Archive for January, 2001

Vaera 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaEra (Ex. 6:2-9:35)

OVERVIEW

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

IN FOCUS

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. . . .’ “

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. ” (Exodus 6:6-9, abridged)

PSHAT

After Pharoah increases the people’s workloads, the people complain to Moshe and Aharon that they’ve only made problems worse by speaking of liberation and freedom. (Cf. Exodus 5). So Moshe makes a poignant complaint to God, voicing his despair. God then reassures Moshe that indeed, this is the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and that the people will be liberated and brought to freedom. Moshe tries to bring hope to the people, but they were too discouraged to hear it.

DRASH

We have quoted the New International Version above; the Jewish Publication Society translation is a little different:

    but when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

The contemporary Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Exodus which accompanies the JPS translation, points out that “discouragement” or “crushed spirits” is not a literal translation of the phrase kotzer ruach. [In modern Hebrew, the phrase ‘kotzer ruach’ today means ‘impatience.’- ed.]

    their spirits crushed. . .Literally, “from shortness of spirit.” Hebrew ruach is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will. Failure to energize the people must not deter Moses from persevering in his mission.

Rashi compares “shortness of spirit” to shortness of breath (the words are related)- you get the sense of the people oppressed spiritually as well as physically.

Sarna seems to be implying that the people could not have heard Moshe’s message of hope, even if they had wanted to. Suffering under Pharoah’s abuses, they had no will, no imagination, no ability to conceive of a different reality. This, to me, is the lowest point of the story; not only has Pharoah tried to crush the people physically, he’s robbed them of hope.

So what does God do? God sends Moshe and Aharon right back to Pharoah, continuing the confrontation. Perhaps the message here is that physical liberation must be accompanied by a reawakening of the imagination. Each encounter with Pharoah brings him down a little bit, making him a little more human and a little less invincible. Giving the people ruach, or spiritual energy, is not something that could happen all at once, but is built up with each victory.

For us, I see a clear implication: when you meet someone who is kotzer ruach, or “short of spirit,” don’t let their initial inability to hear encouragement discourage you. If you can, show them that a different reality is possible, that the roadblocks, like Pharoah, are not invincible. You might have to try ten times, like Moshe did, or even more, but it’s worth it- a sense of hope might be the most precious thing you can give another person.

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Shemot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shmot (Ex. 1:1-6:1)

OVERVIEW

The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives refuse to obey, and the baby Moshe is hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in a burning Bush, and receives instructions to go back to Egypt. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.

IN FOCUS

“Now Moshe was tending the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. ” (Exodus 3:1)

PSHAT

Moshe has been away from his people in Egypt for a while, and it’s time for him to return. God meets Moshe out in the wilderness, in the form of the famous burning bush, while Moshe is tending the flocks of his father in law.

DRASH

One ancient midrash finds significance in Moshe’s profession as a shepherd:

    The Holy One tested Moshe by means of the flock, as our sages have explained: when Moshe was tending Yitro’s flock out in the desert, a lamb ran off, and Moshe followed it, until it found shelter under a rock. There it found water and stopped to drink. When Moshe approached the lamb, he said: “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he put the lamb on his shoulder and walked back with it. The Holy One then said: because you showed such compassion tending the flock of another person, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine. Thus it is written: “Now Moshe was tending the flock. . . ” (Midrash Shmot Rabbah, 2:2; adapted from Braude translation.)

There are several levels to this midrash. The first is merely that it “solves” the problem of the apparently superfluous mention of what Moshe was doing when he encountered God’s Presence in the burning bush. The ancient rabbis assumed that every word of the Torah had something to teach us, and so if the Torah teaches that Moshe was a shepherd, we might learn that he had to demonstrate his compassion for animals before he was found worthy to become a leader of people.

