Archive for February, 2005

Ki Tisa: What We Do is What We Can Become

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa

The Torah portion Ki Tisa begins with further instructions for the maintenance
and ritual of the Mikdash, or portable Sanctuary. This theme is interrupted by
the story of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s reaction to it. After Moshe punishes
the people who built the golden idol, he goes back up the mountain and
pleads for a vision of God’s Presence, and has a powerful spiritual
experience of God’s merciful nature.

The story of the Golden Calf is endlessly instructive, but many, if not most,
interpretations focus on the social, spiritual, or psychological dynamics which
led to its creation. Less attention is paid to the aftermath, but here too there
is much to consider: after Moshe comes down the mountain to find the people
dancing around the idol of gold, he takes the Calf, burns it, grinds the ashes,
puts the ashes in water, and makes the people drink the mixture. (Cf. Shmot/
Exodus 32:20)

Our teacher Rashi, along with many other commentators, compares Moshe’s
actions to the “sotah,” or test of a woman suspected of adultery, which also
involved drinking “bitter waters.” (Cf. Bamidbar/ Numbers 5:11-31). In this
interpretation, God is like a loyal husband who find out that his wife (in this
case, the people Israel) has betrayed his trust (because they have given their
loyalty to the idol.) It is a plausible comparison, since the action of giving
an unfaithful people a bitter mixture to drink is so extraordinary and has clear
similarities to the ritual described in Numbers.

However, one can also ask a different question: if the Golden Calf, and the
idolatry it represents, was such a bad thing, why didn’t Moshe get rid of every
trace of it, purifying the camp of its noxious presence? A possible answer
comes from thinking about the act of consumption as a physical process:
whatever you eat or drink is quite literally taken into you, becomes part of
you, down to the molecular level. Moshe may not have understood what a
molecule was, but when he made the people drink the ashes of the Golden
Calf, I think he was showing them, in the most palpable, dramatic way
possible, that this breach of covenant will stay part of them – should, in fact,
stay part of them- for a lifetime.

We all carry our histories with us, and in this case, whatever it was that
caused the people to sin by making the Calf is now something they mustn’t
forget. The people have to ingest the lesson – both literally and symbolically-
that a covenantal relationship is a fragile thing, easily ruptured by
temptations, anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, or ego. By making them drink the ashes of
the Golden Calf, Moshe teaches the people a basic human truth: spiritual
growth necessarily involves “taking in” our experiences, carrying them with
us, reflecting on them, and using them to become conscious of the emotions
or inner needs that may lead to doing things which seem out of character, if
not self-destructive.

I take it for granted that most people are good, but everybody does things
they’re not proud of. A plausible religion therefore offers a framework for
struggling with and becoming aware of those inner forces which lead us to do
things which fall short of our ideals – like building a Golden Calf, or putting
any material object or human creation or ideology above the highest spiritual
values. The Torah doesn’t pretend that life can be lived without error or
imperfection, but offers a model of redeeming those errors for the good. Thus,
to me, this act of drinking the ashes of the Golden Calf is not a punishment,
but something which can turn the sin into its opposite: greater consciousness
and self-awareness, without which we cannot effectively be of service to
ourselves, God, and others.

PS- My interpretation of the act of drinking the ashes is partially based on an
idea found in Aaron Wildavsky’s book “The Nursing Father,” which is a study
of Moshe as a political leader. I haven’t read the book in its entirety, but
I’ve perused it enough to put it on my “must-finish” list.

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Tetzaveh: Accountability and Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

The Torah portion Tetzaveh shifts from the Mishkan (portable
Sanctuary) to the people who serve in it. Moshe is commanded
to make his brother Aharon, and Aharon’s sons, into priests, who
will perform the ritual duties of the Mishkan. The priests,
especially the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, will be dressed in
fine and beautiful garments especially crafted for this purpose;
the fine details of these garments form a major theme of the
reading this week.

