Archive for April, 2005

Yosef’s Bones, Yosef’s Greatness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Chag Sameach [happy holiday] from the foggy and drizzly North Shore!

We’re in the middle of Pesach [Passover] this week, so the regular weekly
Torah reading is set aside for a special text connected to the holiday- all
week, in fact, there have been readings from different part of the Torah which
mention or explain the Pesach celebration.

This Shabbat is the seventh day of Pesach, so the reading is Exodus 13:17 –
15:26. The seventh day reading begins where the Torah portion Beshallach
begins, with the Israelites actually picking up and leaving, and concludes with
the “Song of the Sea,” the great victory poem that Moshe sings after the
Israelites have crossed the sea and left the pursuing Egyptian army behind

It makes perfect sense to read the Song of the Sea at the end the week of
Pesach, since the Exodus was a process, beginning with the preparations
four days before the night of the 14th, and ending with the Israelites safe from
Pharoah on the other side of the sea. This story stretches out from Shmot/
Exodus 12-15 (more or less), and in fact, most of these chapters from the book
of Exodus are read over the course of our holiday week, on days one, three
and seven. (Why the readings aren’t continuous, but skip around different
parts of the Torah on different days, is a question for another time.)

A benefit of reading the entire exodus narrative is that we are reminded of
small details, some of which carry great meaning. So amidst the familar parts
of the story, like the plagues and Pharoah’s recalcitrance and the splitting of
the sea, there’s an episode that you may not have noticed, in which Moshe
fulfills the promise made by Yosef’s [Joseph’s] brothers (at the end of the book
of Genesis) to bring his bones out of Egypt, back to the land of Israel:

“And Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef, who had exacted an oath from
the children of Israel, saying, `God will be sure to take notice of you: then
shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 13:19)

Imagine the scene: all the Israelites are scurrying about, leaving Egypt in a
hurry (too fast for their bread to rise, after all), but Moshe remembers a
promise made hundreds of years beforehand, and finds an ossuary probably
long forgotten by everybody else. The emotional symbolism is almost
palpable: just as God remembered the Divine Promise to the Israelites in
Egypt, so too will the Israelites remember their promise to the man who was
responsible for saving their ancestors by bringing them to Egypt. Yosef was
the first Israelite to be sold into slavery, which brought him down into Egypt,
but now even Yosef will be liberated from the land which both imprisoned and
empowered him.

So perhaps we could say that Moshe goes and gets Yosef’s bones because
to do so is to bring the story full circle, as it were. Yet I think there is
reason that Yosef is brought back into the exodus narrative, and it’s crucial to
the spiritual message of the Pesach holiday. Let’s remember that Yosef is
sold into slavery by his brothers, yet after many years, he reveals himself to
them (after he’s become Prime Minister) and provides for them during the
famine. Yosef- in my understanding- eventually relinquishes the bitterness he
might feel towards his brothers, in order to move their lives forward together.

Similarly, there is actually a commandment in the Torah not to hate Egyptians
(cf. Deuteronomy 23:8), even after the years of slavery and oppression. In fact,
we dramatize this point at our Seder by pouring out a drop of wine for each of
the plagues, in order to demonstrate that our cup of joy is lessened when
human beings suffer, even if those people are our enemies in a present
conflict. The holiday of Pesach is about taking joy in our liberation, not about
bitterness or desire for revenge- even when Pharoah’s army is drowned, the
midrash [ancient Biblical interpretation] says that God stopped the angels
from singing, since human beings were suffering and dying.

It’s really hard not to hold a grudge. I struggle with it every single day; it’s
easiest thing in the world to remember wrongs and hold on to the resentments
of past humiliations. Much harder is to be like Yosef, taking back his
estranged brothers, even after they sold him into slavery. So maybe that’s why
Moshe went to go get Yosef’s bones- he was going to need this reminder of
Yosef’s spiritual greatness if he was going to move his people into the future
and not have them get mired in bitterness over the past. Leaving Egypt meant
leaving the state of enslavement- including the mental enslavement of
emotional paralysis in negativity and resentment. That’s what Yosef did, and
that’s what Pesach challenges us to do, too.

