Archive for January, 2005

Yitro: Remembering Shabbat, Embracing our Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Greetings from lovely San Diego! I use the word “lovely” in honor of
my 3.5 year old niece Maia, who announced as I took her outside for
a walk that she would not wear a jacket because “I think it’s a
lovely day today.” She has also decided that her favorite game in
the world is banging on the top of my head like a drum; I hope
sitting through several hours of this will not affect this week’s
Torah commentary.

Speaking of this week’s Torah portion, we’re in the parsha named for
Moshe’s father in law, Yitro. Yitro sees Moshe out with the people
from dawn till dusk every day, trying to do everything himself, and
advises him to delegate some responsibilities- a timeless lesson for
us all! After that, Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai, where God tells him to
prepare the people for a great revelation; the Ten Commandments are
spoken on the third day, amid smoke and shofar sounds. The parsha
concludes with a few laws pertaining to both religious and social

Among the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah to “remember the Sabbath
day,” but what many people forget is that Shabbat itself is only
part of these verses:

“Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. You have six days to do
all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your
God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your
daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your
stranger who is in your cities. For [in] six days the Lord made the
heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on
the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and
sanctified it.” (Shmot/Exodus 20:8-11)

In these verses, the seventh day of rest is balanced, as it were, by
the six days of labor, which are also seen as a positive
commandment. Yet classical commentaries ask an obvious question: how
can we get all our work done in six days, in time for Shabbat? Isn’t
there always more to do? One answer is that we should enter into
Shabbat feeling as if all our work was done; “do all your work”
becomes an emotional rather than practical description.

The Torah Temimah, a 19th century anthology of earlier commentaries,
links this idea of “letting go” of what’s left undone with the joy
of celebrating Shabbat:

” ‘Do all your work-‘ can any person finish all his work in six
days? Rather, rest on the Sabbath as if all your work was finished.
This was explained to us [in Jewish law]: “It is a commandment to
enjoy the Shabbat,” . . . Moshe gave us a hint in the Torah when he
said “do all your work.” How can a person do all his work in a
single week? Rather, a person should regard each Shabbat as if all
his work had been completed, and there is no greater joy than this.”

In this view, our ability to enjoy Shabbat rests (as it were) on our
ability to let go of all the myriad tasks still on our “to-do” list
by late Friday afternoon. On one level, this makes sense: if we hold
ourselves to impossible standards, life isn’t going to be very
satisfying or fun. Yet I think the lesson here isn’t only about how
to “let go” and have fun; I think these verses also teach us an
aspect of deeper spiritual growth.

Many of us have fantasies about how our life might turn out if only
we worked a little harder, had more money, spent more time at the
gym, had a different life partner, worked in a different job, and so
on. It’s easy to think that if we only worked a little harder at X
or Y, everything would just “fall into place” and life would be
great. So many people spend life living in a fantasy future of
perfect control; one aspect of spiritual growth is to get out of
that cycle and be fully aware of blessing in the present moment.

This, I think, is the deeper meaning of regarding your work as done
when Shabbat arrives; at that moment, what we have (assuming we’re
not in desparate poverty) is enough. Whatever we’ve achieved with
our hands and brain in the previous six days, we’re still worthy of
the joy of Shabbat, and still invited into relationship with God and
each other.

Shabbat means that our worth and dignity as human beings isn’t
dependent on external factors but instead reflects our inner state;
the joy we experience comes from our deepest being, not the quantity
of our do-ing. There’s never any end to the tasks of a busy
schedule, but Shabbat turns us inward, to a different evaluation of
a life worth living. It’s not just about “letting go” of what’s
undone, it’s also about embracing the deepest truth: joy comes from
getting past our complaints and fantasies and experiencing life as a
blessing and a gift, right now, in this moment, and not just on
Friday afternoon.

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Beshallach: Faith in the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Shalom from sunny Los Angeles! As I’ve been travelling from Boston to
St. Louis to Los Angeles and soon to San Diego, reading about our
ancestor’s journeys seems especially appropriate.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites leave Egypt,
and are taken the “long way round” in order to avoid some difficult
areas. Unfortunately, the Sea of Reeds lies between them and safety,
and Pharoah’s army is in hot pursuit. The sea splits and the
Israelites cross on dry land, leaving the army trapped behind them,
but this doesn’t end their troubles; now they’re in the desert with
no water.

So we read in Exodus 15:22-27 (abridged below), after the salvation
at the sea:

“Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the
desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not
find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from
Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The
people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? So he
cried out to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece
of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.
There God gave them a statute and an ordinance . . . . They came to
Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and
they encamped there by the water.”

