Archive for May, 2001

Bamidbar 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

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

“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: “The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each person under his standard with the banners of his family.” ” (Numbers 2:1-2)

PSHAT

The first few chapters of Bamidbar describe the ordering of the Israelite nation into various camps as they travel through the desert. These camps had the tribes grouped together around the Mishkan, several on each side, so the Mishkan was in the middle and the tribes were arranged around it.

Many commentators understand this as a military arrangement- Israel was being arranged like an army into divisions and units, each with its insignia and internal organization. One commentator quoted by Nechamia Lebowitz suggests that the emphasis on organization was to provide a contrast with the people’s former existence as slaves- now, instead of being a rag-tag bunch of former slaves (and thus an “easy mark” for belligerent nations), they presented themselves as a tightly organized army in their travels.

DRASH

Several Hassidic commentators see in our verse a hint of how Jews must seek to understand their own, unique purpose in life. For example:

    . . . each person under his standard with the banners of his family: Every Jew must known and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him- if there were someone like him (before), there would have been no need for you to come into the world. Every single person is someone new in the world, and it is her duty to improve all her ways, until all of Israel have attained perfection. (Beit Aharon, quoted in Itturei Torah.)

This commentator seems to be exploring the tension between each person finding his or her own, personal “standard,” or flag, and also being grouped into a larger social unit under the “banner of his family.” This is a fundamental tension in contemporary Judaism: each of us must develop our own, personal journey of Jewish spirituality, and yet we are not alone in doing so. We are inheritors of a larger Jewish tradition, with all of its teachings and customs and different interpretations. There’s no such thing as a Jew who just makes up a brand new Judaism for themselves, but rather we always exist as individuals in a creative, covenental relationship with the larger Jewish community.

This creative dialectic between individual and community works in both ways: not only does the individual have to find their own “flag” within the larger Jewish tradition, but we must also recognize that the Jewish community is not complete, as it were, unless people are finding their own, comfortable place within it. Judaism is not “one size fits all!” One person may become zealously observant of ritual practices, another person may devote all her energy to Judaism’s vision of social justice, a third may find that studying sacred texts is the proper “flag” for his living Judaism.

As our commentary points out, it is only when each person finds their own “flag”, or personal mission within the broader Jewish framework, that the Jewish people as a whole can find its “perfection,” or ultimate potential. The visual metaphor of the Book of Numbers is striking: each person find their place in a particular camp, and the camps find proper the relationship to each other- and only then can the entire people move forward, with the Presence of God “dwelling” in the middle. I’d even like to propose Parshat Bamidbar as a model for true Jewish pluralism: each individual finding their unique mission within the broadest Jewish framework, organized with like-minded people into sacred organizations, and each person and each community seen as a necessary, equal component of the whole. Only when we see that different people and different communities have their own sacred purpose can we move together on our journey.

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Behar/Bechukotai 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

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.

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1- 27:34)

OVERVIEW

The Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and rules for a moral social structure. 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 parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.

IN FOCUS

“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. Do not take from him interest and increase-you shall revere your God, and your brother shall live with you. Do not give your silver for interest nor your food for increase.” (Leviticus 25:35-37)

PSHAT

In addition to the positive commandment of supporting those who fall into poverty or hard times, there is a prohibition on loaning money or capital on with interest. The basic intent of the Torah seems to be directed against “loan-sharks,” people who would take advantage of another’s economic troubles and profit from them. Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 15:3 both prohibit creditors from harassing or pressing poor debtors for payment, so it would make sense that this verse too is primarily a prohibition against profiting from someone else’s poverty.

DRASH

Last year, we discussed at length the first part of this passage, the positive commandment to support those who find themselves in trouble. Focussing on verse 36, we find that the rabbis understood this verse to be part of a general prohibition against charging simple interest as the condition for making a loan of either money or capital. There is an immense amount of halachic literature dealing with this subject- after all, financial regulations tend to be complex in any society- and over the course of history, certain legal loopholes evolved in response to the need for credit in an advanced economy.

Aside from the financial technicalities of defining permitted transactions, the words for “interest and increase” have themselves been the subject of some debate. We have rendered the Hebrew word neshech as “interest” and tarbit as “increase.” Rashi understood these two words to be synonymous, and “doubled up” so that a violator would be liable for two separate prohibitions. (!) On the other hand, the Torah itself uses one for money transactions and one for material capital, so maybe that’s the intended distinction.

