Archive for February, 2006

Mishpatim: Justice Precedes Religion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Whew! After the thunder and lightening of last week’s parsha, this week the
Torah settles
down a bit and gets into lots of details about how to have a just and holy
Thus, parshat Mishpatim has lots of particular laws- civil, criminal, family,
and so on, plus
a great story at the end about Moshe re-ascending the mountain with the leaders
of Israel.

Among the criminal laws in this week’s parsha is a straightforward decree of the
penalty for premeditated murder:

“But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning,
[even] from My
altar you shall take him to die.” (Shmot/Exodus 21:14)

Now, for the moment, let’s NOT have a discussion of the death penalty in Jewish
suffice it to say that it’s part of Biblical justice in certain circumstances,
and the rabbis
who came along later greatly circumscribed its applicability. For today, let’s
just take it at
face value that the Torah is aiming for justice when it says that one who plots
out a
murder deserves the severest punishment.

OK, that’s straightforward enough, so why does the verse mention “even from My
altar you
shall take him?”

Rashi explains that this applies to a kohen [priest] who wanted to perform the
service in the Temple- even then, if he’s to be punished, neither his station
nor the need
for his religious duties will save him. What I take from this is the idea that
justice precedes
religion- that is, the honoring of human beings that we call justice is in some
more of a religious duty than the honoring of God that we call religion.

Again- we can debate later whether the death penalty is the fullest
manifestation of justice
in our day and age. Today, let’s consider the idea that a sacred text could
teach that
sometimes, religion as such isn’t the most pressing priority. In a day and age
when people
riot over slights to their religious sensibilities, or kill each other in the
name of spiritual
purity, I want to see justice, fairness, and equality under the law as religious
ideals in
themselves, ideals which can provide a corrective to any temptation to put the
honor of
God above the welfare of God’s human children.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- The first link leads to a page with a summary of the parsha and further
and the second takes you to a page with links to the text itself, plus even MORE

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Yitro: Honoring All, Listening Well

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Warm greetings on a windy day!

This week’s parsha, Yitro, is most famous for the revelation on Mt.
Sinai (I’m sure most of you have seen the movie), but the lesser-
known beginning section is just as interesting. As the Israelites
head on out into the wilderness, they meet up with Yitro, Moshe’s
father in law, who sees that Moshe is surely headed towards “burn-
out” from trying to deal with all the people’s needs himself. So
Yitro offers some good advice about trusting others with important
work; he tells Moshe to appoint captains on a local level, who can
resolve minor problems themselves:

“And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that
any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall
judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they
shall bear [the burden] with you.” (Shmot/ Exodus 18: 22).

Moshe takes his father in law’s advice, and implements the plan, as
we learn a few verses later:

“And they would judge the people at all times; the difficult case
they would bring to Moses, but any minor case they themselves would
judge.” (18:26)

Note a slight difference in wording between verse 22 and 26, which is
reflected in this English translation: in Yitro’s advice, Moshe is
only supposed to deal with the “major matters” [hadavar hagadol].
However, when Moshe actually puts in the plan into action, it says
that he personally dealt with the “difficult cases,” or “hadavar
hakasheh.” In plain Hebrew, “gadol” means “big”, or “important,”
but “kasheh” means “difficult.”

So tell me already what’s the difference?

I read once that the Hatam Sofer- an Orthodox rabbi of the previous
century- explained this with the suggestion that by using the
word “gadol,” Yitro was implying that Moshe would deal with the cases
involving the important people, the leaders and princes and wealthy.
Moshe, on the other hand, understood that the law applies to rich and
poor alike, and when he taught the local judges, he instructed them
to pass onto him the “hard” cases- that is, the complex ones, whether
or not they involved rich or poor.

So far, so good- this is a beautiful way of expressing Judaism’s
ethic of fairness and the dignity of every person. Rich and poor,
peasant and prince, all are equal under the law, because they are all
made in the Divine Image, and thus possessed of an inherent dignity
and right to redress grievances. This is so important to remember on
a communal and national level- each person should be important to us,
because central to our faith is that each person is important to God.

Yet there is one more aspect of this interpretation that I find
inspiring- the Hatam Sofer’s midrash sees in Moshe a lawgiver of
great integrity, but also a leader of great humility. In this
teaching, Moshe didn’t reject Yitro’s flawed suggestion, but listened
carefully to it, took what was good in it, and quietly improved upon
it, while at the same time allowing Yitro the honor of seeing his
idea made into reality. That, to me, is the first implementation of
Moshe’s attention to human dignity- that even though he had to
slightly modify Yitro’s plan, he did so in a way which preserved his
honor and feelings.

It’s not always easy to treat another’s honor as your own; it
requires integrity, thoughtfulness, and humility. Yet in so doing, we
can better see each person- rich or poor, family or stranger, as an
opportunity to meet the Sacred, and thus make inseparable our
spiritual growth and our ethical horizons.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the first link takes you to a page with a summary
of the parsha and futher commentary, and the second link takes you to
a page with the text of the parsha and haftarah, in translation.

