Archive for September, 2005

Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashanah: What if Today Was “This Day?”

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim and Rosh Hashana

Shabbat and holiday greetings to all!

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is read in close proximity to Rosh
Hashanah, and is often combined with the next parsha, Vayelech. Nitzavim means “standing,” or “stationed,” and so the portion opens with Moshe collecting the people all together, so that they may hear his pleas for faithfulness and unity. Nitzavim- like Rosh Hashanah- is all about our
choices: blessing or curse, life or death, embracing our spiritual potential or
giving in to our lesser desires.

The central image of Nitzavim is Moshe standing before the assembled people, urging them to be loyal to God and one another. In fact, the first few verses lay out an inclusive vision of Jewish community:

“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your
tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God . . . . . . . ” (Deuteronomy/ Devarim 29:9 -11)

A straightforward interpretation is this: unless the Jewish community is truly inclusive, across lines of gender, age, status, and class, (and sexual orientation, I would add) we are not truly “entering into the covenant.”

That’s always a relevant lesson!

Our teacher Rashi quotes a powerful midrash (creative interpretation) which reframes the image of the collected people from another perspective:


“[The verse says, “this day,” which] teaches us that on the day of his death,
Moshe assembled Israel in the presence of the Holy Blessed One, to bring them into the covenant.”

It’s a startling image: on the day of his death, Moshe was spending his last
hours bringing the people together and sharing his spiritual vision with them. What’s so powerful about this midrash is how it connects with the themes of Rosh Hashanah coming up next week: the themes of mortality, meaning, and ultimate values.

The liturgy on Rosh Hashanah urges us to consider life’s fragility; this
midrash, read the week before, asks us to consider just what we would do if it were truly “this day,” the day of our passing. Would any of us spend our final hours bringing people together in unity and peace as Moshe is imagined to do? Would we want to share our deepest
commitments, to God and humanity, with our family and community? Would we impart our vision of the good life with our loved ones? Would we, like Moshe, not waste a moment on bitterness, but instead give our last energies over in the service of our highest ideals?

Each of us who enter a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has the opportunity to think deeply about how we spend our days; the example of Moshe, from our parsha, can inspire us to greater urgency in the task of authentic, covenantal living. None of us know which day is “this day;” perhaps Judaism’s genius is to ask us to consider that each day may
be our last, and is thus worthy of living to the greatest extent of our intentionality.

With warmest wishes for a sweet and healthy New Year,


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Ki Tavo: The Blessing is in the Fixing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Shalom on a sunny September day!

We’re approaching the Days of Awe, and not coincidentally, the readings towards
the end
of the book of Devarim/ Deuteronomy urge the Israelites towards reflection and
recommitment. In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moshe tells the people that they
must, in
the future, express their thanks to God for bringing them into the land and
teaches them
rituals and a liturgy for doing so.

Building a nation in its Land also requires a social welfare system, and so
special tithes are
set aside for the poor and for the Levites, the Temple assistants, who have no
land of their
own. The latter part of the parsha is called the “tochecha,” or “rebuke,” in
which blessings
are described for those loyal to Torah and great and terrible curses are
promised for those
who defy moral and religious law. Moshe is about to die, so he wants the people
to carry
on the work of Torah after his death- the blessings and curses are a way of
reminding the
nation of what’s at stake.

One of the most famous verses of blessing, often written upon synagogue gates
doors, is from chapter 28:

“Blessed will you be when you come, and blessed will you be when you depart.”
Deuteronomy 28:6)

In context, it is part of the overall “package” of blessings promised to the
nation if they are
loyal and good; blessing will follow us wherever we go, from “from A to Z”, as
it were. So
far, so good. However, our teacher Rashi, basing himself on an earlier
offers an understanding of “when you come and when you depart” which is much
personal and urgent:

Rashi’s comment on this verse:

“For your departure from the world will be without sin, like your arrival into
the world.”

