Archive for February, 2001

Mishpatim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

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

Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18)

OVERVIEW

The word mishpatim means “laws” or “ordinances,” and comes from a root which means judge or judgment. This parsha contains civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws- the Torah doesn’t seem to make the same distinctions that we do between civil and criminal, religious and secular legislation. Towards the end of the parsha, the holidays are reviewed, and God repeats the promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan. Moshe makes a sacrifice in front of the entire Israelite leadership, and they have a wondrous vision of God. Moshe goes back up the mountain, and stays there in a cloud to receive the law.

IN FOCUS

“You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader among your people. ” (Exodus 22:27- but counted as Exodus 22:28 in some Christian translations.)

PSHAT

Chapter 22 contains a mix of different kinds of laws, pertaining to everything from liability for damaging animals to sexual prohibitions to dietary laws. In context, perhaps this law, about cursing judges and leaders, is related to the other laws in that everybody accepts some restrictions on their freedom in order that society may function- without some common understanding of the customs of ownership, family life, sexuality, and so on, it might be hard to live together as a community. Similarly, if people do not accept some form of leadership, society would break down into anarchy, which is anathema to the culture of the Bible.

DRASH

To many commentators, this is one integrated commandment, because they understand leadership as fulfilling the word of God. Thus, someone who curses the leader or the judge is implicitly rejecting the authority of God, Whose laws the leader is (at least theoretically) enacting.

However, the commandment not to curse a leader is by no means a commandment to accept flawed leaders without question- the Bible is full of positive examples of people criticizing their leaders. A gentle example comes from the previous parsha, when Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, gives him some constructive criticism about taking on too much, and then advises him to delegate many of his responsibilities. (Exodus 18)

A more forceful example of criticizing a communal leader is the prophet Natan’s famous rebuke of King David, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed on the battlefield so he could marry her. (2 Samuel 11-12) Nathan approaches the king directly, and even gets David to confess how wrong his deeds were- there was no question of letting David get away with corruption just because he was the king.

In fact, the historical and prophetic books of the Bible are just full of instances of leaders acting badly and then being denounced for it- so why does the Torah tell us not to curse a “leader among the people?” Perhaps there is a subtle but crucial difference between criticism and cursing. While some criticism is just useless griping, the kind of critique that the prophets offered was always in the hope that people could change and improve their behavior. Natan confronted David not to bring down his kingship, but so that he would confess and repent.

Contrast this with the passive anger towards the political system felt by so many people today. Voter turnouts are among the lowest ever in recent Canadian, American, and Israeli elections- people love to curse the leaders, but that’s not the same as getting involved for positive change. Maimonides notes that “cursing” is a form of anger, which he regards as a destructive emotion, at least when it’s not connected to constructive action.

Another interesting observation is made by the 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, who points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service.* Exactly the same point has been made in countless Canadian and American newspaper editorials during the various public scandals of the past few years, especially when journalists and opposition parties engage in what some call the “politics of personal destruction.”

I believe that the Torah encourages- even demands- holding leadership accountable to the highest moral and legal standards. Nobody, not even King David, is above the law. Too often, however, we are content to curse the system without any involvement in it, which serves no one, and changes nothing. This whole section of the Torah conveys a very different message: a good society depends on the participation and moral responsibility of each individual. It’s easy to curse the leadership, but it’s better to work together for a better community.

*These two commentaries are quoted in The Mitzvot, by Abraham Chill.

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Yitro 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

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.

Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:26)

OVERVIEW

After leaving Egypt, Moshe and the Israelites meet up with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who also reunites him with his wife and son. Yitro sees that Moshe is taking on too much as the leader of the people, and advises him to delegate leadership responsibilities so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly. In the third month out of Egypt, God calls to Moshe and tells him to prepare the people for a great revelation at Mount Sinai. After three days the Presence of God is revealed on the mountain, and with smoke and lightning and shofar blasts the Ten Commandments are spoken, in the sight of all the people at the base of the mountain.

IN FOCUS

“I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. . . ” (Genesis Exodus 20:1-5)

PSHAT

According to the Jewish numbering, these verses contain the first and second of the “Ten Commandments”- or, better, “The Ten Things-That-Were-Spoken,” following the traditional Hebrew title for these verses, Aseret HaDibrot. Opinions differ on how the first verse is actually a commandment, but clearly we’re supposed to get the idea that Adonai is the Power that liberated us from enslavement, and that this Higher Power has an exclusive claim on our religious and spiritual loyalty. We are not to make physical representations of the Holy One, who must be our only God.