Now, on the one hand, if you’re thirsty, you want water right at that
moment, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, many
commentators have seen in this passage a certain lack of faith on the
part of the Israelites- could they really have witnessed all the
plagues and the splitting of the sea and believed that God would then
abandon them to die in the desert?

One 19th century European commentator, known as the “Chafetz Chaim,”
from the title of his most famous book, also notes that the oasis of
Elim was just beyond Marah, the place where the Israelites
complained “bitterly” about not having water. (“Marah” means “bitter”
in Hebrew, like “maror,” or bitter herbs.)

Here’s what the Chafetz Chaim had to say:

“They came to Elim directly from Marah, and Elim was but a short
distance from Marah. Thus, when they complained to Moshe about the
bitter water, there was fresh water almost under their noses. Had
they not complained, but travelled a little further, they would have
found water. However, that is the way people are; they have no
patience, and like to complain.” (Taken from “Torah Gems,” an
anthology of Hasidic commentary.)

This insight of the Chafetz Chaim helps us understand better what
kind of faith the Israelites had, or didn’t have. Faith, to my mind,
is not necessarily a matter of what you believe, or don’t believe;
it’s not just an intellectual matter. Faith is also putting one foot
in front of another when you don’t always know where you’re going.
Faith is an energizing attitude towards life itself, which propels us
forward with courage in the face of difficulty.

That’s the kind of faith the Israelites needed; the faith to keep
going, to keep walking forward, even if they were thirsty, because
the oasis was just a little ways ahead. So often, the “water”- or the
love, forgiveness, wisdom, peace, and other blessings- are “right
under our noses,” if we just keep ourselves going forward on the

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Bo: Leaving in Haste, but Walking with Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Greetings from rainy Massachussetts! I’m back in the USA, and although I’m
not altogether displeased at sleeping in my familiar bed, there is definitely a
feeling of “coming down” from time spent in Israel. Somehow life just seems
less intensely lived on this side of the Atlantic; even the small New England
states feel so big and roomy compared to Israeli travel distances!

Well, enough geographical rumination, there’s a Torah portion awaiting our

The Torah portion Bo tells of the increasingly severe plagues brought upon
Pharaoh, his court, and his country. Nevertheless, as many of us remember
from childhood versions of the Passover story, Pharaohs heart was hardened
and he did not let the people go. Not until death itself appears in Pharaohs
house does he relent, and even then, perhaps more out of fear than moral
reflection. Upon the death of the first-born, Pharaoh lets the people go-
practically chases them out- and the Israelites then gather their possessions,
“borrow” garments and gold from their Egyptian neighbors, and skedaddle in
great haste toward their freedom.

One small detail in the story of the Exodus is both well known and also worth

“The people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened, their
leftovers bound in their garments on their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34)

Many of us remember this part of the story as the explanation for why we eat
unleavened bread- matzah- during Pesach; since our Israelite ancestors had
to leave in such a great hurry, the bread hadn’t had time to rise, and they had
to bake flat bread on their way. To me, this traditional meaning given to the
of eating matzah (remembering the haste of our ancestors) helps me connect
the mitzvah [commandment] of matzah with the struggles of peoples
worldwide who are aching for freedom and security, and who may only have
the barest essentials for sustenance. Matzah, in this understanding, is
“refugee” food, symbolizing the need to travel light and fast on the way to

So far, so good. Yet our teacher Rashi notices one other detail in the verse
above. The Torah tells us that the Israelites carried the “leftovers” (Rashi
this means the leftover matzah and bitter herbs from the first Pesach feast, in
Egypt, that night) on their shoulders.
He points out that the Israelites were traveling fast, but they were also
bringing animals out with them, which presumably carried some of their
possessions. So why carry the matzah on their shoulders, rather than on the
pack animals?

Rashi’s answer is taken from earlier sources:

“Although they took many animals with them, they [carried the remaining
matzah and bitter herbs on their shoulders because] they loved the mitzvot

This is the other side of the Pesach story: yes, our ancestors were bitterly
oppressed and in dire need of freedom and security, but they were also able
to find within themselves a core of faith, hope and love of God which
transcended their physical condition. The internal liberation from Pharaoh
may have preceded their physical liberation; as long as they felt commanded
by God, they knew that Pharaoh’s rule was only temporary, and ultimately

In this reading, the matzah is not only the symbol of being refugees, it’s also
the symbol of being part of a community of faith; the Israelites could love the
mitzvot and bear witness to that higher calling even in Egypt. The image of
bearing the matzah on our shoulders is a challenging one, for it compels us to
ask how we too might make public our love for the mitzvot and desire to live
in their light.

