Archive for June, 2005

Korach: The Staff of Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Happy Independence Day, for my American readers!

Perhaps the 4th of July weekend is a good time to be reading
parshat Korach, because our Torah portion is very much
concerned with issues of leadership, community, freedom, and
responsibility. Briefly, Korach is a prince of the people who
challenges Moshe and Aharon and disputes their right to lead
the people.

A ritual test shows that God supports the current leadership,
Korach and his gang of rebels are swallowed up in the earth.
After this crisis is resolved, Moshe also demonstrates the
worthiness of Aharon’s role as High Priest (more on this below),
and the parsha concludes with laws pertaining to the proper
handling of sacred donations to the Mishkan (the portable
Sanctuary) and the priests who serve in it.

The story of Aharon’s rod of leadership, which comes after the
Korach crisis, doesn’t get much attention in commentaries and
sermons, but it’s a fascinating narrative, rich with symbolic
meaning. Basically, what happens is that God tells Moshe to
take a staff- a rod- from each tribal leader, twelve in all, each
inscribed with the name of its owner. Moshe puts them all
together in the Tent of Meeting- the sacred center of the Mishkan-
and the next day, here’s what he found:

“The next day Moshe entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the
staff of Aharon of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought
forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. Moshe
then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the
Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff. ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 17:23-24, JPS translation.)

Now, what are we supposed to make of this miracle? Do
almond blossoms really appear overnight on sticks of wood in
the desert?

Let’s review: Aharon, if you remember from way back in Exodus
4, was originally assigned to be Moshe’s “mouthpiece” in
confronting Pharaoh. Not only that, but that story (Exodus 4- the
burning bush) also contained a miracle involving a staff:
Moshe’s staff turned into a serpent in order to convince him that
God could indeed bring a great miracle of liberation, through
Moshe, to the people oppressed in Egypt.

So now we’ve come full circle from Moshe’s reticence at the
moment of his commission for leadership. Back then, he was
unsure of himself, and needed the promise of Aharon’s
assistance in order to go forward. Now, he’s fully in charge, and
needs to demonstrate to the people that Aharon is the legitimate
High Priest, a role entirely separate from Moshe’s more judicial
and political position.

So what does all this have to do with miraculous almond
blossoms?

We might imagine the blossoms and fruit on Aharon’s staff –
clearly a symbol of his leadership role and authority as High
Priest- as images of productivity, vitality and creativity (in the
broadest sense.) Even in contemporary English, when we say
that something is useful and meaningful, we say that it is
“fruitful,” and I think that’s close to what’s being represented
here. Aharon’s leadership, which was accepted in humility and
servitude, is life-giving and “fruitful” precisely because he’s not
like Korach, who wanted power for reasons of ego and self-
aggrandizement (according to most readings of the Korach
story.)

Aharon became a leader almost inadvertently, because his
brother Moshe needed help- not because he sought out the
spotlight but because he sought to give support. In later Jewish
literature, Aharon is seen as the model of compassion and love
for his fellow human beings- again, the opposite of Korach, who
is willing to start a civil war for the sake of his pride and ego.

Aharon’s staff blossoms and gives fruit because his leadership
is about giving to others, bringing forth good things for the
community and sustaining them through service. The
relationship of a servant-leader to her or his community is fragile
and delicate- like a blossom- but also nourishing and
sustaining, like an almond itself. Humility and generosity of heart
bring forth beautiful things; this is the example of Aharon’s life,
which is the deeper truth behind the story of the miraculous
blossoms.

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s Torah portion
and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/korah.shtml

While we’re on the topic of leadership, I’m proud to be
associated with a group of rabbis taking a leadership position
on the issue of greater inclusiveness in the Conservative
movement:

http://www.keshetrabbis.org/

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Shlach-Lecha: Fringes and Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

It’s officially summer, a season for travel and exploration. That’s
also the a main theme of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach-
Lecha. Most of the parsha this week is the story of the 12 spies
who go up from the desert to “case out” the Land of Israel; ten
come back discouraged but two have faith and urge the people
to ascend to the Promised Land. Following the story of the
spies, there are rules for agricultural offerings and Shabbat
observance.

