Archive for August, 2005

Va’etchanan: Don’t Forget What You Already Are

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan


For the last time, it’s Torah from the North Shore. . . . . I hope my move will
not interrupt
our Torah learning schedule, because Sefer Devarim (Book of Deuteronomy) is
right along. In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, there is a continuation of
the review of
Israelite history since the Exodus, which, as Moshe reminds the people, should
remembered as a great and unprecedented miracle. Moshe predicts that in the
future, the
Israelites will turn away from God and Torah, but there will be an eventual
The Ten Commandments are recapitulated; parshat Va’etchanan also includes the
known as the Shma, as part of Moshe’s overarching plea for loyalty to the

This idea- that loyalty to the covenant needs consistent attention- runs through
as a recurring theme. On the one hand, it’s quite amazing to think that a people
who had
been liberated from slavery and brought (albeit by a circuitous route) to a Land
of Milk and
Honey would NOT be loyal to God and Torah- but on the other hand, the preceding
books of the Torah make it clear that rebellion, doubt, and conflict are
constant realities in
the Israelite community. Moshe pleads with the people to stay conscious of what
learned over the past 40 years:

” And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this
entire Torah,
which I set before you this day? But beware and watch yourself very well, lest
you forget
the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart . .
. (Devarim/
Deuteronomy 4:8-9)

Now, again, it’s an amazing idea: could the Israelites forget the Exodus and the
miracles of
the desert (“the things that your eyes saw”) and if not, would Torah really
depart from their
hearts? After all, sometimes I forget where I’ve parked my car at the mall, but
I rarely
forget major life-saving miracles that have changed me and my people forever!

My sense of the text is that we’re not talking about the kind of forgetting in
something leaves our memory for good. Rather, I think the text is suggesting
that the
people may remember the events of the Exodus and the experience of receiving
Torah at
Sinai, but may not truly integrate these principles into their consciousness,
into their
being. The challenge is not simply to remember, as such; the challenge is to
stay true to
our memories.

We all have peak moments of spiritual or emotional insight- Sinai moments, as it
were; not
having peak or wondrous experiences is not actually the problem that religion
comes to
solve. The problem is that the potential of these moments becomes lost when we
return to
daily life, with its stresses, temptations, and distractions. What a religious
discipline (such
as Shabbat, or daily prayer, or putting on tallit and tefillin, or regular Torah
study) can do
is call us back to those peak moments, those flashes of insight, those
experiences of utter
commitment to the depth of true living.

Think of our relationship with God like a relationship with a lover: there are
moments of extraordinary connection, and then there is cleaning up after dinner.
challenge, in a human relationship or our relationship with the Divine, is to
stay true to the
deepest connection, even in stressful or routine moments.

In fact, I think of Judaism as a grand attempt to stay true to our people’s
experience at
Sinai; every mitzvah, every line of text, every prayer, becomes a link back to
that moment
when the people Israel stood completely awestruck before God, and responded by
committing to the highest ideals of compassionate and spiritual living- i.e.,

Sinai is the template for my own “peak” (in both senses of the word) moments;
challenge of my life, as I understand it, is to constantly reorient myself
towards that higher
awareness. This is what it means that “these things” will not “depart from my
heart.” There
are many things I have to remember on any given day- and probably a few I’d like
forget- but the deeper remembering isn’t a matter of writing something down or
jotting a
note. The deeper remembering is integrating our experiences with our ideals, and
becoming the people we know we can be, if only we remember what we know.

Leave a Comment

Tisha B’Av and omitted link

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tisha B’Av

Shalom Friends, we interrupt the regular weekly parsha studies in order to
remind you that
the commemoration of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) begins this coming Saturday

Tisha B’Av is Judaism’s saddest holy day, a day in which tragedies of Jewish
history are
mourned and contemplated. More specifically, Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of
ancient Temple, a disaster which forever changed the course of Jewish history.
It’s hard for
us as contemporary Americans to appreciate how disconsolate our ancestors were
losing (in a bloody war of repression) the very seat and symbol of Jewish
sovereignty, and religion.

