Archive for December, 2005

Mikeitz: Children of One Father

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mikeitz

Happy Hanukkah!

The portion Mikeitz, which includes the story of Yosef’s brothers coming to Egypt to buy food, and the games Yosef plays with them. When Yosef’s brothers first appear before him, they only see the Prime Minister of Egypt- they have no idea that this is the young boy they sold into slavery so many years ago. Yosef, of course, does recognize them, and in order to test their repentance, he accuses them of being spies:

“And they said to him, `No, my master, your servants have come to buy food. We
are all sons of one man. We are honest. Your servants were never spies. ` ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 41: 10-11)

Rashi, quoting an earlier midrash, makes a beautiful comment on this passage. He
points out that when the brothers explain that they are not a team of spies, but a family, the “sons of one man,” the words can be read to include Yosef, too:


” The Holy Spirit flickered within them, and they included him with them, for he too was the son of their father.”

Now, the last time these brothers had seen Yosef, they didn’t exactly treat him like family-
they threw him in a pit and sold him as a slave. Yet I read this midrash as hinting that the
quality of achdut [brotherhood /siblinghood, but also meaning unity] had not entirely
gone out from their hearts. Another way to understand Rashi’s comment might be: the
brothers were ready to start thinking of Yosef as family again.

In either case, I love the spiritual language of this midrash: the “holy spirit”, or that part of
the Divine which is inseparable from each human soul, was what lead them to include
Yosef as their brother, even if it was only subconsciously. To put it another way: when we
start to think of the people we’re estranged from as family, as our brothers and sisters,
then that’s the Divine soul flowing from within us.

We more fully express our spiritual selves when we act towards forgiveness, inclusion, and
healed relationships- just as the brothers were beginning to do, however slightly, when
they presented themselves before the man they only knew as the Prime Minister of Egypt.

Yosef and his brothers had a long way to go before they were fully reconciled,
but at the moment when “brotherliness” was stirred within them, great things became possible. The
Divine Spirit stirs within, to help us see each other as brothers and sisters, to bring
together that which is broken apart, in every age and in every heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as promised, here’s a link to a summary of the entire parsha:

and here’s a link to the text itself, including the special haftarah and maftir
for Hanukkah:

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Hanukkah: Ascending to Greatness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah, the “Holiday of Lights!”

Here’s a question: have you ever wondered about the whole eight-nights, one-flask of oil story, and whether it really explains how and why we light the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah lamp) the way we do?

Think about it: imagine that indeed, one flask of oil lasted eight nights. You’d start out with a bright flame, and then the flame would slowly flicker out and become smaller and smaller as the remaining oil was stretched out to fit the eight-day dedication of the Temple.

If we were lighting eight lights to commemorate the miracle of the oil, should we not then start out with eight candles and trickle down to one, to remember how the oil lasted before it ran out?

If you think that’s a good question- well, I can’t take credit for it. In the Talmud, the sage Shammai proposed lighting the Hanukkiah just that way: starting out with eight, and ending with one, in a re-enacting of the miracle as we imagine it might have happened. However, the sage Hillel ruled that we light starting with one, and going to eight, and we follow his more joyful, less literalist interpretation of remembering the miracle.

One reason that we follow Hillel is the principle of “ma’alin b’kodesh”- we ascend in
spiritual levels. For example- we may turn an ordinary building into a synagogue, but we should not, if at all possible, turn a synagogue into an ordinary building (a shop or apartments, perhaps.) Thus, if lighting Hanukkah lights is a holy act, lighting two is a greater act than lighting one, and lighting three is a greater act than lighting two.

Perhaps what Hillel means to teach us is a variation on the idea that “mitzvah goreret mitzvah“- a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah, which is often understood to mean that
once we turn our souls towards the doing of holy deeds, we strengthen and orient ourselves towards spiritual goals, and in a wonderful “positive feedback loop,” spiritual deeds lead to spiritual growth which leads to the desire to do more spiritual deeds . . . . and so on. The spiral can also start with study: study leads to action which leads to the
desire for greater understanding, which leads to study, which leads to inspiration, which leads to action!

