Archive for December, 2004

Shmot: These Are the Names

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

The Book of Exodus, or Sh’mot (“Names,” from the first significant
word of the first verse), begins in a way which immediately
establishes narrative continuity with the end of Genesis:

“And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt;
with Jacob, each man and his household came: Ruven, Shimon, Levi,
Yehudah, Yissachar,
Zevulun, and Binyamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. ” (Exodus
1:1-4)

Both modern and medieval commentators note that this book of the
Torah begins with the conjunction “and,” which seems to imply that
Exodus is picking up just where Genesis left off: with the sons of
Yaakov in Egypt, living under the care of their brother Yosef. Now,
of course, it’s a few generations later, and Egypt is about to turn
from a place of refuge into a place of dire oppression. The story of
Exodus is even more poignant with this reminder that the Israelites
went down to Egypt voluntarily, to find sustenance during a time of
famine and danger.

Another question raised in the classic Torah commentaries concerns
the necessity of naming each son of Yaakov. As our teacher Rashi
points out, the 11 sons were each named just a few chapters ago, in
Genesis 46. Rashi goes on to quote an earlier midrash:

Although [God] counted them in their lifetime by their names, The
Holyb One counted them again after their death, to let us know how
precious they are, because they were likened to the stars, which The
Holy One takes out [From beyond the horizon] and brings in by number
and by name, as it is said: Who takes out their host by number; all
of them God calls by name (Isa. 40:26). (Rashi on Exodus 1:1)

Notice the implication of this midrash: if God (in the words of
Isaiah) can care for every star in the sky, and call it by name,
then so too is each person precious and unique, called by name out
of love, even after death. It’s a beautiful image of a caring God,
Who doesn’t let individual human lives get reduced to statistics or
the sweep of history.

This is especially powerful given the brutal story which is about to
follow, in which we learn of the deaths of countless Hebrew babies-
and, let us not forget, every first-born in Egypt, along with the
entire Egyptian army. These victims (let us assume that at least
some of the Egyptians were innocent of their king’s madness) don’t
get called by name in the text, yet perhaps this first verse of the
book reminds us that no matter how big the story is, real people
suffer one at a time. Maybe Exodus lists the names of the sons of
Yaakov to remind us that each Hebrew slave had an ancestor who
dreamed of a better life for his descendants; each nameless death
was a whole life, a person who came from a loving family and whose
death caused intense grief.

At its best, religion can teach us to experience the world, as much
as we can, from God’s perspective. As Rashi points out, to the One
Who is our Divine Source, each of us has a precious name, a unique
individuality, a whole personhood. From God’s perspective, there are
no numbers attached to stories of human suffering- unlike the
newspapers I read yesterday, which tell me that “28 were killed in
Honduras,” “thousands homeless in Pacific Islands,” and “Bagdad
explosion wounds 19.”

As humans, we get so easily overwhelmed by the amount of suffering
in the world; it’s easy to forget that each of those numbers
represents a person with a name. Perhaps if we in the human race
felt the pain of the world – and the love of humankind – as the God
of Exodus does, with attention to each person’s individuality, their
goodness and their grief, we’d care for each other with much greater
measures of justice and mercy.

Very Important PS!
The story of Exodus (a cruel ruler oppressing and murdering other
peoples within his country) is happening right now, in Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands of people, each with a name, each with a story
and a suffering heart, are being displaced in the Darfur region. The
Conservative Movement, along with many other Jewish organizations,
is supporting efforts to convince the United States and other
powerful nations to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the
genocide. To learn more, please go here:
<http://www.savedarfur.org/ >.

After all, the Jews were the ones who coined the phrase, “never
again.” Let’s prove we meant it.

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Vayechi: Still Searching for his Brothers

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

Let our learning this week be dedicated to the memory of Bill
Wallen, whose recent and tragic passing has left the North Shore
Jewish community bereft of one who loved the Torah and the Jewish
people. May his memory be a blessing.

This week we conclude the Book of Bereshit (Genesis). The Torah
portion, Vayechi, brings back Yaakov as a major character, now that
he and his family have been reunited under Yosef’s care in Egypt.
Yaakov blesses his children and grandchildren before he dies, and
makes Yosef promise to bring him back to the Land of Israel to be
buried. Yosef does so, but shortly after he returns from this solemn
mission, old frictions bubble up again. Yosef’s brothers, still
fearing that he wants to take revenge for selling him into slavery
so many years before, send him a message, telling him that their
father Yaakov wanted only forgiveness between his sons after his
death. The brothers were so afraid of Yosef’s power as Prime
Minister that they didn’t even approach him directly, but instead
sent him a message via a third party.

