Archive for November, 2004

Vayeshev: Appearances Can Be Distracting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Dear Friends: As of December 1, I’m on sabbatical, and traveling around a bit.
I promise you, I will do the best I can to produce some Torah commentary
every week, and when I get to Israel, I hope to use this list for some travel
reporting, too. However, don’t be surprised if the Torah commentaries get sent
out on different days of the week- when I travel I’ll have internet access, but
not at all times. You can still reach me at the email address above, which is
getting forwarded to a portable account.

Better yet, tell your friends to sign up- we’re growing fast!

With that disclaimer, here’s Vayeshev:

Vayeshev begins with a mention of Ya’akov, but from this portion on, the book
of Genesis is really more concerned with Ya’akov’s favorite son Yosef.
Ya’akov’s other sons certainly know that Yosef is the favorite son of the
favorite wife (remember, Ya’akov had two wives and two concubines, who
bore him 12 sons and a daughter), which causes them to be greatly resentful.
So much so that they throw Yosef in a pit, sell him into slavery, and report to
their father that his youngest son is dead.

While it’s never so nice to blame the victim, it’s also true that Yosef seems
arrogant and immature when we first meet him as a young man. He “tattle-
tales” on his brothers and wears the special coat his father gives him,
seemingly oblivious to the feelings which arise in his siblings. In fact, the
Torah gives us a strong hint of Yosef’s self-centeredness:

“These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old,
being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad .
. . . ” [Genesis 37: 2]

Notice something here? If we’re told that Yosef is 17 years old, we shouldn’t
need to be told he was a “lad” [or “young man’]. Aren’t all 17 year-olds “young
men?” Our teacher Rashi explains that “he was a lad” refers to Yosef’s
behavior, which was “young” or childish. More specifically, Rashi quotes an
earlier midrash [ancient Bible commentary] to the effect that Yosef spent a lot
of time on his hair and his eyes, making them handsome and stylish.

Thus, “he was a lad” refers not just to Yosef’s age, but to his maturity, and
what’s interesting to me is that Rashi and the earlier books equate Yosef’s
lack of maturity with an excessive concern for physical appearance. This
might be especially true given the context of the verse, which tells us that
Yosef was out helping his older brothers in the fields- in other words, he’s
supposed to be working, but instead he’s more concerned about his haircut
than his father’s animals !

However, I don’t think Rashi was primarily concerned with Yosef’s work
habits, whatever they were. Rather, I think Rashi is linking Yosef’s disregard
for the feelings of others to his vanity and focus on externalities. To put it
another way, somebody who’s mostly worried about his appearance may not
be paying attention to vastly more important matters, such as the wounded
emotions and built-up resentments all around him.

While there’s nothing wrong with being presentable,* and it’s certainly
considered good manners to dress respectfully for synagogue and other
important occasions, it’s also true that excessive concern for appearance can
distract a person from the more urgent and significant tasks of living. In
Judaism, clothes do not make the man- in the realm of religious values, a
person’s sensitivity counts for far more than his or her style. Immaturity, in
Yosef’s case, is focussing on something temporary and faddish, to the extent
that it harms the enduring bonds of emotional covenant which Judaism holds
out as the highest possibility of a mature and thoughtful spirit.

On that note, it’s interesting to contrast Yosef as a “lad” of 17 with the Yosef
who is the “Prime Minister” of Pharaohs Egypt. In chapter 45, which takes
place years after Yosef is separated from his brothers, he is reunited and
reconciled with them, in a reunion marked by tears and embracing. At this
later point in his life, Yosef is more concerned with emotional reality than
self-
composure, and weeps openly when he is finally able to reveal his identity to
his long-lost family.

As a young man, concerned with childish things, Yosef spent his time fixing
up his eyes to fit himself to the latest styles; as a mature man who has seen
tragedy, loneliness, temptation and vindication, Yosef is willing to let the
tears
flow freely, to show his truest and deepest self to his newly reconciled
brothers. Yosef’s emotional freedom seems to come at the expense of his
vanity and self-consciousness, and perhaps we can see his tears of
reconciliation as the reward of maturity and a deeper perspective.

*All comments about my neckwear and shoe selections will be dutifully
ignored.

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Vayishlach: The Murky Ethics of Violence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

In the Torah portion Vayishlach, Ya’akov prepares to meet his estranged
brother Esav; he divides his camp and ends up all alone in the night, during
which he wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. Ya’akov
and Esav meet, and seem to reconcile after their long time apart, but
eventually go their separate ways. Ya’akov and his large family end up in
Shechem, where the prince of the city takes Ya’akov’s daughter Dinah and
rapes her. This provokes a violent response from her brothers Shimon and
Levi, who kill many of the town’s inhabitants in an act of premeditated
deception and revenge.