In the days of the Maccabees, Judaism was at a low point, to say the least. Hillel wants to remind us: if your spirituality is a low point- start somewhere small, but start. Light one candle, and you’ll be inspired to light two. Light two, and it will lead to three. This applies to prayer, to tzedakah, to acts of lovingkindness, to anything that strengthens and grows our souls. Start small, and great things will follow. We ascend in holiness, and with God’s love flowing from within us, keep growing.

A happy holiday of lights to all,


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Vayeishev: Images and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeishev

Egads! Hanukkah fast approaches, but Shabbat is almost upon us, and then it’s
big holiday when all the stores are closed- my only conclusion is that it’s time
to relax and
say “enough already” and make yourself a cup of Earl Grey and study some Torah.

Speaking of Torah, It’s parshat Vayeishev, the beginning of the final act of the
drama that
is Bereshit (Genesis.) Bereshit begins with brothers killing each other (Kayin
and Hevel) and
it looks like we haven’t learned much in previous 37 chapters: Yosef so angers
brothers that they plot to kill him, but are instead convinced to “only” throw
him in a pit
and sell him into slavery.

The brothers tell their father, Yaakov, that Yosef was torn apart by a wild
animal, but really
he was shlepped off to Egypt as a slave. Yehudah, one of his brothers, marries
and has
children, who themselves marry. Then tragedy strikes: Yehudah’s sons die in
and he refuses to properly provide for his bereaved daughter in law, Tamar. She
determined to have children, so she seduces him in a dangerous deception, which
ends in
his confession of sin and recognition of her merit.

Then we return to Egypt: Yosef is a slave to Potiphar, whose wife tries to
seduce him. He
refuses, and is framed and imprisoned. He becomes a dream-interpreter in prison
and is
raised up to the house of Pharaoh himself.

Returning to the subject of seduction (a steamy parsha for a cold day outside!),
the rabbis
ask an interesting question: if Yehudah- an older and presumably wiser man-
could not
resist the temptation to sleep with the harlot beside the road (who was actually
disguised daughter in law, but we’ll save that for another year), is it possible
that Yosef,
who had the “hot blood of youth”, could resist the temptation of Potiphar’s

A famous midrash- quoted by Rashi and many others- tries to answer that
question, and
starts with the verse where Yosef has to make his decision:

“And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work,
and none
of the people of the house were there in the house. So she [Mrs. Potiphar]
grabbed him by
his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled
and went
outside. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:11-12)

Some commentators say that the Torah is hinting that Yosef was just about to
give in: that
the phrase “came to the house to do his work” means that he came to the house
that the only person in it was his master’s wife, and he was ready to lie with
her. So what
caused him to run away?

Well, it’s certainly possible that he was simply afraid that consequences of
giving in would
be worse than the consequences of refusing. The ancient rabbis have a different
idea : the
midrash I mentioned above imagines Yosef just about to lie with Mrs. Potiphar,
and then
he sees before him an image of his father, Yaakov, who asks if he really wants
to be
associated with “harlots.” (Just as an aside: one could return to the question
asked above
and turn it around- if Yosef could call up reserves of conscience and
self-control, why
couldn’t Yehudah? Alas, that’s a question for another day.)

Our midrash imagines that the image of Yosef’s father appeared to him at a
moment, and caused him to reconsider not through a rebuke, but by a question: is
really what you want? I think there’s a deep truth in this story: what we call
often takes the form of a question embedded in a cherished relationship. Let me
give you
an example: in rabbinical school, I once heard a dean say that his guide to
actions as a
rabbi and rabbinical school administrator was to imagine his own mentor standing
in the
room with him. My teacher’s question, directed to himself, was: would my
teacher approve of what I’m about to do or say?

There are big, difficult books which attempt to lay out a philosophical
foundation for
ethical action. Similarly, there are religious teachings, articles in psychology
and sociology,
and all sorts of other attempts to think about what it means to act in ways that
consistent and good. These books and articles can be incredibly helpful in
thinking about
one’s own moral inventory, and I don’t at all mean to discount intellectual
resources in
developing one’s ethical depth.

Yet there is another form that conscience takes, and that is the form of those
we admire.
We all have our moral heroes- people we experience as good, as people of
generosity, and a consistent moral compass. So sometimes we ask: what would my
(fill in:
grandfather, teacher, rabbi, mother, aunt, neighbor . . . ) think of what I’m
about to do?
Would they be proud of me? Could I look that person in the eye tomorrow and tell
exactly what I did?

