Archive for August, 2001

Ki Tetzei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

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.

This Parashat Ki Tetze is dedicated
in loving memory of Sadie Dragushan
(Sheindel bat Yosef u’Miriam) by Ron Dragushan
to mark the end of Shloshim.

Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10- 25:19)

OVERVIEW

Ki Tetze contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parasha ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.

IN FOCUS

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Adonai your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. ” (Deuteronomy 21:10-15)

PSHAT

As my teacher R. Eddie Feinstein wrote regarding this passage, all is not fair in love and war- the Torah recognizes the reality of war, but demands that even in the insanity of battle, a human being be recognized as a human being. That women were captured in war was non-controversial in the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world; the Torah, however, says that even this sexist cultural norm must be subject to some kind of moral regulation. Rape is condemned, and a ritual of bringing the woman into the soldier’s house slowly, and allowing her to mourn, is instituted in its place. Many commentators assume that the point of this ritual delay is so that the soldier will change his mind, and let her go.

DRASH

The law of the woman captured at war is difficult for contemporary readers; it is an artifact from an ancient world, a world whose attitudes towards women, war, marriage, and family is far from our own. I can accept that this law represented an advance over the typical “rules of war” of its day, but it’s difficult to accept that the Torah gives permission for men to capture women and marry them forcibly.

Lucky for me, our good friend Rashi does something quite amazing with this entire passage, offering an interpretation which creatively illustrates my feeling that the Torah is saying something subtler than “capture women, but be more dignified about it.”

Rashi links this passage, concerning the captured woman, with the next two, in verses 15-20. These laws concern the “hated wife” (whose children must be treated fairly) and the “rebellious son” (who could be put to death – but don’t worry, the rabbis say this never actually happened.) Rashi says that taking a woman in war will lead to her becoming the “unloved wife,” and any children from this union will become “rebellious sons:”

    “you may take her as your wife”. . . The Torah speaks here only to oppose the Selfish Inclination [Yetzer Hara], because if the Blessed Holy One did not permit [jt], he would marry her against the law. But if he does marry her, she will in the end be “hated,” as the verse says, and eventually they will beget a “rebellious son.” That’s why all these sections are connected.

By linking these three strange laws, Rashi seems to be saying that we are to learn the consequences of acting on our shallowest urges. Yes, it’s theoretically permissible to marry the woman captured in war, according to the letter of the ancient law, but look where it gets you: you end up hating that which reflects back to you your own worst side, and you end up with family difficulties across the generations. One who sees in another human being only a way to gratify personal desires- even in a more restrained, “permitted” way- ends up without even the respect of others, not even of his or her own children.

Because the law of the “rebellious son” is usually assumed to be only theoretical, never applied, I think Rashi is saying the same thing about the “captured woman.” Maybe it’s only a parable for the destructive consequences of seeing others as means, rather than as holy ends in themselves. Maybe the emphasis on the woman’s beauty is a way of warning us against focussing on external appearances, rather than spiritual qualities- even in wartime! As the ancient rabbis like to say, if in war one should recognize the essential humanity of each person, and never use them or abuse them, how much more so in everyday life, when we have daily opportunities to affirm the best in ourselves and others.

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Shoftim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

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.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

OVERVIEW

The word shoftim means “judges.” Issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.

IN FOCUS

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. ” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

PSHAT

In order to have a just and fair society, there must be institutions which make justice happen, and which can settle disputes. These institutions must be scrupulously fair and ethical themselves, or else the entire system falls apart. Thus, “thriving on the land” is dependent on an orderly and fair justice system- society can’t thrive if there are no mechanisms of justice.

DRASH

Our passage this week seems to have two underlying assumptions: the first is that institutions of justice are needed in order to make justice happen, and the second is that establishing such institutions is not the same as actually achieving a just society. Look at the flow of the three verses quoted above: first we are told to appoint judges, then we are warned that those judges might misbehave, and finally we’re reminded of the very reason to appoint judges- so that justice may be pursued. The institutions are the means to an end, but not the end itself.

