Archive for September, 2006

Shabbat Shuvah/Yom Kippur: Poetry of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Yom Kippur

The rain is hard and cold today- maybe it’s a good day to stay inside
and prepare for Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur. Shabbat Shuvah- always
the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur- gets its name from
the opening verses of the haftarah (prophetic reading), in which the
prophet urges to return to God- “shuvah” being the same root word as
“t’shuvah,” or “repentance” which is really “returning.” However, the
regular Torah portion, which this year is Ha’azinu, also contains
themes of turning away and turning back, forgetting and remembering.

We are nearing the very end of D’varim/Deuteronomy, and thus we are
also nearing the very end of Moshe’s life and leadership. In these
penultimate words to the nation, Moshe recites a poem about the
covenant between God and the people Israel, a poem which will serve as
a “witness” against them should they go astray in the future. ( I.e.,
should they turn from God, the poem can be recalled as proof of
warning and proper instruction.) However, what’s interesting to me is
the variegated imagery in the poem, depicting God as a parent, an
eagle, a fire, and even a rock:

“You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.” (Dvarim/ Deuteronomy 32:18)

The grammar of this verse is difficult (there is a link below to a
fuller explanation of the various interpretations), but for today, I’m
just interested in the contrast between a “Rock” and “begot you,” a
birth image. A rock is the very definition of inert, lifeless, static,
unchanging, and “begot you” is an image of birth, new life, vitality,
and joy. To put it another way, “Rock” is not the metaphor one might
expect before the phrase “begot you,” unless one is talking about
bricks and sand!

This verse is not the only place that God is called “Rock” in this
parsha; I can only imagine that the image of “Rock” has to be
understood in the context of the travels through the wilderness. To
weary travelers, a rock might be something one leans on, or finds
shade or shelter under- my sense is that it’s an image which connotes
safety and security. Yet God is also that which brings us forth into
the world of life, with all of its bruises and detours and learning
and sorrow.

Thus, to me, the poetic image of the Rock who brings us forth is a
terse statement of a profound theological truth: that there is no
single image which can contain the essential nature of the Holy One of
Blessing. God is a sheltering Presence when we need something greater
than ourselves to lean on, and God is the force inside us which
propels us forward into our life’s potential. Both are true, and
neither cancels each other out- it’s only the limitation of human
imagination and language which has a problem with the Rock who begot you!

So what does all this have to do with Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur?
Perhaps we can take from this poetic verse the reminder that the
images of God we encounter in the long liturgies of Yom Kippur- God as
Judge, King, Forgiver, Shepherd, Beloved, Potter, to name just a few-
are just that: images from poetry, put there to elicit feelings and
restore relationship, not to teach systematic theology. When we call
God Rock, we are naming a relationship which implies sheltering and
support; when we call God Judge, we are naming God as the source of
our highest ideals, to which we must be held accountable. God is not a
Rock, nor a Judge, nor a King, but we use these words to describe
aspects of our experience of that which is ultimately beyond language.

For those of you going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, I urge you to read
the prayers as poetry, and ask yourself what feelings the images
evoke- then pray out of that feeling! The prayerbook is not prayer,
just like a cookbook is not dinner; but both help us get beyond our
individual limits. Poetry expresses what prose cannot; it is a
language of the heart, the language of love, and Yom Kippur is nothing
if not a day of celebrating the love of God for humanity.

May you all be inscribed for a good year,


PS- OK, let’s get the serious links out of the way before we get to
the Yom Kippur humor links. The first link is to the texts of the
Torah portions for this Shabbat and Yom Kippur:

This is your summary (suitable for family learning) and further

Here is a great kid’s parsha page:

and here is a detailed grammatical analysis of this week’s verse:

If you want to learn more about Yom Kippur- its history, themes,
rituals, etc, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge here:

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Rosh Hashanah 5767

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hashana

L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year to all the old and
new followers of this roaming electronic commentary!

This week’s Torah commentary is not the regular Shabbat reading, of
course, but the special readings for Rosh Hashana, the New Year; you
may remember the main characters of these texts as Avraham and Sarah,
Yitzhak and Yishmael, Hagar, the ram on the mountain, the angels who
arrive just in time (both days), and even Avimelech and Phicol, who
are Avraham’s lieutenants and business partners, as it were. Glancing
over the texts of the two Torah readings (and never mind the haftarot,
or prophetic texts) it becomes astounding to consider the number of
different relationships described, including:

unmarried father-unmarried mother (of the same child)
master- son of the servant
brother in law-sister in law

Of course, there is one overarching Presence inherent in all these
different kinds of human relationships- that is the Presence of the
Merciful One, who gives us the inner capability to overcome our
conflicts, fears, and resentments. The Torah readings on Rosh Hashana
describe families in turmoil, people in desparate pain, relationships
in need of healing, and also the possibility of new insight, renewed
vision, and a fresh start. Perhaps by naming so many different kinds
of relationships in the texts of our Torah readings, the rabbis who
chose them are suggesting that we, too, do a comprehensive inventory
of all our connections- to people, to the Earth, to God- in order to
bring a renewed committment to integrity, compassion and generosity to
all our interactions.

