Archive for November, 2005

Chayyeh Sarah: Camels and Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Good morning!

Well, here’s hoping everybody goes to the gym, or gets their favorite form of
exercise, on the day between the big American feast (Thanksgiving) and our weekly Shabbat
treats (even if you’re just beginning a Shabbat practice, go get some Shabbat treats
for yourself- you deserve it, every week!)

Our parsha this week is Chayyeh Sarah, the “life of Sarah,” which famously
begins with her death and burial in Hebron. Avraham sends his helper, Eliezer, to find a wife
for Yitzhak; he finds Rivka by noticing how kindly she treats him and his animals. Avraham
marries again, and there are genealogies of the various families. Avraham dies, and is
buried with Sarah in Hebron by his two sons, Yitzhak and Yismael.

Well, after a few weeks of heavy-duty emails from me, I think it’s time to be a
bit lighter in our choice of topics, so our subject for Torah study will be. . . . .camels.
Well, more precisely, how one dresses one’s camel when going out on the town- a topic which
I’m sure is very relevant to most of you reading this.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, camels are a key player in this week’s
parsha; when Avraham sends Eliezer off to find a wife for Yitzhak, Eliezer loads the camels
for the trip, and it’s when Rivka gives water to the camels that he knows she’s a person of
kindness and generosity. (In other words, how one treats animals is a clear sign of one’s
character.)

Rashi notices something interesting about these camels, so let’s look at the
verse:

” And the servant took ten camels of his master’s camels, and he went, and all
the best of his master was in his hand; and he arose, and he went to Aram naharaim, to the
city of Nahor. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 24:10)

Here is Rashi’s comment- see if you can figure out what his question is from his commentary:

Rashi:

“of his master’s camels. . .

` They were distinguishable from other camels by the fact that they would go out muzzled
to prevent robbery, that they should not graze in strangers’ fields.’ ”

Got it? Rashi’s problem is the extra detail: “his master’s camels.” Why does the Torah need
to say that the servant loaded up “his master’s camel?” Would those camels have
belonged to anybody else?

Now you understand why he provides an answer from earlier midrashic texts: the
Torah is hinting that Avraham’s camels were indeed different- or treated differently-
than other people’s animals. Avraham muzzled his camels so that they would not graze in
other people’s fields; not only is this good manners, but Rashi says that to do
otherwise would be “robbery,” which is just the action of taking anything that belongs to
someone else.

OK, so what do we do with this, especially if we don’t have camels parked in the
driveway? To me, the lesson is: even the busiest or most important person- is not exempt
from the obligations of community, which include always thinking about the needs and
boundaries of the people around you. You might recall that in the previous parshiot,
Avraham had some clashes with neighboring kings- perhaps he’s learned the lesson that living
in peace means being truly thoughtful in one’s “neighborliness.”

Do we let our camels graze on our neighbors fields? Well, no, but I’m guessing
there isn’t a person reading this who would not benefit from some reflection on how we
respect the time, feelings, honor, property, and well-being of the people we meet on a daily
basis. The rabbis saw in a simple act of animal husbandry a whole philosophy of living
in community- it’s not about the camels, per se- it’s about loving your neighbor as
yourself. In other words, the most practical action can (should!) reflect our deepest
spiritual ideals- and that, in a few words, is what Judaism is all about.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- As usual, you can find the Torah and haftarah in translation here, along
long with a
commentary by my dear friend and teacher R. Larry Troster- it’s a good read:

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

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Vayera: Beyond Grief’s Horizon

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

Good Morning! It’s cold outside in Providence, Rhode Island, but let
me begin this week’s Torah commentary by thanking all of you who
wrote, called, visited, and showed your support last week after my
father passed away- it’s cold outside, but your thoughts and prayers
truly warmed my heart at a difficult time. I will do my best to thank
people individually over the coming weeks, but for now, please know
that your words and actions were greatly appreciated.

This week’s parsha is Vaera, and it’s full of famous and not so
famous details about the adventures of our ancestors Avraham and
Sarah. The parsha begins with three mysterious visitors who announce
that Sarah will bear a child. She doesn’t believe them, but there are
more immediate matters to attend to: God announces the destruction of
Sdom, so Avraham argues to spare the innocent, and has to rescue his
nephew Lot from a wicked mob. Lot escapes, but the trauma of
witnessing the destruction leads to a disturbing story of incestuous
sexuality.

