of our often unjust world. (Some Jewish responses to this problem are discussed in our Reb on the Web archives).

This week’s Torah portion brings this ancient theological paradox to the fore because of the prominence of this passage from D’varim in the traditional Jewish liturgy- many observant Jews recite this passage twice a day in the traditional Shma, morning and evening. Many Jews affirm that God is indeed just, and that this passage, and others like it, must be understood as referring to collective, national reward and punishment. In other words, when the nation as a whole follows a moral path, then Israel as a people experiences blessing and security; it simply doesn’t apply on the individual level.

While this addresses part of our paradox, it leaves open the question of why Jews have indeed suffered as a nation, even if we apparently didn’t “deserve” it. The Shoah is the most obvious example; if one takes the theology of D’varim literally, one is forced to say that the victims of the Shoah were sinners who deserved their punishment, or one is forced to say that even the more collective application of reward and punishment is no longer a viable or believable theology.

Not only that, but many people in the modern world have difficulty believing that our deeds, whether good or bad, affect the natural world in such a direct way- is the rain really due to our sins or lack thereof? Is the weather controlled by God in response to our morality, or is it a natural process that operates according to discernable patterns and laws?

Thus our passage this week has two major problems, according to many modern thinkers: we don’t want to say that those who suffer are necessarily sinners, and and we don’t want to affirm the pre-modern theological conception of God turning the rains on and off in response to our behavior. Faced with these problems, many Reform prayerbooks simply omit this passage, and as early as 1945, the Reconstructionist prayerbook substituted another passage from D’varim 28, one that speaks more generally of the positive benefits of a religiously committed life.

Yet there have also been attempts to reread our passage in more open and metaphorical ways. An excellent collection of commentaries on this passage and others is found in My People’s Prayer Book, a set of commentaries from a variety of perspectives on many sections of the traditonal liturgy. The Conservative scholar Elliott Dorff affirms a belief in God’s justice, despite the fact that we live in an often unjust world, because:

. . justice must be a critical element in the God I affirm. The calculus of reward and punishment articulated in this paragraphy may be too simple and ultimately inaccurate, and for that matter, it may be immoral in the first place to do the right thing and avoid the wrong out of concern for consequences. Nevertheless, I find this paragraph, with all its problems, central to my beliefs, for it insists starkly (even if too starkly), that God is ultimately just.

Somehow, justice is an inherent part of the world and of God; and since God is the model for human beings, the possibility of justice must be inherent in us as well.

Another contemporary thinker, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, sees in the second paragraph of the Shma a reminder that all life is interconnected:

. . . it is not necessary to read this paragraph of the Sh’ma as a literal statement about divine reward and punishment. In a world whose survival depends partly on the human capacity to value creation and care for it wisely, it is possible to interpret the passage more naturalistically. If we are able to develop an ecological consciousness, if we treat the earth with respect, if we are aware that we are embedded in a great web of life of which God is the ultimate source and sustainer, then the earth will bear fruit for us and the rain will come in its season. But if we believe that we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature, if we forget the sacredness of all things and make idols of our own wealth and power, then “the earth will not grant its produce,” and both we and our world may perish.

What both these approaches have in common is a willingness to see beyond the literal and perhaps unacceptable meaning of the text to a spiritual challenge behind it. Can we affirm a God who is just, despite the morning headlines? (I think R. Dorff might even ask us if we can risk not affirming God’s justice.) Can we also see ourselves as intricately interconnected with the natural cycles of the world, affecting them in complex ways and certainly being affected by them?

Perhaps at the most basic level our passage challenges us to admit that we don’t control the world- we may affect it, but we don’t control it. That in itself is something important to affirm at least twice a day. On a purely intellectual level, D’varim presents difficult problems, yet the spiritual message is one of humility, of seeing ourselves as part of a greater whole, of perceiving the possibility of justice in a world that often desparately needs it.

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Va’etchanan 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

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.

Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)


Moshe continues to review the history of the Israelites from the time of their liberation from Egypt; he also repeatedly implores them to accept and faithfully follow the Torah, stressing its goodness and wisdom. Moshe warns the people not to worship any other god or power except the One God who gave them the Torah. Moshe then reiterates the Ten Commandments. The paragraph which we know as the first paragraph of the Shma forms part of Moshe’s exhortation to the people to keep faith with God after they enter the land, when Moshe himself will no longer be able to guide or instruct them.


“Know this day and set it upon your heart that Adonai is God- in heaven above and on earth below- there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:39)


Moshe delivers a long sermon to the people on the dangers of forgetting their experience of Liberation and Revelation- he warns them that they might fall into idolatry once they enter the land of Israel. He also promises that God will take them back, just as God took them out of Egypt to be a unique people. Moshe urges the people to remember the giving of the Torah at Sinai and be mindful of God’s presence.


The main point of Moshe’s sermon seems fairly straightforward: don’t forget about the God who liberated you once you settle in the Land. The verse above could therefore be a simple rhetorical device, employing extra phrases merely for emphasis of the basic point. Read this way, there would be no substantial difference between “know this day” and “set it upon your heart”- they might mean basically the same thing, a steady consciousness of God’s existence, authority, and instructions. The next phrase, “in heaven above and on earth below”, could also be read this way, as complementary images which strengthen each other. Scholars of Biblical rhetoric and poetry call this “parallelism,” from the idea that two parallel or similar images strengthen the rhetorical point but don’t really have two different meanings in themselves.

Traditional rabbinic Bible commentators, on the other hand, often like to read the text in more expansive and creative ways, perceiving new and additional meanings in each seemingly superfluous word. Thus Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant [popularly known as R. Israel Salanter], a 19th century giant of mussar [ethical development] teachings, sees “know this day” and “set it upon your heart” as two different stages in a process:

    It is not sufficient merely to “know” it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire service of a Jew. There is as much distance between “knowing” [something] and “setting it upon your heart” as there is between knowledge and ignorance.
    [Quoted in Hebrew in
    Itturei Torah; this translation modified from the English Wellsprings of Torah]

R. Salanter draws an important distinction here: what we know only intellectually may not actually influence our behavior; this must come from a more integrated “knowing” of mind, heart, and soul. We might think of somebody with a bad habit, for example, who knows with their brain that their habit is self-destructive, yet cannot stop until they have really emotionally internalized their desire to change. I think R. Salanter is making the same point regarding the spiritual life: we can know something purely abstractly or intellectually, yet the challenge is to act at all times out of our spiritual convictions.

That’s a deeper, more holistic kind of spirituality; not merely believing something, but acting with great integrity, wherein one naturally behaves according to one’s own ideals. The great American preacher and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way:

    But we must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny [God’s] existence with your life. The most dangerous kind of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism. And the world . . . is filled up with people who pay lip service to God but not life service. (A Knock at Midnight: the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, p.15)

I am especially moved by Dr. King’s notion of “practical atheism;” this seems to me very close to what R.Salant is saying: while religious knowledge is a good thing, it’s not the same as leading a truly religious life. There’s a well known story, attributed in different places to different 19th century rabbis, about a man who boasts that he’s been through the Talmud many times. “Fine”, replies the rabbi- “but how many times has the Talmud been through you?”

Striving for a wholeness, an integration, of mind, heart and soul – this is the “entire service” of a Jew.

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Ki Tetzei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

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.

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10- 25:19)


Ki Tetze contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parasha ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.


“When you build a new house, you shall make a guardrail for the roof, so that bloodguilt will not be upon your house if a person plummets from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)


This law seems fairly straightforward: one must make the safety of others a central consideration in building a house. This was especially relevant in the ancient Middle East, where the roofs of houses were used as drying areas for food and other kind of work, so people were up on the roof regularly. One might be tempted to build more cheaply and omit the guardrail, but the Torah seems to be suggesting that there is a certain level of moral responsibility that comes with owning property. A contemporary analogy might be a fence around a privately owned swimming pool, which is mandated in many municipal codes.


