Archive for October, 2005

Bereshit: The Beginning of Transcending Ourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

The leaves are turning from green to gold to brown, and the Torah
scroll is turning back from Moshe on the mountaintop across the
Jordan Valley, all the way back to The Beginning. We start our
learning anew this week, and I’m delighted that you’re joining me!
It’s been a privilege and an honor to write these weekly
commentaries, and I thank you sincerely for the questions, insights
and feedback you’ve shared. If you’ll keep reading them, I’ll keep
writing them!

Now, onto the first parsha, Bereshit. Many of you know the famous
parts of this parsha: the seven days of Creation ; Adam and Even in
the Garden; the Expulsion; Cain and Abel. What you probably didn’t
notice amidst all the dramatic stories was the little narrative that
comes just after Cain kills Abel. I’m going to quote it in full,
between the dotted lines:

———————————————————————
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then
founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. To Enoch was
born Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methusael, and
Methusael begot Lamech. Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of
the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore
Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst
herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor
of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-
cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of
Tubal-cain was Naamah.

And Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a lad for bruising me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth,
meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of
Abel,” for Cain had killed him. And to Seth, in turn, a son was
born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that people began to invoke
the Lord by name. (Bereshit/ Genesis 4:17-25, modified JPS
translation)
———————————————————————-

That last verse is what I find so interesting about this story; it
turns out Bereshit is not just the story of the beginnings of the
world and its inhabitants, but also of religion and spirituality: “it
was then that people began to invoke the Lord (YHWH) by name.”

So the next question is: why then? Why didn’t people call out to God
earlier, perhaps even in the Garden of Eden, when things were going
great? The little story before this verse is complicated, and there
is no standard interpretation among classic or modern Bible
commentators, but notice that it’s about Lamech, a descendent of
Cain’s, who himself seems to be caught up in a cycle of violence. He
pleads – or, perhaps, boasts- to his wives that he, too, has done
harm, or is capable of it. Some commentators see his poem as an
anguished cry of guilt and shame; others see it as a victory song, or
perhaps a lament over some tragedy or accident.

The origins of Lamech’s poem are obscure, but it clearly involves
violence, death, and vengeance. The next verse takes us back to Adam
(yes, THAT Adam, since in Genesis, the early characters are portrayed
as living impossibly long lives), who has another son, Seth, as a
consolation after the murder of Abel. Seth then has a son, named
Enosh, a word related to the word for “human,” or “people.” This is a
key point: the name Enosh is a different word for “human being” than
the generic “Adam,” which is related to “adamah,” or “Earth.”

The first human- Adam- was a creature from the Earth, a physical
being. Now humanity, marked by the change of name, Enosh- is
beginning in earnest: with family pattern of good and evil, loss and
love, death and rebirth, grief and consolation. So maybe what
Bereshit is telling us is this: what it means to be human is to try
to exceed our physical existence and touch that which is
transcendent, especially at times when the cycle of life can be made
into a sacred occasion.

Lamech is caught up in something he cannot transcend on his own, and
Adam turns again to the power of life to renew itself. Both are
examples of humankind’s innate desire to be more than a physical
being- in either case, we reach beyond ourselves, we call out to God,
to experience fully the sacred dimension of earthly existence. To
invoke God is to be fully human, for in transcending ourselves, we
become what we were created to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: If you know any Jewish singles in their
20’s-40’s, please tell them about a great weekend retreat, the
Basherte Workshop, (with yours truly as part of the staff team)
coming up this Veteran’s Day weekend in the Berkshires. Details at:
<http://www.basherte.org>.

PPS- The text and additional commentaries for this week’s parsha can
be found here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/bereshit.html

Leave a Comment

V’Zot HaBracha: Moshe’s Tears, Moshe’s Legacy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’Zot HaBracha

Moadim l’simcha [joyous holidays] ! As the wind blows and the rain falls, the
final days of
our holiday season are fast approaching. Shemini Atzeret, the “Eighth Day of
Assembly,” is
a holy day unto itself; we recite both Hallel and Yizkor, the prayers of praise
and
remembrance, but unique among Jewish holidays it has no special ritual nor
symbolism.
The second day of of Shemini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah- the “Joy of our
Torah,”
when we conclude the yearly cycle of readings and begin again in Bereshit/
Genesis.

The final parsha of the Torah is called V’Zot Habracha; it contains Moshe’s
final blessings
to each tribe, and the story of his death. Moshe is allowed to see the Promised
Land from
across the valley, but not allowed to enter. He dies, is buried, and the people
mourn and
cry before continuing their journey under the leadership of Joshua (the story of
which is in
the book of the same name.)

The story of the death of Moshe raises an interesting theological problem for
the ancient
rabbis: since they believed that the Torah was given whole on Mt. Sinai, how
could the
Torah contain words not written by Moshe, describing his absence? For modern
university
scholars, this is no problem, because the Torah is seen as a text which evolved
over time,
far after the events it purports to describe.

