Archive for July, 2005

Parsha in Advance: Matot (for week of July 30th)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot

Wonders upon wonders, I’m beating my own deadlines!

Here, as promised, is more parsha commentary in advance of its proper week- you
save this email for the week of July 30th, when we read parshat Matot. Matot is
read with the next parsha, Ma’asei, but this year they are read separately.
Matot begins
with laws regarding the annulment of vows within a family, shifts to the story
of a war
against the Midianites, and ends with Moshe negotiating with the tribes of Gad
and Ruven
over their desire to settle east of the Jordan river.

The middle part of parshat Matot, Bamidbar/Numbers 31, tells us that God
Moshe to gather an army to wage a war of vengeance against the Midianites. The
spared no man and took the women captive; Moshe later reminds the officers that
it was
the women who tempted the Israelites to sin (cf. chapter 25), so many of the
women were
also killed, executed in captivity.

This is an unpleasant and difficult story. It’s very hard to reconcile this
narrative with the
Torah’s overarching ethic of compassion and justice, and in fact, I’m going to
suggest that
we not even try. Many commentators, from ancient days to more recent times, have
to soften the history of this war, by enumerating reasons why the Midianites
what they got, or perhaps by allegorizing the story so that it’s really not
about a military
campaign at all. Others suggest that such stories are merely reflective of the
Torah’s roots
in real history; thus placing narratives of brutal conflict in their own
historical context
helps us understand that we cannot apply contemporary sensibilities to a very

These are all valid approaches to dealing with this and other difficult pieces
of our
tradition, but I’d like to suggest another. Perhaps we should not soften,
contextualize, or
justify the hard texts, but confront them. Perhaps it’s part of our spiritual
work as a
people to look into even our most sacred stories and ask hard questions about
and justice. (Without, of course, prejudging the answers.)

Consider this from the perspective of personal spiritual growth, which
necessarily involves
introspection and a fearless moral inventory. Becoming a mature human being
recognizing those parts of ourselves which we’d prefer to hide away, including
aspects of the human psyche linked to anger, resentment, revenge, grudges,
habits, and harsh judgments. Spiritual growth means looking at things within
that we’d rather explain away or avoid altogether, yet a basic premise of
Judaism is that a
loving God has given us the capability to transcend our inner fault lines, if we
will only
seek truth and forgiveness and continue our work of “cheshbon ha-nefesh, or

I think what’s true for an individual is also true for our people: buried deep
within our
sacred texts and traditions are occasional remnants of things we’d rather not
look at,
things like violence, sexism, and xenophobia. We will grow as a people (and
particular communities) by confronting such texts honestly and fearlessly, and
that even the Torah itself, because it is grounded in human history, reflects
human flaws
and failings. The promise of Judaism is not human perfection- that’s impossible.
promise of Judaism is that our faults are not our destiny- if we will seek
without equivocation.

with blessings of peace,


PS- here’s a different link for reading the Torah portion in translation- click
the top
underlined link for the translation on one page, and the underlined links for
the seven
sections for Hebrew and English:

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Parsha In Advance: Pinchas

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

Today is a wondrous day!


Because I’m a week ahead in bringing you some Torah
commentary, that’s why. (Those who know me well know that I
recklessly laugh in the face of the strictest deadline.) Today
you’re getting next week’s Parsha study, and sometime next
week you’ll get two for the weeks ahead, while I’m travelling and
packing up.

With that, Pinchas! (The parsha read during the week of July 23.)
Pinchas is the name of a zealot who took the law in his own
hands and killed a couple whom he deemed to be defilers of
Israel’s morality- that happens at the end of parshat Balak. In
what seems to be a strange reward for an act of violence, at the
beginning of this week’s parsha God gives him a covenant of
peace and a share in the priesthood.

Then there is another census of the tribes, and a legal appeal of
sexist inheritance laws, brought by the five daughters of
Tzelophechad. (Say THAT ten times fast!) Moshe is told he will
die without entering the Land, and he authorizes Joshua to
succeed him. The portion ends with a review of the holidays and
their specific rituals in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary.)

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the parsha occurs when
Moshe is told by God to ascend the mountain to view the Land-
the very Land he will not enter. In the midrash (rabbinic
commentaries), Moshe protests greatly, but in the Torah text
itself, he merely asks that God appoint a worthy successor:

“Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying: ‘Let the Lord, the God of
spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will
go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them
out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will
not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers

Many commentaries have pointed out Moshe’s selfless
benevolence: even at this moment of crushing personal
vulnerability and disappointment, he thinks of the community and
their need to have a brave and inspirational leader. Notice, too,
that Moshe addresses God in a most unusual manner: he calls
God “Elohai Haruchot l’kol basar,” or “God of the spirits of all

Usually, Moshe is rather direct in his speech, both to God and
human beings, so it seems out of character to have him speak
in rhetorical flourishes. Our teacher Rashi brings a lovely
explanation from an earlier midrash, an explanation which
connects Moshe’s special way of addressing God to the content
of his prayer for a worthy successor:

Here’s Rashi’s question and answer:

“Why is this [God of the spirits of all flesh] said? [Moshe] said to
God, ‘Master of the universe, the character of each person is
revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader
who will tolerate each person according to his individual
character.’ ”

In this interpretation, “God of the spirit of all flesh” means that
God knows and appreciates the unique spirit of each individual,
and the leader of the people should do likewise.