The law of the guardrail is an expression of the Torah’s overall reverence for life and the desire to protect it. In fact, this law and others like it became part of a general principle in rabbinic Judaism that a person must do everything possible to protect and preserve his or her own life, as well as the lives of others. On the other hand, Rashi and other commentators raise an interesting theological question: if we assume, as many traditional theologians did, that God decreed when a person lived and died, then why should anybody care about taking public safety measures? After all, if someone fell of your roof and died, then it was a punishment for their sins, and why should any “bloodguilt” be on the owner of the house?

Even the commentators who raise this question realize that leaving all responsibility for life and death to God leaves humans with too little part in their own destiny. Thus Rashi, quoting an earlier midrashic text, explains that:

    [The person who fell] deserved to fall, yet nevertheless his death should not happen by your hand [i.e., you should not become morally liable], for good things are brought about by a good person, and bad things by a bad person.

I think Rashi is saying something rather subtle here: even though we may theoretically ascribe a person’s death to the will of God, it’s still a bad thing that someone should die in an accident, and only a callous and inconsiderate person would create a situation where such accidents were likely to happen.

Furthermore, the “punishment” for being such an inconsiderate person is that “bad things” come about because of you- or, conversely, the “reward” for being a careful and considerate person is that you live a life free of the guilt that presumably accompanies being part of somebody else’s tragedy. This is not to say that careful people never get in automobile accidents, for example, but that if they do, they might be able to get on with their lives knowing that they had not contributed to the accident; their “reward” is a clear conscience.

Another commentator (Alshech, quoted in Abraham Chill, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale) suggests a novel twist on the basic problem as presented by Rashi. Alshech imagines that a person may in fact be “deserving” of falling off a roof- but God, being a merciful God, is putting off and putting off pronouncing such a “sentence” on this person, until such a time that the guilty party makes it even worse for himself by hanging out at the house of another sinner, one who ignores the commandment to put a rail on the roof. Thus, like Rashi, Alshech tries hard to find a balance between seeing God at work “behind the scenes” and also acknowledging people’s responsibility for one another, as this verse challenges us to do.

I do not know whether the medieval commentators truly believed that every person who fell off a roof, or suffered other kinds of ills and problems, was a sinner who deserved punishment; clearly, many contemporary Jews would find such a theology very problematic. It seems to me that both Rashi and Alshech, among others, also find that theology problematic in its simplest form; if they could accept it uncritically, they wouldn’t need to assign some level of responsibility to the person who built the dangerous house.

A modern commentator offers a third perspective on the rationale for this commandment. Abraham Chill, noted above, suggests that this commandment is more than just an ancient civic building code, but rather indicative of the Torah’s desire that we should temper our faith with an understanding of the world we live in:

    To what extent may a person live by faith alone and in violation of the natural law? May he say to himself: ‘I will lean over a precipice and if I fall to my death, then it must have been the will of God? ‘ May he dig a deep pit and leave it uncovered and say: ‘If anyone falls into it and dies, it must have been the will of God? ‘ The answer is obvious! Faith may and should direct our lives, but we cannot defy the natural law. If he leans over a precipice, then he must realize that he will fall to his death and that only a miracle will save him. Since the Torah guides us in every aspect of our lives, it also deals with commandments that pertain to the dangers that are man-made.

I understand R. Chill’s explanation of this commandment to be a refutation of a simplistic theology of reward and punishment: while we can have faith in God’s ultimate justice, the world we live in is guided by the laws of nature, which we must understand and respect in order to become religiously mature and responsible people. In this view, God doesn’t want us to naively ascribe to God every little thing that happens, but rather to encounter the world as it really is, in order that we may care for one another in every way possible. Thus, to me, the guard-rail on the roof is paradigmatic, suggesting that even our supposedly “private property” must be part of our communal mission to serve God by caring for each other.

