Archive for July, 2006

D’varim: The Lens of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

Greetings from the humid regions of tropical Boston! We continue to
hope for peace in Israel and the surrounding regions- may hatred give
way to generosity, speedily and in our days.

This week’s Torah portion, D’varim, begins the book of Deuteronomy,
literally the “second telling” (that’s what Deuteronomy means) of the
story of the Exodus, Revelation, and journey through the wilderness.
Moshe is just about to die, and the people are just about to cross the
Jordan river to the Land, making the entire book of D’varim an urgent
review of their history and laws.

The beginning of D’varim is a rebuke of the people for their lack of
faith and contentiousness along the way, including a reference to the
incident of the spies who go up to the Land (this is the story found
in parshat Shlach-Lecha). Moshe points out to the people that they
didn’t give God much credit for having overthrown Pharoah and split
the sea and provided the manna up till that time:

“Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your
God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates
us that God brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to
the Amorites to wipe us out. What kind of place are we going to? Our
kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, ‘We saw there a people
stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and
even Anakites.’ ‘ ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 1:26-28, and see
Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 14 for the earlier story.)

Moshe condenses the long story of the spies into a few sentences, but
he names the emotional essence of the incident: the people seemed
overwhelmed by doubt and fear, and projected their negative feelings
onto God, whom they claimed took them out of Egypt only so they could
be slain by the sword. (Cf. the beginning of Bamidbar 14.) It’s quite
amazing to think that after the plagues upon Parsha, the splitting of
the Sea, the giving of the Torah, the battles, miracles, manna, water
from the rock and all the rest, that the Israelites could really think
that their journey was all a setup so they could be killed in the
desert by the Amorites!

Rashi understands that the people’s words are an indication of their
inner emotional state, rather than their rational beliefs:

“Because the Lord hates us. . . Really, however, God loves you, but
you hate[d] God. A saying of the common people is: What is in your own
heart about your friend, is in his heart about you.”

I understand this “saying of the common people” to mean: what is in
your heart is what you imagine or believe the other person is thinking
about you- you project your inner state onto others. In other words,
because the people were churned up with fear and anxiety, they
resented those (both Moshe and God, never mind Caleb and Joshua) whom
they associated with the fear-provoking changes, and imputed to them
the worst possible motivations, even to the point where they seemed to
ignore the manna and water than sustained them.

Framed this way, Moshe’s rebuke is not so much about bad theology (God
hates us!), but about lack of self-awareness, so much so that real
suffering resulted from the contentiousness and emotional projection.
Change is hard, and sometimes leaders make mistakes, but when we avoid
confronting fear or grief, naming them clearly, people who genuinely
care can become the casualties of anger and blame. It’s so hard to
always judge “l’chaf z’chut,” on the side of favor and goodwill, but
it’s an essential struggle, without which relationships suffer, hearts
are bruised, reconciliation is delayed, and love is diminished.

The people didn’t really hate God, but their fear prevented them
feeling God’s love for them at the moment when they needed it most.
The alternative to “sulking in your tents” is clear: open one’s eyes
and heart to faithful relationship, with God and community, and let
fear itself be open to a sustaining and transforming love.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find a summary and additional commentary here:

and the text of the Torah and haftarah here:

Next week is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the
saddest day on the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning. For
more information about this day’s history and practices, here’s a
great start:

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Mattot-Maasei: The Miracle is the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

Our thoughts and prayers are for peace this week- the world is crying
out for peace, but there is still so much needless war. . . . . .

Our Torah portion this week is Mattot-Masei, a double portion, which
concludes the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers. Among the stories and laws of
the double parsha are a recounting of all the places where the
Israelites camped from the time they left Egypt until arriving on the
far side of the Jordan river.

“These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt
in their legions, under the charge of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe
recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the
word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting
points. . . . . ” (Numbers/Bamidbar 33:1-2)

What follows is a large chunk of text with the names of all those
places, which raises a question among commentators: so, nu, what is
this, a travelogue, that we need all the names of every campsite?
Kidding aside, it’s a serious question about the nature of sacred
text: the ancient and medieval rabbis took it as self-evident that the
Torah teaches theological truth, not merely historical data. So if the
Torah is telling us “first they camped here, then there, then over
there. . . . “, it must have a theological purpose in doing so.

