Archive for June, 2006

Korach: Intensity Matters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Shalom Alecheim! Last night I saw the new Superman movie, and during
one scene where our hero uses his “heat vision” to burn a hole in the
crust of the Earth, my filmgoing companion whispered in my ear: “like
Korach!” She was right, of course- can it be a coincidence that the
movie was released during the week of the Torah portion Korach, who
was swallowed up in a huge hole after a dramatic challenge to Moshe
and his authority?

Well, OK, it probably is in fact a coincidence, but it’s true that
we’re reading Korach this week, and it’s also true that after the
story of the rebellion and narrowly averted civil war, the Torah
clarifies in greater detail the duties, rights and privileges of the
Levites and Kohahim [priests.] To review: the tribe of Levi does not
have an inheritance in the Land of Israel, but instead is dedicated to
religious service in the Mishkan, and later, in the Mikdash, or
Temple. The descendants of Aharon are the priests- they are one family
within the tribe of Levites, but most Levites are not priests.

The Levites and Kohanim live by the tithes of produce and set-aside
portions of animal offerings that the rest of the nation brings to the
Sanctuary; clarifying these rights and duties is the major point of
chapter 18 in our portion. However, one detail that is not very clear
is an unusual description of the covenant between God and the
descendants of Aharon, a covenant which is dependent on the gifts and
offerings brought by the rest of the Israelites:

“All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I
give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as
a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before
the Lord for you and for your offspring as well.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 18:19)

So, nu, what’s a covenant of salt, and what does that have to do with
the priests living on their share of the “sacred gifts” of the Israelites?

Rashi explains this in a very straightforward way: just as salt
preserves things, so this covenant will be everlasting- as if it were
preserved in salt, so to speak. Hirsch has a different take; he says
that since the priests are given these portions as compensation for
their life of service and dedication to God and Torah, consciousness
of their special role and status must permeate the Jewish people like
salt permeates food. (I’m paraphrasing here.) As I understand Hirsch’s
idea, the priests represent the possibility of Torah and holiness in
the midst of the Israelite nation; what they stand for should not just
remain in the Mishkan, but should be “salted” throughout the life of
the community, in all relationships and daily affairs.

In other words, the “covenant of salt” is a three-way deal: God lets
the priests have a portion of the offerings, they dedicate their lives
to holy service, and the entire people are uplifted by these exemplars
of Torah. Salt is thus a metaphor for how something that is small
physically can have a big impact on the “flavor,” or character, of the
greater whole. After all, the priests weren’t even a whole tribe- they
were only a small portion of one tribe out of twelve- but they had a
huge impact on the spiritual life of the nation, just as a pinch of
salt has a huge impact on the taste of one’s food.

It’s a beautiful and empowering image, and as true today as it was
then. Any person reading this might become the “salt” who changes
their community for the better- sheer numbers are not required, just
intensity of purpose and commitment. A bit of salt changes a whole pot
of food; a few dedicated people can change a whole community, lifting
up its spirituality and compassion and holy values. Salt is a humble
image, but the Torah makes of it a grand encouragement to live life
with bold ideals and an expansive moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the summary and many further commentaries are in the
first link, and the text of the Torah portion and haftarah in the second.

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Shlach: Bread and Surfeits

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Massachusetts ! This week’s Torah
portion is Shlach-Lecha, which means “send for yourself,” words which
occur in the first sentence of the portion and begin the story of the
spies who are sent up to the Land of Israel. Well, that didn’t go so
well, but afterwards, the Israelites received various laws concerning
agricultural offerings, how to make atonement, the Sabbath, and
tzitzit, or ritual fringes.

Many of us think of challah as the braided bread eaten on Shabbat and
festivals, but the word “challah” (also sometimes transliterated as
hallah, but it’s really a guttural “kh” ) actually signifies a mitzvah
performed in the preparation of the bread, not the bread itself. Among
the various offerings discussed in the latter part of Shlach-Lecha is
the law of separating out a bit from our “baking:”

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and
say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of
bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord: as
the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift;
you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing
floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your
baking, throughout the ages.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:17-21)

The rabbis understood the phrase “first yield” to mean you separate
out a bit while it’s still in the first stages of baking- that is, the
dough. There are various laws which specify how much and when and
under what conditions this mitzvah applies, but for now, suffice it to
say that it’s still a rabbinic law to separate out a little piece of
dough from kosher bread. We can’t give it to the priests anymore,
since their aren’t any, so this little bit of dough is simply
separated and discarded. Thus, “challah” has become a label which
means “bread from which challah has been taken”- that is, bread which
has had this little piece taken from the dough (assuming it’s a kosher
or observant baker.)

