Archive for May, 2006

Bamidbar: Family, Peoplehood, and the Sacred Center

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Dear Friends:

It’s finally springtime in New England! The seasons turn every year,
as do the books of the Torah. Every year, we return to parshiot we
read the previous year- the texts have not changed, but perhaps we
have, and can see familar words with fresh eyes. This week, we begin
the book of Bamidbar- called “Numbers” in English, but more accurately
translated as “In the Wilderness.” Bamidbar begins with a counting of
the Israelites as they prepare to set out from Sinai to cross the
desert; there is a census, and an arranging of the camp into tribes
and families:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘ The Israelites shall
camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral
house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.’ ”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 2:1-2)

About five years ago, I wrote a drasha (see link below) in which I
interpreted this verse in terms of finding one’s personal place within
a broader Jewish context. Without consciously remembering what I had
written, this year I came upon this verse and saw something very
different. Instead of seeing the emphasis as “each [individual] person
with his standard,” [standard here meaning flag or sign] what felt
important to me in this verse is a model of Jewish identity with
multiple dimensions: peoplehood, family ties, and a spiritual
connection to the Divine Presence.

Thinking about the instructions given in the verse above, it strikes
me that we are “Israelites,” members of a world-wide people who share
both a destiny and covenant of spiritual ideals. We are also each
members of an “ancestral house,” that is, a particular family, and
sometimes our Judaism is entirely bound up in memories of parents and
grandparents, family celebrations and rituals. These memories of loved
ones- our “ancestral house”- are also a source of deep Jewish
connection: when I make kiddush using my grandfather’s kiddush cup, I
am both fufilling the spiritual purpose of Shabbat and connecting with
my grandfather’s memory; the deep family connection adds its own
richness and beauty to the act of entering into “Shabbat time.”

Our verse concludes that no matter how we “camp”- that is, where we
situate ourselves among the Jewish people- we must be oriented to the
Divine Presence, represented in our verse by the Tent of Meeting,
where this Presence dwelled among the people. Judaism is not only
about peoplehood, or family, or a personal journey, but also about the
experience of the Sacred, and constantly reorienting ourselves towards
a holy life.

In the years since I wrote my earlier d’var Torah, I’ve officiated at
hundreds of funerals, lost my parents, given thanks for the birth of a
niece and nephew, become engaged, seen my country at war, and felt the
pain of a world-wide renewal of violence against the Jewish people.
I’ve had occasion to think about not only my personal spiritual
journey as a Jew, but also about where I fit into a web of covenantal
relationships with my ancestors, my descendants, my people, and the
God of Israel. We all have the task of finding our “standard,” our
personal place within Judaism, but our Jewish is inextricably linked
to other people, both past and present, across time and space, and
with the Divine Presence as our orientation along the way.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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

The commentary which I wrote several years ago, referenced above, is
found here, along with a summary of the parsha:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bmidbar_index.htm

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Behar/ Shavuot: Torah of the Land

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar and Shavuot

Dear Friends:

The following article will appear next week in the e-bulletin of the Coalition
for the
Environment and Jewish Life, but it’s directly relevant to this week’s portion,
Behar. Enjoy!

————————————
Jewish environmental thinking brings together strands of traditional
Jewish theology and key points of contemporary environmentalism; among
those strands is the recognition that we have to move from thinking of
the Earth as a mere resource for human benefit to something that is
fundamentally not “ours,” to do with as we please. Some call this the
ethic of stewardship, drawing a distinction between a steward and a
master: the steward recognizes that he is not the owner, but one
appointed to guard and protect something precious. Stewardship implies
humility, thoughtfulness, and self-control, which any environmental
thinker would agree are qualities that our society needs to rebalance
its relationship with the Earth we live on.

In Jewish thought, the Earth belongs to God, as stated succinctly in
the Torah portion Behar:

” But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine;
you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)

In Behar, the context for this theology of the Earth is the cycle of
“shmittah,” or sabbatical years, in which the land lies fallow and
debts are forgiven. The sabbatical year is a powerful symbol of living
humbly upon the land, but it’s not the only place in the Torah that
this idea appears. With that in mind, let’s turn to the cycle of
spring holidays, beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot, the
“Feast of Weeks.”

In the Torah portion Emor, we are told that in the early springtime,
we are to bring the “first sheaf of the harvest” to the priest, who
will “elevate” or “wave” the sheaf before God, which then releases, as
it were, the rest of the crop for human use. (Cf. Leviticus 23: 9-13.)
Then we count off seven weeks of the “omer,” or bundle of barley
stalks, until we get to the holiday 0f the “first fruits” of summer,
which we now call Shavuot.