The parsha concludes with the commandment to put tzitzit-
fringes- on the corners of our garments. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers
15:37-41.) Our teacher Rashi explains that this mitzvah
[commandment] only applies to a four-cornered garment, and,
following the Torah text itself, he strongly links the meaning of
the tzitzit to the Exodus from Egypt. The passage also says that
we should look at the tzitzit and remember the commandments-
they are a sign of the overarching relationship between our
people and our Liberator.

The idea of “ritual fringes” might seem strange if we’re not used
to seeing them, but remember, people wear objects which have
symbolic significance every day, from a wedding ring to a college
logo sweatshirt to a baseball cap. What we wear often makes a
statement about who we are connected to, what our
commitments are, and how we identify ourselves.

When thinking about the meaning of tzitzit, it’s also important to
remember that it is, ideally, an every-day practice. Many Jews
only see tzitzit on tallitot [prayer shawls] on Shabbat, but many
other Jews wear an undershirt with tzitzit every day, or at least put
on a tallit as part of regular morning prayers, in order to fulfill this
mitzvah on a daily basis.

Ideas abound in Jewish literature about the spiritual significance
of the tzitzit- the number of knots, the blue thread (see below), the
“corners” of the garments, etc. We’ll leave most of that for
another time, but one teaching in particular strikes me as
profound, and that’s Rashi’s interpretation of the eight threads in
each set of fringes. Rashi links these eight threads on each
corner of the garment to the eight days between the first night of
the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea, which was
Israel’s first real moment of safety and complete liberation.

Think about it: the Israelites left their homes in a hurry on the
night of the first Passover, but it wasn’t until eight days later
(according to this reading of the story) that they could finally sing
a joyous song on the other side of the sea. It was eight days
from leaving slavery to feeling like they’d <really> left Egypt, eight
days until they felt that they had <really> been brought out of
oppression. We don’t think about that eight day period very much,
but it seems to me that it’s a powerful metaphor for the “in-
between” nature of our lives as we, too, go forward on our
journeys.

In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has a literal meaning of the
“narrow” or “constricted” place. Egypt, in spiritual terms, was the
place where we were controlled by external forces, ruled by fear
and worked to the bone for no truly meaningful purpose. It’s a
metaphor or image for all those times when we find ourselves
constrained from being our best and truest selves, when we
stuck in one of life’s inevitable “narrow places.” So there is a
recurring theme in later Jewish thought which says that we are
all, always, leaving Egypt in one way or another- or at least given
the chance to, with the hope that we’ll take it.

On the other hand- it’s hard to feel like we’ve <really> gotten to
the place we want to go, where the external forces or internal
fears which drive us are left behind- cast into the sea, as it were.
Sometimes we feel those moments of great liberation and
personal redemption, but sometimes it’s hard to feel progress –
and that’s where faith comes in.

Faith isn’t just a matter of belief, but of movement, of openness,
of change, of willingness to go forward, to put one foot in front of
the other in the service of a higher cause. Our ancestors left
Egypt to serve God in the wilderness without really knowing the
whole plan of what lay ahead- but then, do we ever really know
what lies ahead?

So if the tzitzit represent those eight days between liberation and
salvation, they also represent what it takes to keep going
forward: attachment to higher purposes, a remembrance of our
sacred history, a discipline to bring holy values into a long life’s
journey. That’s why we look at the tzitzit in order to “remember the
commandments” – it’s about being reminded of our higher goals
and a greater hope. Our ancestors may have had Pharaoh
behind them and the sea dead ahead, but somehow they kept
on going. If they did it, so can we, with the promise of liberation
from what oppresses us just as real to us as it was to them.

