Archive for July, 2001

Devarim 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

OVERVIEW

The Book of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, is set as an extended speech. Just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and possess the Land, Moshe gives them his final words of wisdom, encouragement, and rebuke. 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.

IN FOCUS

“Moses began to expound this law, saying: The Lord our God said to us at Horev, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites. . ” ” (Deuteronomy 1:5-7)

PSHAT

At the end of the forty-year trek, Moshe begins a review of many laws and events, starting with the Israelites camped around Mount Sinai. (Here known by its other name, Horev.) According to one version of the Torah’s chronology, the Israelites camped at Sinai quite a while, only leaving in Numbers chapter 10. According to this interpretation, all the laws of the Mishkan, the priesthood, and many civil and agricultural laws were given as the Israelites camped at the mountain.

DRASH

Many contemporary Jews understand our Torah text to be composed of earlier sources with slight differences between them; thus attempting to harmonize exactly who was where, and when, can be a little confusing. (So I’m not going to try.) In our text from Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites they’ve camped at Sinai long enough, and it’s time to get moving towards their Land. The Hebrew is rav lechem– literally, “it’s enough,” or “a lot” for you.

Rashi offers two alternative ways of reading “you have stayed long enough at this mountain.” First, he says that the text means exactly what it seems to mean: get going, you’ve been here long enough. Then he brings a midrashic reading of “it’s enough for you:”

    You have had greatness and reward increased upon you for your dwelling by this mountain. You made a Mishkan, a Menorah [lamp for the Mishkan], holy vessels, and received the Torah. You appointed a Sanhedrin [rabbinic court], and captains of thousands and captains of hundreds.

According to this midrash, the rav of rav lechem means “lots for you,” i.e., you have lots of great and wonderful things to show for your stay here at Sinai. Each of the things that Rashi names belongs to the section of laws preceding Numbers 10, when the first journey from Sinai is mentioned. Furthermore, it’s a symbolically complete list- the Mishkan, Menorah, and holy vessels represent religious and spiritual life, while the Sanhedrin and the “captains” represent civil order and social justice. Torah is fully “received” with both its ritual and social commandments.

So why would Rashi bring two alternative readings of the same phrase? Maybe he’s hinting that the two interpretations are not alternatives, but complementary: yes, it was a wonderful blessing to receive the Torah and all its wisdom at Sinai, but it must be taken out and applied in the rest of the world, too. One can sit in synagogue and receive wonderful inspiration and beautiful spiritual instruction, but such teachings only matter if they are lived in the “real world.”

One can even take every class Kolel has to offer (and we certainly hope you do!) but ultimately, studying Torah is a means to a transformed life, lived in community with all kinds of other people. There is a time for receiving Torah at the mountain of God, and then there’s a time to go out and make a life of Torah happen in less cozy and predictable surroundings. There is a time to learn, and a time to apply what you’ve learned; both are necessary stages along a holy journey.

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Matot/Masei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

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.

Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

OVERVIEW

Two parshiyot are read together this week. Matot begins with laws pertaining to vows and oaths, and then has a long report on Israel’s terrible battle with the nation Midian and its aftermath. After the problems pertaining to the war are finished, two tribes, Reuven and Gad, ask to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River; this annoys Moshe, but he agrees as long as they stay part of the united army.

In the final parsha of the book of Numbers, Masei (ch. 33 till the end), Israel stands just outside the Land, ready to start the settlement. First, all their travels and detours are reviewed; then laws pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of the Land are given. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are described, where special cities of refuge for accidental manslayers are to be set up. Finally, the book of Numbers ends with a review of prohibitions against intermarriage and an affirmation of the claim of the daughters of Zelophechad. (See parshat Pinchas.)

IN FOCUS

“These are the journeys of the Israelites, by which they came out from the land of Egypt by their armies, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. . . ” (Numbers 33:1)

PSHAT

All the different places where the Israelites camped on their 40 year trek through the wilderness are recalled and reviewed. However, trying to match up every place mentioned in this parsha with narratives in Exodus and earlier in Numbers would demonstrate some discrepancies. Biblical historians might attribute this to different traditions in the Torah itself, while classical commentators would cite midrash to reconcile different names and chronologies.