If you’re baking at home, you do the same thing- you take a little
piece of the dough and just toss it in the back of the oven, then
discard it later. You might hear this called “taking challah,” and
applies today as a reminder of Biblical practices and a connection to
the special blessings of the Land of Israel.

OK, so it’s nice to remember the past, and it’s certainly important to
remember the special blessings of the Land of Israel, but does taking
a bit of dough out of my nice Cuisinart bread machine mean more than a
remembrance of something ancient and far away? (Not that remembering
things ancient and far away aren’t in themselves part of spiritual
growth.) Well, as I see it, the mitzvah of taking challah is directly
connected to the idea of “when you enter the Land,” in the first verse
of our passage above. The “Promised Land” wasn’t just a safe haven
from slavery, it was also a place where the Israelites could enjoy
material blessings and prosperity.

Precisely because the inheritors of the Land would be the descendants
of traumatized slaves, it’s powerful to me that there are so many
agricultural, Israel-based mitzvot which teach us to appreciate that
we have enough (bread, fruit, oil, wine, animals, money) to give away.
One legacy of trauma and deprivation is a constant fear that there’s
never enough- taking just a little piece of challah is another
reminder that the inheritors of the Land would in fact, have enough.
What was true then is true now- we, too, need reminders that we
usually have more material abundance than we truly need, and must
therefore give some away in order to live a spiritually meaningful
life, a life which is not ruled by fear or greed, but is increasingly
generous and giving.

To that end, the mitzvah of challah seems to be based in the principal
that feelings follow actions- that is, one might not feel generous or
blessed, but in the very act of giving, come to appreciate the
sufficiency of one’s blessings. In AA, this is sometimes called “act
as if”- that is, act as if you have enough to give away, and you will
almost certainly come to learn that you do. (At least for most of us
in modern day North America.) Separating out a little bit of dough is
another way that Judaism teaches us that we are given in order that we
may give, and in the very act of giving, we come to appreciate the
gifts that life has afforded us. Challah a small piece of dough, but
teaches a major principal of the spiritual life.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the text of the portion is here:

and a summary and further commentary can be found here:

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Beha’alotecha: Direct Reconciliation

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

Greetings! It’s summertime, otherwise known in Judaism as “the Season
of Reading the Stories of the Israelites Kvetching.” That is, we’re
reading the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers, in which there are numerous
stories of the Israelites (and even Moshe and his family) complaining,
rebelling, questioning, being fractious, etc. Then again- traveling is
stressful enough, never mind with 600,000 of your closest friends, and
going through a wilderness, no less.

With that thought- on to parshat Beha’alotecha, where indeed, we find
an episode of the Israelites complaining in the desert:

“The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord
heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them,
ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses.
Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down.” (Bamidbar 11:1-2)

We learn just a few verses later that the people are craving meat
(apparently manna gets boring after a bit), and it’s not hard to
imagine their anxiety and fear of the unknown turning into complaints
about their present situation. It’s a bit harder to grasp why God sent
a “fire” against the complainers, rather than addressing issues of
faith or confidence more directly, but perhaps the “fire” is really a
metaphor for anger or how bitter rumors can spread like “wildfire” in
a community.

Rashi quotes an earlier text to explain why the people approached
Moshe after the fire broke out:

“The people cried out to Moses. . . . This can be compared to a mortal
king who became angry with his son. That son went to his father’s
friend and said to him, Go and ask [forgiveness] on my behalf from

On the one hand, this is a fairly straightforward allegory: the king
is God, the son is the people Israel, and Moshe is the king’s friend.
If it were a human being who was angry with his (or her) friend or
family member, then it makes perfect sense to send a message of
reconciliation through a trusted intermediary, since one might assume
that the angry person wouldn’t want to listen at first, or might even
become angrier when seeing the object of his anger in person.
Yet taking Rashi’s little allegory seriously, and imagining the
scenario in human terms, poses a problem when applied to the
human-Divine relationship, namely, didn’t the people think that God
knew already about their prayers and penitence? Why did they ask Moshe
to intervene – after all, if God could see their suffering in Egpyt,
the Holy One could certainly perceive their penitence in the desert!