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Beshallach: Splitting the Sea, All Over the World

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This week we’re reading about Divine providence, which may or may not
correspond to the fact that I’m writing to you from city of
Providence. (Some questions are too deep for me.) Parshat Beshallach
is the grand finale of the Exodus narrative- the Israelites march
free, Pharoah’s army is drowned, and Moshe and Miriam lead the people
in joyous song. The image of the “splitting of the sea,” so that the
Israelites could escape the pursuing army, is well known, and retold
in many forms:

“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord led the
sea with the strong east wind all night, and God made the sea into
dry land and the waters split.” (Shemot/ Exodus 14:21)

Rashi brings an interesting midrash to bear on the final detail of
the verse above- it hinges on the fact that “mayim,” or “water,” is a
collective noun in the plural form. Thus, it can mean a little water
or lots of water, an ambiguity which Rashi interprets in a surprising

” ‘and the waters split’.. . . . All the water in the world.” (Rashi,
quoting an earlier text.)

Huh? Why would Rashi say that some creek in Mongolia or a pond in
Topeka also “split” along with the Sea of Reeds? I see two
possibilities. First, if “all the waters in the world” split, then
obviously the miracle was that much greater, and if you’re going to
praise God for a great miracle, it might as well be the biggest one
you could imagine.

That’s a more literal understanding of Rashi’s comment, but I’d like
to suggest a second, more metaphorical understanding. Perhaps Rashi
is hinting that the Exodus story- a story in which the God of all
humankind stands firmly with on side of the weak and oppressed- is
not only about God’s relationship with the people Israel, but is
universal, applicable to any situation where there is injustice and
suffering. In the Exodus narrative, God “split the sea” so the
Israelites could find safety and freedom, but “all the waters in the
world”- that is, all the places where people feel blocked in and
unfree- can be crossed over where there is faith and courage and
willingness to be God’s partner in overthrowing injustice.

That, to me, is the larger meaning of the miracle: not that the laws
of physics were suspended, but the generalities of history, wherein
the strong prey on the weak, were overturned by a God who cares about
human dignity and freedom. The book of Exodus relates this deeper
truth in the form of a story about our ancestors, but Rashi reminds
us that justice is never found in one place only- it’s all over the
world, or it is incomplete.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the first link leads to a page where you can find a
summary of the parsha and further commentary, and the second link
leads to the text itself.

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Bo: Hearing Another’s Cry

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Before we begin this week’s Torah study, we have an announcement from the Department of Overzealous Spellchecking: Last week, my overzealous Appleworks program changed “Pharaoh” to “parsha” in a couple of places- I trust nobody was too confused and will look for this in the future. With that:

Happy Groundhog Day! I don’t know how many more weeks of winter we have, but I do know that parshat Bo is the third parsha of the book of Shmot/ Exodus, and tells of the last few plagues and the instructions for the Pesach offering. The final plague upon Egypt is the death of the firstborn, which will bring upon the Egyptians the horrors that they themselves have inflicted upon the Israelites. Before this terrible blow to the nation, Moshe is told that the Egyptians will “cry out”, clearly evoking the “crying out” of the Israelites* under bondage:

“And there will be a great outcry throughout the entire land of Egypt, such as

there never has been and such as there shall never be again.” (Shmot/ Exodus 11:6)

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that this verse illustrates the tragedy of the Egyptian’s all-too-human indifference to the sufferings of anyone but their own group. After all, the Israelites had been enslaved and beaten and murdered for years, and no Egyptian had cried to a god or the king against the injustice! “Never again” would the Egyptians cry out like they did when their own first born died- perhaps this verse teaches us that they remained indifferent, and could not redeem themselves through introspection and humility.

Maybe this is the true evil of Pharaoh and his nation: not only that they imposed suffering upon others, but were unable (unwilling?) to turn their own experience of grief into compassion and t’shuvah [repentance/ return] for what they had done. We all cry harder for a member of our own family than for someone far away, and that’s perfectly natural, but spirituality also calls us to feel another’s suffering as our own. If there is a genocide in Darfur (and there is)- we should be crying out. If the poor in America are unable to access basic health care or enough food (and many can’t)- we should be crying out. If the actions of our country are not consonant with our highest ideals of justice- we should be crying out.

To sum up: Pharaoh thought that there is no god other than myself, and therefore I can ignore others as less than human if I wish. Judaism teaches: we are all children of the Living God, and therefore every human is my brother or sister, and deserves whatever compassion and lovingkindness I can muster.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- As usual, the first link is to a page which leads to a summary of the parsha and additional commentary (including more by yours truly) and the second link leads to the full text of the parsha and haftarah:

*(Cf. Shmot 2:23, for example.)

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