Archive for August, 2006

Shoftim: Elders, Prophets and Captains

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Greetings from the Hudson River Valley! I’ve arrived in Poughkeepsie
and begun the long process of avoiding the large piles of boxes in my
house and office. More importantly, I’ve been meeting great people who
for different reasons have been anticipating the arrival of the new
rabbi in town; some want the new rabbi to help with programming plans,
others are looking forward to sermons and learning Torah, some folks
have life-cycle events coming up, and there are those who simply want
a renewed sense of spiritual leadership within the community.

Well, as I’ve said before, one of the amazing things about being
Jewish (which I learned from my teacher R. Brad Artson) is that
whatever issue presents itself at any given moment, there’s always
something relevant to it in the Torah portion of the week. So this
week, as I move into the rabbi’s office on Grand Avenue and meet with
other professional and volunteer leaders of this community, it struck
me how many different models of leadership are named in this week’s
parsha, Shoftim, or “Judges.”

By my count, there are eight different kinds of community leaders
discussed in this week’s parsha, listed in order of appearance in the
text:

1) Shoftim (judges)- legal authorities.
2) Shotrim (“officials”), who seem to be community or civilian
authorities.
3) Kohanim (priests), who have both ritual and some legal duties.
4) Melech, the king, who must learn and fulfill the Torah.
5) Levi’im, or members of the tribe of Levi who have religious
responsibilities but who are not priests.
6) Navi (prophet), a person who speaks the word of God.
7) Ziknei ir (elders of the city).
8) Sharei Tze’vaot (army captains).

A detailed study of the portion, along with comparison to other texts
elsewhere in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), would yield insights into each
role, and how they support and balance each other. (Separation of
powers is a venerable idea.) For today, however, it’s enough to note
that our ancestors understood that different people possess different
gifts, and the community cannot thrive with only one source of
authority or wisdom.

What was true then is no less true today: our spiritual communities
are in need of the wisdom of our elders, the insights of those with
penetrating minds and good discernment, the moral courage of brave
visionaries, leaders of ritual and song and other connections to the
sacred, and the hard work of those generous spirits who provide for
the well-being and safety of communal institutions.

Done well, leadership is not a zero-sum game, with clearly defined
winners and losers; if it’s all about winners and losers, it’s not
leadership, it’s power struggles. Rather, I believe that a healthy
community encourages everyone- everyone!- to find their voice and
offer their unique contributions. There is so much to be done, and so
much to lose if we restrict our openness as to who may guide us to
just a few traditional types. Our ancestors knew that their community
could not thrive with only one kind of leader; neither can ours, and
we are blessed in proportion to our communal ability to bring forth
wisdom and inspiration from the souls all around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Re’eh: The Journey and the Resting Place

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re going through some transitions at the Central Headquarters of
Rabbineal-list here in Newton Centre, MA. I’m packing up to move to
Poughkeepsie (see link below) and so for the last time, I offer you
greetings from the beautiful summer climes of the greater Boston area.
(Rest assured, I may be leaving this great Commonwealth, but I’m not
giving up honorary citizenship in Red Sox Nation, even if I am moving
to New York.)

So I’m packing up- or, more accurately, procrastinating when I need to
be packing up- and a verse from this week’s Torah portion just jumped
out at me. In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, Moshe tells the people that
when they get into the Land, sacrificial worship will be centralized
in one place. Apparently, at this point in Israelite history, people
are making their offerings as they please, despite the lengthy rules
given in Exodus and Leviticus for building one Sanctuary at the center
of the camp. (See the Etz Hayim commentary, at the beginning of
chapter 12, for a short discussion of this history.)

Thus, after Moshe tells the people that they must not worship the way
the native Canaanites do, he also tells them that their own practice
will have to change once they arrive in their tribal settlements:

“You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases,
because you have not yet come to the resting place, the inheritance,
that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Dvarim/ Deuteronomy 12:8-9,
modified JPS translation.)

The phrase at the heart of verse 9 is “al ham’nucha v’al hanachala,”
which I’ve translated as “the resting place, the inheritance,” but
could also be translated as “the rest and the inheritance,” or “the
allotted resting place.” According to Etz Hayim, the reason Moshe
connects the “resting place” of the Land and the need to centralize
worship is that once the people are fully settled, they’re going to
have to make it safe for worshippers to travel to the Sanctuary.
Perhaps a nomadic people dealing with the challenges of the journey
hasn’t been ready for that level of social organization, or perhaps
the stresses of the journey through the desert have preoccupied the
people, but whatever the case, things will change once the tribes
settle in their allotted lands.