As with the details of the Mishkan itself, there are several ways to
learn from what might otherwise seem like endless fine points
of design and craftsmanship. Some commentators see each
piece of the Mishkan, or the priestly garments, as filled with
symbolic significance; others look for historical connections,
either with the Israelite’s own history or in comparison with other
ancient religions.

A third way to look at this part of the Torah is to find lessons not
only in the symbolism but in the process of calling for and
collecting donations, crafting valuable things, selecting certain
people for great responsibilities, and so on. In other words, how
we built the Mishkan has social and ethical implications for
Jewish thinking, just as the religious aspects of the Mishkan can
inform our contemporary spiritual practice.

Thus, returning to the subject of the priestly garments, we read
that they included rare fabrics and gold decorations:

“And you shall speak to all the wise hearted, whom I have filled
with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aharon’s
garments to sanctify him . . . . They shall take the gold, the blue,
purple, and crimson wool, and the linen, and they shall make the
ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool. . . ” (Exodus/
Shmot 28:3-6, abbreviated)

R. Moshe Alshich (Israel, 1500’s), finds a lesson in the fact that
the craftsmen are addressed in the plural; “they shall take the
gold” necessarily implies that it’s more than one person
receiving the donated gold for the priestly garments. Alshich
sees this as teaching public accountability for donated goods:

“The goldsmiths did not need supervisors to ensure that they did
not appropriate public funds for themselves. Since there were
several of them and they were trustworthy, they may accept the
gifts themselves, directly from the public, without having to
render an accounting.”

This fits in with other Jewish teachings about accountability to
the public trust. For example, when the Temple stood, the robes
of the priests were not to have hems in them, lest the priests
should be suspect of smuggling money out of the Temple
treasury. Note, however, the presumption at work here: that
people are naturally tempted to make private use of money or
other public goods, and safeguards need to be put into place.
This doesn’t mean that people are evil, but rather that human
nature should be planned for in advance.

The craftsmen who built the Mishkan and sewed the priestly
garments had a dual responsibility: not only to the people who
entrusted them with gold, but also to God, Whose Presence was
felt in the completed sanctuary. It’s quite amazing to think that
human beings could be tempted to embezzle from God, as it
were, but human nature is powerful!

On the other hand, by working as a team, the craftsmen not only
watched over each other, but they could call each other to a
greater sense of purpose and ethics. A single person, working
alone, might be tempted to misappropriate property or cut
corners, thinking that nobody sees what’s going on. Conversely,
a community (or a board, or a committee, or a staff team)
building something together can raise each other up to the
highest levels of goodness and generosity and clarity of
purpose. Both are part of human nature; serving in partnership
with others makes the difference.

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Further questions re: parshat Terumah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Hi everybody, something new is happening. Either I’m not
explaining myself well in the past few weeks, or it took time for
people to feel confident pushing back a little bit, but in either
case, I have two thoughtful critiques of my parsha studies
awaiting response in my in-box.

We’ll do one this week, and one next week.

First, my dear friend Alan, in the sadly hockeyless city of Toronto,
responded to last week’s parsha study, in which I spoke of the
vision of the “brickwork of sapphire” and the closeness of
Creator and Creation:

“Maybe there’s something I’m not getting here, but I’m having
some trouble with this idea that the earth is not separate from
God. Footstools aren’t normally of the same substance as feet,
are they? And, while theologically you’re coming from a different
place of course, part of the point of the first chapter of Paul’s
letter to the Romans, [in the New Testament] a very important text
for me certainly, is that there are grievous consequences when
we get confused about the relative places of the creature and the
Creator. ”

Good point, and I see that my language, which was meant to be
evocative, was also confusing. Part of the problem is that
theological language, which attempts to describe a reality that is
beyond words, is always somewhat poetic and imprecise, but
still, you’re right, “Creator” and “Creation” are not the same thing.