DRASH

Readers of this column know that one of my favorite ways to interpret the Torah is through the lens of psychological insight. I often find in the stories of the Torah (and their commentaries) deep insight into the inner motivations and challenges of the individual Jewish soul. This week we have a wonderful example of how Torah commentary in previous periods has been addressed to the individual soul within a national community.

Looking at this long list of place names in the beginning of Parshat Masei, the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism itself, saw not a travelogue, but a symbolic description of the individual on a life-long spiritual journey:

    “These are the journeys of the Israelites. . . ” All of the travels added up to 42, and these are also [the journeys] of every individual from the day of her birth until she returns to Eternity. Understand this: that the day of birth is like the leaving of Egypt, as is known, and after that one goes from journey to journey until you reach the place of supreme life, as we have mentioned concerning the verse: “according to the word of God you will camp and according to the word of God you will travel.” ( cf. Numbers 9:15-23) This is like going from a restricted state [katnut] to a state of expanded consciousness [gadlut].

The key teaching in this commentary is in the last sentence, which involves two concepts from the corpus of inner-oriented Judaism. Katnut comes from the Hebrew root which means “small,” and refers to “constriction, a state of passivity and lack of inspiration, in which ultimate fulfillment exists only as potential, not in actuality.” Gadlut comes from the root meaning “large,” or “big”, and refers to the opposite state of being: “fulfillment. . arousal, inspiration.” (These definitions come from R. Norman Lamm’s invaluable study The Religious Thought of Hasidism.)

In this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov (also called the Besht, for short), those periods when the Israelites where stuck in one place- “encamped”- where like those periods in a person’s life when they are stuck emotional, uninspired, feeling uncreative and constricted. This is balanced by those times when a person is overflowing, feeling large, inspired, alive, spiritually vital- that state of being is compared to the Israelites travelling towards the Promised land, led on by the Divine Presence.

To me, this is a realistic view of the religious life: it’s not all sweetness and joy, nor is it endless, dour self-scrutiny. A religious life spent in sincere struggle to achieve holy purposes in this world will be a series of ups and downs, of inspiration and setback, periods of growth and periods of being stuck. There is katnut, and there is gadlut; the first brings humility, and the second can bring exhaltation. Both are necessary stops along the way, along the journey from birth to Eternity.

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Pinchas 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

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.

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

OVERVIEW

At the end of the previous parsha, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas killed two blasphemers in a very provocative act of religious zealotry. At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Pinchas and his descendants are apparently rewarded with a special priestly covenant. Israel then struggles with the Midianites. and another census is taken, in order to prepare for battle. The daughters of a man named Zelophechad complain about the sexism of the inheritance laws, so Moshe consults with God, Who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Yehoshua is appointed as Moshe’s successor, and all the special sacrifices of the holidays are listed.

IN FOCUS

“The daughters of Zelophehad . . . approached the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly, and said, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against God, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” ” (Numbers 27:1-4)

PSHAT

The five daughters of Zelophechad complain to Moshe that the laws of inheritance, as articulated up to this point, are unfair to women, who would not inherit a stake in the land from their father’s portion. The law is changed so that women would indeed inherit if they had no brothers. Although the daughters of Zelophechad are rightly acknowledged as proto-feminists for their willingness to speak out against the unfairness of the patriarchal system, the laws are only changed a little bit, in the case of women without brothers. If they do have brothers, the male heirs inherit and the unfairness persists.

DRASH

What is amazing to me about the story of the daughters of Zelophechad is not only their willingness to speak out against an unfair system, but their incredible faith in the future. They were concerned about inheriting a stake in a land that the Jewish people were years from even settling! In other words, at the point that the daughters made their complaint, their point was still only theoretical, because the Israelites had not yet possessed the Land of Israel, much less apportioned it among the tribes and clans.