After some further difficulties with a neighboring king, trouble
brews at home; after Sarah does give birth to Yitzhak, she orders the
expulsion of Avraham’s other son, Yishmael, along with his mother,
the servant Hagar. Hagar and Yishmael are saved in the wilderness and
God promises that Yishmael too will become a great nation. The end of
the parsha is the “Akedah,” or “binding,” referring to the binding of
Yitzhak on the mountain where Avraham believes he his commanded to
offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. The angel intervenes, and
Avraham and his son come down the mountain in silence- in fact, it’s
not even clear that they come down the mountain together, or ever
speak again after those terrible events.

Countless sermons, articles, commentaries and explanations have been
offered on the subject of Avraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice
his son; the story raises difficult issues of conscience and
theology. The story is so central to Jewish tradition that it serves
as a Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, making it more familiar to most
Jews than most other Torah narratives. Yet there are a few lines at
the end of the Akedah which receive much less attention than the more
dramatic images obedience and sacrifice. I refer to the short
genealogy at the end of Bereshit/ Genesis 22:

“And it came to pass after these matters, that it was told to
Abraham saying: ‘Behold Milcah, she also bore sons to Nahor your
brother. Uz, his first born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel, the
father of Aram. And Kesed and Hazo and Pildash and Jidlaph, and
Bethuel. And Bethuel begot Rebecca.’ These eight did Milcah bear to
Nahor, Abraham’s brother.” (Bereshit 22:20-23)

These verses are usually understood as a transition between the era
of Avraham and the generation of Yitzhak, who will marry his cousin
Rivka (Rebecca.) Mentioning her is a way of bringing her into the
story as a new chapter begins.

This year, just two week’s after my father’s passing, I understood
these verses in a new way, and why they appear after such spiritually
intense narrative. Let’s put aside, for today, any of the hard
theological or moral questions around Avraham’s actions; instead,
let’s just take it at face value that something very painful happened
between a father and a son, so painful that it appears that their
relationship was forever disrupted. Of course, painful things happen
in families every day: death, disease, conflict, separations, and
disappointments. The potential for loss is the price we humans pay
for the possibility of love: it’s the spiritual equivalent of the
financial maxim that reward is proportional to risk.

What happened on that mountaintop brought both Avraham and Yitzhak
face to face with the fragility and imperfection of human existence;
these facts are not easy to confront. One response to pain is
despair; the other is to seek a greater perspective, to see that life
will bring loss, but loss is not all that life brings. This, to me,
is why the genealogy verses belong at the end of the Akedah: Avraham
is reminded that there is a wider view, that children are being born
and matches are being made and life continues to flourish beyond the
horizon of his grief.

A mourner who comes to synagogue every day to say kaddish meets other
mourners, and can draw strength from their fellowship along grief’s
journey. Yet the mourner will also see young people called as bnai
mitvzvah, baby namings and aufrufs, celebrations of new homes and
renewed lives. Over time, these happy occasions may seem less like a
mocking of life’s losses and more like an affirmation of life’s
irrepressible potential for abundance and celebration, which can
bring a true comfort if the heart is open and ready.

Avraham’s brother and his family aren’t major players in the Torah,
but their appearance at the end of the Akedah remind us of a crucial
spiritual principle: there is suffering, but suffering is not all
there is. There is loss, and there is renewed life; the wheel turns,
and hope is found again.

shabbat shalom,

rnjl

PS: For those who may be interested, here is a link to my father’s
obituary, which first ran in the Washington Post but was picked up by
the Boston Globe and the Charlotte Observer. I was very pleased that
these papers gave a reasonably full, and readable, account of his
scientific achievements and work during the war. For some reason, you
can find it on the Boston Globe website by going to the “obituaries”
section but the link doesn’t work. The Washington Post link requires
registration but it’s free.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
dyn/content/article/2005/11/12/AR2005111201198.html

Scroll about halfway down the next page and you’ll find it- I
couldn’t get a direct link to work consistently but you can try
cutting and pasting the URL:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/obituaries/

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/obituaries/articles/2005/11/14/robert
_loevinger_89_scientist_aided_use_of_radiation_therapy/

PPS- as usual, the Torah portion and haftarah can be read in
translation here:

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

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Robert Loevinger: Zichrono L’vracha

Dear Friends:

Blessed is the Judge of Truth.

My father, Robert Loevinger, passed into the World of Truth this
morning, here in San Diego, after a long illness.