Yet although Dinah’s brothers claim to act in defense of their sister and her
honor, her father, Ya’akov, is not altogether pleased by Shimon and Levi’s
capacity for warfare. After the killing is finished, Ya’akov confronts his sons
with the claim that their violence has brought him trouble and danger:

“Thereupon, Jacob said to Shimon and to Levi, ‘You have troubled me, to
discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and
among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against
me, and I and my household will be destroyed.’

And they said, ‘Shall he make our sister like a harlot?’ ”
(Genesis 34:30-31)

Rashi, the preeminent explainer of nuances in the Torah, says that the word
translated here as “troubled” has a meaning similar to that of murky water,
implying that Ya’akov is not just anxious, he’s confused and agitated by his
son’s warlike actions, and the probable consequences. Rashi quotes an
earlier midrash which goes even further, in which Ya’akov claims that he and
his family could have found a way to live in peace with the neighboring tribes-
presumably, even after the rape of Dinah- but Shimon and Levi have now
closed off that possibility, since (the midrash leads us to conclude) their act
of
vengeance will itself lead to the desire for revenge, continuing a “cycle of
violence,” as we now call it.

Rashi’s explication of Ya’akov’s “troubles”- that he has a “murky” or confused
mind- speaks to the essential paradox of violent responses: violence,
especially when it arises out of a desire to achieve revenge or reclaim honor-
tends to beget further violence.

Shimon and Levi ask a rhetorical question: “should our sister be treated like a
harlot?” Well, no, of course not, but their question is hardly a thoughtful
response to Ya’akov’s anguished fretting over the future, a future in which his
family is implicated in terrible acts. Please note: neither the Torah, nor
Judaism as a whole, advocates pacifism; in a typical Jewish view, sometimes
violence is necessary, so that justice can be served, or security achieved. Yet
saying violence is sometimes necessary begs a larger discussion about when
it is not necessary, let alone moral or wise.

This larger discussion- about the imperative of seeking nonviolent solutions
whenever possible, about the necessity of distinguishing between justice and
vengeance, about the wisdom of setting in motion a deadly cycle which may
take generations to conclude, about the humanity of those perceived as foes-
is hard work, with few easy answers. Note that Shimon and Levi, in asking
their simple question, hardly seem “murky” about the answer- but Ya’akov,
who has greater responsibilities, is quite properly troubled when violence is
the first resort, rather than the last. Ya’akov’s “murkiness” thus stands as a
rebuke to those in our society who claim to revere Biblical texts, yet seem
untroubled when lives are at stake.

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Vayeitze: Asking for the Basics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week the Torah turns its attention to next generation in the
line of Avraham, and before the portion is finished, Ya’akov his
two wives, two concubines, and many children (talk about a
blended family!) have become secure and prosperous. However,
at the beginning of the parsha, things aren’t looking so good for
Ya’akov: he’s on the run from his brother, he’s all alone in the
wilderness, and he has nothing but rocks for a pillow. In his
lonely sleep, he has a life-changing and awesome dream of a
ladder (or stairway) to the heavens, and in this vision, God
reaffirms to Ya’akov the covenant with Avraham, his grandfather.
In response, Ya’akov makes his own commitment to the God of
his ancestors:

“And Ya’akov uttered a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and
will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will
give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and if I return in
peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God; then
this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a
house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe
to You.’ ” (Genesis 28:20-21)

Much has been written about Ya’akov’s vow, and a full exploration
will await another time. (See footnote.) For today, let’s focus on
the relatively simple requests that Ya’akov makes of God: bread,
clothing, and returning to his father’s house in peace. The Me’am
Loez, a Sephardic commentary, notes that Ya’akov asks for basic
needs, and relates this to a more general observation that
spiritually mature people are less likely to focus on material
desires and better able to feel gratitude for the simplest gifts of
life (i.e., like bread and basic clothing.)

We might even turn this insight around and say that an aspect of
religious or spiritual growth is precisely this ability to feel true
gratitude for “the basics.” Perhaps this is a turning point for
Ya’akov himself, who stole his brother’s birthright but now sees
that much less than a kingdom can make him grateful to God.

So far, so good. Yet there’s another part of Ya’akov’s request,
which is to “return in peace to my father’s house.” In its simplest
meaning (or pshat, in Hebrew), it seems that Ya’akov is asking
for physical safety, and this would fit in with the idea that he’s
asking God for the essentials of life: food, clothing, physical
security.

Let’s remember, however, that Ya’akov is on the run from his
brother, from whom he stole the birthright, after deceiving his
father – in other words, his father’s house is not a place of peace,
precisely because Ya’akov himself engaged in actions (in
cooperation with his mother) to break apart the family! So maybe,
on a deeper level, Ya’akov is asking for more than physical safety
along the way, but also for the power to find reconciliation and
the reestablishment of family bonds.

Human beings need bread and clothing, but we also need
relationships with loved ones. Ya’akov does, in fact, ask God for
the true essentials of human life, but these are not only physical
things: they are also emotional and spiritual. To be full human
beingse we need the spiritual gifts of love, relationship, and
reconciliation as much as we need bread and clothing – and this
realization is crucial not only for our forefather Ya’akov, but for
us
as well.