Thus we also learn that all sentient beings deserve compassion; Judaism calls this principle tza’ar balei chayim, or “the pain of living creatures,” and has traditionally taught that it is just as wrong to cause unnecessary pain to animals as it would be to cause unjustified pain to a human being. Furthermore, the midrash teaches that compassion must be a primary trait of Jewish leaders; in this text, it is not Moshe’s charisma or bravery or physical strength that qualified him to become the leader of Israel, but his empathy, his tenderness.

Finally, I think this midrash is about integrity, in its deepest sense, the sense of all parts of a person’s personality coming together in a whole. When looking for a leader for the enslaved Israelites, God seems to want a person who will act out of his core values, somebody who has compassion “hardwired” into his being. This, to me, is the significance of looking for a little animal way out in the desert: nobody else was there, nobody else could have been impressed by this. Moshe treated a little lamb because that’s who he was (in this midrash), not because he wanted to curry favor from any individual or group.

The psychologist Erich Fromm taught that that what we call love not an emotion, per se, but is an “orientation of character” that we either have towards all things or we don’t really have at all:

    Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. . . If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, “I love you,” I must be able to say, “I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.” [He goes on to say there are different contexts for love, such as erotic love, parental love, and so on.] (The Art of Loving, p. 42.)

I would compare Fromm’s teaching to the image of Moshe tending the lost lamb out in the desert; we might say that because Moshe truly demonstrated that he had an “orientation of character” of love and compassion, God could entrust him with the guidance of the people. Thus we are challenged: are we the same person when “out in the wilderness” as when we are in front of our friends and family? Do we treat everybody the same way, or reserve our love and compassion for a select few?

There’s no doubt that achieving this level of moral and spiritual integrity is a long and hard task; looking at our text, we might also be reminded that this is the work that brings us to the place of God’s Presence.

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Vayechi 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYehi (Gen. 47:28-50:26)

OVERVIEW

Yaakov and all his descendants are reunited in Egypt under Yosef’s protection. Yaakov is close to death, so he blesses Yosef’s two children as his own, reversing his hands so that the younger is blessed in the manner of the older son. This time, however, there is no acrimony between brothers. Yaakov calls all his sons to his deathbed and speaks a kind of ethical will and final blessing. Yaakov dies, and is taken by Yosef and the family to be buried in the Land of Israel. Thinking that Yosef may now take revenge, the brothers fear for their lives, but Yosef forgives them for selling him into slavery, reminding them that God has brought them to Egypt for a reason. Yosef dies, and asks to be taken up to Israel when the Israelite nation eventually leaves Egypt.

IN FOCUS

“. . . . and Yisrael bowed down upon the head of the bed ” (Genesis 47:31)

PSHAT

Yaakov, here called Yisrael, feels that his end is near, and so makes Yosef swear that he will bring Yaakov’s body back to the Land of Israel after his passing. After pressuring Yosef to make this oath, he bows down on or by his sickbed.

DRASH

It’s not exactly clear why or to whom Yaakov would bow after making Yosef swear his oath. One could say that Yaakov was bowing to Yosef himself, who was like a king in Egypt, but some commentators say that ordinarily a parent would not humble themselves before a child. Perhaps it was a gesture of acceptance; Yaakov had to accept both his impending death and the fact that only Yosef had the power to carry out his desire to be buried in the Land of Israel.

Rashi says that Yaakov was not bowing to Yosef, but to God:

    He [Yaakov] turned himself in the direction of the Divine Presence. [Shechina] From this passage [the sages] have said that the Shechina is above the head of one who is sick.

Rashi’s midrash is based on statements found in the Talmud, and it’s easy to see how this teaching would bring strength and comfort to the sick or dying. It is a beautiful theology, imagining the Presence of God “hovering” (as it were) over someone who is suffering. This image of God helps us to understand that God can be present with us in sad or tragic times, even if “miracles” don’t seem to be forthcoming. In this case, Rashi imagines Yaakov bowing out of humility before the Holy One, Whom Yaakov perceived as present, near his sickbed. (Actually, in another place Rashi seems to imply that Yaakov could have indeed been bowing to Yosef, but that’s for a different day.)