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s parsha here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Here’s a general overview of tallit and tzitzit:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/Prayer/Ritual_Garb/
Tallit.htm

Finally, here’s an interesting history of the “blue thread”
mentioned in our passage, written by my good friend Baruch
Sienna, one of the most grammatically correct people around:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/parasha/torah.shtml

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Beha’alotechah: Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Shalom Friends!

Before we look at this week’s Torah portion, a word from our
sponsor: Although I will be
leaving my position at Temple Israel (now Congregation Shirat Hayam)
in a few weeks, my
intention is to continue writing a weekly Torah study, and you are
all invited to stay
members of the list. In fact, you are welcome to invite your friends
to join, too- if the
Yahoo link doesn’t work, then email me and I’ll add new
members directly.

When I am traveling this summer, I may have to give you some parshiot
(plural of parsha,
or portion) in advance, or present some of the best Torah studies on
the internet instead
of writing my own every week, but I am committed to putting Torah
study into your inbox
for the indefinite future.

Now, back to our Torah portion. Beha’alotecha begins with a
review of the commandment
to make a seven-branched menorah (lamp) in the Mishkan [portable
Sanctuary]. (Cf.
Exodus 25.) Aharon, the priest, dedicates the entire tribe of the
Levites for service in the
Mishkan. Then the trouble begins: first a group of men want to make
the Pesach [Passover]
offering after the appointed season, but it turns out that they
should, in fact, get a second
chance.

There is a great grumbling and complaining in the camp of Israel (the
more things change.
. . .) and God sends a great swarm of quail to satiate the
people’s cravings. Finally, there’s
a family spat between Moshe and his siblings Miriam and Aharon, in
which Miriam is put
outside the camp for a week after defaming Moshe’s wife.

The parsha begins with a review of the menorah, or seven-branched
lampstand. (What
most people in America call a “menorah” is technically a
“Hannukiah,” a special menorah-
lamp- for Hannukah.) Moshe is told to tell Aharon to kindle the lamps
in a special way, but
Rashi wonders what this commandment is doing here at all, stuck
in-between two
different topics: the long story of how the 12 princes brought gifts
for the dedication of
the Mishkan (the end of last week’s portion, in chapter 7) and
the dedication of the Levites
who serve in it (the next topic in chapter 8).

Rashi’s question makes sense: last week the 12 princes brought
their silver gifts for the
dedication of the Mishkan, this week all the Levites are dedicated to
serve in it, and what
you’d expect to follow next is some description of the ritual of
the Mishkan when it is
actually operational. The detail of the menorah seems out of order, a
detail stuck in the
wrong place.

Rashi brings an interesting midrash [interpretive story] to answer
his question: he says
that when Aharon saw all the silver gifts being brought by all the
princes, he felt badly that
he wasn’t also bringing a gift for the dedication ceremonies. So
God (in Rashi’s
commentary) offers Aharon a consolation: “”By your life, yours
is greater than theirs, for
you will light and prepare the lamp!”

This is a great midrash, for several reasons. First, I think it
accurately captures a feeling
that I suspect is widespread among spiritual leaders, a feeling of
discomfort when
somebody else is in the “spotlight” of the community.
It’s hard to give up being the High
Priest, as it were, and it’s hard to acknowledge that one’s
role doesn’t allow for the kinds
of philanthropic contributions that others can make.

The midrash also points out an interesting tension: the Torah itself
gives over many, many
verses (in chapter 7) to describing, detailing and honoring the gifts
of the princes for the
Mishkan, but Rashi wants to say: lighting the lamp is a greater
honor. What I think this
means is that lighting the lamp symbolizes the core purpose of the
Mishkan, which is to
help the people feel God’s Presence in the world. Where one can
perceive a greater
Presence, then there is hope in a brutal world, and even today, we
speak of hope and
despair using the metaphors of light and darkness.

So God says to Aharon: not everybody can bring gifts of silver, but
you have been given
the task of bringing light into darkness, both literally and
metaphorically. Gifts to the
Mishkan sustain this work, but don’t lose sight of what the work
actually is: bringing light
into darkness, hope where there is despair, compassion where there is
alienation, justice
where there is cruelty. That’s the work of Judaism, for Aharon
and for all his spiritual heirs.

shabbat shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah portion and the haftarah in, in
translation, here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- the subject title this week refers to the title of a wonderful
African-American
Spiritual with this theme of light and hope. Google will lead you to more.