DRASH

The ideology of the book of Exodus is clearly related to its historical context: the ancient Israelites were surrounded by civilizations that worshipped pantheons of deities, each deity with a special role. The Torah has a different spirituality to teach: there is One spiritual Source of both nature and history, of both heaven and earth, mountains and sea. This explains the various specific prohibitions within the general warning against making images: whereas other cultures may have had a deity of the skies and the deity of the oceans, and so on, Israel is to have only One, Who is understood as the Source of all that is.

How do we understand these verses today, given that our cultural context is so different? After all, although a few Jews do turn to other religions, by and large our neighbors aren’t worshipping statues of sky gods and ocean gods. One 18th century commentator, the Or Hachaim, offers a psychological insight into the enduring relevance of the “Second Commandment:”

Why was it necessary for the Torah to state, “You shall not make an idol?” Does not the first commandment already state “I am Adonai your God?” The answer is that the second commandment makes it plain that “Adonai, your God,” is not just one deity, nor even a supreme deity among many other gods, but that Adonai is the One and only God and there is no god beside Adonai.

A person may innocently reason that he acknowledges the complete supremacy of the true God and this idol (pesel, derived from the word pesolet, “waste” or “trash”) cannot be considered a deity. Continuing with his reasoning, he feels that he is inadequate to pray before the Supreme Being and requires an intermediary, even if it is mere “trash” compared to the true God. Thus, the one who prays regards the idol as closer to the level of God and invests in it the power to plead for him. Even this minimal homage to an intermediary is forbidden. (Adapted from a quotation in The Mitzvot, by Abraham Chill; parenthesis are in the original.)

What I find so fascinating about this comment by the Or HaChaim is that he relates the idea of idolatry not to theology or ideology, but to a person’s spiritual self-esteem. In this view, I think he’s correctly pointing out that many people feel spiritually inadequate, unworthy to pray on their own, directly to God, without any help or mediating structure.

As a rabbi, I know that people often ask a rabbi or chaplain to pray for someone who is sick or suffering, thinking perhaps that a rabbi has a special “connection” to the Source of All Healing. Now, no rabbi or chaplain worthy of the title would ordinarily refuse such a request, but it’s also a little uncomfortable, because rabbis also don’t want to take on that “intermediary” role that the Or HaChaim warns about.

The Or HaChaim is really pointing out something very profound here: that the great innovation of the “Ten Commandments” was not the prohibition against the worship of statues or images, as such, but the idea that any human being can directly connect with the Holy One , wherever they are, without regard to status, rituals, or physical place. That’s not to say that certain rituals or places can’t help us focus better or move us emotionally; they can, and do, and have a crucial place within the set of spiritual disciplines known as Judaism.

The bottom line, however, is this: you don’t need a rabbi, or a cantor, or a minyan, to pray. You just need the words, and the will, and the longing. All those other things help, and are important for other reasons, but not because they stand between you and God. Nothing needs come between you and God, not “anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

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Beshallach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

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.

BeShalach (Ex. 13:17-17:16)

OVERVIEW

The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once the Israelites have actually started to leave, Pharoah has a change of heart and decides to chase after them with his army. The Israelites come to the Sea of Reeds, but are able to cross after God parts the waters, which then come together and drown the pursuing Egyptian army. Moshe sings his “Song of the Sea,” and Miriam leads the women in dance and rejoicing. The people repeatedly complain, despite the fact that God provides them with miraculous food and water. At the end of the parsha, there is a battle with the nation Amelek.

IN FOCUS

“Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him because Yosef had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ ” (Genesis 13:19)

PSHAT

In the final chapter of Genesis, as Yosef is about to die, he tells his extended family that God will eventually bring them out of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel. He then makes them swear that they will bring his bones out of Egypt when they leave. (Genesis 50: 24-26)

Many generations later, Moshe fulfills this promise as the Israelites are hurriedly escaping from slavery. The rest of the people are armed for battle, but Moshe remembers the commitment made to their ancestor.

DRASH

Before we discuss what the Torah might be trying to teach us with the image of Moshe carrying Yosef’s bones, a brief word about ancient burial practices is in order. We know from archaeological evidence in Israel that burial was sometimes a two-stage process: after a period of time, a body’s bones were sometimes reinterred in a small box called an ossuary. Although it says in Genesis 50:26 that Yosef was embalmed (see this week’s Reb on the Web for more on that subject), I think the Torah is portraying Moshe retrieving a small ossuary, not a full-sized coffin.

In either case, it’s a fascinating image, a single sentence tucked in among the epic depiction of one nation escaping another. A famous midrash says that the rest of the Israelites were busy looting the Egyptians, and only Moshe remembered the promise to Yosef. (Talmud, Sotah 13a) Taking the midrash no further, it’s a powerful image of commitment and fidelity, not to mention clarity of purpose in a crazy, chaotic situation. We might also read this midrash as a statement of the importance of Jewish responsibility for each other – not only did all the Israelites have to leave Egypt together, even the bones had to come out- nobody could be left behind.