This more intimate, intuitive form of conscience is how I understand what the
rabbis are
teaching about Yosef’s experience: in seeing his father, he forced himself to
ask questions
about family values, moral legacy, and true integrity. There is never “nobody
else in the
house” when we are forced to confront difficult temptations- we are always
by the spirit of those who have inspired us, and who can continue to guide us
long after we are separated physically.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- we’ll have a short Hanukkah message on Sunday morning or early next week. In
meantime, you can find the text and additional commentary on Vayeishev here:

and Hanukkah customs and history here:

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Vayishlach: Angels in Human Form

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Oh my goodness, there are only ten more shopping days till Hanukkah!

Well, that’s too stressful to think about, so let’s study Torah instead. This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, is the story of Yaakov’s return to Caanan/Israel after 20 years with his uncle Lavan in Haran. Upon returning to the Land of Israel, Yaakov sends messengers ahead to
his brother Esav, with gifts and messages of reconciliation. Still, he fears his brother will attack him, so he divides his camp for protection. He stays alone on the night before meeting his brother, and has a mystical wrestling which results in a name change: Yaakov,
the deceiver, is now Yisrael, the “God-wrestler.”

Yaakov and Esav do meet, but part ways. Yaakov travels to Shechem, where his daughter Dinah is raped by the local prince; Shimon and Levi, her brothers, wreak a
terrible vengeance on the town. Rakhel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, and the mother of Yosef, dies in childbirth, and is buried near Bethlehem. The parsha concludes with a detailed genealogy of Esav’s family.

At the beginning of the parsha, when Yaakov is heading into the land of Caanan/Israel with a large troop of family, servants, and animals, he sends messengers ahead to his brother, hoping to soften the grudge of the deception that happened twenty years ago. The messengers return with the report that Esav is heading towards him with four hundred men, and Yaakov thinks his plea didn’t work. What’s interesting here is that Rashi insists on reading this part of the story in a way that makes things a bit mystical, when the words
are very clear, and don’t seem to cry out for a creative interpretation.

The word at issue is “malach,” which can mean “messenger,” or “angel,” but that’s really
the same meaning, since in classic Jewish sources, an “angel” is a messenger or message-bearing manifestation from God. The first verse of the parsha says simply:

“Yaakov sent messengers [malachim] ahead of him to his brother Esav. . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:4)

Well, as I said, that’s not complicated- if you want to send someone a message, you send a messenger, at least in the days before email and fax.

Rashi insists that these “malachim” are “actual angels.” Many of the classic Torah commentators don’t agree with him, but perhaps there’s a way to understand
Rashi’s comment while preserving the plain meaning of the words. I believe (not all commentators do) that Yaakov was truly trying to reconcile with his brother Esav- the brother whom he had cheated and deceived so many years earlier. I think that Yaakov had grown
and matured, and wanted to do t’shuvah, repentance, by fixing the relationship with his brother that he himself had broken.

Perhaps he thought that Esav would not believe that Yaakov wanted to make peace, and thus he (Esav) needed some time to think about it, or perhaps he wanted to go out of his way to show Esav that he meant these overtures- but in either case, the messengers that
Yaakov sent were on a mission of peacemaking between brothers. They were sent ahead so that the sacred purposes of reconciliation and forgiveness might be better achieved. In other words, perhaps what made the messengers into “angels” was not the metaphysics of
their existence, but the holiness of their mission. Yaakov sent the messengers, but they were agents of Divine Purpose- just as any of us would be if we were trying our best to help somebody fix broken brotherhood and reconcile with alienated friends or family.

The angels that Yaakov sent might have been men, but their task was from God, Who desires that we live in peace. Seen this way, Rashi’s comment speaks a spiritual truth: when we carry forth to do the work of peacemaking, we become angels, bearers of sacred
truth and a Divine task, “messengers of God” in human form.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- here’s the link to the text of the parsha and additional commentary:

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Vayetzei: You Are the Gate Of Heaven

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Shabbat Snow-lom! It’s looking cold and wet outside, so let’s all
imagine ourselves out in the fields of the ancient Middle East, where
our ancestor Yaakov found himself sleeping alone one night after
leaving his parent’s home. At the end of the last parsha, Yaakov is on
the run, fearing (not without reason) that his brother Esav will kill
him for stealing the blessing of the first born.