My sense is that the Israelites, who had been emotionally and
spiritually scarred by the experience of slavery, didn’t really feel
worthy of approaching God in prayer. You may recall that even after
the revelation at Sinai, they asked Moshe to receive the rest of the
Torah from God, but they didn’t want a Divine Voice speaking to them
directly (cf. Shmot/ Exodus 20). Furthermore, the people had just been
“complaining,” and were probably not feeling particularly
self-confident or spiritually dignified. Finally, consider that Moshe
had proven his mettle as an intermediary during the confrontation with
Pharoah, the god of Egypt; perhaps it was simply too soon after Egypt
for the people to fully grasp the difference between a human dictator
and a Divine Liberator.

Thus I understand Rashi’s little allegory as teaching empathy for the
estranged “son,” that is, the people, who asked Moshe to intervene not
because they thought that God only heard Moshe’s prayers, but because
they themselves didn’t feel ready to face God in t’shuvah. They needed
Moshe to go before them, not because God wouldn’t receive their
prayers, but they felt that Moshe was better able to present them.
Moshe prayed for the people, not only because of his humility, but
also because of the people’s humiliation by Pharoah- after suffering
under a king who thought he was a god, how could they even imagine
that the God of Israel does in fact love each person and desire their
constant return and growth and spiritual uplift?

Sending a message of reconciliation to a human being through a
messenger could be a fine idea, depending on the circumstances.
Reorienting ourselves to sacred principles and practices, however, is
best done one-on-One in prayer and meditation, with the human soul
communing with its Divine Source. No matter what has enslaved us in
the past, none of us are unworthy of standing before the Holy One in
prayer, and all of us deserve the blessings of reconciliation and
return to the path of being our best self. We may feel momentarily
estranged from the Source of our Being, but never forget the real
point of Rashi’s allegory: all the people are the children of the
Living God. That was true in the wilderness, and it’s true today.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- As usual, you’ll find a summary and further commentary here:

and the text of the portion and haftarah here:

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Naso: How Much T’shuvah is Enough?

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Well, this is supposed to be the week of parshat Naso, but it feels
more like Noah and the flood! I’ve heard that it’s been one of the
rainiest springtimes ever in New England- well, maybe the time you’re
not outside playing golf or getting a tan you can be inside studying

Back to our parsha, Naso, which is mostly about the duties of the
Mishkan, and all the gifts to the Mishkan brought by that the princes
of the tribes. There is also the famous “priestly blessing,” the test
of the bitter waters, rules for people who take special holy vows, and
a few criminal laws, including a rule about restitution:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man
or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith
with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess
the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal
amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.
. .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 5:5-7)

Although this passage is fairly straightforward, it’s worth noting
that the rabbis compare this to another verse, in Vayikra chapter 5,
which leads them to conclude that what’s really going on here is a
case where somebody did something wrong to somebody else, then lied
about it, and then decides to confess later. Such a person has to make
restitution, plus one-fifth of the value of the restitution, and bring
an offering to God in the Mishkan.

First, let’s note that according to this interpretation of the rabbis
(cf. Rashi on this paragraph), this law is really a marvelous example
of Judaism’s openness to t’shuvah, or “returning,” but usually
translated as “repentance.” The lying thief gets a second chance, even
after committing perjury! Perhaps the Torah realizes that it’s simply
human nature to deny our wrongdoing when caught- perjury is a serious
crime, but it can’t be punished so severely that people have no
motivation to confess later.

Thus, by giving the perpetrator of wrong a second chance to confess,
the Torah seems to be implying that even a lying thief (or whatever he
did) might reflect on his deeds and eventually may wish to make things
right. In fact, one could say that the real thrust of this commandment
is not so much to the repentant miscreant, but to the one harmed, who
is being told to accept the confession and restitution (plus
one-fifth) as sufficient. (I’ve often thought that it’s emotionally
and spiritually more difficult to accept another’s t’shuvah than do
one’s own, but that’s another discussion.)