Notice, too, that Rashi says “love the mitzvot,” not “fear of transgression.”
-of God and each other- is the highest joy, and so it’s quite astounding to
of our ancestors finding within themselves the capacity for the joy of love even
after years of oppression. Think of all the kvetching people do about the
smallest things, and here are the Israelites leaving Egypt, with their capacity
for inner grace rekindled, carrying the matzah on their shoulders in an act of
joyous service!

Along with the image of our ancestors as refugees leaving in haste, the image
of carrying the matzah on their shoulders, in joy and love, also needs to be
part of our sacred memories. Serving God out of joy, from love of the mitzvot,
brings light into darkness, and raises up the human spirit- this too needs to be
part of our spiritual consciousness and daily practice. Such love and joy
would transform ourselves and our communities- so what are we waiting for?

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Vayechi: The Simplest Message, the Greatest Blessing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

I don’t know about you, but for me, wearing just a sweatshirt outside when
thinking about
parshat Vayechi- at least in New England- is what you’d call cognitive
dissonance, of a
atmospheric sort, I guess. Usually, we’re reading about Yaakov’s final blessings
to his sons
when it’s cold and wintery, but today was warm- perhaps appropriate for thinking
our ancestors in Egypt.

When Yaakov grows old and sick, he trusts Yosef with burial instructions, but
then it
seems like Yosef goes back to work, and doesn’t notice that his father is
growing weaker
by the day. Here’s what the Torah tells us about Yosef going to see his dying

“Now it came to pass after these incidents that it was told to Yosef, `Behold,
your father is
ill.’ So he took his two sons with him, Menashe and Efraim. And it was told to
Yaakov and
said, `Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you.’ And Israel summoned his
strength and sat
up on the bed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 48:1-2)

Reading these verses again this year, it occurred to me to ask a question that
I’ve never
considered: who was it who told Yosef that Yaakov was sick, and was that the
same person
who told Yaakov that Yosef was on his way? The commentators propose various
which include the possibility that it was one of Yosef’s sons, or one of his
brothers, or
perhaps Yaakov sent a messenger to his son (who lived far away in the capital,
and still
served as Prime Minister.)

At least two medieval commentators (Ibn Ezra and Rashbam – the latter was
grandson) think that it’s the same person delivering messages in both
directions, which
makes sense to me: it feels to me like there is a caring person in the
someone who knows that Yosef is busy but who also sees that Yaakov must see his
beloved son and bless him before he dies. One reason I think there is only one
messenger is that there is a key word common to both verses: “hinei,” translated
here as
“behold.” It conveys a sense of immediacy, a sense that matters are pressing and
“Yosef, your father is really sick, right now,” and “Yaakov, your son Yosef is
coming to see
you very soon.”

Perhaps this person was a member of the family, or perhaps this person was sent
Yaakov’s retinue- that’s not clear, but what is clear is that a few simple words
changed the
course of this family’s history, and our own. It’s easy to imagine that a busy
son- the
Prime Minister! – didn’t fully grasp how sick his father was; this unnamed
helped Yosef understand that nothing was as important as seeing his father, and
doing so
with alacrity. Rushing back to Goshen, ahead of Yosef, the messenger told Yaakov
Yosef was coming very soon- perhaps this hope, that he could see and bless his
son, is
what enabled Yaakov to “summon his strength” and sit up until Yosef arrived. (As
aside- working in a hospital, one often hears stories about dying people holding
on until
family arrives.)

Thus, not only was it an act of hesed for a son to see his dying father, but
giving his final
blessing to Yosef and Yosef’s sons, along with the other brothers, seems to help
die in peace. It was hesed to receive the blessing, and it was hesed to give it;
would have been possible if this unnamed messenger had not been keenly aware of
emotional needs of Yosef and his father. This unnamed messenger saw deeply what
did not, and because of his powers of insight and his true caring, he changed
the course
of history, enabling the blessing of Yaakov to include Efraim and Menashe as
full tribes of
Israel. A few words of insight, spoken at just the right time, affected the
course of life and
death, and brought great blessing into the world- all we have to do is care
enough to
speak them.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- A slightly expanded and different version of this drasha will be given by
yours truly at
the Cambridge Minyan (at Congregation Eitz Chayim) this Shabbat morning- do drop

PPS- Here’s the link to a summary of the parsha:

and here’s the link to the text of the parsha, plus another great commentary
from one of
my former teachers:

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