The famous repetition of the word “justice” in verse 20 has inspired many commentaries and homilies, although it’s also possible that it is merely a stylistic device, employed for emphasis. Thus, Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary, interprets “justice, justice shall you pursue” as “only justice,” or “justice alone.” This is a very plausible reading, given that the whole passage seems to be stressing the idea that human institutions can go astray from their founding ideals.

Rashi, on the other hand, has a very different reading. He says that “justice, justice shall you pursue” means “seek out a fair court of law” [beit din]. The word I’ve translated as “fair” is literally translated as “beautiful,” [ya’fey] probably implying “excellent.” A later commentator, Alshich, points out that Rashi seems to think that verses 18-19 are directed at judges and leaders, while verse 20 (“justice, justice. . “) is directed at potential litigants, the people who will appear before the court. Alshich goes on to say that a court can only apply the law, while the litigants must pursue larger goals, including perhaps compromising and making peace, even if the strict letter of the law does not require it.

I think Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier text, is quite interesting, for it suggests that both the seekers of justice and those entrusted with its enactment have a responsibility to keep these larger goals in mind. Those who use the courts- or social service agencies, or the media, or the legal system, or governmental agencies- are just as commanded to seek justice as those who work in those institutions. Rashi seems to be saying that it’s hard to have a good result if the institution itself is not “excellent”- so choose institutions wisely, and make sure that justice, and not just the legal process, is really the goal. Of course, this idea applies anytime someone confuses laws or policies with goodness and truth- the former are the means to the latter, never its substitute.

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Re’eh 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

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.

Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

OVERVIEW

Moshe sets before the people a blessing if they follow God’s ways, and a curse if they don’t. Both worship and eating of meat are to be centralized around holy places that God will choose. Moshe warns the people about false prophets, idolaters, and lawless cities, which are to be destroyed. Laws for eating, tithing, loans, the Sabbatical year, Israelite indentured servants, and the holidays are reviewed.

IN FOCUS

“And when Adonai your God will bring you to the land to which you are coming, to inherit it, you will put the blessing on Mount Gezerim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Aren’t they across the Jordan, beyond the way of the sunset, in the land of the Canaanite, who dwells in the valley, opposite Gilgal, near the oaks of Moreh? ” (Deuteronomy 11:29-30)

PSHAT

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moshe stresses the importance of maintaining faithfulness to God’s covenant. As a kind of “audiovisual aid,” he designates one mountain as the mountain of blessing (for those who stay loyal to covenant) and one mountain as the mountain of curse (for those who stray), and asks the Israelites to consider the choice they must make. These mountains are in the Land of Israel, which reinforces the idea that inheriting the land brings with it a special responsibility to choose one’s actions wisely.

DRASH

Continuing from last week our exploration of the new commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman, we find that Friedman finds theological insight in an otherwise obscure geographical reference:

    The first place to which Abraham comes when he moves to Canaan is the oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6). There YHWH is said to appear to him for the first time (which is also the first time that God is said to have appeared to anyone in the Bible.) There YHWH says for the first time that He will give the land to Abraham’s descendants. And there Abraham builds the first altar to YHWH in Canaan.

    Now the oaks (or oak; the Septuagint [Greek translation] has the singular) of Moreh are mentioned just before a statement that those descendants are now about to “come to take possession of the land.” It is thus another signal that the merit of the ancestors is a source of protection and well-being for Israel many generations later. In this case, because Abraham listened to God’s first command and left his home for a new land, his descendants now come to that land.

Friedman is not the first commentator to notice that the “oaks of Moreh” show up in both Genesis and Deuteronomy- the ancient midrash Sifrei, quoted by Rashi, identifies this place as the city of Shechem, based on the verse from Genesis. Friedman, however, goes one step further in bringing out the theological significance of Moshe’s subtle reminder of Avraham and the promise that was made to him.

This theological idea is sometimes called zechut avot, or the “merit of the ancestors.” It’s expressed in the Bible by the idea that the Israelites will inherit God’s blessing because of the forefathers and foremothers. We also see the idea of zechut avot in the High Holiday prayers, when we remind God of the righteousness of our forebearers and ask forgiveness on their merits, rather than our own.