First, let me clarify that I do not mean “Creator” in any literal
sense- I do not believe in a literal, historical, 6 day Creation story.
What I do believe is that the Power or Source which enabled our
ancestors to break free of Egyptian bondage is the same Source
or initiator of a long, evolutionary process of the world unfolding
and becoming filled with life. In other words, God is One, and
there isn’t one spiritual source to our ideals of freedom and
another one which causes us to be overwhelmed with awe in the
natural world.

However, without going into a long discussion of the theology
called “panentheism” (Google it if you like), what I’d say is this:
Yes, the footstool is not the same as the foot, as it were, but just
using the word “footstool” implies a necessary relationship to
the idea of “foot,” just as the idea of “mother” is impossible
without the idea of “child.” You can’t call someone a “mother”
without naming a relationship; “mother” is not a concept that
stands on its own, but only works in connection with something

This, to me, is how to understand the word “God;” it is
impossible to understand without reference to relationship- or, in
Jewish terms, covenant. We can’t understand the concept “God”
or “Creator” without implying, in the word itself, the idea of
“world” or “creation.” That’s what I was trying to say when I wrote
that Creator and Creation are not completely separate- we
understand these concepts as carrying the idea of relationship
within them, as essential to the very core meaning of the word.

What this implies for other aspects of our belief (or lack thereof)
is another story, but I hope this helps for now.

Questions? Problems? Objections?

Keep ’em coming. . . .

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Terumah: Building a Space for the Sacred

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

The book of Exodus is a story with three distinct sections: the
liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the building of
the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Beginning with this week’s
Torah portion, Terumah, the book of Exodus shifts its focus from
the “big-picture” religious and social laws of the previous two
portions to the design details of the Mishkan.

At first, the shift seems jarring, especially since the details of the
building of the Mishkan are often repeated – first given to Moshe,
and then recounted again when they are actually carried out. The
revelation at Sinai was such a big, dramatic event- with fire and
smoke and shofar sounds- that reading the rest of Exodus can
be (and has been) compared to studying the user’s manual for a
VCR or new computer; the level of detail, and lack of drama, can
make the eyes glaze over. (Trust me on this last point, I see it
from the bimah every year.)

So what’s it all about, and what are we supposed to get from all
these architectural instructions?

To me, one of the lessons in this shift from the Big Dramatic
Event at Sinai to the “VCR Manual” of building the Mishkan is the
very fact that life does not usually consist of Big Dramatic Events
on mountain tops, but is instead a daily struggle to fit our
spiritual commitments into the mundane details of ordinary life.
What happened at Sinai can be compared to those once-in-a-
lifetime events that forever change us: falling in love, the death of
a loved one or an encounter with our own mortality, being utterly
overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, a deep spiritual experience
in prayer or meditation, a flash of insight after a period of
searching and introspection.

Then the challenge becomes: OK, now what? How do I stay true
to my experience and my uplifted ideals while working, fulfilling
the obligations of family life, going on errands, being part of a
community, fixing broken appliances, doing my taxes, and so

What the Mishkan represents is a shift that happens to many
people along their journeys: the transition from a life-changing
experience to the need for a regular spiritual practice, in order to
stay true to, and recreate, those extraordinary moments. The
Israelites could not stay at the base of Mt. Sinai forever, and
neither can an individual always expect to have dramatic bursts
of transformative spirituality. Instead of meeting God on the
mountain top, the Israelites had to proactively create a structure
to bring themselves into God’s Presence at precisely the same
time that they were dealing with all the distractions of figuring out
how to move a whole nation across the wilderness. (And you
think <you’ve> got some logistical problems. . . .)

Thus, the very building of the Mishkan, with all its attention to
detail, is itself the larger lesson: if we want to bring God into our
lives, we’re going to have to create spaces for that to happen, as
our ancestors did. By “spaces” I don’t primarily mean physical
places, though clearly a beautiful setting for worship helps open
the heart and focus the mind. A physical place for worship is only
meaningful if we come into it with humility and love; the space
we have to create is within ourselves (and often, in our
schedules) so that God can be part of the journey.