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Devarim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

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.

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)


The Book of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, is set as an extended speech that Moshe gives just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and possess the Land. Moshe will not be going with them, so he reviews the history of the Exodus, the travels, the rebellions, and the battles, along with restatements of many laws, and some new ones. The first portion of D’varim is a retelling of the history of the Israelites since they left Sinai, with special attention paid to the promise of the Land.


“But how can I bear your troubles and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?” (Deuteronomy 1:12)


Moshe recalls how the problems of the people overwhelmed him after the Exodus from Egypt. He couldn’t handle the volume of complaints and disputes that he had to judge, so with upon his father in law’s advice, he appointed local leaders to which people could bring their problems. These passages recall Exodus chapter 18, but only now do we learn of the personal anguish Moshe felt; in the Exodus version, it is Yitro, his father in law, who assesses the need for an organized system of adjudication.


Many synagogues (but not all) make a musical midrash on the verse above: rather than reading it with the normal trope, or melody, for Shabbat and weekdays, they read the above verse with the mournful trope reserved for the book of Lamentations, or Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av, some may recall, is a day of mourning for the Jewish people: on it we recall the destruction of our ancient sovereignty and our exile from Jerusalem, as well as many other national disasters that have befallen our people.

Furthermore, the parasha of D’varim is always read just before Tisha B’Av. So it’s appropriate to sneak in a little bit of Tisha B’Av melody in order to get the congregation prepared for the somber holy day approaching. But why is this verse particularly relevant to Tisha B’Av?

Rashi says that Moshe is recalling how the Israelites fought with each other, refusing to submit to proper judicial proceedings, speaking slander and gossip maliciously, and being generally negative and quarrelsome. This would fit well with a well known midrash, often taught on Tisha B’Av, that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of causeless hatred among the Jewish people.

So emphasizing this verse before Tisha B’Av is a way of pointing out that the problems of hostility and divisions among the Jewish people is very old indeed, going back to the time of Moshe and continuing up to our day. (See any Jewish newspaper for confirmation of this.) The mournful tune which characterises the reading of the book of Lamentations helps us understand that any incident of causeless hatred and strife is an occasion for mourning, even if it was as ancient at the generation of the Exodus.

Another way of understanding this musical midrash is proposed by R. Yosef Yozel Horowitz, a 19th century teacher of mussar [the development of holy character traits.] He connects the verse above to the very first verse of the book of Lamentations, pointing out that they both contain the word eicha, or “how:”

    Traditionally, this verse is read to the melody of [the book of ] Eicha, to teach us that if a person refuses to assume the responsibility for communal needs and thinks that by doing so he makes things easier for himself, he will in the end find out that matters will be worse for him and he will remain alone and isolated – “How- eicha– she sits all alone. . . ” (Lamentations 1:1) [quoted in Itturei Torah]

R. Horowitz says that the “how” of “how can I bear your troubles” is indicative of an attitude of being aloof from communal needs; such an attitude will eventually turn into the “how” of “how she sits all alone. . .” R. Horowitz turns the mournfulness around: instead of emphasizing the sadness of the Jewish people being split apart by contentiousness, he emphasizes the sadness of a person thinking that they don’t want to get involved with the inevitable problems in the life of a community. A person who doesn’t want to get her hands dirty with the social needs is a cause for mourning, for such a person is missing out on what makes us human.

Perhaps that’s the hint we’re supposed to get before Tisha B’Av: that the way through the memory of our pain and suffering is by joining together and giving to others. Taking the “easy way out” is ultimately self-defeating, for only by reaching out to form caring communities can we grow, give, and love. Only by growing, giving, and loving can we fully appreciate life, in both its sad and its glorious moments.

*In the book of Lamentations, the “she” is Jerusalem; the image of the destroyed city is compared to a weeping widow.

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