Rashi takes a blessing for the nation and “individualizes” it, but in doing so,
makes two
profound theological statements. First: notice the contrast with the idea of
“original sin.” I
think a normative Jewish view holds that people are not born good nor bad, but
have the
capacity for better or worse (sometimes much worse, even evil) choices.
Sometimes, of
course, that capacity is diminished by trauma, affliction, mental illness, or
other mitigating
factors, but in general, we’re not “sinners,” we’re “choosers.”

This is a crucial point to understand in advance of the Days of Awe. The liturgy
on Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur urges us to account for our deeds- and of course, there
be no “accountability” (in both senses of the term) if we were not free to
choose and thus
responsible for our moral behavior.

Secondly, notice Rashi’s presumption that we can, in fact, exit this world as
free of sin as
when we were born. We are not doomed to carry our mistakes as a terrible burden,
can, in fact, repair our relationships and restore the equilibrium of our souls.
Again, this is
a crucial point for the upcoming season: t’shuvah, or “repentance,” is about our
ability to
fix things, not about feeling shamed and guilty.

We can “exit” this world in blessing if we continually examine our deeds and
repair that in
our lives which is not worthy of our status as Children of the Living God. We do
this by
humbling ourselves, apologizing sincerely to those we have wronged, and seeking
understand and change those patterns of behavior which lead us astray in our
with others.

That’s a basic task of this holy season; it’s not complicated, but it’s not
easy, either. The
promise is this: by doing our t’shuvah, our repair work, we can escape the curse
of guilt
and achieve the blessing of renewed relationship, with ourselves and with

PS- As usual, you can find the text of the parsha and additional commentaries

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Ki Tetze: Lost Cell Phones, Restored Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Shalom on this sodden September day!

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tezte, contains lots of different kinds of laws:
property laws,
laws of warfare and captivity, laws pertaining to the treatment of animals,
family laws and
employment regulations.

This week we’ll forego our friend Rashi’s commentary and begin with a true story
from the
recent adventures of your humble commentator. About a month ago, I left my cell
in a park in Marblehead, and within hours of discovering the loss, and driving
back to the
park to confirm it, I had already canceled service to the lost cell phone and
bought a new

Lo and behold, two days later I get a call from a Marblehead police officer, who
had my cell
phone at his house and invited me to come get it. His son had taken a group of
day camp
kids to the same park the day I was there, and one of the campers found the
phone and
gave it to his counselor, who then gave it to his father. I was astonished, and
when I
arrived at his house, I ask how he found me.

Well, it wasn’t simple, but it was a wonderful, practical example of laws from
this week’s
parsha. The police officer and his son opened up the phone book stored in the
phone and
just started calling the numbers, asking if anybody recognized the phone number
appeared on their “Caller ID.” After a few phone calls, they reached my uncle’s
sister Florence, in Los Angeles (!), who only knows one person on the North
Shore (me.)

This surprises me even more: they were willing to do all that to return the
phone? The
answer is touching and profound: the police officer admitted that he wanted to
show his
son that one must exert oneself to be a responsible neighbor, rather than taking
the easy
way out, even if it’s tempting to keep the new phone in your hands.

Nice story- it’ll make a great sermon someday- but what does all this have to do
Devarim/ Deuteronomy?

At the beginning of Chapter 22, we find the laws of lost objects:

“You shall not see your kinsman’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them.
[Rather,] you
shall return them to your kinsman. But if your kinsman is not near you, or if
you do not
know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until
your kinsman
seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his
donkey, and so
shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your
which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. ” (22:1-3)

Well, the Torah mentions donkeys, and not cell phones, but you get the idea. The
codify these laws even further, saying that one has a halachic (Jewish legal)
obligation to
seek the owner of lost objects which bear any sort of identifying marker, and
keep them
until the owner has had a reasonable chance to make a claim.