Spirituality rarely “just happens;” more often, it’s a daily
discipline, in the context of busy and distracted lives. In English,
we say “the devil is in the details,” but I think this week’s Torah
portion teaches the opposite: that by carefully and mindfully
creating spaces for the sacred, we can encounter the Divine
where we actually are, with no mountain tops required.

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Mishpatim: Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Shalom from snowy Swampscott! It’s a delight and a blessing to be back in
familiar quarters after two months of traveling, although it takes a bit of
adjustment to go from shirt sleeve in San Diego to snow banks in

It’s also a pleasure to be writing Torah thoughts in my office; there are
commentaries that I’ve been wishing to consult that are to find in an Internet
cafe (although cafe latte makes it a trade-off). One such commentary is that of
R. Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1500’s), which covers most of the Torah and often
brings a beautiful, spiritual perspective to the text. In this week’s parsha,
Sforno helps us understand what it might mean to have a “spiritual
experience,” a vision of the heavens, while living right here on earth.

First, a bit of background. Most of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, deals
with laws: civil, criminal, financial, liability, religious, and so on. Then
asks the assembled Israelites to affirm the covenant, which they just received
at Sinai, and they accept it with joy. After all the people affirm the covenant,
Moshe takes his brother, his nephews, and 70 elders back up the mountain,
where they have a vision of the Divine Presence itself:

“Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Yisrael
ascended, and they perceived the Holy One of Yisrael, and beneath God’s
feet was like a brickwork of sapphire and like the appearance of the heavens
for purity.” (Shmot/ Exodus 24:9-10)

These verses aren’t so simple to understand: did Moshe and his companions
see God directly, or only what was “beneath God’s feet,” as it were? (My
assumption is that anthropomorphic imagery, like God having “feet,” is
metaphorical or symbolic, even in Biblical times.) Yet a little later on, in the
portion Ki Tisa, Moshe is told “no man may see Me and live,” and is allowed
only an obscured vision of the Divine Presence. (Shmot 33:20). So it’s not
clear what exactly these men saw or experienced, although it seems to have
been awesome and inspiring.

Various commentators discuss the meaning of the “brickwork of sapphire,”
and how the “appearance of the heavens” might be similar to other Biblical
images, but only Sforno (among the commentaries I consulted) understands
this experience as one of perceiving God as Creator. Sforno brings a verse
from the prophet Isaiah to connect the “brickwork of sapphire” to the Earth

“beneath God’s feet”. . .[This means]: on the earth, which is the lowest of all,
it says: “and the Earth is My footstool.” (This last quote is from Isaiah 66:1)

Sforno seems to be saying that the “brickwork of sapphire,” which was
beautiful and pure, was in fact the Earth itself, which was viewed as God’s
“footstool,” as it were. Earth is not separate from God, nor God from Earth, but
instead, a vision of God leads to perceiving the Earth as Divine and luminous,
as holy and beautiful. Spirituality, in this view, is not “heavenly” and distant
from earthly life, but is a matter of seeing the Earth as the heavens, as the
place from which we can discern the Divine Presence as close and real.

Taken this way, it’s quite a powerful model of spiritual awareness: spiritual
awe- depicted here as a vision of the Divine- brings forth a deep perception of
the kedusha, or holiness, of Earth itself. To imagine that “the Earth is God’s
footstool” is, for us, to imagine a kind of mutual sustaining, whereby Creator
and Creation are not the same thing, but impossible to imagine except in
relation to each other.

We cannot become aware of God without becoming aware of God’s Presence
in the natural world. Reverence for one is inseparable from reverence for the
other, because there is, in truth, no strict dividing line between Creator and
Creation. Moshe and his friends came down from the mountain seeing the
Earth as a holy jewel; isn’t it time we did the same?


PS: We’ll look at Rashi’s view of these verses Shabbat morning at Temple
Israel- consider yourself invited.

Also, for more on the scholar Sforno, see here:

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