Commenting on this midrash, the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav offers a psychological insight into Rashi’s midrash:

    The reason for this is that even a very evil person has thoughts of t’shuvah in this time [i.e., upon a sickbed.] (Source: Itturei Torah.)

T’shuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but it comes from the word meaning “turn,” or “return.” T’shuvah involves introspection and “soul-accounting,” and making amends for whatever wrongs we have caused. Thus R. Nachman is saying that just being sick, in itself, doesn’t bring the Shechina, but rather that God is felt to be Present when a human being is asking hard questions about life, looking deeply into his or her own soul and struggling to do the right thing. It’s the wrestling with conscience that opens up this level of spirituality, not the illness, which just gives us a chance to do the thinking.

Now, please understand, when a text says that God, or the Shechina, is present, it doesn’t mean that God is absent or missing at other times- I believe these texts are talking about what we perceive and feel. Sometimes we feel that God is closer, and sometimes farther away. What we learn from R. Nachman is that our spiritual perception is not determined by the fact of external circumstances that, but rather how we react to our situation. “Turning” our hearts is a precondition to feeling the presence of the sacred; without openness, inwardness and humility, the Divine Presence might be close indeed, but we’d never notice.

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Vayigash 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27)

OVERVIEW

At the end of last week’s parsha, Yosef conspires to accuse Binyamin, the youngest, of theft, and the brothers think that Binyamin will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parsha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen

IN FOCUS

“He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and afterwards his brothers talked with him.” (Genesis 45:15)

PSHAT

Yosef can no longer restrain himself, and ends the game he’s been playing with his brothers. Yosef reveals his true identity, and in a highly emotional scene, the brothers are reconciled to each other. One could argue that this is the dramatic climax of the entire book of Genesis, which portrays harsh conflict between brothers since the first brothers in the Garden of Eden.

DRASH

In North American society our image of masculinity is often the “hard man,” the “strong, silent type,” the tough leader who never displays weakness, emotion, or doubt. From John Wayne to the Marlboro Man to Pierre Trudeau to unforgiving corporate boardrooms, the stereotype of the “man in charge” (even if she’s a woman) doesn’t often include crying and expressing deep feelings.

At least one modern rabbinic commentator sees things differently. R. Zalman Sorotzkin, called the “Lutzker Rav,” (1881-1960), made the remarkable claim that Yosef merited his high position precisely because he was able to cry:

    We should note that Yosef was a man of tears. [Literally, a ba’al bechi, a “master of crying.”] We find that Yosef cried in parashat Miketz. . . and in this parsha. . . and in parashat Vayehi. The one who cries in bad times will also be able to cry in times of calm or achievement. The brothers, who had never suffered in their lives, could not cry even when their situation called for tears. Because Yosef could cry even for the troubles of others he merited greatness. (Quoted in Itturei Torah, translation and adaptation mine.)

Adding things up, we find that Yosef is described as crying no less than eight times in three Torah portions. We might also note that all these examples come from Yosef’s later years- crying seems to be something he learns with maturity. Personally, I find the comment that Yosef merited his position because of his ability to cry to be a welcome change from the typical idea of what makes a leader. The Lutzker Rav teaches us to look for empathy in our leaders- can they cry? Do they really “feel the pain” of others, or is it a show for political purposes?

The Lutzker Rav challenges not only our concept of leadership, but even of “manhood.” Yosef wasn’t the “strong, silent type” at all- or rather, he could be when the situation called for it, but he could also express his deepest feelings to those around him. He doesn’t seem self-conscious or embarrassed at all, crying in happiness and sadness equally.

Yosef cried when reunited with his family, and he cried when his father dies, and at the very end of the book of Genesis, he cried when he finds out that his brothers still feared that he might take revenge after Yaakov is buried. (Cf. Genesis 50.) His tears communicated in a way that goes beyond words, revealing the truth and depth of his connection to those he loved. Perhaps we might say that Yosef’s greatness was not only his political position, but his spiritual position, as a man of deep empathy, unafraid to show his emotional commitments.

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