On Shavuot, there is another “elevation” ritual, in which the priest
waved the agricultural offerings on the altar of the Temple. On this
holy day, the offering is not just raw stalks of barley, but loaves of
bread, along with animals:

“The priest shall elevate these — the two lambs — together with the
bread of first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord; they
shall be holy to the Lord, for the priest. On that same day you shall
hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you . . .”
(Leviticus 23:20-21)

For Rashi and other traditional commentators, the “waving” of the
agricultural offerings is to assure God’s favor and avoid destructive
winds and rains; just as the barley stalks or loaves of bread are
waved up and down, back and forth, the winds and rains which sweep
over the land should only be for blessing, and not destruction. Now,
this might seem like a kind of magic, or a pre-modern theology which
draws a direct connection between our rituals and the weather, but
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the
late 1800’s, sees the “waving” as symbolic of the idea we discussed
earlier- that the Land and its blessing belongs to God alone:

“Referring to this “waving,” it says in the Talmud (Menachot 62a):
that thereby injurious winds and damaging downfalls [lit: “dews”] are
kept away from the seeds and fruit. The blessing of the fields of the
Land of Israel is not dependent soley on physical influences. The
physical prosperity of the soil itself is dependent on the unselfish
renunciation of its products, and devoting them to the purposes of a
God-serving life as directed by [God’s] Torah. ” (Hirsch, Commentary
on the Torah)

For Hirsch, the Land is prosperous when the people of Israel recognize
that our tenancy upon the Earth is for the purpose of fulfilling God’s
commandments, and any blessing that the Land produces is only part of
this greater scheme. Yet I think there is a more universal message in
his words: the vitality of the Earth, anywhere, is indeed dependent on
humankind becoming “unselfish.” We must learn to feel that we are but
stewards for future generations, who depend on our unselfishness
regarding a planet already overtaxed with resource extraction and
depletion.

The rabbis of the Talmud saw the wave- offerings of Passover and
Shavuot as being linked to the winds and rain; this idea is not so
far-fetched when one considers the effect that global warming has on
weather patterns across the planet. If we learn to see the Earth as
the Lord’s, perhaps we can live more humbly upon it, in a relationship
of blessing and sustainability. The symbols and rituals of the holy
days are times of reflection upon this relationship between people,
God, and Earth. Our ancestors lifted up the blessings of the Land in
order to thank the One who blessed them; we too must lift up the Earth
itself, from being inert resources to that which we hold most dear, as
stewards and guardians, for God, for ourselves, for all other species,
and for all future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- the usual links:

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

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bhar_index.htm

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Emor: Living our Gifts

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Greetings! It’s just about the midpoint of the Omer counting, which
means Shavuot is just around the corner (I can taste the blintzes
already.)

However, before we get to the holiday of the “first fruits” (which, by
the way, is described in Chapter 23 of this week’s Torah portion,
Emor), we have to learn a little bit about the sacred disciplines of
the ancient priests. This included refraining from contact with a dead
body under most circumstances; to this day, some Jews who are
descendants of the Kohanim will not go to a cemetery or a funeral home
out of respect for this separation between the priesthood and the
realm of death.

Anthropologists or theologians or historians might have all kinds of
theories as to why the priests should not come into contact with
death, but the Torah merely tells us that the priests must remain
“holy,” as in verse 6:

“They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their
God’s Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food
offering of their God, so they shall be holy.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus
21:6)

Rashi notices that this verse begins with “they shall be” holy, not
“they ARE holy,” and brings an earlier teaching to the effect that
this wording in the future tense implies that the priest’s holiness is
conditional on his actions, and in fact, if he wanted to do things
which would reduce his sanctity (like coming into contact with a dead
body), he could. So if he did want to do this, he should be restrained
by the beit din [rabbinic court.] In other words, Rashi reads this as:
“they shall be holy, even if we have to make them holy against their
will!”

Again, we’ll leave for another time the exploration of why, exactly,
the Torah didn’t want priests to come into contact with death. For
today, I’m more interested in Rashi’s idea that if the priests wanted
to take actions which would impede their ability to offer the public
service, they should be restrained. To me, this is a fascinating
teaching, and an extension of the principle “kol Yisrael aravim zeh
l’zeh,” or “All Israel is responsible for one another.”

