Archive for June, 2001

Chukat 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

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.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

OVERVIEW

One could characterize the overall theme of parshat Chukat as encounters with danger and death. First we have the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have become impure because of contact with a corpse. Then there are more laws about this severe form of ritual impurity. Miriam dies; the people complain about deadly thirst, and Moshe is sentenced not to enter the Land because he did not follow God’s instructions pertaining to providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.

IN FOCUS

“Moshe sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom, [saying], ‘So said your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us. Our ancestors went down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians acted terribly to our ancestors. We cried out to God, Who heard our voice, and sent an angel and took us out of Egypt. . . . ‘ ” (Numbers 20:14-16)

PSHAT

The Israelites are camped at a place called Kadesh, and they want to take a shortcut through another kingdom, called Edom, on their way to the land of Israel. Edom is associated with the descendants of Esav, Yaakov’s brother (cf. Genesis 32:4, for example)- thus Moshe apparently hopes to gain some sympathy from the king of this country of “brothers.” This hope is rebuffed, and the Israelites have to take another route.

DRASH

A key word in our little story is malach, which can mean a messenger or an emissary. Sometimes this messenger is a human being with a straightforward task, such as in verse 14, above: Moshe sends messengers to the king. However, what makes this word so interesting is that the word can also describe an “emissary” from God, what in English we would call an angel. Sometimes the Bible very clearly describes a malach as a heavenly being, as in the story of the birth of Samson:

    A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel [malach] of God appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. . . (Judges 13:2-3)

On the other hand, consider this passage from Exodus:

    See, I am sending an angel [malach] ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him . . . (Exodus 23:20-21)

Is this emissary a human or divine figure? It’s not clear from the text, though most commentators think that it means a supernatural angel.

In our verse, in Numbers, Moshe tells the king of Edom that God sent a malach to lead the people out of Egypt. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra says that this was a heavenly angel, sent by God to lead the people. On the other hand, Rashi says that this malach was Moshe himself. Rashi bases this on a text from the second book of Chronicles, which describes the reign of king Zedekiah, to prove that prophets are called “messengers” of God:

    Adonai, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through God’s messengers again and again, because God had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of God was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. (2 Chronicles 36: 15-16)

What I like so much about Rashi’s description of Moshe himself as the “angel” sent by God to take the people out of Egypt is the idea that God works through human beings to accomplish holy purposes. What we know of Moshe from the Torah shows us a very real human being, a man who had real human faults, like anger, impatience, and a sharp tongue. Moshe also had incredible loyalty and compassion for his people- these, too, are the real human traits he displays in our texts.

So by saying that Moshe was the angel whom God sent, Rashi seems to be hinting that human beings, with all their imperfections, are capable of being representatives of God’s purpose in the world. I think this idea is very central to contemporary Jewish theology- human beings must strive to accomplish the redemption of the world. We don’t wait for an angel from heaven, we become the angel here on earth. We don’t necessarily wait for a supernatural being to appear, but we can instead seek to find the holy spark within ourselves, and within each person. The angel you’re waiting for might already be right in front of you.

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Korach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

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.

Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

OVERVIEW

In this parashah, the Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart. A man named Korach leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. Korach has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that the “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.

IN FOCUS

“They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?”

When Moses heard this, he fell face down. ” (Numbers 16:3-4)

PSHAT

Moshe does not get immediately defensive or angry with the assembled crowd, nor does he assert his authority. Instead, he humbles himself, and asks the rebels about their motivation. He also points out, a few verses later, that they should have no problem with Aharon; it’s interesting that Moshe comes to Aharon’s defense before defending himself.