Our teacher Rashi clearly sees a tension here, and offers two possibilities: one
easy, and
one not so easy. The easy answer is that the final few verses of the Torah were
written by
Joshua. Since he was Moshe’s appointed successor, and the Divine Spirit was upon
him, it
really doesn’t present a huge theological problem for Joshua to have a hand in
the
transmission of the Torah.

The other possibility that Rashi mentions is more difficult: in this view, the
Torah was, in
fact, given whole (every word!) at Mt. Sinai, before the Israelites ever left
the mountain
towards the Land. With this presupposition, Rashi posits that when Moshe got to
the final
few verses, describing how he died and was buried without seeing the Land, Moshe
had to
write it with tears in his eyes.

That’s a tragic and dramatic image, especially when one considers the
implications for our
understanding of the Torah narrative from Sinai up till this point. In Rashi’s
second view,
Moshe knew- in advance- that he wasn’t going to see the Land, but he led the
Israelites
anyway!

For today, let’s leave aside the obvious questions about moral accountability in
a world of
predestined action- that’s a debate for another day. Rather, let’s imagine what
it must
have felt like for Moshe to know that the Israelites would turn from God, again
and again;
reject his leadership, again and again; make him angry, again and again, and
that for all
his efforts with this “stiff-necked” people, he wouldn’t even get to enter the
Land of Israel.
Not only that- remember the putative reason that Moshe could not enter the Land,
which
was his lashing out and striking the rock (instead of speaking to it), way back
in Numbers
20. Thus, in Rashi’s midrash, Moshe knows that someday he’ll get so angry that
God will
keep him from entering the Land of Promise, and yet he chooses his path of
servant
leadership regardless of the reward.

This is an astounding thing for Rashi to propose, and yet I think these images
sum up the
most basic teachings of the Torah itself. Moshe struck the rock- knowing that it
would
cost him the reward of the Land- but was so emotionally involved in the life of
the people
that he could not help but be vulnerable (and thus angry) when they disappointed
him.

Moshe never gave up on the people, never stopped caring, never stopped teaching,
never
stopped allowing himself to feel emotionally and spiritually connected to
others- and it is
precisely this emotional tie to the welfare of others which is the entire
orientation of Torah
and Judaism.

Moshe- our first rabbi, our greatest leader- didn’t just write the Torah; he
embodied the
Torah’s ideal of passionate involvement in the bettering of the world. He gave
up the Land
because he could not hold himself aloof. This is a deep truth: caring about
others
inevitably leads to disappointments, tears, pain, and grief, and yet is the very
definition of
our humanity. Moshe’s tears were his greatest legacy: in his tears was the pain
of making
the choice to stay involved, to pay the price of grieving for the privilege of
serving. To me,
making that choice is the essence of Torah.

hag sameach,

RNJL

PS: As usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

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

And if you want to look up the story of Moshe striking the rock, you can do so
here:

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

PPS: Several years ago, I explored these same images in a different way; you can
find that
here:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/5760/vzot_habracha.html

Leave a Comment

Sukkot: A Presence Passing By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach/ A Happy Holiday!

We’re in the middle of Sukkot, the “Season of our Rejoicing,” and so
the regular Torah reading cycle is set aside for a special Torah
reading appropriate for the holiday. In fact, the Torah is read every
day of the festival, but on the Shabbat of Sukkot, the reading is
Exodus 33:12 – 34:26, which takes place just after the story of the
Golden Calf. There’s a special maftir (concluding reading) and
haftarah as well.

What’s interesting about the reading for the Shabbat of Sukkot is how
the ancient rabbis framed those few verses which actually speak of
the holiday itself. The reading starts in Shemot/ Exodus 33, but it’s
not till chapter 34 that the “Feast of the Ingathering” is mentioned.
The first part of the reading is the story of Moshe returning to God
after the idolatry and violence associated with the Golden Calf:
Moshe goes back to the mountain and admits that he, too, wants to
experience God’s Presence more directly, and begs for a spiritual
vision.

God grants Moshe’s request, and in the famous image, puts him into
the cleft of a rock while the Divine Presence passes by. Moshe
doesn’t “see” anything, but hears (experiences?) the Divine
Attributes of forgiveness and mercy. (Cf. 34:6-8, which we sing on
the Days of Awe and other festivals.) The experience seems to last
only a moment, but I cannot doubt that it changed Moshe forever.

So what does all this have to do with Sukkot? One theme that emerges
from both the holiday and the Torah reading is that of temporality.
Things only last a moment; they pass by quickly, and you can miss the
experience entirely if you’re not paying attention.

Notice, for example, how many times the word “pass” (in various forms
of the Hebrew word l’avor) occurs in this narrative:

Verse 33:19: And God answered answered, “I will make all My goodness
pass before you . . . .