You can read the text of the seventh day Torah reading here:

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Pesach: Brokenness and Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Dear Friends:

Pesach is almost upon us! In the midst of all the cleaning,
shopping and cooking, I do hope you take some time to reflect
upon the meaning of the holiday. You might read a haggadah
that you don’t ordinarily use, in order to glean new commentary;
you might go to the internet (suggestions below) to find great
Passover teachings to bring to your Seder table; you might
simply stop and think about the meaning of matzah, maror, and
zeroa and how eating these foods (or, in the case of zeroa, not
eating) teaches us profound lessons about empathy, memory,
and peoplehood.

For me, a particularly profound moment of the Seder comes right
before we tell the story of our liberation, when we break the
middle matzah, putting one piece back between the two other
matzot and saving one piece as the afikoman. Here is a deep
truth: we have to acknowledge our brokenness, the broken
pieces we all carry around, before we can tell the stories which
set us free. Brokenness exists in a dialectic with healing- or, to
put it another way, we can’t be set free till we know what
imprisons us.

So at the beginning of the seder, we break a matzah,
representing the broken spirits of our ancestors and our own
fears, pains, and griefs. Only then do we tell the story about how
our ancestor Jacob went down to Egypt, but his children came
back out again. We, too, get stuck in “narrow places” (mitzrayim =
Egypt, but in Hebrew, this word means “narrowness” or
constriction) but we too will come back out again singing, if only
we open ourselves to faith and hope. A seder takes a few hours
to go from the first broken matzah to the joyous singing of Hallel
[Psalms of praise] after the meal, but it represents the spiritual
journey of a lifetime, a constant renewal from brokenness to
healing, from constriction to joy, from fear to redemption.

A happy and healthy holiday to all,


For more great Pesach teachings, here’s enough for a month of

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Achrei Mot: Intimacy and Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot and Shabbat Hagadol

It’s springtime, and so Pesach cleaning is fast upon us. . . but
we have one more regular Torah portion to read before the
special readings for Passover.

The Shabbat right before Pesach/ Passover, coming up this
week, is called “Shabbat Hagadol,” or “The Great Shabbat,” and
it is generally accepted that this day gets its name from the
special haftarah [prophetic reading], which ends with a prophecy
of the “great and mighty Day of the Lord.” The haftarah on
Shabbat Hagadol is part of the general message of redemption
and hope which is central to the Pesach holiday- more about that
in a separate email.

The Torah portion for Shabbat Hagadol can vary with the
calendar; this year, it is connected to Achrei Mot, which is a
difficult parsha, usually read with the next one, Kedoshim. Achrei
Mot first describes the priestly ritual for Yom Kippur, commands
the Israelites to make sacrificial offerings in only one place, then
prohibits eating anything with blood in it, and ends with a long
list of forbidden sexual relationships. This list of sexual
prohibitions begins and ends with a warning not to copy the
practices of other nations. Most of the specific prohibitions begin
with a warning (presumably, to men), “do not uncover the
nakedness of. . . ” and then names a specific relationship.

Because of the unusual wording in this section of the Torah, the
general idea of forbidden sexual relationships has taken on the
name “arayot,” from the word for “naked.” As Conservative Jews,
we may have variety of historical and moral interpretations of
certain specifics in this chapter, most notably the blanket
condemnation of homosexual acts, but on a much more general
level, I think it’s worth thinking about the wording the Torah uses
to describe what it doesn’t like. “Uncovering the nakedness” is
obviously a euphemism for a sexual act, but it also conveys a
more general ethical sensibility of modesty and privacy,
especially in the most intimate areas of our lives.

Anybody who glances at the magazine covers in drugstores or
supermarkets knows that modesty and privacy aren’t the guiding
values of contemporary North American society- with two clicks
of a mouse I can see or read about the most private details of
other people’s lives, and not just celebrities. Think back just a
few weeks, for example, to the raging controversy over Terry
Schiavo, and how the newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts
carried graphic images of Terry half-covered in her hospital
gown, or with her feeding tube exposed.