The key concept in the rabbinic treatment of the laws of lost objects is
“ye’ush,” or
“despair.” If I drop a dollar coin in the street, I assume it’s gone for good,
because it could
be anybody’s, but if I drop a purple polka-dotted scarf, I will not as quickly
“despair” of
finding it, because it’s a unique and special object which I can ask about. The
finder has to
give the owner time before claiming the object, and must assume that the owner
has not
“despaired” of finding it, if he or she indeed has some chance of getting it

Now you understand the story of my cell phone- I had already decided, within
hours, that I
would not get the phone back, so I replaced it. But the police officer went to
great trouble,
using the unique information stored in the phone, to try to return it to me- he
following Jewish law better than I was! I was cynical: I assumed that anybody
finding a cell
phone would make long-distance calls and keep the phone, so I wanted to limit
damages and charges. The police officer was not cynical: he wanted to be a good
neighbor, and at that moment, I didn’t really believe my neighbors would do such
a thing.

The cynicism about human nature which caused me to rush out and buy a new phone
is a
deeper problem of the human spirit than a lost object, and that’s why the Torah
that the finder has an obligation to the unlucky neighbor who lost something. A
community where people take advantage of another’s misfortune is a community
soon unravels. Conversely, a community where people feel their neighbor’s
“despair” is a
community that can thrive with the spirit of trust and interdependence.

If I feel my neighbor won’t look out for me, I probably won’t look out for him
either, and
compassion is lost to the world. If, instead, we seek to fulfills the Torah’s
ideal of making
each other whole, in property and in spirit, then what’s really returned is not
only the lost
object, but hope itself: hope in the goodness of humankind, hope in the
possibility of true

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find the text of this week’s Torah portion and haftarah
and various
commentaries here:

PPS: Two interesting articles on the laws of lost objects can be found here:

under the heading “Property Law.”

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Shoftim: Roads Teaching Mercy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Shalom from the muggy `burbs of Boston!

Our nation is currently engaged in debate about who was responsible for what in
the wake
of the recent hurricane. Fittingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim,
is also
concerned with issues of justice, authority, civil society, and the
responsibility of
community leaders. Judges must be impartial, society must entrust its leaders
with the
difficult task of interpreting the law and deciding cases, and even the king is
not above the
law of the land.

In Chapter 20, we learn that warfare is to be conducted according to rules of
fairness and
moral seriousness- for example, fruit trees are not to be destroyed during the
siege of a
city, since they will provide food long after the war is over. “Cities of
refuge” are to be
established for those who commit accidental manslaughter, and local authorities
repent publicly if there are unsolved acts of violence near their boundaries.

We discussed the “cities of refuge” a few weeks ago,* but it’s a concept worth
revisiting in
both this time of introspection on the Jewish calendar and the current news from
the Gulf
Coast. The basic idea is that someone who commits accidental manslaughter must
given refuge in special marked cities, where he or she will be safe from the
avenger” of the victim’s family. The cities of refuge first appeared in the book
Bamidbar/ Numbers, but this week’s recapitulation adds a few new details:

“. . . you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land,
which the Lord,
your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the road for yourself and divide
into three
parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an
and it will be for every killer to flee there. . . . ” (Devarim/ Deuteronomy

Our teacher Rashi explains that the details of “preparing the road” and dividing
the land
into three parts are to make it easier to find and flee to the nearest “city of
Preparing the road meant putting up road signs at intersections, pointing the
way to the
nearest city of refuge, and the land was to be divided equally so that the the
cities were
equidistant from each other. There should not be a greater distance from one
part of the
country to the nearest sanctuary than from another part of the country- that
wouldn’t be
fair to the accidental killer who happened to be in a remote village.

What I find so moving about Rashi’s explanation is the idea that we know in
advance that
people will make terrible mistakes, and we nevertheless treat these people with
and dignity in their seeking of sanctuary from the angry mob. The very idea of
the city of
refuge is to have society embrace an ideal of justice, which requires renouncing
and a commitment to careful distinctions of judgement. It is not justice to
treat murder
and manslaughter equally; therefore, the accidental killer is accorded the right
to safety,
which would be compromised if it were confusing or difficult to find the city of

To put it another way, signs at every intersection pointing the way to the “city
of refuge”
mean that every time one walked along the road there would be a reminder of the
ideals of fairness and renunciation of revenge. These values would be literally
built into the
walls of the community, through the placement of the cities equal distances from
other. Society would be founded – in the most literal sense- upon principles of
justice, and
the roads would teach concepts of mercy, which would then surely transform
throughout the wider community.

