Archive for May, 2005

Bechukotai: You Broke It, You Fix It

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

Greetings from oh-so-soggy Swampscott! It’s been raining here for days, but
perhaps the
light of Torah will brighten the dreariness. This week’s portion, Bechukotai,
contains a
section known as “tochecha,” or “rebuke,” in which the Israelites are promised
blessings if they faithfully keep the commandments and are also warned of bitter
and disaster if they don’t.

It’s a difficult passage, given that contemporary theology tends to separate sin
misfortune. As Rabbi Kushner points out, it’s hardly compassionate to tell the
sick or
injured person that they must have deserved it because of their misdeeds. Yet
passages of “rebuke” also contain verses of great beauty and hope. One can feel
emotional plea being made to the covenant community, to turn from evil and do
good, and
the God of mercy will be awaiting your return.

What’s interesting is that underneath the seemingly gory, “tit for tat” verses
disaster for the unfaithful but great reward for the righteous is a perspective
that most of
us could, in fact, agree with: that human beings are fully capable of making
noble choices.
To put it another way, the Torah wouldn’t give us stern warnings if it didn’t
think we had
the potential to choose the good, right and true.

Rashi makes this point beautifully in a commentary on verse 26:9, which promises
God will “set up My covenant” with those who choose the paith of faithfulness:

Rashi’s commentary:

“[This means] a new covenant, not like the first covenant, which you broke, but
a new
covenant, which will not be broken, as it is said, ‘I will form a new covenant
with the House
of Israel and with the House of Judah-not like the covenant [that I formed with
forefathers… that they broke]’ ” (Jeremiah 31:30-31).

Rashi uses this language of a “new covenant,” borrowed from a later prophet, to
say that
the relationship between God and humanity can be restored, even if we have
broken that
relationship and moved away from our true Source. Notice Rashi’s insistance that
broke the earlier covenant, but the new one will not be broken.

Now, you might ask: how does Rashi- or even God, who gave us free will- know
that the
new covenant (which I see as an image of restored intimacy and partnership)
won’t be
broken by us just like the earlier one was?

Well, the answer might be: not even God can know what human beings will
choose, but Judaism retains its faith in the potential for human restoration and
reconcilation. People- all of us- “break the covenant” with God on a daily
basis, by turning
away from our spiritual potential and failing to live up to the Image of God
within, yet it’s
always possible to return to our noblest selves and our deepest truths.

Rashi holds out a vision in which people- both as individuals and as a
community- learn
from their mistakes and emerge more faithful through the journey. We broke, but
means we can fix; we strayed, but that means we can return; we were disloyal to
and our God, but that means we can achieve new intimacy and a refashioned heart.
greatest teacher of Torah believed that the “new covenant” will not be broken-
not by God,
and not by us. It’s an amazing statement of faith- faith in humankind, and our
for renewed relationship with a God who believes in us.

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Behar: Stones Below, Heaven Above

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

Shalom Friends!

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is often read with the following portion,
Behukotai, but
this year stands on its own. Behar begins with the laws of the Sabbatical and
Jubilee years,
and then lays out a system of laws regulating land sales due to poverty or need.
a person who in desperation has to sell themselves into servitude must be
treated with
dignity and respect. There are also distinctions made between Israelite and
indentured workers which seem ethically problematic, but that’s a discussion for

At the very end of the Torah portion, after a long set of laws dealing with
employment and
servitude, there is general injunction against idolatry, which has an
architectural detail attached to it:

“You shall not make idols for yourselves, nor shall you set up a statue or a
monument for
yourselves. And in your land you shall not place a pavement stone on which to
yourselves. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:1)

OK, no idolatrous statues, that’s pretty clear, but what are these “pavement
stones” we’re
not supposed to put down?

Our teacher Rashi says that these pavement stones were a flat covering on the
ground, a
kind of stone floor. Rashi also asks why we’re not supposed to “prostrate”
ourselves on a
stone floor – wouldn’t such an act be a way of humbling ourselves before Heaven?

Answering his own question (as rabbis like to do), Rashi says that stretching
out on a
stone floor, even as worship, is prohibited outside the central Temple of
Jerusalem, where
“prostration” was part of the worship. This answer can be compared to other
aspects of
rabbinic (i.e., our) Judaism which distinguish between the worship of the
ancient Temple
and contemporary practice. For example, there is a teaching not to put roasted
meat on
the table at a Passover seder, so as not to confuse people into thinking it’s
really the
Passover sacrifice, which we don’t do anymore without the ancient priesthood and

On the other hand- wouldn’t laying oneself out on a stone floor be a powerful
way to show
one’s humility and internal orientation towards Heaven?