A later interpretation of this passage makes a pun between the word for bones and a word which means identity or essence of character:

    Moshe took the bones [atzmot] of Yosef. . . . the essence [atzmut] of Yosef, his character and the content of his spirit- that’s what Moshe took for himself, at the moment when he accepted the role of being the leader of Israel. Just as Yosef returned goodness in place of evil, [when he said to his brothers], “I will sustain you,” (Genesis 50:21) Moshe took upon himself to lead this flock with this trait, changing their stubbornness with patience and forgiveness and treating them only with kindness. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

In this reading, what Moshe realizes that he needs to take out of Egypt is not something physical, but an intangible personal quality- he takes with him the generosity of spirit that Yosef displayed after Yaakov died, when his brothers feared that Yosef would take revenge on them for selling him into slavery as a young man. As we see later on in this Torah portion, and then throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, Moshe would often find himself in conflict with the people he was leading, who often complained and showed little gratitude. Thus, he would need the same qualities of forgiveness and understanding that Yosef had- this was essential to his journey, and to ours.

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Bo 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

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.

Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16)

OVERVIEW

The dramatic contest of wills between God and Pharaoh is coming to a climax: the plagues upon Egypt become steadily more punitive, culminating with the death of the first born. Before the final plague, Moshe and Aaron are given instructions by God to make a sacrifice, and to place the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Further instructions are given to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs; this becomes the source of our Passover traditions. The firstborn of the Egyptians are struck dead; this is the final blow to Pharaoh, who sends the entire Israelite people in the middle of the night. Commandments concerning Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn are given as a remembrance of the Exodus.

IN FOCUS

“Pharoah called to Moshe and said: ‘Go, worship God! Only your flocks and your herds will remain; you little ones will go with you.’ ” (Exodus 10:24)

PSHAT

Pharoah is stubborn, and will not admit total defeat, even after nine afflictions upon his land and people. After the “plague” of darkness, he grudgingly allows the Israelites to leave Egypt; however, he wants them to leave their cattle behind, perhaps as the price of their freedom. Moshe won’t hear of it, and tells Pharoah that they need the cattle to make sacrifices to God out in the wilderness. Pharoah’s heart is hardened once again, and he does not agree to Moshe’s demands.

DRASH

The exchange between Moshe and Pharoah at the end of chapter 10 is, on the simplest level, a battle of wills between political opponents, each trying to get the best deal for their side. Not unlike other famous negotiations in the Middle East, the two parties don’t trust each other, and each tries to give up as little as he can to the other.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak from Pshi’scha, also known as the Yehudi HaKadosh [The Holy Jew], proposes a reading of the story far removed from the realm of political revolutions. The Yehudi imagines Pharaoh challenging Moshe over his understanding of spirituality in worship:

    Pharoah said: “It is possible to worship God [only] in thought and in feeling. So if, in truth, you really desire to worship God – what do you need your flocks and herds for? ‘Go, worship God’- with an upright heart and pure intentions, and you won’t need to make any physical offerings, so ‘only your flocks and herds will remain.’ “

    Moshe answered him: “Intentions alone, without any actions connected to them, aren’t important, aren’t anything! The main thing is real action, and thus intentions depend on actions and are deepened through them. Therefore, ‘our cattle will also go with us,’ (v. 26) because ‘we will take from them to worship Adonai our God.’

    From actions one is aroused to worship God with great feeling and to embrace the Divine. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

Clearly, the Yehudi doesn’t think that Pharoah was all that concerned with the Israelite’s spirituality- this is a parable about contemporary concerns. I understand the Yehudi to be addressing those people who want a purely internal spirituality, going deep inside themselves, spurning the physical world. The Yehudi, speaking through the character of Moshe, seems to be suggesting that the proper way to deepen one’s inner life is to align it with your physicality, your embodied being.

An example that comes to mind is ritual action, something often derided by those who seek a purely internal, detached kind of spirituality. (Think of the negative connotations of the word “ritualistic.”) A simple ritual is making a blessing before eating, which can help bring us to feelings of awe and gratitude. One might think that the best thing is to go directly to the proper feelings, and bypass the ritual, but I think it doesn’t really work that way. The action of the blessing can bring us to a depth of emotion and spiritual understanding unreachable by thought alone; sometimes we don’t even understand, on a spiritual level, what the ritual is all about until after we’ve done it many times.

I think I’ve quoted before one of my favorite teachings from another tradition: “It’s easier to act your way into right thinking than think your way into right acting.” Of course, a certain amount of intellectual preparation is crucial for Jewish practice, but I think the Yehudi reminds us that religious growth can’t happen only “from the neck up.” It happens when we bring physical and spiritual together, when we bring our whole being into the quest, when our actions in the social and religious realms become entirely aligned with our higher goals.

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