Imagine, as Americans, if the 9/11 attacks had taken down the White House,
Congress, the
World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, the Supreme Court,
and so on-
all the symbols of America which give us pride and confidence in our country.
Our rage
and sorrow would be unimaginable- and that’s what Tisha B’Av asks us to imagine.

Tisha B’Av is observed by fasting and other physical restrictions, not wearing
leather shoes
(seen as symbols of luxury and therefore inappropriate at a time of mourning),
sorrowful prayers in the synagogue, and reading the Book of Lamentations, which
tells the
history of the first expulsion from Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av, in some ways, is like
a mirror
image of Purim; instead of drinking and feasting, we fast; instead of reading a
scroll about
our great deliverance, we read a scroll telling of our exile; instead of
dressing up in funny
costumes, we take off our ordinary shoes and go “barefoot” like a refugee.

Both holidays bring us to profound truths: Purim asks us to celebrate life
despite its
occasional absurdity, and Tisha B’Av reminds us that our own suffering is
redeemed only if
we can turn its remembrance into compassion. So we fast, and sit on the floor,
and go
without our fancy shoes, and maybe, God willing, our hearts will open to those
who lament
not the past, but the present, and we will go forth and redeem the world, so
that future
generations have less to lament.

To learn more about Tisha B’Av, go here:

To read the text of this week’s Torah portion (a link I usually include in the
parsha email),
go here:

with blessings of peace,


Leave a Comment

Devarim: A “Great and Fearful” Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This is the penultimate occasion upon which I can write: greetings from sunny
Swampscott! Amidst the sea of cardboard boxes in my office and the unnatural
neatness which my real estate agent has imposed upon my townhouse, I find this week’s
parsha to be quite topical, since it’s all about moving and journeys. We’re beginning the
book of Devarim (literally, “words”), known in English as Deuteronomy (which means the
“second telling.”)

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, is Moshe’s valedictory review and
exhortation to his people; after 40 years in the wilderness, they will inherit the Land, but he will not. He urges them to be faithful to their Liberator, and in so doing recounts much of the history and many of the laws given since the Exodus. Moshe also recalls some of the
hardships of the journey- perhaps as a way of reminding the the people that they were not
abandoned in their most difficult hours. The journey from Egypt was not always fun, as
Moshe points out in Chapter 1, vs 19:

“And we journeyed from Horeb and went through all that great and fearful
desert, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorites, as the Lord, our God,
commanded us; and we came up to Kadesh barnea . . . .”

Horeb is another name for Sinai (well, it’s a little more complex than that, but
we’ll save the details for another time), so in this passage, Moshe reminds the people that
they came up from Sinai all the way to what we’d now call the Negev, south of the Dead
Sea. Moshe calls this route the “great and fearful desert,” a phrase which our teacher
Rashi elaborates with seeming hyperbole:

” `that great and fearful desert’. . . because in it were serpents as [thick
as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows.”

OK, so the desert wasn’t Club Med, but where there really snakes as big as
alligators and science-fiction sized scorpions? Maybe a better question is: did Rashi mean for us to take this comment literally, and if not, what do we learn from it?

Rashi is quite aware that human beings perceive reality through the lenses of
their subjective experience: in his comment on verse 27, referring to the Israelite’s
feeling ofbthat God had abandoned them, he points out that what we have in our own hearts, we project onto others. So maybe he’s not really asking us to believe in humongous
mutant scorpions, but rather, he may be alluding to the fear that the Israelites felt
as they left the known world of slavery for the unknown world of building a national home. In other words, the snakes were not really as big as beams, but the people’s anxiety and insecurity was such that ordinary irritants seemed like extraordinary dangers.

A journey means that change will happen; a spiritual journey means becoming
something one doesn’t know how to be yet. That’s scary, because we have to leave behind
our comfortable ways of being in the world and act in new and different ways, ways
that reveal our higher and better selves.