DRASH

Continuing our study of Moshe’s reactions to leadership challenges, a famous Hasidic commentator offers a different kind of explanation of Moshe “falling facedown.” R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (lived in Russia, died in 1812), the founding rabbi of the Lubavitch (or Chabad) Hassidic movement, says that Moshe fell on his face because he really had to ask himself if Korach has a valid point:

    It would have been fitting for Moshe to answer him immediately, so why did he first fall on his face? Moshe, our teacher, had a feeling that maybe they were asking him this from On High, and Korach was only a messenger. Thus, he first fell on his face for self-reflection, to see if in truth he had any arrogance. After he thoroughly checked himself, and found no trace of pride, he understood that he [Korach] was not a messenger from On High, but was a divider [of people], and so he answered as he did. (Tanya, quoted in Itturei Torah)

I think this is a very psychologically provocative midrash. R. Shneur Zalman (also known as the Ba’al HaTanya after his most important book) challenges us to follow Moshe’s example by first reflecting on our own actions in any situation of conflict or anger. In effect, this midrash says to us: even Moshe had to consider the possibility that Korach had a valid point, or at least that his accusations contained some kernel of truth. In the rabbinic tradition, Moshe is the archetypal good man, and Korach the very symbol of selfishness and evil- so how much more are the rest of us, all the “in-between” people, challenged to consider the possibility that other’s words may contain painful truths.

What’s so brilliant about this midrash is that that it refuses to provide any easy answers to human relationships. It would be too easy to say that any situation of conflict reflects equally badly on both parties, and thus slide into a kind of psychological relativism. Yes, sometimes people do bad things out of their own pain, but this way of seeing things gets people “off the hook” for their actions.

On the other hand, it would also be too easy to say that some people do evil or hurtful things simply because they are evil people- but this does not account for Judaism’s insistence that all people, even Korach, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korach could have been the agent of holy truth. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but there was no easy way, other than real soul-searching, to either “validate” Korach’s feelings or write him off as an arrogant usurper.

According to the Ba’al HaTanya, some people may be bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source. Or, as Kolel’s webmaster often says, we must “seek first to understand,” before we react in a situation of conflict. Who knows- we might be in the presence of a “divider”, or we might be in the presence of “messenger from On High”.

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Shlach-Lecha 5761

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 5761 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 parsha 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

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Then Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. . . ” (Numbers 14:2-7, NIV)

PSHAT

As we’ve seen before, complaining is a major theme of the book of Numbers. Sometimes the complaining is just grumbling and dissatisfaction with conditions in the desert, and sometimes it takes the form of outright rebellion, as we will see next week, in Parshat Korach. In this case, the people complain out of fear, because of the report that the spies present regarding the Land of Promise- the spies say that the Land is filled with giants and there is no way to go up and inhabit it. The people get discouraged, and the grumblers among them propose picking a new leader and going back to Egypt.

DRASH

Last week, we discussed the spiritual and psychological conditions of those who talked of going back to Egypt. This week, I want to look at the other side of the coin, at how Moshe and Aharon reacted to the challenge to their leadership. In this week’s parsha, we read that Moshe and Aharon “fell on their faces” in front of the murmuring crowd. What’s also interesting is that neither Moshe or Aharon speak at this point, but Yehoshua [Joshua] speaks up instead, telling the people to have faith that God will bring them to the Land. This goes on for several more verses, until the Presence of God interrupts, just as the crowd wants to start throwing rocks at Moshe and Aharon (vs. 11- talk about a leadership review process!)

On the face of it (so to speak), prostrating themselves before the crowd seems like a strange reaction- shouldn’t the leaders picked by God speak passionately to the assembly, and point out their own legitimacy as prophet and priest? At the very least, shouldn’t they have shown some “backbone” in the face of this challenge? It hardly seems like the same Moshe of Exodus 32, who was so angry when he found the people worshipping the Golden Calf that he broke the tablets and almost started a civil war.

Various interpretations have thus been offered to explain Moshe’s apparent passivity and silence in the presence of the angry mob. One Hasidic commentator seems to say that Moshe and Aharon were so stunned by the people’s disobedience that they simply could not stand up:

    Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces. . . the leaders draw their strength and inspiration from the people, and when the people erred so greatly, they simply didn’t have the strength to stand. (Tiferet Yehonatan, from Itturei Torah)

One can understand this comment literally- that Moshe and Aharon were shocked and dismayed and just “bowled over” at the people’s reaction- or metaphorically, that the leaders could not “stand” in their capacity as leaders if the assembly was turned against them.