This plea for forgiveness affects Yosef powerfully; the Torah tells
us that he weeps openly as it is being read. (Bereshit 50:17)
Hearing this, the brothers go directly to him, where he tells them:

“Have no fear! Am I in God’s place? Although you intended me
harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about this result, the survival of many
people till this day. So don’t be afraid- I will sustain you and
your children.” (50:18-20)

A couple of things are interesting about this part of the story.
First, the Torah never tells us that Yaakov actually did sent a
posthumous message to Yosef, asking him to forgive his brothers- if
they were lying, perhaps it was acceptable for the sake of bringing
about peace within the family. Or, more simply, they thought this is
what their father <would> have wanted.

Secondly, notice how Yosef reacts to his brother’s suspicion of
him- he weeps openly at the mere mention of it. Is this because he
realizes that as Prime Minister, he can never be “one of the
guys,” a regular member of the family, which seems to have been his desire
since he was a young man? Or it because he realizes that his
brothers have good reason to fear him, and that he’s never fully
convinced them (or perhaps himself) of his forgiveness? After all,
the family has been living together in Egypt for 17 years; perhaps
Yosef realizes that those years in which he thought he had achieved
reconciliation did not bring the full closeness with his brothers
that he seems to have hoped for when he first reveals himself.

It was pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week (by Nikki
Greenspan), a student at the Conservative Yeshiva here in Jerusalem)
that Yosef does not cry or display much emotion when he is first
betrayed by his brothers, nor even when he’s thrown into prison
by Pharoah. He only regains his emotions later in life, perhaps because
he’s able to feel more acutely the loss of relationship that has
happened between himself and his brothers, and the subsequent joy in
regaining it. Yet evidently, even years after he reveals that the
Prime Minister of Egypt is the brother they sold into slavery,
evidently Yosef has not totally “found his brothers,” to
hearken back to the image of when he was first separated from them.

Perhaps we can learn from this the painful lesson that trust
regained may be more fragile that trust never broken. I think of
this especially as I sit in the Conservative Yeshiva, just a
kilometer from Arab East Jerusalem; even if a peace agreement were
signed and approved tomorrow, it might be many years before all the
suspicions between the Jews and the Arabs were healed. In the United
States, our leaders- were they capable of such things- might well
weep like Yosef to think of how deeply divided our society is, with
such burning mistrust between different groups and constituencies,
and their own responsibility for deepening these divisions.

Closer to home, we can only strive for Yosef’s path to forgiving
our friend and neighbor, by placing our trust in a loving God who lets
us find wisdom and meaning in our troubles; this does not excuse the
terrible choices that people make, but allows us to turn those
choices from the bad to the good, as Yosef points out. At the end of
the Book of Genesis, with so many troubled sets of brothers –
Cain and Abel, Noah’s sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav-
these brothers have finally learned that it’s a constant challenge of
self- reflection to live at peace with each other. We search ourselves for
the wisdom to live with others, and pray for the humility to forgive-
that’s the model of human kindness with which Bereshit concludes.

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Shabbat inspiration

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends:

Greetings from Jerusalem! Here’s a thought to take into Shabbat: upon
the advice of a friend, I was strolling through a neighborhood
called Yemin Moshe, which has a street devoted to fine arts and
craft shops. Along this street, there are painters, ceramic artisans,
weavers, calligraphers, silversmiths- and one person who has a sign
outside his Judaica shop which announces (in English) that he is
a “Mitzvah Beautifier!”

Now, it’s clear what he means- it’s an awkward translation of the
concept of “hiddur mitzvah,” or making our commanded and ritual
actions more beautiful. That’s why we use fine goblets for Kiddush,
or silver candlesticks for Shabbat candles, or hang lovely curtains
in front of the Ark in the synagogue- to make the mitzvah more
beautiful and appealing. So this artist is someone who makes ritual
Jewish objects at a high level of craftsmanship, and he translated
this as “mitzvah beautifier.”

But I love this idea! In fact, I think we should all be “mitzvah
beautifiers” in everything we do! What if we “beautified” not just
Shabbat and the holidays, but our tzedakah, our acts of compassion,
our Torah study and our prayers, too?

Here’s wishing you a beautiful Shabbat, and the insight and
creativity to be a “mitzvah beautifier” all week long.

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Neal

PS- For those who asked- still no suitcase, but El Al assures me that
it’s at least in the country.

PPS- Please feel free to forward these posts to your friends, or
anybody you think would enjoy receiving them, or let me know if there
are people you think should receive an invitation to sign up. Nothing
would make me happier than learning Torah with new and old friends.

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Vayigash: You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. .

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Greeting from Yerushalayim! I’ve been here since Tuesday morning, but
unfortunately, my suitcase is still locked up in the security room at
Heathrow Airport- I’m not making this up! Apparently, security
officials decided there was something suspicious about it. However,
it was not so suspicious that its owner- me- was prevented from
boarding. Go figure!

Before we go onto Torah study, I will only say that every Jew should
come to Israel at Hanukkah at some point in their lives, if only to
hear the techno-disco version of “Maoz Tzur” that seems to be a
special seasonal cell-phone ring tone! That, and the pride and
pleasure of seeing Hanukkiot burning in coffee shops, bars and
falafel stands.