Yes, and maybe that’s the reason we’re not supposed to do it on our own. Most
want to be thought of as good people, as people of character and proper values-
so there
is always a danger that legitimate spiritual practices will be done as a public
display, as a
way to show off one’s piety and goodness. So perhaps the Torah knows that if
people were
laying themselves out on stone floors, evoking the rituals of humility and
devotion in the
Temple, it could become a shallow act, done for show and not for spiritual
growth. To put
it another way, grand acts of showing one’s humility could become another source
of pride
and self-aggrandizement, which is precisely not the intent of the ritual.

Here’s the paradox, as I see it: sometimes public rituals (like, for example,
bowing down to
the floor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or wearing a beautiful tallit during
prayer, or
creating a sense of sacred time on Shabbat and the holidays) really help a
person achieve a
sense of awe and transcendence and spirituality. Yet human beings are naturally
competitive, so it’s also true that being “observant” (understood broadly) in
public can
create a temptation to show off, to be proudly humble, as it were.

So although I have no immediate plans to put a stone floor for worship in my
backyard, the
challenge remains: how does one nurture an internal orientation towards God and
without becoming ostentatious about it? How do we let Jewish ritual take us to
heights of spiritual experience without letting pride or ego get in the way?
Ritual practice
is essential to a rich Jewish spiritual life, yet even bowing before God can
become an idol
without introspection about one’s true motivation.

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Emor: What Do We See When We Look?

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Shalom from the North Shore!

Our Torah portion this week, Emor, begins with rules for the
Kohanim, or priests: they must not become ritually impure, they
have special rules for marriage and family, and must be
physically whole and unimpaired. The portion also reviews the
Jewish holy days, followed by the story of a man executed for
blasphemy. The portion concludes with laws emphasizing
fairness and proportionality in criminal law.

One of the overall themes of Emor is the fitness of the priests for
their service in the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary.] The priests
were not to be ritually impure (from contact with a dead body, for
example) and could not make the holy offerings if they had a
physical blemish, such as missing or crushed limbs or certain
kinds of bodily disfigurements. Such priests could still
participate in eating that part of the sacrifice which was
designated as their portion (since the Kohanim didn’t work at
other occupations, they were sustained by a portion of the
offerings in the Mishkan), but could not make the offerings
themselves. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 21:16-24).

Now, at first glance, this seems totally unfair, even cruel- why
should someone missing a hand (for example), be excluded
from their life’s work of sacred service? Isn’t sacred service more
a matter of purity of heart than outward appearance- or, at least,
shouldn’t it be? Or, to put it another way, if God knows the
goodness of somebody’s heart, why does it matter if their body is
“imperfect” according to human standards?

One common understanding of these laws is that a Kohen with
a physical blemish is disqualified not because they are
“blemished” in the sight of God, but because the people
participating in the worship would get distracted by the physical
features of the priest and would focus on that rather than
directing their hearts towards Heaven. Seen this way, these laws
are still unfair to the disfigured Kohen, but the unfairness is that
of human beings, who are all too ready to focus on the
blemishes of other people. I

think this is especially true when someone- a religious leader, a
teacher, a community activist- is trying to get people to think
about their problems and what they must do to change things for
the better. It’s always easier to focus on the “blemishes” of the
messenger than the content of the message!

The Torah knows the hearts of humankind: most of us would too
easily notice the problems of others and too easily ignore our
own. Furthermore, I believe that these difficult laws- excluding
the disfigured Kohen from service- need to be seen in a greater
context, which is the Torah’s insistence that every single human
being is made in the image of God. Our challenge, then, is to live
up to that greater ideal, which sees the potential for spiritual
wholeness in all people, and which challenges us to not get
distracted by the wrong things.

Shabbat Shalom,


The full text of this week’s Torah portion can be found here:

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Kedoshim: Marking Ourselves for Good (warning: long!)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

This week’s parsha study is a bit too long, I suppose, and yet not
long enough, for the themes of loss and renewal are ones to
which I have given much reflection in past year. I offer this week’s
teaching to you on the occasion of the first yahrzeit of my mother,
zichrona l’vracha; the year since her passing has taught me
much Torah which I would have preferred not to learn.