Verse 33:22: And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft
of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed
by. . . . . .

Verse 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “Adonai!
Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness and faithfulness. . . . .

You get the idea by now: Moshe’s experience of God’s Presence was a
fleeting moment that quickly “passed by,” leaving behind the
challenge to assimilate what happened and gain its insights. Sukkot,
too, is about recognizing what is both precious and perishable: a
Sukkah is a frail structure, which can be blown apart by the wind and
lasts only a week. We build it, decorate it, rejoice in it- and it’s
gone till next year.

We can despair because beautiful things last only a short time, or we
can strive to be fully aware of the blessing that is available right
now, in the present moment. We can feel God in our lives, but have to
recognize that this feeling (like most other feelings) ebbs and
flows, grows larger and recedes. As I’ve pointed out before- the
challenge is not to have a peak, mountain-top spiritual experience
every day, but to open our hearts to the possibility that God might
be revealed to us at any moment, and then to stay true to that moment
after it passes.

Our Sukkah is fragile and temporary, but its lessons are enduring.
Our sense of the Divine may be fleeting and swift- after all, even
Moshe had to come down from the mountain at some point- but like a
Sukkah, it can focus our attentions on the most real things, which
would go unseen and unfelt if we let them pass by.

with warmest wishes for a joyous holiday,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah reading in translation here:

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

PPS: For more about Sukkot in general, you can’t go wrong with
myjewishlearning.com:

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

PPPS: If you didn’t see it before, do check out the laws of Sukkot-
Dr. Seuss style:

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=content&cid=4685

Leave a Comment

Ha’azinu: Turning Towards Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

Whew!

The Days of Awe are hopefully not “behind us,” but now part of us, and it’s time
to look
forward to concluding our yearly cycle of Torah readings and beginning again in
a few
weeks with Bereshit/ Genesis. This week’s parsha, Ha’azinu, continues the theme
of Moshe
offering his final words to the Israelites; the parsha is basically a poem
recounting the
history of the Exodus and extending into the future. The parsha ends with Moshe
being
told that he can see the Land, but not enter it- Joshua will succeed him as
leader of the
people in the next stage of national history.

I was thinking about this week’s parsha during the afternoon service of Yom
Kippur, just a
few hours ago. Probably because I was hungry and cranky from fasting, these
lines
(describing God’s rescue and blessing of the Israelites) stood out to me:

He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,

Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat —
And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

So Yeshurun [= Israel ] grew fat and kicked —
You grew fat and gross and coarse —
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 32:13-15)

The first “he” in these verses is God, and the second “him” is a poetic
personification of the
people Israel. (Yeshurun is another name for Israel.) These verses come in the
context of
the Exodus narrative, retold as a poetry: the people Israel were rescued and set
in a
wonderful Land, which gave them all the best things to eat and drink, but then
they forgot
God, the One who blessed them. (I’m reading these verses like Rashi does, just
for the
record.)

OK, so far, so good- Moshe is not only retelling history, but also making a
prophecy that
the blessings of the Land will be so wonderful that it will actually be a
spiritual problem,
inasmuch as they people will be so prosperous that they’ll forget to be grateful
to God.

I think, after Yom Kippur, that I take a slightly different message from these
words. First,
however, let me tell you a story from my hospital chaplaincy: I went to visit a
man who was
recovering from surgery, and as part of his recovery he had been unable to eat
or drink
anything by mouth for several days, maybe a week.

On the morning of the day that I saw him, he was finally allowed to have some
juice – and
as you can imagine, that little glass of apple juice was almost a miracle for
him. He was a
deeply religious man, and he told me of thanking God for the simplest things-
like some
apple juice, something the rest of us probably take for granted. It wasn’t just
the juice
itself, of course- finally being allowed to drink something also meant he was
recovering
from his surgery, and regaining his health. In the moment, however, that apple
juice
tasted like manna from heaven!

I’m telling you this story because many of us had a comparable moment a few
hours ago
at our break-fasts after Yom Kippur. The bagel or kugel that first hit our
mouths after 25
hours of standing and sitting and reading was probably the best food you ever
tasted! It’s
a wonderful thing to be grateful for the small pleasures, but as my stomach
growled and
my blood sugar hit the floor this afternoon, I also thought of the patient in
the hospital,
who had to abstain not out of religious privilege but out of medical necessity.

With that thought, my pride at fasting and a modest amount of self-denial felt a
little
foolish. I thought of how thirsty I was, and how much I wanted some juice, and
then I
realized that I probably hadn’t come close to appreciating what that man had
gone
through. Had I really tried to feel both his pain and his joy? Had I really
tried to
understand, to imagine, what he went through? If not, was my visit one of
spiritual
connection, or just religious socializing?