On the way to Haran- his uncle’s hometown- Yaacov has a wondrous
dream-vision (more about that in a bit.) He gets to Haran, falls in
love with his cousin Rakhel, but gets tricked into marrying her older
sister Leah first. Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan for many years,
and has 13 children with four different women. (!) He eventually
decides to go back to his own homeland (Caanan/ Israel), and has to do
some tricky negotiations with his father-in-law to be permitted to
leave with his wives, concubines, children, and much property.

Many of you may remember the phrase “Jacob’s ladder,” which refers to
the dream-vision Yaakov had on the way to Haran, right at the
beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. While travelling, Yaakov
puts a stone under his head for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, or
stairway, to heaven, with angels going up and down. God promises to
make his descendants into a great nation, and promises to bring him
back to the land of Israel.

Yaakov awakes from his dream, and realized that he’s experienced the
Divine Presence:

” And Yaakov awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord
is in this place, and I did not know. And he was frightened, and he
said, `How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of
God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis) 28:16-17

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the late
1800’s, asks an interesting question: why was Yaakov afraid? Think
about it: if you received a Divine vision promising great things,
wouldn’t you probably be happy and secure?

Hirsch’s answer is so beautiful I’ve written it out in full:

“What made him afraid? Probably nothing else, but the consciousness of
this new idea that and the demands that it brings with it, that man,
frail man, is to be, should be, the bearer of the Glory of God on
Earth, could have brought this overwhelming feeling of fear in him:
how awesome is this place. What has been shown me here is none other
than the `house of God,’ and that, at the same time, is `the gate to
Heaven.’ The House of God, a house into which God moves, that a human
life can be, and should be, such that when the ascending angels seek
God in heaven, they have to come down to find Him amongst mankind. And
every such house, in which such a life is lived, is the `gate of
Heaven,’ a gate through which we come to God, accordingly, the most
consummate union of the earthly with the Heavenly.” (S.R.Hirsch,
“Commentary on the Torah,” Judaic Press.)

Hirsch’s point, as I understand it, is both simple and profound: that
Yaakov’s fear came from understanding that the place where he had the
vision is not the “House of God” and the “Gate of Heaven,” but he,
himself, Yaakov, is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven! Yaakov is
afraid because he realizes he’s going to have to live in a different
way, a way which makes the Divine Presence manifest here on Earth.
It’s not going to be simple or quick (it’s 20 years before Yaakov
makes peace with his brother), and it’s going to mean moving out of
his “comfort zone” of ethics and behavior.

According to this reading, what frightens Yaakov is the realization
that spiritual transformation involves unpredictable change- in his
case, so much so that he gets a whole new name, but not until after
much struggle with self and others. Yaakov’s vision was that “God was
in this place”- not in the patch of earth where he lay sleeping, but
in the spark of Spirit that each of us bears within. Thus, the story
is not about stumbling upon some physical place which bears unique
holiness: the story is about coming to a certain place in life’s
spiritual journey, a place where great growth and new perspectives
come bursting through, bringing both great hope and great discomfort
with life as it’s been lived so far.

We, “frail humankind,” are the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, if
only we choose to be. It may be frightening at times, but what destiny
worth achieving wouldn’t bring us into the unknown? God was in that
Place, and Yaakov didn’t know it; the Divine Presence rests within
each of us, and our challenge is to become more conscious of it, every

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha, and additional
commentary, here:

PPS- I just bought the 5 volume English translation of S. R. Hirsch’s
Torah commentaries, so I suspect you’ll be hearing more from him in
the months to come. If you’re interested, here’s a short biography:

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Toldot: Camels and Character, Pt II

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Shalom from Silver Spring, Md! This week’s parsha is Toldot, which
begins with the difficult birth of the twins Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov
persuades his brother to sell the birthright of the oldest for a pot
of lentils, and the trouble is just beginning. . . . first his
father, Yitzhak, has some trouble with wells and women with the Philistines.
Then, when Yitzhak is old and blind, he asks his “outdoorsy” son,
Esav, to hunt for some meat, but Yaakov comes first, and tricks his
father into giving him a special blessing for the eldest son. Esav
(as you might imagine) is outraged, and Rivka thinks it’s time for her
son Yaakov to get out of town, so she sends him to her brother’s house
for protection and to find a wife.