On the other hand, what struck me about the verses quoted above is the
emotional impact these words probably have had on the weary but
excited Israelites. After all, even though this is the second
generation since the Exodus, it must have been somewhat shocking to be
told: “Getting to the land is not the end point of the journey! Once
we get there, we have lots more to do, and the rest and peace you
hoped for is still some time in the future, even if we’re on the
borders of the place we’ve been moving towards for 40 years.”

I can only imagine that the Israelites were happy and excited to see
the borders of the Land in the distance, thinking “this is it! We’ve
reached the end of the journey!” Moshe had to tell them: this is not
the end, this is the beginning of a new phase of your development as a
people and as a nation. The Israelites probably could not imagine life
beyond arrival at the Promised Land, yet they had to rethink the
meaning of their sojourn once they arrived, in order to realize that
the Land itself was not the goal. Rather, becoming the community they
were meant to be, which could only happen in their homeland, was the
longer and deeper goal. To put it another way, they had to learn that
the Land of Israel was a way of being together, an internal state, as
much as a physical place.

What is true for the Israelites continues to be true for each of us:
repeatedly throughout life, we think “aha, this is it, we’re here,”
yet it turns out to be but a stage in a longer, less predictable
process of growth and journey. In my own life, each time I’ve arrived
at a goal or vision, it turns out to be only the gateway to things I
didn’t even imagine existed. The challenge, of course, is to embrace
the next stage of growth and be open to what is beyond even that. We
are never fully at the “resting place” or “allotted inheritance,” but
may orient ourselves toward it every hour, and every day, and get
closer over the unfolding years.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link has a summary and further commentary on
Re’eh, and the second link has the texts of the parsha and haftarah
(if it’s not switched over from last week yet it will be in a few
days):

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

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

To learn more about the new International World Headquarters of
Rabbineal-list, see here:

http://poughkeepsie.uscjhost.net/

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Ekev: The Blessings We Wear

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

It’s the middle of August, the days are warm and long, and that means
we’re smack dab in the middle of Dvarim/ Deuteronomy, the fifth book
of the Torah, which is a review of the events and laws which have
taken place from the beginning of Exodus right through the 40 year
trek to the Land of Promise.

Among the amazing things that Moshe recounts for the people is the way
that God took care of them in the wilderness, by providing food [the
manna], water, protection, and so on. A typical reader might remember
the manna and the wells and the wars from previous sections of the
Torah, but Moshe reminds the people of two additional details of the
journey:

” Your clothing did not wear out upon you, nor did your foot swell
these forty years. . . . ” (Dvarim/ Deut. 8:4)

I’ll leave the question of swollen feet to the podiatrist Torah
scholars among us, because I’m more interested in the image from the
first part of the verse. Rashi, quoting earlier texts, offers an
amazing interpretation of “your clothing did not wear out upon you.”
He says that the Cloud of Glory [i.e., the cloud which manifested the
Divine Presence] rubbed their clothing clean! (Talk about your
ultimate environmentally sensitive dry cleaning!) Not only that, but
clothing on the children grew along with them, like a snail’s shell
grows along with the animal, so that it did not “wear out” in the
sense of having to be replaced.

I think that I understand Rashi’s problem- after all, we can
understand the narrative and theological meaning of great miracles
like the splitting of the Sea and getting water from the rock, but
it’s hard to understand fresh laundry as a compelling sign of the
Divine Covenant, at least, not without some midrashic [interpretive]
elaboration. Linking the Clouds of Glory- that is, the imminent Divine
Presence- with this sartorial miracle is a way of portraying God, like
a loving parent, offering nurture and care in even the most mundane
matters of life.

To that end, we can turn Rashi’s comment around and
apply it to our own lives, and say: if you really appreciate how
wonderful it is that you have clothing to wear on your journey through
life, you could experience God’s Presence in the act of putting on a
clean set of socks every day, just like you could find the Divine
Presence anywhere else you choose to be open to it.

To me, Rashi’s midrash suggests that the experience of being
liberated allowed the Israelites to feel that even the clothing they took from
Egypt was sufficient and wonderful, even miraculous. Granted, the
Israelites did their fair share of complaining about various things
along their 40 year sojourn, but perhaps Moshe is reminding them that
complaining and rebelling wasn’t the whole experience- they were also
at times grateful and aware of being nurtured and sustained.