With that: Kedoshim. The overall theme of the Torah portion
Kedoshim parsha might be described as spiritually centered
ethical sensitivity, including respect for one’s body:

“You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died].
You shall not incise any mark on yourselves. I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:28)

Most traditional and modern Torah commentators see the first
prohibition in the context of other religious traditions. Rashi, for
example, says that the Amorites cut themselves when a relative
died. Our Conservative Etz Hayyim commentary, in the historical
notes, says that “pagan priests gashed themselves as they
called upon their gods to answer their prayers.” (Cf.1 Kings

OK, so far, so good- the Torah doesn’t want the Israelites to copy
a painful or destructive religious practice from their neighbors,
and in fact this verse continues to inform a traditional Jewish
disapproval of marking or mutilating the body. (Yes, this may
include tattoos, so please see the footnotes for an internet

Yet I think there may be an understanding of this verse which
goes beyond distinguishing between Israelite and non-Israelite
religion. Picking up on Rashi’s comment that there were people
who made cuts in their bodies when a relative died, perhaps we
might ask: what does causing oneself pain have to do with grief,
and why is this so problematic from a Jewish perspective?

Emotional pain, like physical pain, can sometimes be
overwhelming, and when it is, the resulting state can be a kind of
internal numbness or emptiness. For example, on many
occasions I’ve heard people say that they couldn’t really
remember what happened at the funeral of a loved one- their
memory was bleary because they felt so shut down with grief
and loss at the time. Most people who go through such periods
experience this numbness or emptiness as a temporary state,
and soon resume their normal interactions and daily affairs.

Sometimes, when these emotions of emptiness or numbness
are profound or persistent, people may do self-destructive things
(addictions, sexual acting-out, risky behaviors, directing anger or
negativity at others) simply to feel anything at all. When one is
deeply disconnected from ordinary joy, then pain becomes a
tragic way to feel alive, as it were.

This idea- that pain is a way to feel alive when nothing else
seems to work- was expressed marvelously by the late Johnny
Cash, in his cover of the song “Hurt,” recorded in 2002. This
song, about drug addiction and grief, begins with a powerful
description of one who literally cuts himself (with a needle):

“I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real . . . ”

To me, this puts our verse in a new light: the Torah is warning us
that indeed, sometimes the pain of loss is so great that the
human heart can empty out or just shut down, and when that
happens, a person is in spiritual and physical danger. I think the
Torah’s perspective is very realistic; Judaism does not deny the
reality of loss, or attempt to gloss it over, but instead bids us to
be aware of what might happen at life’s darkest times. This kind
of loss is not limited to the death of loved ones, but we might
understand grief after death as emblematic of being
overwhelmed by emotional pain.

The question then follows: how do we apply this insight more
generally? For me, the answer lies in Judaism’s emphasis on
committing ourselves to community. Rather giving in to the
temptation of self-seclusion in painful times, Judaism invites us
to make a minyan with others, in order to draw strength from
others and receive the compassion of those further along the
path of healing.

Furthermore, if we join together in prayer, learning, and
engaging in acts of loving-kindness, as part of a spiritual
community, then we are also more likely to see beyond our own
pain to recognizing hurt in others. We can then offer our love and
support, and rediscover our own capacities for giving and
empathy; giving to others draws us out and sets us right. Pain
often makes a person focus on themselves; Judaism
challenges a person to shift that focus to the wider world. In
healing the world, we sense the possibility of healing ourselves;
in loving others, we are offered the hope of overcoming loss, and
reclaiming the gift of life.

Seen this way, “you shall not make cuts in your flesh” becomes
both a warning and an affirmation: a warning about what can
happen when we become isolated in grief, loss and pain, and
an affirmation that we need not add self-inflicted wounds to the
hurts which life will inevitably inflict. We can- with great effort,
self-awareness, the love of friends and the grace of God- choose

shabbat shalom,


PS- These thoughts about Torah are offered from a rabbi’s
perspective on grief and healing; there are times when
professional help is more appropriate than rabbinic reflections.

PPS- as usual, you can read the entire text of this week’s Torah
portion and haftarah here:

PPPS- Since I know that this verse raises the question of Jews
and tattoos, here’s a link to a good article about it, written by a
Conservative rabbi:

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