Some of you may remember the famous distinction between Yaakov, who
“dwelled in tents,” and his brother Esav, described as a hunter and
“man of the fields, as we read in Bereshit/ Genesis 25:

And the youths grew up, and Esav was a man who understood hunting, a
man of the field, whereas Yaakov was a simple man, dwelling in tents.
And Yitzhak loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rivka
loved Yaakov. (25:27:28; compare to the first few verses of chapter
27, as well.)

It’s not clear that the Torah itself has such a harsh view of Esav,
but in later rabbinic tradition, he is seen as a violent and evil
man- it’s rather obvious that portraying him this way releases Yaakov (our
forefather) from the charge of theft and deception when he stole the
birthright- after all, if Esav didn’t deserve it (according to this
line of reasoning), Yaakov didn’t do anything wrong.

The traditional rabbinic denigration of Esav raises complex issues,
which we’ll look at another day (see link below, as well), but for
today, let’s just take it at face value that the ancient rabbis
viewed a hunter and man of the fields as violent, even bloodthirsty. They
saw hunting as a cruel way to kill animals, one that would incite the
passion for blood and killing in a person. This was contrasted- in
the view of our sages- with traditional Jewish methods of slaughter,
which were understood to be more humane, and carried out only by trained,
religiously serious men (in those days, only men.)

Again, I’ll leave aside for now the issue of whether kosher slaughter
(with a quick, sharp knife across the throat of the animal) is always
carried out in the most humane ways in modern times, because I’m
interested in a different point. Last week, when I discussed a
midrash about Avraham’s concern for his neighbors, which led him to
muzzle his camels so that they wouldn’t eat from other fields,
several readers expressed the concern that Avraham may have been a good neighbor, but it seems cruel to muzzle camels when they’re walking through
fields. To put it another way, the challenge from readers was to
connect the idea of Avraham being exceedingly concerned with
the well-being of people with his apparent disregard for the comfort
of animals.

This is a point well taken- traditional Judaism simply presumes that
a person of good character is not cruel to animals, so I didn’t
elaborate when I brought out the midrash on Avraham. What we see in
this week’s parsha is the reverse assumption- that someone who likes
to hunt (as the rabbis think of Esav), cannot be a good person,
because there is enjoyment in the act of killing. The ancient rabbis
were not vegetarians- they assumed the ancient rites of animal
offerings would be brought back some day, and they certainly assumed
people would eat meat. However, the distinction between eating meat-
from animals killed humanely, by professionals- and enjoying the
hunt is also the distinction one could make in thinking about
Avraham and his camels. If (in the midrashic imagination) he muzzled
his camels for the sake of community welfare, we’d assume he did so
in the least restrictive or unpleasant way possible.

Another reader took me to task for pointing out, last week, that one
test of Rivka’s character is her willingness to water Yitzhak’s
camels; the objection was that one can be nice to animals but cruel
to people, so it’s not a good test of character. Fair enough- but
it’s a place to start, and the reverse is presumed to be true- that
if Rivka was NOT nice to the camels, she certainly wouldn’t be a
good wife for Yitzhak.

Judaism, like any system of values and ethics, finds itself
balancing competing “goods;” in this case, it’s good to keep one’s
camels from eating one’s neighbor’s grain, and it’s good to allow
animals as much freedom and comfort as possible. Judaism insists on
the awareness of suffering in others- and “others” does not mean
only human beings. If we are to become compassionate, spiritual
beings, then our compassion will extend to all things; if God’s
mercies are upon all God’s works, then if we are made in the Divine
Image, ours should be too.

shabbat shalom,


For another take on Esav’s character, and a link to the text of the
parsha, click here:

Here’s last week’s Torah study:

Finally, for additional study, Richard Schwartz writes extensively
on animal and environmental issues in Judaism,
and you can find many of his article here:

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