As I see it, Rashi’s explanation implies that there are times we
simply have to get involved in other people’s lives, to help them
achieve the holiness and sacred purpose that they are capable of- not
only for their own satisfaction, but also for the sake of the
community. A priest who defiles himself is unfit for service- not only
he but the entire people lose out on the opportunity to experience the
Sacred in the way that the priest could have effected. Similarly, I’ll
bet we all know people who are not achieving the spiritual
contributions that they are capable of; while none of us have the
legal power of the ancient court, we do have the influences of love,
persuasion and caring, which can sometimes bring out spiritual gifts
in even the most recalcitrant person.

“They shall be holy”- not always, and maybe not yet, but the potential
is there, to be fully realized with the help of others. That’s as true
now as it was then- a life whose gifts are made manifest is usually a
life open to the influence of others who care. This, in turn, implies
that part of each life’s task is to help others achieve the sacred
purpose for which they were uniquely born- true then, true now.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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

and a summary and further commentary here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/emor_index.htm

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Kedoshim: Community and Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achre Mot/Kedoshim

It’s a beautiful and sunny Friday morning, so perhaps it’s appropriate
to look at a law pertaining to green and growing things in this week’s
Torah portion. We’re in a double parsha, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, both of
which have lots of different laws (some of which are beautiful, and
some of which require some interpretive struggle) pertaining to family
life, agriculture, sexuality, ethics, and ritual. One of my favorite
mitzvot- also mentioned in next week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah
called “peah,” or “corners,” meaning the commandment to leave a corner
of one’s fields unharvested so the poor can come and collect a bit of
food:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the
way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your
harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen
fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the
stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:9-10)

There is so much ethical teaching in these few verses; I’ve written
about Peah before, and there are many wonderful commentaries about the
different aspects of the mitzvah. This week, I just want to point out
two words, in verse 9: “the poor and the stranger.” In Hebrew, the
word used for the poor person is “oni,” which you may remember from
Pesach a few weeks ago: matzah is called “lechem oni,” or “bread of
poverty, poor person’s bread.” The word for “stranger” is “ger,” which
in modern usage means a convert to Judaism, but in Biblical Hebrew
means somebody who lives among you but is not of your tribe- perhaps
compared today to the “alien” or non-citizen who is a resident, but
doesn’t have full rights of citizenship.

The mitzvah is to leave the corners of our fields- that is, share our
material and other resources- with both the “ger” and the “oni,” which
Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1100’s), along with other commentaries, clearly
spells out as the “poor person” who is of the tribe of Israel, AND the
“ger” or non-Israelite who lived in Israelite areas. In other words,
our moral concern is both for members of the “family” of the people
Israel and for those who are not of our people. We are both a people,
with special concern for the poor, sick, and dispossessed of our
community, and we are human beings, sharing a common destiny with
every soul created in the Divine Image.

Perhaps it’s a paradox to say that our moral concerns must be both
particular and universal, but to me, what this and other verses point
to is the simple fact that no community can take care of the whole
world, just as no human being can take care of everybody else’s
family. We have ties with some people that are thicker than others,
and if every community organized itself such that their own poor and
needy were taken care of, there would be far fewer people who felt
helpless and alienated from sources of material and spiritual support.
As one of my teachers put it: “find your corner of the world, and make
it holy.”

On the other hand- there are always people who fall through the
cracks, and if we restricted our moral concern to those who are part
of our own community, we would lose the opportunity to recognize that
all people are made in the Divine Image, and thus compassion extended
universally is also a chance to find God in places where we might not
otherwise be. The Torah tells us to take care of the poor of our
people, but also tells us to take care of the stranger, because we
were strangers in Egypt, and we of all peoples know the experience of
needing compassion from those who are not exactly like us.

So what’s the answer? How do we focus our giving and social action?

You already know the answer, which is that there is no simple answer.
There are always needs than easily available resources; we must simply
give more, give wisely, and never lose sight of our ties of peoplehood
nor our shared humanity. We are linked to our people in history,
destiny, memory, spirituality, and communal interdepency, and this
makes our lives infinitely richer than they would be as solitary
individuals, cut off from our roots and our branches. Yet God is in
all souls, so Judaism directs our compassion and justice to all
people. We are part of a people, and we are part of humankind; both
are true, and both truths inform a Jewish moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- Before we get to our usual parsha related links, here’s a link to
a good story on CBS news about the new Chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school and graduate
school in New York. The article describes not only the new Chancellor
but also some of the history and challenges of the Conservative
Movement:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/05/03/national/main1582236.shtml

Also, we haven’t looked at Ibn Ezra’s commentary much- here’s a biography:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/IbnEzra.html
Finally, as usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

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

and summaries and further commentary on the parshiot (double parsha) here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
kedoshim_index.htm

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/aharemot_index.htm

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