More on Israel later- let’s do some Torah learning. We’re in parshat
Vayigash, in which Yosef and his brothers are reconciled after many
years apart, years in which Yosef has become the Prime Minister of
Egypt and has nationalized the economy in order to prepare for the
years of famine which actually bring his brothers into the land.

Yosef responds to seeing his brothers- who do not recognize him, but
only see the Prime Minister in all his official power- by playing a
game of cat-and-mouse, making them go get Binyamin, the youngest, and
then setting up Binyamin to be accused of theft. Just before Binyamin
is taken away to be punished, Yehudah steps forward and offers an
impassioned plea to Yosef, begging for mercy and offering himself in
Binyamin’s place. At this, Yosef can no longer contain himself, and
he bursts forth with emotion:

“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he
called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ So no one stood with him
when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud,
so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. Genesis (45:1-
2)

Verse one is difficult to translate, but you might also render
it: “Yosef could not hold back with everybody standing there,” or
something like that. The main point is that Yosef, who has become
such a deliberate, thoughtful man that he can plan out the economic
activities of an entire country, and who can carefully test his
brothers over and over without revealing his identity, can hold back
no longer- his emotions overcome him. (As an aside, Rashi explains
that Yosef wanted his Egyptian attendants out of the room when he
revealed himself so that his brothers would not be embarrassed when
the fact of their having sold him was discussed.)

To me, the power of this moment, when Yosef simply must reveal
himself, is the image of a person bursting forth with love and
forgiveness, even for people who threw him in a pit and sold him as a
slave. Perhaps Yosef understood, on a deep level, that when his
brothers threw him in the pit, they too were acting out of powerful
emotions- but in their case, it was probably resentment at the
special treatment he received from their father, and their desire to
earn an equal measure of Ya’akov’s love and attention. That was the
kind of “bursting forth” that happens in every human life- when fear,
pain, passion, loneliness, and other powerful feelings cause a person
to do things which are later regretted. As I heard a gang worker once
say, nobody should be defined by the dumbest thing they ever did!

Yosef clearly wants to test his brothers, and we might even say he
seems to be taking some kind of revenge when he sets them up for
false accusations. But to his credit, the grudge couldn’t hold- from
within him bursts forth a powerful need to have brothers again, and
this overcomes his rectitude and self-restraint. This, too, is a
common human experience- when we want to hold a grudge, but just
can’t stop ourselves from forgiving and reaching out to those who may
have wronged us.

Taken to an extreme, the inner need to forgive can, of course, be
unhealthy, but in this case, and many others, it’s only to Yosef’s
credit that he knows when to hold back, and when to allow himself to
reach out. We might even say that it’s proof of Yosef’s own
transformation over the years that he can no longer “hold back” when
his words bring people together, as opposed to his younger days, when
his arrogant attitude caused such bitterness in his family. Neither
self-restraint nor complete emotional spontaneity are ideal for
nurturing relationships; as in the case of Yosef and his brothers,
it’s knowing when to hold back and when to reach out that makes love
possible. The fact that human beings sometimes act out of fear or
pain is a problem in every life; the fact that we are capable of
letting grace and love overcome us for the good is evidence of the
holy potential within every soul.

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Miketz: The challenge of hard times

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

The Torah portion Miketz continues the story of Yosef, the dreamer
and dream-interpreter, who was last seen (at the end of the previous
parsha) locked up in Pharoah’s prison. Word gets out that Yosef can
see the meaning of dreams, and so when Pharoah has a troubling dream
of bad times ahead, Yosef is called up out of jail for assistance.
The king dreams of good years followed by times of famine, first in
the image of cows, and then in the image of grain. His dream of the
healthy cows brings a great insight from our teacher Rashi:

First, Pharoah’s dream:

“It came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh was
dreaming, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And behold, from
the Nile were coming up seven cows, of handsome appearance and
robust flesh, and they pastured in the marshland.” (Genesis 41:1-2)

Rashi bases his comment on an earlier midrash:

“of handsome appearance” – This was a symbol of the days of plenty,
when creatures appear handsome to one another, for no one envies his
fellow.

Rashi points out that hard times- and presumably, the inqualities
that go with it- make people envy and resent each other, and this
causes negative feelings, blaming, gossip, criticism, and so on. In
other words, people appear “handsome” to one another when they are
feeling good about themselves! Conversely, when things aren’t going
so great, that’s when conflict breaks out, rooted in resentment,
which is itself rooted in envy.

So healthy cows notwithstanding, what can we do with this insight?
Perhaps the key is turning Rashi’s understanding around, and letting
go of our resentments so that we can appreciate and admire that
which is good in others. If we feel truly blessed, we’re not going
to be envious, and thus our challenge is to cultivate that sense of
gratitude and thanksgiving which is so fundamental to religious
practice.

wishing you all a healthy and happy Hannukah,

rnjl

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