In other words, the point of our fasting is not only to regain our gratitude,
but also to
deepen our compassion for those who have not made the choice to suffer. That’s
the
message I see in our verses from Ha’azinu, too- the Israelites had everything
they wanted,
and ended up forgetting what it felt like to be wandering slaves. Once that
happened,
where does their compassion come from?

This, too me, is the larger point about what we’ve just gone through on Yom
Kippur-
fasting and putting aside vain things of the body aren’t just about developing
gratitude
(though that is a very good thing) but also about connecting, in a very small
way, with the
experience of those who don’t have enough to eat- and then doing something about
it. We
put aside our fancy shoes in order to stand in solidarity with all those people
who had to
leave all their possessions behind after the hurricane or earthquake – and then
we’re
supposed to do something about it. We may choose to forego washing for a day on
Yom
Kippur, but there are those who have no running water- so having imagined it,
what are
we doing about it?

Yom Kippur- and in a different way, Sukkot, coming up- ask us to step outside
our
ordinary life experience in not just for ourselves, but for others, as well. In
re-experiencing
our life from a different angle, from under the stars in the Sukkah or with a
grumbling
stomach on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of
our
ancestors. They took things for granted and ended up forsaking their spiritual
purpose; we
put things aside, at least for a day, in order to feel more compassion for the
world, and
then to renew our partnership with God in healing the broken places.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as per usual, you can read the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

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

PPS: If you haven’t reviewed the practices of Sukkot recently, then do it Dr.
Suess style-
really!

Here is a rhyming introduction to the laws of building a Sukkah, with
illustrations:
http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=content&cid=4685

Leave a Comment

Vayelech: What is Not Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Greetings from the heart of Red Sox Nation, where hope never dies!

Besides the playoffs, we’re also in the season of “Shabbat Shuvah,” which is the
name
given to the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This week, between
the
holy days, is a special time of “returning” (“t’shuvah”) to our best selves and
our most
precious relationships. Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the opening words of
the
Haftarah [prophetic reading], which urges the people of Israel to “return”
(“shuvah Yisrael”)
to God.

The regular Torah portion for this week is Vayelech, which is set on the last
day of Moshe’s
life. Moshe gives the leadership over to Joshua, and gives the Levites a Torah
scroll for
instruction. Moshe tells the people to gather every seven years to hear the
Torah read
publically, and concludes by predicting that in the future, they will stray from
Torah, yet it
will not be totally forgotten from “the mouths of their offspring.”

Rashi raises an interesting question about Moshe’s prediction that the
Israelites will stray
from Moshe’s teaching after his death. (Cf. verse 31:29.) Rashi points out that
later on, in
the book of Judges, there’s a verse which says that the Israelites were actually
faithful all
the days of Joshua- Moshe’s successor. So if the Israelites were faithful during
the days of
Joshua, why does Moshe say they’ll become “corrupt” after he- Moshe- dies?

Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“But actually, throughout all the days of Joshua, they [the Israelites] did not
become
corrupt, for the verse states, “And the people served the Lord all the days of
Joshua” (Jud.
2:7). [We learn] from here that a person’s disciple is as dear to him as his own
self, for as
long as Joshua was alive [even after Moshe’s passing], for Moshe it was as
though he
himself was alive.”

Rashi’s idea is that Moshe took comfort in knowing that his values, his
teaching, and his
example would continue in the life of his faithful disciple- Joshua- even after
his death.
Seen this way, by being faithful during the time of Joshua, the Israelites were
indeed, still
being faithful to Moshe. This solves Rashi’s technical problem with the two
contradictory
verses, but perhaps more importantly, Rashi’s midrash opens up our thinking
about life
and death, about legacy and loss, during the season of the Days of Awe.

One week from today, many of us will be in synagogue, reciting Yizkor [the
prayer of
remembrance] for those who have passed on. Does Judaism insist on ritualized
remembering purely for reasons of nostalgia? Rashi’s teaching seems to suggest
another
perspective on the remembrance of those we love: that in a very real sense, the
work of
the dead is carried on in the lives of those they taught while alive. As their
work is carried
on, their spirit, the essential meaning of their lives, is not lost- one can be
faithful not only
in remembrance, but in exemplifying in action the values of those who have died.

By “work,” of course, I do not mean the family business (though that too is a
precious
legacy for many people), but I mean the work of one’s passions, one’s
priorities, a
particular person’s particular sense of how to humanize this often cruel world.
Each of us
has to, at some point, let go of a loved one or respected mentor who taught us
greatly
how to live. This is the cause of great grief, but Rashi seems to suggest that
both the living
and the dying can take comfort in seeing how a person’s unique teaching and
example
enables what is most noble in a life to continue after the body has failed.
Yizkor-
remembrance- is thus not a call to nostalgia, but to action; a remembrance not
of death,
but a remembering of how to live.

Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast to all,

rnjl

Leave a Comment