That’s the metaphor of the wilderness- not the old place, and not the new place,
but the place in-between, where security is behind us and transformation ahead, and lots
of transitions in the middle. So the challenge of spiritual growth is: don’t let
the perceived challenges hold you back, don’t let fear become the lens through which you see the world, don’t let the snakes seem as big as beams nor the scorpions seem as big as bows- and you, too, can reach the Land of Promise, the place of blessing and covenant.

Leave a Comment

Massei: Refuge from Revenge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Massei

Greetings from not-too-scalding Swampscott; it seems that I had
the good fortune to miss the worst of the heat wave on the East
Coast. I’m back on the North Shore for a few more weeks, during
which it’s my privilege to provide some Torah for midsummer

The portion Massei is the final parsha of the book of Bamidbar/
Numbers; it is usually read with the preceding portion, but not
this year. It begins with a long list of all the places the Israelites
camped during their 40 year journey, and then describes the
borders of the Land of Israel, which the Israelites will soon
inhabit. The Israelites must designate “cities of refuge” for those
who cause accidental death, and the parsha concludes with a
revisiting of inheritance laws.

In chapter 35, there is an extensive explanation of the “cities of
refuge”, which begins:

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel
and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of
Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be
cities of refuge for you, and a person who unintentionally killed
shall flee there.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 35:9-11)

The rest of the chapter describes the precise conditions under
which someone might end up in one of the cities of refuge, but
the basic idea is that if somebody killed a person by accident
(what we call manslaughter), they should be allowed to live in a
safe city, and may not be sought out for revenge by the victim’s
family. On the other hand, it was also forbidden to allow a real
murderer to escape; the Torah prescribes capital punishment for
premeditated murder, though the later rabbinic tradition strongly
circumscribed the conditions under which it could be enacted.

The ethical ideal of the cities of refuge is as relevant today as it
was in Biblical times: punishment must be proportional, and any
judgment requires careful discrimination between differing sets
of circumstances. Intentions matter; human beings make
mistakes, and the one who makes a tragic error is not to be held
liable in the same way as one who harms out of hate or evil.

Yet this idea- that we must carefully consider a person’s
intentions and all the mitigating circumstances when judging an
action- is not just a judicial principle; it is essential to spiritual
growth. Think for a minute about the situation that the Torah
proposes: someone is accidentally killed, and the responsibility
of the community is to protect the killer from those who would
quite naturally seek revenge or blood-redemption. Passions
must be cooled with reflection and thoughtful investigation.

In other words, precisely at a moment of tremendous stress for
the entire community, when emotions are running high and the
temptation is great to take action against the one who caused
harm- that is when the Torah tells us to slow down, think clearly,
investigate the circumstances, step back from the brink, and not
allow tragedy to be compounded.

Friends, what is true for the accidental killer is even more true for
those people we interact with every day: they deserve not to be
the victims of harsh judgments and hasty reactions when
emotions are running high. People hurt each other; they make
mistakes; they act carelessly; they cause pain and distress- but
they are usually not seeking to intentionally harm (and if they are,
it’s often because of their own pain and struggle).

The Torah asks us to step back from the ordinary emotions of
hurt and revenge and seek clarity about what is fair and right;
sometimes the path towards right relationship must be cleared
by taking time to just think things out. Blood for blood (or insult
for insult, or sarcasm for sarcasm, or emotional manipulation for
emotional manipulation) may be the way of strictest justice, but it
is not the way of God, Who demands that we rise above our
quickest and basest instincts.

This is not to say that actions don’t have consequences; after all,
the accidental killer was still sent away from his home town to
the City of Refuge, where he might have to spend many years.
Yet the Torah’s greater principle is clear: rather than give in to
destructive impulses for revenge and retribution, we must see
the humanity even in those who cause harm- a category which
includes all of us at one time or another. Humans are terribly
imperfect, but we may love each other nonetheless.

shabbat shalom,


You may read the full text and find additional commentaries on
Massei here:

Leave a Comment