The ancient midrash picks up on the five women’s trust in the future:

    “Give us property among our father’s relatives”- R. Natan said: women’s tenacity is stronger than men’s. The men of Israel said: “Let us make a captain and return to Egypt.” [Numbers 14:4] But the women of Israel insisted: “Give us property!” (Sifre Numbers, quoted in the English Sefer Ha-Aggadah)

According to this midrash, the attitude of the “women of Israel” is represented by the daughters of Zelophechad, who demanded a change in the laws so that they could inherit when, in the future, Israel lived in its promised Land.

Leaving aside for the moment any sweeping generalizations about women’s and men’s relative “tenacity,” I find this midrash inspirational. In it, the daughters of Zelophechad believe so much in a positive future that they are willing to take steps right now, this minute, to make it happen, even if current conditions (i.e., being stuck in the desert, not yet near the Land) would tend to make one focus on just surviving the moment. It’s like saving money for a house, even if one is just barely paying the rent, or doing any other action that helps prepare one mentally for the future one hopes for.

Many hopes are never realized, but hopelessness tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without faith in the future, it’s hard to move forward, even on a journey of 40 years. The daughters of Zelophechad never lost their dream, and changed even the Torah itself with the power of their faith.

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Balak 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

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.

Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9)

OVERVIEW

This week’s parashah is mostly the story of Balak, the king of the nation Moav. He hires the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites, whom he perceives as a threat. Bilaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing is God’s alone. On his way to curse Israel, his donkey stops, for an angel blocks the way, but Bilaam can’t perceive what his animal is doing. [ed. It is here we have the second talking animal of the Bible!] Finally, Bilaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing that is now part of the daily morning service. At the end of the parashah, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.

IN FOCUS

“Bilaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.’ ” (Numbers 22:34)

PSHAT

Balak really wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites, but Bilaam senses that this is not what God wants him to do. After Balak’s men pressure and cajole him, God tells Bilaam he can go to meet Balak, but he must only do what God tells him. Still, God seems to be angry that Bilaam has chosen this path, and sends an angel with a drawn sword to block his way. The donkey sees the angel, and refuses to proceed, but Bilaam thinks the donkey is disobeying him. Finally, God allows Bilaam to perceive the angel, and then Bilaam pleads ignorance- he wouldn’t have tried to move on if he had known there was an angel blocking his way!

DRASH

A Hasidic commentator points out that if Bilaam really didn’t know about the angel, how could he have “sinned” in trying to move along?

    “I have sinned. . .” This is surprising! If he didn’t know, what was the sin? The answer is that there are times when not knowing is itself the sin. For example, if a child strikes a parent, he can’t justify it by saying he didn’t know it was forbidden to strike one’s parents. A captain of the guard of the king cannot say that he didn’t know who the king was! This is the case of a prophet and an angel- if the prophet says that he didn’t know that the angel was stationed before him, that’s the sin. This is what Bilaam said: “I sinned, because I didn’t know- as a prophet, I should have known that the angel stood before me- not knowing was the sin itself.” (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

We could further point out that Bilaam went with God’s apparent permission, even though he knew that Balak’s goals were destructive. He chose to go anyway- that’s what having free moral choice means. Even though Bilaam knew it wasn’t a good thing, God let him go, with the warning to make the right choices in the end. So then we get back to our original question: what was the sin, if he really didn’t know the angel was there?

I think this midrash implies that Bilaam really did know, on some semiconscious level, that it was not good to head out to meet Balak. Bilaam did a very common thing: he overruled his own conscience, and chose not to see, not to understand, the problematic nature of his chosen path. It’s literally a path in the story, but I think the road or path here symbolizes the set of decisions he’s making. He didn’t want to see the angel, so he didn’t.

The idea that not knowing can itself be a chet, or falling short of the mark, is a powerful challenge. What are we not seeing that we choose not to see? Do we use Bilaam’s excuse- “I didn’t know”- when our friends and family need our help and support? Do we say “I didn’t see” when we step over the homeless on our way to work, or when we encounter the effects of any other problem in our community? Choosing not to see is something we all do at times- even a prophet can sometimes fail to see the angel in front of him. The good news is that we are created with a spark of the Divine within, and we can have our eyes opened at any time.

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