That’s a beautiful prayer! Wouldn’t it be great if all of our
synagogues and schools and community programs were run by
people who had great love for the individuality of each person?
To put it another way, Rashi’s commentary contains a profound
truth: if we truly believe that each human being is in the Image of
God [to me, a metaphor for each life being part of the sacred
Unity of all life], then we must also believe that each person is
worthy of being known and respected as an individual, with their
own unique dignity and destiny.

I love Rashi’s teaching and all it implies, but maybe we can learn
a more basic lesson from the way Moshe called out to God.
Remember, by this point, Moshe has seen a lot of death and
sadness, from babies in Egypt to the wars and plagues along
the way, and even the deaths of his two siblings.

Now Moshe is being made unavoidably aware of his own
looming mortality, and he calls out to “God of the spirits of all
flesh.” In the awareness of death, Moshe calls out to God as the
animating principle of life itself. Precisely at the moment when
he is most aware of life’s fragility and preciousness, he names
God as the difference between life and death, being and

Perhaps Moshe is reassuring himself that the God of life will not
abandon him in death, or perhaps Moshe is thanking God for the
daily miracle of his human existence. In my own experience, just
at those times when I have been most aware of death, I have
also been most aware of the wondrousness of life. Life itself is
the ultimate miracle, and in reacting with awe and gratitude, we
recognize the sacred in all living things. Can any reaction other
than wonder and love be appropriate when contemplating “the
God of the spirits of all flesh?”

with wishes for a bountiful summer,


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Balak: The Tragedy of Partial Truth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

Shalom Friends, you may have noted a small change in the
email settings, above. Please delete
rabbineal@…” from your address book, and put in
the new email address above: “rabbineal@…“.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s study Torah.

This week’s portion, Balak, is almost entirely the narrative of
Balak, the king of the Moabites (roughly where central Jordan is
now), and his “hired gun” Bilaam, who is portrayed as a sorcerer
or pagan priest of some sort. Balak hears that the Israelites have
defeated the Amorites, and he’s alarmed. Our parsha begins:

” Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the
Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so
numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the
elders of Midian, `Now this horde will lick clean all that is about
us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 22:2-4)

So Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites, to even
the odds. Unfortunately for Balak, the Holy One doesn’t allow
Bilaam to curse the Israelites, and after a series of warnings and
misadventures, Bilaam eventually blesses the Israelites in their
camp below.

On the face of it, Balak’s “dread” of the Israelites headed toward
him on their sojourn through the wilderness is justified, for the
Israelites did, in fact, defeat the Amorites, just as they had
defeated the peoples of Bashan and Arad and various other
armies along their way. (Much of this happens in the previous
parsha, in Bamidbar chapter 21.)

On the other hand, what Balak “saw” was only part of the story;
what he didn’t know- or chose not to find out- was that the
Israelites had entreated the Amorites for peaceful passage
through their land. Just a few verses before Balak’s decision to
hire Bilaam, we read:

“And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites,

`Let us pass through your land: we will not turn into the fields, or
into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well, but
we will go along by the king’s highway, until we pass through
your borders.’

But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border;
instead, Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out
against Israel into the wilderness. He came to Jahaz, and fought
against Israel. ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 21:21-23)

What a tragedy! Israel wanted to pass through the land of the
Amorites without incident, and was forced into a battle they
(presumably) didn’t want. Then, knowing only the military history,
Balak decides that Israel is a hostile people and treats them as
a threat, not ever realizing that their intentions were peaceful and
that they just wanted to pass through Moab on their way to the
land of Israel.

Tragedy built upon tragedy, a needless conflict born of suspicion
and fear. How often are these events replayed among people
who see in others only a threat, and never learn about the better
intentions of those they attack? All too many times, we hear
things through the grapevine and assume the worst about
others, leading us to cynically regard the motivations of those we
may barely know. This tendency- to hear only the bad and make
assumptions based on partial knowledge- is one of the reasons
the ancient rabbis so strongly condemned “lashon hara,” or
gossip, which can corrode trust and community when half-truths
are treated as dire warnings.

What’s the alternative? In the words of one modern teacher of
human relations, “seek first to understand.” If, at times of
potential or actual conflict, we seek to understand the other
party’s motivations, their perspective, their passions and their
understanding of the truth, then perhaps we would fear less and
fight less. The ancient kings Sihon and Balak closed their
borders out of fear; we, instead, close our hearts, shutting out
the possibility of relationship and community.