One perspective comes from Maimonides (A.K.A. Rambam), the philosopher
who is quoted in the Torah commentary of the later scholar
Nachmanides, (A.K.A. Ramban.) Rambam explains that the Torah goes into
great length to tell us every place the Israelites camped because it’s
part of the larger narrative of God’s greatness and mercy. In fact,
even with all the miracles which the Torah describes, from the
splitting of the Sea to the giving of the Torah and all the rest, the
most amazing miracle of all is that the Israelite nation survived on
its 40 year journey, with the manna falling every day and the people
moving along from one point to the next for an entire generation.
Thus, for Rambam, the campsites are named because knowing the details
of the journey helps us be grateful to God for the entire miraculous
history of our people, which is more amazing than any particular piece
of it.

Of course, what’s true for a people is also true for a person: with
all the ups and downs and detours and travails and triumphs and
challenges and successes and failures and joys and sorrows that a life
can bring, the journey from one stage to another may be the greatest
gift of all. Just the fact that we don’t have to get stuck at one
“campsite” over a life’s journey is pretty amazing- we are always
capable of greater growth and getting closer to the unfolding of our
spiritual potential. Reflecting on the journey can bring us to
amazement and gratitude- precisely the emotions that miracles evoke,
if only we open our hearts to feel them.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- before you go onto further Torah study in the links below, take a
moment to read some of the letters from Masorti (Conservative) rabbis
in Israel, doing amazing work under great stress in the current
situation. To help the Masorti movement bring comfort, healing and
refuge to the people of Israel, please consider donating, through the
link at the top of the page:

Now, as usual, you can find a summary of the double portion and
further commentary in the first link, and the relevant Torah texts in
the second:

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Pinchas: Leadership and Spirit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

I send this to you on a day of mourning, the 17th of the month of
Tammuz, observed as a minor fast day in commemoration of the breaching
of the walls of Jerusalem a few weeks before the destruction of the
second Temple. Rabbinic tradition also associates other tragedies with
this day, but given the current events on the northern and
southwestern borders of Israel, we hardly need to add much to a day
spent in sadness over the “breaching of the walls.” May there be peace
in Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, and throughout the world, and may this
week’s Torah commentary be a prayer for peace for all peoples.

Unfortunately, Parshat Pinchas doesn’t start out in a very peaceful
way- Pinchas, the priest, is praised for an act of violent religious
zealotry, which we’ll discuss another time. (See also a commentary by
R. Alpert on, linked below.) A census is taken,
some laws are straightened out with daughters of Tzlofchad, and then
Moshe is told that he won’t take the people into the Land because of
the incident of striking the rock at Meribah. Moshe then pleads with
God to appoint a worthy successor in his place:

“Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying: ‘Let the Lord, God of the spirits of
all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before
them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring
them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have
no shepherd.’

And the Lord answered Moses, ‘Single out Y’hoshua son of Nun- there is
spirit in him – and lay your hand upon him. . . ‘ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers
27:15-18, modified JPS translation.)

The key word in these passages is “ruach,” or spirit- Moshe calls God
the “God of the spirit of all flesh,” and God replies by assuring
Moshe that there is “spirit” in Y’hoshua [Joshua.] “Ruach” can mean
“spirit,” in the sense of “soul,” as we’d use the word today, but can
also mean “breath,” as in the “breath of life” which God put into
humankind. Obviously, these are related meanings- what makes us human
is a spark of the Divine, our capacity for moral choice and spiritual

The true “breath of life” is not merely our biological existence- as
miraculous and awe-inspiring as that is- but also our ability to
become self-aware as spiritual beings, which to me means growing over
time in compassion, humility, awe, generosity, forgiveness, and
reverence. Those are among our “spiritual” or Godly traits, the spark
of the Divine within us.

So when Moshe calls God, “the God of the spirit of all flesh,” we can
understand this to mean: “appoint somebody who understands that they
have Your spirit within them, so that they will act in ways that are
worthy of of the spirit You have given them.”

Rashi’s interpretation of God’s reply fits with this context:

“there is spirit in him. . . As you requested, so that he [Y’hoshua]
will go with the spirit of each one [person]. ”

What Rashi implies is this: because Y’hoshua was a spiritually aware
person, he had the potential to treat other people as though they,
too, were unique spiritual beings, each entrusted with the Divine
capacity for choosing compassion and justice. That’s what true
leadership requires: somebody who will regard others as ends in
themselves, not as means to some other end, be it political, military,
or national. Of course, this is true on a smaller scale, as well:
precisely to the extent that we seek the Presence of God within
ourselves, we will see it in others, and treat them accordingly.
(The reverse is true too!)