Zechut avot is a central concept in classical Jewish theology, yet it is also difficult for many contemporary Jews to accept at face value the idea that they are being “judged” not on their own deeds, but on the merit of distant, ancient ancestors who may even be regarded as legendary rather than historical figures. Yet I think zechut avot can also be a powerful call to both individual humility and self-understanding as part of a historical, evolving community. Humility comes from realizing that anything that one might accomplish is built on the accomplishments and with the assistance of others- no (hu)man is an island. Each of us is who we because of those who came before us; we have free will, but we exist in a historical chain of being.

Thus, on the High Holidays, when I ask the Holy One to remember the merits of my ancestors, I’m also reminding myself of my deep roots in the Jewish people. I’m reminding myself that all my insights into Torah, into theology, into life itself are built on the insights of those who came before me. I’m reminding myself that the Jewish people’s relationship with God existed before I did, and will continue on after me, with all the gratitude and responsibility that implies. I’m reminding myself that even though I might “cross over the Jordan” in my spiritual journey, I’m bringing with me the felt presence of the God of Israel, a Presence just as real to me as to my ancestor Avraham by the oaks of Moreh.

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Ekev 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

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.

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to exhort the people not to forget God’s wonders and God’s Torah when they enter the land. The theology of the book of Deuteronomy seems straightforward: if the Israelites follow the Torah, God will reward them with blessings in the land, and drive out their enemies. Moshe also reviews some of the earlier incidents when Israel was rebellious, including the Golden Calf and the making of second tablets. The parsha concludes with a passage which constitutes the second paragraph (for many communities) of the Shema; this paragraph reiterates the connection between piety and receiving God’s blessing.

IN FOCUS

“After Adonai your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “Adonai has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.”

No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that Adonai is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, Adonai your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. ” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)

PSHAT

Moshe is preparing the Israelites for the end of their journey in the wilderness. Before they cross the river into the Land of Israel, Moshe stresses that it will be God Who helps them possess the land- not because they do deserve it, but because the nations that live there do not deserve it, and it had also been promised to the Israelite’s ancestors. The larger theme is humble faithfulness to God’s covenant, even after they have achieved all their goals and dwell as a nation in their own land.

DRASH

The noted Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has just released a new commentary on the entire Torah, which is an exciting new addition to the contemporary library of Torah scholarship. In fact, we’ll refer to this new commentary next week, too, so that Kolel students can get a feel for Friedman’s methodology. Very briefly, Friedman wants to follow in the tradition of Rashi and the other great medieval commentators, by closely reading the text itself for subtle hints as to meaning, while at the same time contextualizing all close readings with the insights of modern scholarship, including history, archaeology, comparative religion, philology, and so on.

Thus, Friedman points out and explores the apparent repetition in the verses above:

    The point is made three times, in three verses in row: it is not because of your virtue that but rather because of these nation’s wickedness. Some think that the repetition is just a scribe’s error, repeating a line by mistake. (Such errors are known as dittography.) That is possible, but the repetition itself is not sufficient reason to make that conclusion. On the contrary, the text seems to me precisely to be making the point as emphatically as possible. Moses notes the people’s own lack of virtue even more strongly in the next verse (7), and he begins with the words “Remember- don’t forget!” which is redundant as well but is certainly done on purpose for emphasis.

    And he then goes on for the rest of the chapter listing the people’s record of rebellions. Moses thus gives a powerful warning against chauvinism and self-congratulation. And this also provides a profound balance to the declaration that Israel was chosen to become a treasured people, which came just two chapters earlier (7:6). Possession of the land is result of a promise to Israel’s ancestors. Status as a treasured people depends on actions: faithfulness to the covenant. Israel is not intrinsically better than anyone. What is special about Israel is rather that it has been given a singular opportunity to follow a path that will ultimately bring blessing to all the families of the earth.

Friedman not only explains the literary aspects of the text, but shows how one must understand how the text works before one can understand what the text is trying to say. In this case, their is a threefold repetition of the idea that the Israelites are not inheriting the land on their own merits; this drives home the point that to be “chosen” is not some kind of magical, intrinsic quality, but is rather dependent on moral and spiritual commitment.