True, some people do seek harm, and in one memorable
phrase, “there’s no mitzvah to be a sucker.” Still, all too often,
what we believe about others is only part of the story, and we end
up basing our actions on the wrong impressions. Seeking the
whole truth might show us new things about our loved ones,
friends, and neighbors, and bring peace to the world.

with blessings for a bountiful summer,


PS- as always, you can read the full text of the portion and
haftarah here:

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Chukat: Sing to the Well

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

Shalom Friends!

Our Torah portion this week is a busy one, but the overall theme
is Israel’s journey through the wilderness, with its triumphs and
Along the way, we get the law of the Red Heifer, which becomes
a purifying sacrifice; there are repeated stories about the need
for water in the desert; both Miriam and Aharon die and the
people mourn; there are plagues and battles; and Moshe
himself is told that he will die on the far side of the Jordan river
rather than go into the Promised land.

Much has been written about why Moshe wasn’t allowed to enter
the Land, but the key text is from Bamidbar/ Numbers chapter 20,
verses 7-13. After being told by God to take his staff (compare
with last week’s commentary) and speak to the rock to bring forth
water, Moshe strikes the rock, which is accounted as an act of
rebellion (or disobedience, or lack of faith, or <something> that
is not good) from God’s perspective.

However, today’s discussion will not be about the question of the
proportionality and fairness of Moshe’s punishment- for more on
that, find a link below.

Rather, I want to compare the text in chapter 20 to a passage
from the next chapter. The Israelites are traveling and camping
and shlepping through different places, and they still need water,
but things are a bit different this next time around. The people
end up by a well of water, of which the Torah says:

“. . . this is the well of which the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Gather the
people, and I will give them water.’ Then Israel sang this song:
‘Ascend, O well, sing to it! A well dug by princes, carved out by
captains, the nobles of the people, with their staffs. . . . . ` ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 21:16-18)

Notice the difference? In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock,
and water comes forth; in this one, the people sing, and the
leaders dig, and water rises up from below.

As we did last week, I’d like to look at these stories as
metaphors for emotional stages along a religious journey. The
people are in a long (40 years!) transition from from the
“narrowness” of Egypt, to the mature state of being self-directed,
autonomous citizens of a nation in its land. They’re journeying
from a place where they had no power to a place of moral and
communal responsibility for themselves; in this sense, arrival at
the Land signifies maturity and the blessing and burden of self-

So what’s with the constant complaining along the way?

Well, I think of it this way: when the people are complaining
about water, what’s really happening is that their fear is getting
focussed on something concrete, something palpable and
definable- after all, if God brought them along for 40 years it
wouldn’t take that much more faith to believe that God would
bring them the rest of the way into the land! However, we know
that fear isn’t rational; a deeper fear than thirst was fear of
abandonment, fear of mortality (remember, Miriam, a leader of
the people, had just died), fear of change, fear of the new and
unknown. These fears were projected onto an immediate need:
“we have no water!”

Now we can go back to our stories and see them in a different
light. In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock; it seems to work,
but it’s not a good thing, as God’s reaction makes clear. Even
though Moshe had just lost his sister, and can’t be entirely
expected to be in control of his emotions, the story teaches that
one can’t conquer fear by lashing out, nor can one adequately
address feelings of frustration with anger and harsh words.

This is where the second story comes in, because in this case,
in order to make the well rise up, the people sang. They sang-
that is, they brought forth within themselves an expression of
longing and celebration. This, in turn, brings forth from a deep
place the “water” that they need. In the story, the deep place is
the earth, but as a metaphor for the journey, I think the deep
place that they “dug into” was within themselves.

By singing- or praying, or meditating, or other means of turning
inward in order to discern a deeper truth- the people were able to
“dig with their staffs” and find what they needed to carry on, in a
peaceable and sustaining manner. This stands in contrast with
the earlier story, in which the place where Moshe struck the rock
is called “mei meribah,” the “waters of contention,” signifying that
the complaining and consequent anger hadn’t really resolved
anything, as, in fact, such displays rarely do.

In anxious times of transition, it’s easy to “strike the rock,” with
words if not always in actual deed, but singing is the better
response. Singing, in our story, means joining together in
emotional authenticity, expressing what is most real in the
context of a sacred community, in order to draw upon the
sustaining Presence that is always available to us, if we dig
deep enough to find it.

shabbat shalom,


To compare these two chapters in their entirety, you can find a
translation here:

For further discussion of Moshe’s punishment including different
views from the classic commentaries, go here:

Finally, for a reasonably good article on Conservative rabbis
reaching out to the gay and lesbian community, featuring quotes
from your humble list owner, click here:

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