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Shavuot: The Time of the Giving of Our Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Shalom from swampy, steamy Swampscott! It’s summertime- on
both the Jewish and American calendars. Tonight ends the 49-
day counting of the omer, leading into the celebration of Shavuot,
or the holiday of “Weeks.” (Since we’ve been counting 7 weeks of
7 days since Pesach.)

Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage holidays (the other two
are Passover and Sukkot), dating back to Biblical times, when
our ancestors would come to Jerusalem to give thanks for
agricultural blessings. On Shavuot, they gave thanks for the first
fruits (well, harvest, not just fruit) of summer. Later, in post-
Biblical times, Shavuot also become known as “Zman Matan
Toratenu,” the “Time of the Giving of Our Torah,” and thus
becomes a bookend to Pesach seven weeks earlier.

Pesach is about leaving Egypt; Shavuot is about being present at
Sinai. The re-enactment of liberation on Pesach is eating matzah
and bitter herbs; the re-enactment of revelation on Shavuot
happens in the synagogue, when we hear the Ten
Commandments read from the bimah during the Torah service.
On Pesach, we remember our liberation; on Shavuot, we
rededicate our freedom to a higher purpose.

One of my favorite teachers of the past century is Rabbi Dessler,
an Orthodox rabbi who taught in England after WWII. Rabbi
Dessler, in one of his lectures on the meaning of the holidays,
reminds us of the midrash (rabbinic teaching), which asks why
the Torah was given way out in the desert, on top of a lonely
mountaintop.

The midrash answers: because if Torah were given in any part of
the Land of Israel, the tribe whose territory it was would claim the
Torah belonged to them, and if it were given in any nation, that
nation would claim it as exclusive property. So it was given out in
the desert, which doesn’t belong to any family, clan, tribe, or
nation, and thus becomes the inheritance of anybody who will
learn it.

That’s the midrash, but R. Dessler takes it one step further: he
says (I’m paraphrasing here) that each of us, as an individual, in
order to study Torah and receive its wisdom, has to renounce
any sense of self-interest or desire to make the Torah benefit us
as “property.” We have to be wide open and free of personal
agendas- like the desert wilderness- so that we can hear the
Voice of the Divine speak through the words which our ancestors
have loved and revered for countless generations. We have to be
as expansive as we can be- and then Torah can enter into our
hearts and transform us in ways beyond our imagining.

Torah isn’t a book, in this sense; it’s a spiritual practice where
heart meets text in a communal search for meaning which
includes all previous generations, and which every Jew can
claim as an inheritance and birthright.

Hag Sameach,

rnjl

PS- if you want to study further, here are two great websites. The
first is a one-page summary of the history and themes of the
holiday; the second is a set of links to articles and explorations
which go into much greater depth, but which can be taken one at
a time.

http://www.kolel.org/pages/holidays/Shavuot_intro.html

http://www.myjewishlearning.com:80/holidays/Shavuot.htm

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Naso: Hairstyles and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

It’s summer in Swampscott, so we must be reading from the book of Bamidbar. In
English,the book of Bamidbar is called “Numbers,” because it begins with a census, and
that census continues in this week’s portion, where specific families of Levites are
given tasks pertaining to the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary.] Significant laws in Naso include confession and restitution after harming someone; the ritual of the suspected wife
[“Sotah”], and the laws of the Nazirite (a person who had taken a special vow). The portion concludes with along description of the identical gifts brought to the Mishkan by 12 leaders of the people,one for each tribe.