Roads teaching mercy? Cities built with justice in mind?

This is the Torah’s challenge: nothing less than the fundemental orientation of
individual hearts and communal structures towards fairness and mercy, with
sanctuary and
understanding (which does not mean total lack of consequences) for those who
fall short. Human imperfection does not overcome the possibility of human
dignity; this is
the deepest value of the city of refuge.


* This message will probably make more sense when compared with my earlier
of the cities of refuge:

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah and haftarah and various commentaries here:

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Re’eh: Hard Hearts and Tight Fists

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

Greetings from Newton Centre, your new center of internet Torah study!

Our hearts go out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, so although there are
subjects in this week’s parsha, including blessings, curses, tithes, dietary
laws, prophecy,
and the holy days, it seems appropriate to focus on laws of giving to those in
need. In that
spirit, at the end of this email you’ll find some links to Jewish agencies
collecting money
for the relief effort.

On to the topic at hand: in Deuteronomy 15, we read a warning not to hold back
someone is in need:

“If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of
cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden
your heart, and
you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open
your hand
to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.

Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, `The seventh
year, the
year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and
not give
him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you.
You shall surely
give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because
of this
thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your
endeavors. ”

(Devarim/ Deuteronomy 15:7-10)

This text is not all that difficult to understand: it is a call to compassion
when we find
fellow citizens in need. The Torah understands that it is hard to part with a
hard earned
shekel, and uses evocative language (do not “harden your heart” – like Pharaoh?)
to stress
its ideal of generosity and loving-kindness in action. So far, so good.

Notice, in the second paragraph quoted above, the reference to the “seventh
year.” This is
the shmittah or “sabbatical” year, the seventh year when the land lies fallow
and debts are
forgiven (cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus chapter 25). This explains the Torah’s
particular warning
about holding back in the later years of the cycle: a needy person might need a
loan in the
fifth or sixth year, but the lender would be reluctant to make a loan which
would get
canceled shortly thereafter in the seventh year.

Such reluctance would be perfectly understandable, but the Torah’s ideal is to
give (or
loan) freely- and that’s not just good for the recipient. The verses I’ve quoted
repeatedly link our emotions to our material goods- you shall not “harden your
heart” and
not give, and you shall not think an “unfaithful” thought, and you shall not
“begrudge” a
person in need. In other words, the Torah knows that our possessions often
affect our
emotions- we become protective of our goods, letting sums and quantities and
goods rule our hearts. To put it another way: if our possessions are directing
emotions, then sacred principles aren’t.

That’s why we have so many commandments to give- not only because people are in
but because without the commandment, we might hold on tightly, letting our fear
insufficiency overcome our compassion and generosity. We give not only to help
but to help free ourselves from being overly attached to material things. We
give so that
we can come to understand that that lovingkindness – hesed- is the truest
treasure. When
we give freely, with no hardness of heart, we remove the barriers of fear which
block our
love for others. That’s why this passage about giving concludes “for because of
this thing
the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors. ”

Is there a greater blessing than exerting ourselves in the practice of loving
others? This is
what giving is: a blessing for the one in need, a blessing for the one who
gives, and a
blessing from God enacted through human hands.

Shabbat Shalom,


Tzedakah links:

To give to the hurricane relief efforts, you can donate to United Jewish
Communities, which
will distribute money to local agencies:

The Conservative Movement has also set up a relief fund:

PS- as usual, you can read the entire weekly parsha and special haftarah: here:

PPS- The idea for this week’s study comes from something I read in a Torah
which I have now forgotten- but I think it was Yehuda Nachshoni’s “Studies in
the Weekly

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