In terms of basic definitions, tarbit comes from the word to increase or make larger, so it’s easy to understand that the lender’s wealth or share will “grow” with the additional payments he demands. Neshech, on the other hand, is a more obscure word; most commentators relate it to the word neshichah, “biting,” perhaps with the idea that interest takes a “bite” out of the borrower’s finances.

A novel way to understand the image of “biting” comes from the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Do not give your silver for interest. . . . this is the continuation of the previous verse, which tells us that “your brother shall live with you,” a reference to the need to give tzedakah. The word for interest used here is neshech, which is related to the word neshichah, which means “biting.” When you give tzedakah to a poor person, do not use the opportunity to “bite” him by reprimanding him and telling him to mend his ways. Instead, give the tzedakah cheerfully.

R. Moshe’s words as applicable today as they were in his day: all too often, the poor are regarded as morally unworthy, or in need of correction before assistance. Of course there is a need for training programs and job assistance and the like, but Judaism calls for preserving the dignity of the poor as much as possible. People who need assistance are in an unequal power relationship with the assister. Just as the Torah warns us not to take financial advantage of that inequality, neither are we to take moral advantage, putting ourselves in the position of judging someone else’s worthiness as a person. There’s a idiom which says “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but the Torah turns it around, saying: “don’t bite the one that you’re feeding.”

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Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

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.

Aharei-Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

OVERVIEW

We have a double parsha this week. Acharei Mot means “after the death;” the Torah notes that these laws were given “after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Then the Yom Kippur service is described, including ritual purification’s and the sending of the “scapegoat” into the wilderness. Rules are given for separating meat from its blood, and other dietary laws. Finally, there is a list of forbidden sexual relationships, given in the context of a general prohibition against following the practices of other nations.

Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parsha is a list of behaviors 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.

IN FOCUS

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not completely reap the corners of the field, and do not gather the gleanings of the harvest. Do not completely glean your vineyard, nor gather all the fallen grapes, but leave them behind for the poor and the stranger- I am Adonai your God. ” (Leviticus 19:9-10)

PSHAT

This beautiful commandment is called peah, which means “corner.” One who is gathering their harvest leaves a portion for the poor to gather. There are two parts to this mitzvah: one is leaving some of the grain or produce just as it is for the poor to gather, and the next part is leaving some on the ground, after it is fallen, and not picking up every last bit.

DRASH

If we took these verses absolutely literally, we would learn a powerful moral teaching about setting aside some of our resources to help those in need. However, we can also infer that the creation of a caring, interdependent community is a greater priority than strict property rights- for ultimately, the land belongs to God, not its human steward. We see a similar idea in the laws of the Shmitta [Sabbatical] and Yovel [Jubilee] years, described in Leviticus 25.

The 16th century Sefardic commentator Moshe Alshich notes that ascribing ownership of the land to God reduces the tensions caused by social inequality between rich and poor:

    Both farmer, stranger, and the poor are really equal before God. Just as the rich person employs laborers to cut his grain, stack his wheat, and so on, so we are all God’s laborers. [I.e., God “employs” the better-off in the job of providing for the poor.] But when performing this commandment, God describes the land as if it were “yours. . . ”

    The Torah could have continued by saying: “it shall be for the poor and the stranger.” By using the phrase “leave them behind,” the Torah emphasizes the stranger and poor person’s prior claim to these gleanings and leavings. God wants the farmer to treat the poor respectfully, not to rob them of dignity. Therefore, “leave them behind”- you are not giving a handout, but you will simply leave it, they will help themselves. “Don’t completely glean” is the fact that you do not complete the harvest, which is the signal to the poor person that he is taking what he is entitled to, not what the farmer decides to give him.

    The anonymity of the recipient- since the farmer does not know who picks his field- is what preserves the poor person’s dignity. (Adapted from R. Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated by E. Munk.)

While I cannot claim to have policy expertise in the realm of social welfare, I think that the dignity of the poor is something rarely considered in many current assistance programs. Food is not a privilege to be handed out according to the mood of the wealthy, but a right, regardless of social standing or status. The needy have a “prior claim” to a certain level of sustenance- if the better off don’t provide the “corners of their fields,” they themselves would be guilty of taking something that is not theirs by right.

This is a whole different way of looking at philanthropy- a person may indeed be generous, but up to a certain point, material things don’t really belong to us in the first place. Rather, a Jewish perspective on material goods sees such resources as being loaned to us for the privilege of bringing about good things. (Maybe that’s why they’re called “goods!”) We are all stewards on God’s land, as it were. This is not to impugn anybody’s generosity, not at all. The commandment of peah challenges us to think about the distinction between generosity- which might mean “going above and beyond”- and basic obligations, which are incumbent upon all who can meet them.

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