Footnote: You can look here for more that I’ve written about the
topic of Ya’akov’s vow: http://tinyurl.com/6tkd2. )

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Toldot: Seeking out the Lord

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins the story of Yaakov, the
son of Yitzhak, who will eventually become Yisrael, the father of
the 12 tribes. Yaakov’s story begins even before he is born; the
opening verses of the portion tell us that his mother, Rivka
[Rebecca], suffered a difficult pregnancy. The twins in her womb
struggled and caused pain as they developed, foreshadowing
the pain and struggle of their future years.

In fact, Rivka’s pregnancy was so difficult and painful that it
seems to provoke a great sense of spiritual despair, causing her
to question the very meaning of her existence:

” And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘ If is so,
why do I exist?’ And she went to inquire of the Lord. ” (Genesis
25:23)

I think most of the people reading this have had the experience
of seeing a friend or loved one in such physical or emotional
pain that they think life just isn’t worth living. Yet look at Rivka’s
response to her own despair- she goes to “inquire of the Lord.”
[An alternate translation would be “to seek out the Lord;” the verb
l’drosh can mean seek or inquire.]

In either translation, what’s fascinating to me is that Rivka
doesn’t ask God to relieve her suffering, but to explain it! I
understand this as her attempt to find meaning or context for her
suffering, to find some sense of hope that the future is worth the
difficulties of the present moment.

After all, human beings are capable of incredible strength and
fortitude if they understand their suffering as meaningful- think,
for example, of the recently deceased Christopher Reeve, who
lived an extremely difficult life, but who was determined to use
his experience for the good of others. Another example would be
the thousands and thousands of volunteers who came to New
York City after 9/11, to do dirty and dangerous work, but for a
cause which transcended concerns for comfort and
convenience.

Now, to be sure, I don’t believe that physical ailments are
“meaningful” in the sense that God causes illness or pain for
specific purposes; my theology takes the laws of nature
seriously, and that means sometimes people suffer simply
because things go wrong in their bodies, or because of tragic
accidents. Yet the image of Rivka “inquiring of the Lord” is still
powerful, because it reminds us of the basic human need for
meaning, for context, for gleaning wisdom out of our
experiences. None of those things prevent suffering, but all of
them can redeem it, and give us strength to go on when things
get rough.

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The Life of Sarah: Loss and Reflection

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

The Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, meaning “The Life of Sarah,”
actually begins with the story of her death and burial. Sarah dies
in Kiryat Arbah- what we would now call Hebron – and the
narrative seems relatively straightforward: we are told that Sarah
dies, Avraham comes back from his travels to mourn her and to
weep for her, and then he purchases some land to make a
family burial ground.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve given three eulogies this week, but I
saw something this week that I never noticed before: the Torah
says that Avraham “came,” he “mourned,” and he “cried,” in that
order. (Genesis 23:2) Maybe I’m leaning too hard on a simple
declarative sentence, but it seems to me that first one would cry,
upon hearing the news of a death, and then one would “mourn,”
in the sense of taking on the rituals and internal orientation of
someone in grief. So why does the Torah tell us that Avraham
“mourned” before he cried?

The word usually translated as “mourned,” [l’spod] has the same
root as the Hebrew word for “eulogy,” [hesped], and thus
perhaps we could understand that “mourning” in this context
means reflecting on the meaning and goodness of the life that
has ended. A eulogy is not a biography or a resume, but a
reflection on a person’s unique, irreplacable character traits and
their lived values – the “why” of a life. So maybe Avraham cried
after he “mourned” because it was only after a period of
reflection that he was able to comprehend – and thus feel more
deeply- his loss.

This makes sense to me, both as a rabbi and as a mourner
myself. Grief can be terrible at first, but sometimes the shock of a
death is so great that it’s hard to deeply reflect on how somebody
else’s life has affected one’s own. For me, such a moment came
on Tuesday, when I walked into a voting booth for the first time in
my life without having discussed the election with my mother, z’l.

The election caused me to mourn for my mother- in this sense of
reflection- because it helped me to remember and be inspired
by her passion for civic affairs and strong belief in the democratic
process. (I have to confess- for the first 4 or 5 elections after I
was eligible to vote, I used an absentee ballot and filled it out
with my mother on the phone, because she had well-informed
opinions of everything on the ballot from President down to the
local city school board and municipal bond issues.)

So perhaps “mourning” comes before “crying” because it takes
time to think about the meaning of a life well lived. Loss isn’t
something that happens all at once, but something that unfolds
over months and years, bringing with it both tears and –
hopefully- inspiration. In Hebrew, we say we say of the
dead:”zichrono l’vracha,” [may his memory be a blessing], and I
think this captures the same idea: grief brings tears, but we can
redeem the tears into a blessing by seeking inspiration in the
greatest acts of those we love.

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