The laws of the Nazirite (cf. Numbers 6:1-21) are fascinating- this was an
institution of ancient Israel wherein a person would voluntarily vow, for a limited period, to refrain from cutting his hair, forswear drinking any kind of alcohol or fermented product, and stay away from any kind of corpse (and thus avoid this particular kind of ritual impurity for the duration of his vows.) Why these three things in particular are the subject of vows might be another discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the fact that the Nazirite chooses, for his own spiritual reasons, to enter into a temporary state of greater emphasis on the spiritual and less emphasis on the material.

Think about it: wine is the paradigm of pleasurable consumption; haircuts and
shaving are the basic activity of grooming and looking nice, and staying away from dead
bodies, for our Biblical ancestors, means that one could freely enter into the sacred areas,
which would be prevented by ritual impurity. Thus, a Nazirite chooses to enter into a
limited period wherein the focus is on spiritual things, instead of the bodily pleasures
and focus on external appearances that are so typical of daily life.

The Nazirite vows were not permanent; nobody is expected to be on an exalted
spiritual plane permanently. Still, wouldn’t it be great to take some time out of our busy
lives during which we focus less on trivialities like hairstyles and fashion
statements, in order to focus more on the really important things, like our relationship with God and community?

Eating and drinking is pleasurable, but what we’re eating matters a lot less
than our gratitude for the sustenance. Looking nice is fine, but one’s haircut is a lot
less important than one’s character and commitments. Pleasures of the body are good things in Jewish thought, as long as they don’t become distractions from our spiritual goals. The laws of the Nazirite remind us that we don’t have to be slaves to fashion, because we are servants of a higher purpose.

You can read the full text of Naso here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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Bamidbar: Counting on Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Greetings from (finally) sunny Swampscott!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah: Bamidbar (literally
“in the wilderness), but commonly called “Numbers” because it
opens up with a census of the Israelites, including the number of
men eligible to bear arms. Different families of the tribe of Levy
(set apart for religious service) were given duties to set up and
carry the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary) and its components.
Finally, all 12 tribes are arranged in a fixed order as the Israelites
travel and make camp along their journey.
Our teacher Rashi has a beautiful and profound commentary
explaining why God commanded Moshe to take a census of the
people:

“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When
they left Egypt, He counted them [cf. Exodus 12:37]; when [many]
fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to
know the number of the survivors [cf. Exodus 32:28]; when He
came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He
counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected,
and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.”

This commentary links several episodes earlier in the narrative
of the Torah: the Exodus, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the
building of the Mishkan- all times when Rashi says God counted
the people out of love and concern. (We might point out a tension
between God’s love and the strict punishment after the Golden
Calf, but let’s leave that for another time.) This image of God
“counting” the people evokes a parent accounting for her
children, or a teacher making sure every student is included in
the activities- it’s an image which is meant to teach a conception
of the Divine as pure, focused, very practical love.

Not only that- but compare the instances of “counting” which
Rashi brings. The Exodus was a moment of extraordinary
transformation of the people, but they also had to be led into it
with great effort. The building of the Golden Calf was a time
when the people’s fears, narrowness, and lack of vision brought
out their worst behavior, and caused great conflict within the
community- it was the low point of the Exodus process. God
“counted” the survivors of the conflict- I’d like to interpret this as
God taking account that even the worst sin of the people didn’t
cause what that which was good to be completely extinguished,
which is a great lesson in itself.

Conversely, the building of the Mishkan, when all the people
brought donations and precious things, was an example of great
communal generosity, spirituality, and covenantal commitment,
and this triumph brought God’s immanent Presence into the
center of the camp.

In all those instances- moments of great anxiety during change,
moments when the people were their worst, and moments when
they were at their best- Rashi says God counted them, took
notice of them, stayed in relationship with them, out of love. In
other words, a Divine love is constant through change, knows
that we are more than our stupidest behaviors, and affirms our
greatest triumphs as well as our worst lapses of judgement.

That’s a Divine love.

Human love is much less predictable!

Still, this image- of “counting” the people, keeping true to them,
being with people when they’re at their best and worst and
everything in between- is our challenge to strive for, if indeed we
strive to act out of the Divine spark within.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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