My hope and prayer in this broken world of bombs and kidnappings and
conflicts of all sizes is that leadership will arise with spirit in
it- that is, women and men will be called forth by their communities
who see in themselves and all others the Image of God, linking every
human to every other. The spirit of God transcends our conflicts, but
only if we see it in ourselves and each other. Let’s open our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, a summary and further commentary is found on the first
link, and the text of the portion and haftarah in the second link. The
commentary from Rabbi Alpert- my former Hillel boss in Philadelphia-
addresses some of the problems in the Pinchas story:

For more about the 17th of Tammuz, the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av,
and other minor fast days, go here:

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Chukkat/Balak: Opportunities, Gained and Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukkat/Balak

Hope you had a happy Fourth of July- if you’re in the USA, then I hope
you had a happy holiday, and if not, well, I hope your Fourth was
equally good going about your regular day, even without the excitement
of barbecues and fireworks. The excitement continues, of course, in
the double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak, which includes
rebellions, plagues, sorcerers, battles, negotiations, blessings,
curses, and most poignantly, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The
generation of the Exodus is dying out, and the next generation will be
ready to enter the Land, under new leadership.

Moshe is told to take his brother and nephew (Aharon’s son Eleazar) up
a mountain, where the garments of the High Priest will be taken off
Aharon and put on his son. Rashi and others comment that it is a great
comfort to Aharon that he will see his son dressed as High Priest, but
nevertheless, Aharon dies on the mountain, and Moshe and Eleazar come
back to the people:

“When Moshe and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole
community knew that Aharon had breathed his last. All the house of
Israel bewailed Aharon thirty days.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20: 28-29)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aharon was mourned
even more than Moshe: the text in Devarim/ Deuteronomy 34:8 says
simply that “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for
thirty days,” but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the “house of
Israel” mourned for Aharon. Rashi says that “all” refers to both the
men and the women; he bases himself on a famous midrash that Aharon
was a pursuer of peace, who made peace between husbands and wives
(among others.)

However, Hirsch also comments on an irony in the image of the entire
Israelite nation mourning its beloved High Priest- only a few verses
before, when they ran out of water, the people were rioting and
rebelling against the very man they are now crying for! The text is
explicit about this:

“The community was without water, and they gathered themselves against
Moses and Aaron. . . . ” (Bamidbar 20:2)

In Hirsch’s interpretation, the people loved Aharon, and their grief
for him was the more genuine emotion; their anger was only a passing
feeling based on temporary conditions or frustrations. That’s
certainly plausible- we’ve all spoken unkind words to our loved ones
when we’re exasperated or exhausted by other problems. However, it’s
also possible that the intensity of the communal grief is deeply
connected to their earlier outburst of frustration. Perhaps the
difference between the death of Moshe and the death of Aharon is that
Moshe blessed the people before he died, whereas Aharon’s final
interaction with the community is one of contention, in which the
people demand water and he and Moshe “strike the rock” in anger in
order to give it to them.

This turns Hirsch’s and Rashi’s interpretation around, to a certain
degree: perhaps the Torah adds an extra word to denote the pain the
Israelites felt upon losing Aharon not only because he was a beloved
man of peace, but because they had unfinished reconciliation to do
after the strife in the wilderness. To take the comparison further: at
the end of his life, Moshe gave his blessing, and the people received
it, but Aharon, whose explicit job description included blessing the
people, simply went up the mountain without having a chance to take
his leave. (Verse 27 says that the three men went up the mountain in
front of the entire community, but there is no indication that the
people knew what was going to happen.)

In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing
Aharon, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make
their peace. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, this makes
sense to me; while there is no such thing as “closure” (I’d like to
ban that word!), having a chance to say goodbye, with words and
rituals of transition and blessing, often brings great comfort to both
the dying and the soon-to-be bereaved.

Of course, the real challenge comes from knowing that any of us could
be “called to the mountain” at any time, making t’shuvah and
reconciliation a constant spiritual imperative. It’s quite simple,
really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to
make peace with your loved ones! The people bewailed Aharon, but I
believe they also bewailed their lost opportunity to ask forgiveness
and express their love. Such opportunities can be fleeting, and are
precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the full text of the parsha is here along with some

and a summary and other commentaries are here:

BUT, here’s something new and fun- I found a Torah commentary blog
which has many interesting thoughts on the parshiot, from modern,
classic, and Hasidic perspectives:

check it out and tell me what you think.

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