Another possibility is that the brothers fell on their faces as a kind of prayer to God- this might make sense in light of verse 11, when God comes to their defense. Understanding Moshe’s and Aharon’s prostration as a supplication to God would certainly be a very “religious” interpretation, and it’s plausible, but other commentators argue against it.

The JPS Torah commentary compares this incident with the Korach rebellion (cf. 16:4), and concludes that they fell on their faces in order to appear humble before the angry crowd. It goes on to say that Moshe and Aharon’s humiliation was precisely the reason that Yehoshua spoke up in their defense. The medieval commentator Ramban also thinks that they wanted to appease the crowd; he compares our passage to Genesis 50:18, when Yosef’s brothers fell on their faces before him as a gesture of submission.

To me, these various interpretations don’t cancel each other out, but rather help us understand the nuances of a complex situation. Clearly, a leader “stands” or “falls” on her support from her following. Perhaps we can also learn that there is a time for argument and a time for humility- sometimes Moshe is capable of quite angry words, but in this instance, he responded with silence. Rather than engaging in verbal conflict, he offered his very being as an example of his moral authority. Sometimes it’s best not to fight, but simply to be, and to show your strength in your resilient acceptance of events beyond your immediate control.

Finally, one must admire Yehoshua’s role here- rather that sit idly by when Moshe and Aharon were under attack, he came to their defense, even at great personal risk. A person of integrity can hardly be silent when another person of integrity is being slandered- and that’s an example the Jewish community urgently needs, especially in times of communal tension and conflict. What we learn from our passage are examples of true courage- when necessary- the courage to speak, and when words would only inflame, the courage to be silent.

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Beha’alotcha 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

OVERVIEW

This parsha is thematically diverse, beginning with the Menorah [lamp] in the Mishkan, then proceeding to a description of the dedication of the Levites as assistants to the priests. The Israelites celebrate the Pesach (Passover) holy day in the wilderness, but some people 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 food direct from heaven [Manna] – so God sends them so much meat that it comes out their nostrils! Aharon and Miriam speak slander against Moshe and his wife; Miriam is stricken with a scaly skin outbreak, and sent out of the camp.

IN FOCUS

“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. ” (Numbers 11:4-7)

PSHAT

Complaining and rebellion is a recurring theme in the book of Numbers- despite all the miracles, beginning with the liberation from Egypt, some of the Israelites just can’t appreciate everything that is being done for them. In this case, it seems like some of the “mixed multitude” who went out of Egypt with the Israelites are instigating the complaining. The people are complaining about the manna from heaven, even though the Torah tries to tell us how yummy it was, something like a creamy cake flavored with spices. On the most basic level, the book of Numbers repeatedly reminds us to appreciate our blessings, have a little faith, and refrain from negativity and excessive “kvetching.”

DRASH

A key word in the Israelites’s complaint is hinam, or “free.” Rashi quotes a midrash which explains that “free” was not free in its literal sense, but “free from mitzvot.” In other words, what the Israelites were really complaining about was the expectations that God now has of them as autonomous, responsible people.

While this interpretation certainly touches on the ambivalence that the Israelites seem to feel towards God and Moshe, other commentators (such as Nachmanides) understand hinam more literally- i.e., that the Egyptians provided cheap food, like cucumbers and fish from the Nile, to their slaves, presumably in order to keep them working hard. However, the Israelites are getting even better food, even more “free”, out in the wilderness! So their complaint is very strange- but maybe that’s the point.

Of course, we know that the food they received in Egypt was not free at all- it came at the cost of their freedom, their labour, their dignity, their spirituality, and their very lives. I hear the very irrationality of this complaint- “we miss the free cucumbers in Egypt !” – as a poignant sign of their very real fear of the changes that the future might bring. Being free, being not enslaved, means being responsible for yourself: not only for providing oneself and one’s family with the basics of life, but having to make important moral choices that a slave (or an addict, or a workaholic, or a codependent. . . .) simply doesn’t (or won’t) confront.