Friedman wants to show that the Bible itself endorses a very conditional, action-oriented idea of “chosenness.” Most people living in contemporary democracies resist, and rightly so, the idea that one set of people is inherently better than another. This conditional idea of “the chosen people” says simply that Jews have been chosen for Torah and mitzvot, and if they rise to the challenge, there will be blessings for everybody. This does not, in my mind, preclude the possibility that other nations and peoples have been “chosen” for their own unique missions in the world.

Finally, I would point out that our passage strongly emphasizes the humility required of any person or nation inheriting God’s blessing. Not only does this humility counterbalance any distortions to the idea of being a “treasured people” (if we stay committed to covenant), but it also deflates any egotistical pretensions that the present generation is somehow better or historically unique. The text says: be very grateful for the gifts in your life, because you might not have received them in this way. Being “chosen” doesn’t mean being special ourselves- it means having a special opportunity to do good for the world.

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Va’etchanan 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

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.

Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to review the history of the Israelites from the time of their liberation from Egypt; he also repeatedly implores them to accept and faithfully follow the Torah, stressing its goodness and wisdom. Moshe warns the people not to worship any other god or power except the One God who gave them the Torah. Moshe then reiterates the Ten Commandments. The paragraph which we know as the first paragraph of the Shma forms part of Moshe’s long exhortation to the people. He wants them to keep faith with God after they enter the land, when Moshe himself will no longer be able to guide or instruct them.

IN FOCUS

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horev. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain. And the Holy One said. . . ” (Deuteronomy 5:2-5))

PSHAT

Moshe recalls the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai- here known by its other name, Horev. He reminds the people that the covenant at Sinai is binding not only upon the generation that witnessed it, but upon future generations as well- in the words of one contemporary theologian, it is a living covenant. Moshe also reminds the people of his role in the drama; he went to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets, and the people were only too happy that he went instead of them. (Cf. Exodus 20)

DRASH

The plain meaning of our text is clear, although a bit different than the version in Exodus. Moshe was the one who went to the top of the mountain, and the people were afraid of God’s awesome Presence. In the plain reading of the story, Moshe’s standing “between” the people and God was a good thing, because the people felt overwhelmed by the experience and needed a leader.

So far, so good. An entirely different reading of the text reads the words “I stood between the Lord and you” as referring not to Moshe, but to the “I,” or egocentric self, as what comes “between” a person and God:

    “I stood between the Lord and you. . . ” It is this “I” of a person that is the barrier dividing a human and her Creator. Any time one dwells too much on “I” it is hard to draw close to the Sacred. (From Itturei Torah, credited to “Hassidic texts,” translation mine.)

I don’t think this text is saying that one should lose all self-identity in one’s religious quest, nor is it about losing one’s sense of individuality while dissolved in a mystic vision. Rather, I think this text points out that an essential aspect of religious growth is learning to see beyond one’s own immediate desires and needs- perhaps learning to put others first, and delaying the gratification of one’s personal wants. This can also include acquiring spiritual or ritual discipline, even at the price of our usual entertainments and distractions. After all, every hours spent studying a sacred text is an hour one is not watching TV or going to the movies.

At the very least, religion teaches that others have a claim on our moral attention- sharing our bread with the hungry or our our clothes with the naked sometimes means that our instinctive, childlike desire to have MORE of everything needs to be subordinated to our sense of obligation and justice. The laws of Judaism, in particular, are very often limitations on our natural appetites, informing what we do with sex, food, clothing, money, houses, and even words. It’s hard to grow in these areas when our own desires- the “I” of our midrash- is always first on the list of considerations.

Conversely, one widens the scope of one’s spirituality with the realization that it’s more important to be grateful than gourmet, or that money can be a means to the performance of mitzvot. It’s important to remember that restraint or selflessness is not an end in itself, but part of removing the “barriers” we feel in the spiritual life. The goal is not restraint, but a joyful life lived in the Holy Presence.

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