I find it fascinating that those people within our society most
loudly interested in “Biblical values” had no apparent problem
with Terry Schiavo’s medical procedures being part of the public
record for (quite literally) all to see. Now, an obvious rejoinder is
that medical procedures- or divorce proceedings, or financial
records- are nothing shameful, and that people who take their
lives into the public sphere can’t reveal only the parts they
choose. I suppose that’s technically correct, but I also wonder if
the Bible doesn’t call us to a sense of modesty which is not only
about sex, but also about dignity, the dignity of choosing to keep
some things within our most trusted relationships.

To put it another way, only an ethic of modesty- in a general
sense- creates the possibility of intimacy, which has to be freely
chosen if it is to be authentic. To “uncover the nakedness,” to
use the direct-object language of Achrei Mot, is to remove volition
from intimacy, and thus render it an ethical abomination. Carried
into our sphere of public discourse, I wonder if we who take the
Bible’s ethics seriously might not argue that not everything which
can be revealed should be revealed, and that a media culture
which leaves nothing to privacy undermines the very possibility of
choosing to uncover oneself within the safe boundaries of family
and intimate friendship. That seems to be the model the Torah
advocates, and which still to this day stands in tension with the
society which surrounds us.

You can find the text of this week’s Torah reading and haftarah

PS- My recent thinking about the relationship between privacy
and dignity was initiated by a recent article in The New Republic,
“On the Shamelessness of Our Public Sphere,” by Rochelle
Gurstein. It’s a good read.

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Metzorah: The Imperative of Inclusion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

Greetings from sunny- but not yet warm- Swampscott!

This week we continue our study of the laws of scaly skin blemishes; the parsha
begins with a discussion of how the metzorah [person afflicted with a skin
blemish] is ritually purified, and then goes on to describe what happens if a “plague”
[visible discolorations or growths] appears in a house. The portion concludes with the ritual impurity imparted to one – male or female- who has certain kinds of genital emissions.

Last week I proposed that underlying this complex set of rules about bodily
functions (or dysfunctions, as the case may be) is an ethic of caring for individuals and preserving their dignity. This week, I’d like to bolster my case by pointing out
that the rules for ritual purification of a metzorah make a distinction between the
requirements for wealthy and poor persons. A person of means brings a total of three animals for sacrifice at the end of his week of separation. (See verse 14:10, which you can find here: < >)

However, a poor person is only required to bring one animal, as we read a few
verses later:

But if he is of insufficient means and cannot afford [these sacrifices], he
shall take one [male] lamb as a guilt offering for a waving to effect atonement for him, and one tenth [of an ephah] of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal offering, and a log of oil. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:21)

The less wealthy person’s offering for ritual purification is about a third as
much as the regular offering – which may seem like a rather subtle point of ritual
practice, but has huge ethical implications in a wider context. The Torah is, after all,
understood to be Divine revelation (however we understand that process to be mediated), and thus we’re left with the rather non-negotiable conclusion that God cares about people of differing financial means being fully included in the religious life of the Jewish community.

This religious imperative to make the spiritual centers of Jewish life inclusive
and sensitive to financial issues speaks directly to a problem in our community,
which is the feeling among many Jews (with whom I speak almost every week) that they’re not welcome in our synagogues, schools and institutions unless they can pay high levels of dues or contributions. I understand that many synagogues and other
organizations try as best they can to grant abatements, but what strikes me
about our Torah portion is that the policies of inclusiveness are made known to all.
It is simply announced that “if he is of insufficient means, this is what he will
bring,” and left at that. This contrasts sharply with the various procedures (interviews, tax form reviews, etc.) we use in contemporary Jewish life to determine if somebody “needs” an abatement, which often produce great resentment, anger and shame (again, I hear about this almost every week).

The challenge of funding Jewish life, while at the same time making it
accessible to all who seek it, is not simple. Many congregations have instituted “fair share” dues, which can be a sliding scale according to income or a percentage of income which everyone pays. There are many other ways in which we could live out our spiritual ideals of inclusiveness and dignity, but the larger point is that our attempts to build spiritual community fail if they are not sensitive to diversity of means.