Personal change and growth can be so scary that sometimes people would rather be stuck in something bad than go forward into the future. We might think of a person stuck in a bad work situation, or an abusive relationship, or an addiction, or unhealthy grief- even though it’s “Egypt,” a place of real personal unhappiness, sometimes it’s more comfortable than the hard personal choices that God lays before us.

For the Israelites, there really wasn’t a choice: they had to go forward into their destiny as a nation, despite the hardships. They might have complained along the way, and pined for the comfortable spiritual paralysis of servitude, but their journey was laid out for them. Perhaps the fact that they moved forward, despite their fears and complaints and doubts, can be inspiration for each of us to do the same. No matter how good the past seems in our memories, no matter how scary the future might be, ultimately we must move forward, embracing our destiny, and appreciating the blessings of the present.

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Naso 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

OVERVIEW

Parashat 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 Parashat Vayakhel) 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

“God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: ‘This is how you will bless the Israelites, saying to them:

May Adonai bless you and keep you; may Adonai cause the Face of the Divine to shine upon you; may Adonai lift the Face of the Divine to you, and giveyou peace.

Let them place My name upon the Israelites , and I will bless them.’ ” (Numbers 6:22-27)

PSHAT

This is a very “religious” parsha; the little narrative there is concerns gifts to the Mishkan, and all the other regulations in the parsha deal with ritual and religious matters. As part of the overall preparations to dedicate the Altar in the Mishkan, the priests are given a formula by which they will bless the people. This blessing is still very much part of Jewish liturgy today; it is recited in many traditional synagogue services, and often at weddings and bnai mitzvah celebrations as well.

DRASH

The ancient rabbis were very much aware that any kind of  intermediaries between God and the people might be thought of as somehow divine beings in their own right. After all, the Torah itself tells us that the people wanted Moshe to come between them and the Divine Presence (Exodus 20:15); apparently, not much later, they considered Moshe to be a kind of demigod who leads them. (Cf. Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf.) Thus, the rabbis stress that it is God who brings blessing, not the priests themselves:

    Do not say, “this kohen, who is incestuous and a murderer, is to bless us!?” For the Holy One, blessed be God, says: “Who blesses you? Am not I the one who blesses you, as it is written: “Let them place My name upon the Israelites , and I will bless them? ‘ ”   (Jerusalem Talmud, Gittin, 47b)

What I find fascinating about this midrash is the suggestion that an incestuous or murderous priest could, in fact, offer these words of blessing! To be fair, I don’t know if that was the intent of the authors of this midrash, but I do think that it reminds us not to ascribe magical powers to ritual leaders. Ideally, they are only the vessel or the means by which something greater is accomplished. In fact, at many synagogues rabbis and cantors are called klei kodesh, or “holy vessels”, a term which stresses that Jewish religious leaders are merely a means to achieve larger goals.

Yet we might also ask: if God wished to bless the people with a direct, Divine blessing, why were priests given this special role at all? Certainly there would be no risk of theological confusion among the Israelites if the Holy One simply announced the blessing without anybody’s help!

Rashi says something which may be helpful here:

    saying to them . . . .this is a full [spelling, indicating:] do not bless them in haste, nor in hurried excitement, but with full consciousness [kavannah], and with a whole heart.

Rashi believes that the priests were commanded to have the proper reverence as well as the proper wording. Perhaps then we can say that the priests were chosen not only as vessels of blessing, but also as role models of caring for the people. Maybe God didn’t need the priests to deliver a blessing, maybe God needed the kohanim to show the other Israelites what it meant to be reverent and loving, to wish the best for someone else, to pray for another with a “whole heart.” In other words, God did not want these ritual leaders to have Divine powers, but rather, a full humanity- and maybe that’s why these words still move us today.

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