Thus, what at first appears to be the rather undramatic miracle of
Divine dry cleaning could actually be a powerful image for reflection:
how do can we come to feel that our possessions are sufficient ? How
can I nurture gratitude and lessen the urge for new, cool stuff? How do
I come to truly be thankful for something as simple and ordinary as a
clean t-shirt in the morning? Judaism has prayers which thank God for
the material and physical blessings of life [e.g., the Birkot Hashachar, or
morning
blessings], but do I say them with real authenticity?

Believe me, I’m no Moshe in this regard, and this week, when I’m
packing up to move, I’m definitely thinking that I could better learn
to recognize when just enough is just fine. Moshe reminded the people
that with a sense of the Divine in their lives, one clean set of
clothes could be enough for a 40 year journey. That kind of humility,
gratitude, and appreciation of one’s blessings may have been the even
greater miracle.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find a summary and futher commentary on Ekev in
the first link, and the texts of the portion and haftarah, as well as
even more lovely commentary (from two of my classmates in Israel), at
the second link:

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

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

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Shabbat Nachamu: Comfort in Eternal Things

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tisha B’Av

It’s Tisha B’Av, and I’m in Orlando, Florida, attending the annual
meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, where
my father, z’l, was honored by the Association (of which he was a
charter member) with a memorial lecture and recognition at an awards
program. I’m here to attend these events, and it’s been wonderful to
meet colleagues and friends of his, and to come to a greater
appreciation of his stature within his profession and among his peers.

It’s rather poignant to me that the memorial lecture is scheduled for
the morning of Tisha B’Av, a sad day of remembering the tragedies of
Jewish history. By a quirk of scheduling, the personal remembering and
the communal remembering are mixed together this year, which leads me
to this week’s Torah portion- or, more accurately, this week’s
haftarah [reading from the prophetic texts], which is always read on
the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av.

The passage opens with the words “comfort, oh comfort my people,” and
thus this Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu [the word “comfort” in
Hebrew], or the Shabbat of Consolation. The text is Isaiah chapter 40,
which tells of God’s power to keep the Divine promise to redeem the
people Israel. The theological connection to Tisha B’Av is clear:
Tisha B’Av recalls the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of
the people and other tragedies, and the haftarot (prophetic readings)
over the next seven weeks speak of redemption, which in classic Jewish
theology means national restoration to the Land of Israel.

One image from this week’s haftarah contrasts the finitude of living
things with the eternal nature of the Divine promise of redemption:

“A voice rings out: ‘Proclaim!’
Another asks, ‘What shall I proclaim?’
‘All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field:
Grass withers, flowers fade
When the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Indeed, humankind is but grass:
Grass withers, flowers fade —
But the word of our God stands forever’ ” (Isaiah 40:6-8, modified JPS
translation)

These verses are often read at funerals- in fact, I’ve read them
countless times myself, always assuming that the message of
consolation is found in connecting with the Divine Presence at a time
when we grieve the passing of finite lives. In the context of the
haftarah, the meaning is that individuals may perish, yet God’s
promise to redeem the entire people will not perish, and will
eventually come about. Yet this year I’m reading these verses in a
different way, and taking a different message of consolation from
them, and it has everything to do with my experiences here in Orlando.

Over the past few days, I’ve met people here who never knew my father
personally, but who know his scientific work, and who took it further.
I’ve also met people here who were influenced by aspects of his
character, and who have been influenced in their own careers by his
example. His body- the grass- is gone, but his work, his example, his
ideas, are not gone. I see this as a different expression of the “word
of our God”- not a prophetic vision as such, but rather the capacity
for moral choice, rational inquiry, and generosity of spirit which we
can understand as the Image of God within each of us. To put it
another way, we might say that in our day, the Word of God doesn’t
come from voices on high, but from choosing from within to act in ways
that are consistent with the highest human potential, and when we do,
these actions become part of the greater spiritual and moral reality.
Bodies die, but things that are of God do not.

Coming back to Tisha B’av, we might say this: tragedies have befallen
our people, but the animating spirit of the Jewish people- our
disciplines for bringing holiness and compassion into the world- is a
sustaining force, outlasting the tears of history. There are temporary
things, and there are eternal things; as humans, we are blessed to
partake of both.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- if you missed out on a discussion of the Torah portion
Va’etchanan, never fear, you can find a summary and lots of great
commentary here:

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

and the texts of the Torah portion and haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu here:

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

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