Taking things a bit further, let’s remember that sometimes the Torah
teaches us an extreme case in order to illustrate more ordinary
ethics. I think this is such a time: if a thief or other criminal gets
a second chance to confess without a substantially greater penalty,
how much more so should we all extend to each other that “second
chance” to do t’shuvah without the fear that confession will bring
greater anger and blame.

In other words- sometimes it’s hard to confess one’s misdeeds,
especially to those we love, but people of conscience (i.e., most
people) will often want eventually to repair relationships and effect
reconciliation. Maybe the “one-fifth” which is added could be
understood as the greater effort needed to do t’shuvah once one has
denied or lied about the initial problem, but even so, one-fifth
greater effort is not prohibitive.

It is axiomatic in Judaism that the Torah is a “Torat Hesed,” a Torah
of loving-kindness; in this case, the hesed comes when people soften
towards each other, make reconciliation where they must, and
forgiveness when they ought. Barriers to reconciliation are just as
much a problem for the wronged party as for the one who must
apologize; removing those barriers creates the community of
loving-kindness which the Torah envisions as our goal and destiny.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find a summary and further commentary in the
first link, and the text of the Torah portion and haftarah in the

ALSO, here’s something fun: the United Jewish Communities puts together
a booklet of inspirational thoughts from rabbis across the Jewish
world. This past spring, several of my weekly drashot were adapted for
use in this compendium, which you can download in PDF format at the
top of the page:

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Shavuot: Sharing the Blessings

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Dear Friends:

Hag Sameach! The regular Torah reading is put off for a week, in most
traditional synagogues, because of the second day of the holiday of
Shavuot. The holiday Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17, plus
a maftir from the book of Numbers. The main part of the Dvarim/
Deuteronomy reading is a review of the holidays in chapter 16,
including the holiday we’re about to celebrate:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe
the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill
contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you. You
shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter,
your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the
stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place
where the Lord your God will choose to establish The Divine Name.
Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey
these laws.” (Dvarim/Deut. 16: 9-11)

OK, so far, so good: we count the omer for seven weeks, starting at
Pesach and then have a holiday of agricultural blessing in Jerusalem.
In post-Biblical Israel, Shavuot became the holiday of “Matan Torah,”
the Giving of the Torah, which makes calendrical sense, since it’s
some weeks after leaving Egypt that the Israelites stood at Sinai. One
way to connect the two meanings of the holiday (blessings of the land
and giving of the Torah) is by noticing that even in Biblical times, a
holy time had a distinctly ethical dimension to it. Notice in verse 11
that we are to include the poor and powerless in our celebrations; we
might even say that precisely at a time when we are thanking God for
our blessings, we must share those blessings with others if they are
to have any spiritual or religious meaning at all.

Rashi picks up on the moral teaching of verse 11 and gives it a
profound theological “twist:”

” the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . [God
says:] These are My four, corresponding to your four, [namely,] ‘Your
son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant.’ If
you shall gladden Mine, I will gladden yours. ”

This interpretation, which Rashi gets from older sources, is based on
the symmetry of who is included in a householder’s celebration: if the
“you” is the head of the house, then the children and servants are
part of the family, as it were. The Levite (who had no land holding),
the orphan, the widow, and the stranger (i.e., the non-citizen) were
not part of anybody’s household- therefore, they are part of God’s
family, as it were! Rashi’s text has God saying: if you take care of
Mine- that is, the powerless and lonely- then I’ll take care of yours,
the folks who live with you.

We don’t have to believe that there is a direct connection of Divine
causality between our deeds and our welfare to see the truth of
Rashi’s comment. Our acts of generosity, inclusion, and compassion
speak to the very nature of a person’s soul; one is loving, or not. We
don’t celebrate only for our personal pleasure- that’s not a holy day,
that’s just a party. Rather, we give thanks for our abundance by
sharing it in a life of generosity which is itself a blessing for
ourselves and others. If Shavuot is only about grasping Torah
intellectually, or only about celebrating the arrival of summer, then
we’ve missed the point: the Torah was given so that the world would be
healed through lovingkindness. Now, that’s something to celebrate.

Hag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you’ll find a summary of the holiday Torah reading here,
plus many articles relating to the holiday in the links box on the

and the text of the Torah portions and haftarot here:

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