Archive for October, 2004

Vayera: Regret and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

Such a rich Torah portion this week! Vayera mixes the personal
and political; most of the portion is about Avraham, Sarah, and
their complicated family life, but we also encounter the wicked
cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, and God’s intention to destroy
the cities for their evil. One problem is that Avraham’s nephew,
Lot, is living there, and is warned to get out before the day of
judgement. Lot is able to escape with his wife and two
daughters, but his wife doesn’t make it too far:

“And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar
of salt. . . .” (Genesis 19:26)

Apparently, in the middle of her flight to safety, Lot’s wife looks
behind at the destruction, and gets “frozen” in that moment.
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, adds only that she
was looking from behind Lot himself. Now, from a strictly
historical perspective, it’s easy to imagine that the Torah is
offering up an explanation for some natural phenomenon- you
can see colorful mineral deposits which look like “pillars of salt”
near the Dead Sea, which are identified with Lot’s wife to this

Yet there is such literary and spiritual power in this image: a
person frozen in the moment of looking back, never able to move
on, spiritually or psychologically, from their regrets at things left
behind. What’s so interesting is that Sodom and Gemorrah are
portrayed as fairly nasty places- places that most people would
be glad to leave forever! Maybe Lot’s wife knew that Sodom was
a terrible place, but could not imagine a better life for herself, or

maybe some part of her was still “stuck” in the patterns of life
there, and thus she looks back in regret for her loss.

Rashi, as noted above, says that Lot’s wife looked out from
behind Lot himself- this seems to be a hint that she wasn’t
looking at the future (represented by her husband and children,
going to a better life), but at the past, represented by the
destruction of the city she must leave. Perhaps the insight of this
tragic image is that sometimes a bad situation still feels safer
than change and further growth.

Sometimes people get frozen and immobile- not physically, like
a pillar- but spiritually, on the inside, which is probably worse.
The key here is choice and courage- the choice to look ahead
and fearlessly grow, accompanied by the courage to leave
behind ways of being and thinking that may not be working
anymore. That’s the choice which God gives Lot and his family,
and gives to each of us, every day.

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Avraham, the Lifelong Learner

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Avraham (who started
out as Avram, but that’s a different discussion) gets the call from
God to leave his homeland and head out west, to the land of
Canaan. Various adventures ensue, including having a child
with his wife’s servant Hagar, but what fascinates me is that it
isn’t until the end of the Torah portion, after years of travels and
struggles and family problems, that Avraham receives the
commandment of circumcision.

In fact, we learn in Genesis 17 that Avraham was 99 years old
when he circumcised himself and his household, as a sign of
his covenant with God. So, nu, couldn’t the Almighty have chosen
a less drastic way of asking for Avraham’s commitment, or at the
very least, asked this a bit sooner in the story? Was it really
necessary to tell an old man to perform surgery on himself?

To me, the power of this story is not in Avraham’s physical
bravery- after all, in chapter 14 he was fighting a minor war- nor
is it in Avraham’s obedience. After all, what’s a little flesh wound
when you’ve already obeyed the command to travel halfway
across the continent? Rather, I find the meaning of this story in
the Torah’s clarity (it’s mentioned twice) that Avraham was an
man. (Let’s assume that “99 years” is not to be taken literally, but
as a poetic rendering of advanced age.)

I see in Avraham’s act a spiritual model of lifelong openness, of
being willing to undergo growth and transformation long after
some people become set in their ways. Avraham was willing to
make radical religious commitments, even one which required
pain and sacrifice, late in his life. He was open to the demands
of a lifelong spirituality- not just doing what he already knew, but
going past the “comfort zone” (quite literally) to become
something new.

Heck, there are days when I don’t even want to try a new kind of
breakfast cereal, let alone take on new religious ideas and
moral commitments- but returning every year to the story of the
“founding father” of the Jewish people, I have to ask myself
whether I’m as open to the evolution of faith over a lifetime as
ancestors were. Avraham’s example thus becomes not a fact of
history, but an persistent challenge to all of us, right now.

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Simchat Torah/ Joy in the Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Dear Friends:

We’re heading into the conclusion of the fall holidays tonight,
with the final days known as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Technically, these are not the conclusion of Sukkot, but have
their own status as separate holy days – the subject of another
discussion, or a quick review on <>.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret has become associated with
ending, and immediately “rebooting,” the yearly cycle of Torah
readings, hence the name “Simchat Torah, or “joy in the Torah.”
It’s typically celebrated with dancing, singing, and parading
around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls in a festive
procession. The final verses of Deuteronomy are read, and
immediately we begin again with the first words of Genesis,
starting over again for another year.

How wonderfully Jewish, to have a holiday to celebrate our
relationship with a book! In many ways, the very idea of Simchat
Torah- “joy in the Torah”- is a profound statement of Jewish
values and ideals. Yet there’s a valid question: why should we
take great simcha, or joy (to the point of dancing with it!), in a
book which contains stories of flawed ancestors, laws requiring
difficult self-restraint, great ritual detail pertaining to obsolete
institutions, narratives of national tragedy, and even clear
statements of ancient values which many may find offensive?

The Jewish answer is: because Torah study isn’t about
accepting a set of beliefs, it’s about struggling with the meaning
and possibilities of life, which can lead us to the truest joys.
Torah – represented by the scrolls of the Bible but ultimately
incorporating the entire range of Jewish sacred texts- gives us
joy because in dialogue with Torah and its many interpreters, we
are challenged to live according to our highest values; we are
challenged to make our lives vessels of God’s Presence, and we
are challenged to find the image of God in each person.

Norman Lamm, a great teacher of Hasidic thought, says that the
most basic kind of joy is rooted in love- we all feel joyous in the
presence of the those we love best, and it’s that kind of joy which
becomes a spiritual experience when we feel God’s Presence
as a friend and intimate One. Torah – in its broadest meaning- is
what helps make that happen: we rejoice over Torah not only
because it teaches us how to live, but because in relationship
with Torah, we come to regard life as a gift from a loving God, to
be made holy and good. Torah brings us into community, as
learners and seekers, and only in community do we fully realize
our potential to love and to give, which are themselves the
greatest joys of the human spirit.

That’s something even I would dance over!

with blessings for a truly joyous Simchat Torah,

Rabbi Neal

PS- Just a reminder for the locals: Simchat Torah is at TBE this
year, 6pm, Thursday night. Wear your dancing shoes !

PPS- feel free to forward this message to whomever you’d like,
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