To put it another way, one of the reasons Judaism insists that spirituality
happens within community is precisely so that we we learn how to care for others, as God cares for us, and in so doing, become more fully aware of the Divine image
within ourselves and others. If the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the
metzorah of insufficient means was to be welcomed into the most sacred spaces and rituals, then surely we can find a way to make sure that Jews all along the financial
spectrum feel truly welcome in every organization dedicated to Jewish life.


PS- The Reconstructionist movement, in particular, has done good work to help
connect finances and religious values in congregational life. You can find
teachings and discussions of how to make Jewish life more inclusive here:

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Tazria: The Non-Rush To Judgement

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

Greetings from Swampscott, where it’s almost spring!

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the next two Torah portions are among the most
difficult of the yearly Torah readings, because the topics seem both arcane and highly
anachronistic. This week’s parsha, Tazria, begins with laws of tumah,
or ritual impurity- which means separation from areas considered holy- in the
period after childbirth. The next few chapters deal with scaly skin blemishes,
which must be examined by the priests in order to declare a person ritually pure
and thus able to rejoin the community in its religious life.

You can find the text of the Torah portion and the special
pre-Passover maftir (concluding Torah reading) and haftarah here:

Clearly, we do not look to the Torah for medical knowledge- the one
thing that all contemporary commentators agree upon is that the scaly skin blemishes described in Vayikra/ Leviticus are not the disease we call “leprosy,”
(Hansen’s Disease), but that’s where the agreement ends. Some believe that the Torah implies that such blemishes were understood as the manifestation of spiritual
condition, perhaps indicating a supernatural punishment, while others think that they were a morally neutral physical phenomenon. Furthermore, the very idea of “ritual impurity” and the concomitant exclusion from sacred areas is foreign to our sense of what is “natural” (like bodily fluids or skin blemishes) and our very legitimate desire to be maximally inclusive in our communal practice.

So what DO we do with these passages? How do we, with our modern
medical knowledge and inclusive ethical sensibilities, deal with verses about
the blood of childbirth and menstruation, scaly skin blemishes and discolored
hairs? One classic line of interpretation sees the scaly skin disease as Divine
punishment for misdeeds. While such midrashim (creative or homiletic Biblical interpretations) help us understand what the ancient sages considered to be an ethical and upright life, I’m personally left unsatisfied. I want to forge a more direct
relationship to the text of the Torah itself, if possible, and not only read it through the lens of such strong moral symbolism.

So returning to the text itself, with its vivid descriptions of
bodily fluids, scabs, lesions, and discolored skin, I’m struck by how carefully the Torah lays out a program for connection between the elite of ancient society (the
kohanim, or priests) and those who might be the outcasts (people in various states of
ritual impurity.) The Torah says, very clearly, that a primary job of the religious and
social leadership is to work with those in greatest danger of being shunned. Not only that, but the Torah also clearly and unequivocally commands the priests to see each
person as an individual, examining them down to the smallest hair or patch of
skin, in order to bring them back into the community if at all possible.

Remembering that what is true for the priesthood is now true for
entire people of Israel, (since there is no longer a priesthood, as such) I think one
way we can read parshat Tazria is to see an ethic of caring for individuals
underneath a sea of specific rules. That ethic goes something like this: When someone is in distress, don’t rush to judgement, but look carefully at each person, right down to the details of specific circumstances. Don’t judge people if it’s not your job to judge- remember, only the priest could declare that someone had the kind of scaly skin blemish which required temporary separation. Finally, precisely where there is potential for people to feel cast out or marginalized, that’s where the Torah wants us to pay close attention to our thoughts and actions.

Parshat Tazria might be the hardest parsha of the Torah, but not, I
think, because its subject matter is so distant from our contemporary frame of
reference. I think Parshat Tazria may be the hardest parsha of the Torah because what it’s asking us to do – refrain from quick judgement, see people as individuals, and always reach out to those on the margins- is a life-long process, a challenge to each of us which is central to our evolving spiritual maturity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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