He was a man of service: to his family, to his country, and to the
world. He served his family by caring for his own father when he was
ill, and by being a devoted father, uncle, grandfather, husband, and
son-in-law. He served his country as as a scientist; he helped the
war effort by joining the Manhattan Project, and for many years
afterwards turned his brilliance to medical physics, working with
governmental agencies on standards for medical physics on a national
and international basis. To that end, he served the world, both
formally, through his work with the International Atomic Energy
Agency, and also by being extraordinarily committed to intellectual
honesty, humanist values, and personal integrity.

As per his wishes, there will be no formal funeral, but a memorial
service in Maryland at some future date TBA.

I will be sitting shiva in Massachussetts: Thursday, November 10th,
from 10 am onwards; Friday, Nov 11th, until an hour before sunset;
Saturday, the 12th, from 6pm, and Sunday the 13th from 10am.

It would be great if people local to MA could help me make a mincha
minyan at around 4pm on Thursday and Sunday; ma’ariv will happen
shortly thereafter or later in the evening as people gather.
Saturday night I’d like to make a minyan between 6-7pm.

Address for shiva: 404 Langley Road (between Beacon and Rt 9, but
only block in from Rt 9) Apartment 304, Newton Centre, MA.

781 254 8194 if you get lost.

Donations may be made to the Union of Concerned Scientists:

https://secure.ga3.org/03/make_a_donation

His memory is already a blessing.

RNJL

PS- No Torah commentary this week, but you can find one of my
previous commentaries, along with other good ones, here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/lekhlkh
a_index.htm

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Noah: Integrity in Diversity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noah

“They, and every beast after its kind, and every domestic animal after its
kind, and every
creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every fowl after its
kind, every
bird of every wing. And they came to Noah to the ark, two by two of all flesh
in which
there is the spirit of life. . . ”
(Bereshit/ Genesis 7:14-15)

The image from those verses is probably familiar to almost any American who has
ever
heard even a few Bible stories in their childhood: Noah took in every species of
animal that
walked upon the earth, so there could be a new beginning after humankind had
corrupted
God’s plan for a harmonious Creation. The story of Noah is rich with theological
questions
about justice, mercy, fairness and responsibility, but it’s also very much a
story about
God’s relationship with the entirety of Creation, not only its human
inhabitants.

Taking the Biblical story in its own terms, one might reasonably ask why God
commanded
Noah to bring the entire spectrum of animal life- what we today call
biodiversity- into the
Ark, when surely other means would have brought about the Divine purpose of
starting
human society over from scratch. A child would probably ask: well, couldn’t God
have
chosen to have the animals eat all the bad people, or cause a plague, something
like that?
Isn’t that easier than a flood and starting the whole Creation project over with
the
survivors?

To me, a central moral teaching of the Noah story lies in the image of humans
humbling
themselves in relation to other living beings: after a period of human arrogance
and
selfishness, the surviving people had to learn to serve and preserve the wider
world of
Creation in order for humanity to be renewed. Perhaps the reason Noah had to
build an
Ark was to teach him and his family (and, by extension, all of us who are in
mythic terms
his descendants) the value of every single species which constitutes the beauty
and
integrity of an awe-inspiring biosphere. Creation could not be renewed without
its
diversity, and humankind cannot exist apart from our larger ecological context.

More and more, people of faith (from many religions) are turning to stories like
Noah’s Ark
for inspiration as they seek to infuse religious traditions with an ethic of
ecological
awareness- and, conversely, many environmentalists are seeking a spiritual
language of
care for Creation in their work of advocating for sustainable and wise policies.
The Noah
Alliance is an interfaith coalition dedicated to the proposition that care for
Creation is a
central religious concern, and a core imperative is therefore to preserve the
richness and
diversity of our shared world. The Noah Alliance is currently working on
strengthening the
Endangered Species Act, and I encourage you to visit their web site and see for
yourself
how traditional teachings can inform very contemporary concerns.

At the end of the Noah story, God makes a promise never again to bring ruin upon
the
earth and <all> its inhabitants; the rest is up to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

For more information about the Noah Alliance, see their web site:

http://www.noahalliance.org/index.htm

For a statement on biodiversity signed by Jewish scientists and prominent
rabbis, see here:

http://www.noahalliance.org/resources/jewish.htm

For many more resources connecting Judaism to biodiversity, see the web site for
the
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (upon whose Board I serve):

http://www.coejl.org/learn/biodiversity.php

And, of course, for the complete text of the parsha and further commentary:

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

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