That process of moral inventory and renewed committment is the essence
of t’shuvah, or “return,” which is itself a primary liturgical and
theological theme of the Days of Awe. My hope and prayer for each of
you is that you find inspiration in the continued study of Torah, and
from that study flows inspiration for continual growth, passion for
life, spiritual vision, and deep wellsprings of love. A sweet and
healthy New Year to all, and thank you for the privilege of letting me
share in the study of Torah with each of you.

L’Shanah Tovah,


PS- as usual, the first link is to the text of the Torah portion and
haftarah, plus a nice message from Dr. Arnold Eisen, the incoming
Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This link is to more learning about Rosh Hashana than you can shake an
apple at:

Finally, here’s the “Shabbat Table Talk” for families, on the Rosh
Hashanah readings:

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Nitzavim-Vayelech: What You Seek Is Not Across the Sea

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech

The month of Ellul is drawing to a close, and I certainly hope we see
the sun shine again in 5766! We’re a week away from the New Year, so
many communities will be reciting s’lichot, or prayers which ask for
forgiveness, this Saturday night, in order to spiritual prepare for
the upcoming Days of Awe.

Another way to start the inner work of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is
to notice themes in the Torah readings for Ellul which speak to the
possibility of spiritual growth and a renewed sense of moral purpose
for our lives. This week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim- Vayelech,
presents a few famous verses which, to me, are among the most hopeful
and encouraging in the entire Torah. As Moshe prepares his final
blessings for the Israelites, who will continue into the Promised Land
without him, he warns them against discouragement and exhorts them to
believe in themselves:

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too
baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens,
that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it
for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it
beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the
other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we
may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth
and in your heart, to observe it.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

I believe the central insight of this text is that the work of
spiritual growth- broadly defined in Judaism as learning and observing
Torah – is not always a challenge easily embraced. In fact, almost all
of us have a little voice inside which reacts with negativity to the
challenge of living a generous, humble, compassionate, reverent life-
that’s the voice which says: “you can’t do it, you might as well go
up to heaven or swim across the ocean!” Growth necessitates change,
and change is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to find ways to avoid
the problems that come with deeply thinking about what we want our
lives to be.

This is true not only for individuals, but for communities, as well.
What rabbi has not experienced having an idea met with “that will
never work around here,” or “we’ll never be able to do that!” or some
other expression of spiritual hesitancy? Yet creating communities of
love, inclusion and religious vitality is not as hard as going up to
heaven or swimming across the sea- it’s a matter of believing that
people are capable of becoming what the Torah envisions they can be
and strengthening each other along that journey. No growth is possible
without believing that it is possible- or, to put it another way, what
our verses teach us is that the enemy of spirituality is not theology
(believing the wrong ideas) but negativity (believing that it’s not

As the Days of Awe approach, and we enter into a long, complicated
liturgy with themes of ultimate values and human fallibility, never
forget this: Judaism wouldn’t ask us to confess our mistakes if it
didn’t believe we were capable of fixing them. The Torah wouldn’t
teach us to strive for lovingkindness and moral excellence if it
didn’t believe we could achieve it. We all fall short of our ideals,
but the very idea of the New Year is a fresh start, full of hope and
enthusiasm for the project of a life lived in full expression of the
Divine spark within each human heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- By popular demand, we’ve added a new link to the “go and study”
section of Rabbineal-list. The first link, as usual, will take you to
the Jewish Theological Seminary page which has a link to the actual
texts, in English, of the Torah and haftarah, and the second link
takes you to a page of a summary and diverse commentaries on Note, however, that the
page is for Vayelech- if you want to read more about Nitzavim you have
to go back to the parsha index.

The last two links, however, are guides to Shabbat family parsha
discussions. The first link is the summary of the parsha, with some
questions for discussion, on, and the second is
the Reform movement’s weekly “Shabbat Table Talk,” written for. . . .
well. . . Shabbat table talk (duh!) I hope these will help you bring
Torah thoughts to your dinner table, your Shabbat walk, your
schmoozing around the kiddush [refreshments] at synagogue, or wherever
you find your Shabbat delight.



Summary with family discussion questions:\

Shabbat Table Talk:

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Ki Tavo: First Fruits and Flawed Vessels

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Greetings from the sunny Poughkeepsie! It’s been overcast and rainy
the past few weeks so it’s nice to feel some warmth today. Our Torah
portion, Ki Tavo, puts us in mind of warm summer days by teaching us
the ritual of the “first-fruits,” in which a sojourner to Jerusalem
brought a basket of first-fruits to the priest and recited a history
of the Israelite nation from the time of Yaakov, through the Egyptian
oppression, the Exodus, and the entry into the Land. (Some of you may
be familiar with this passage from the text of the Passover haggadah,
where it is subject to explication and interpretation.)

The ritual of the “first fruits” is a rich source for reflections on
history, prayer, and gratitude, but in one small detail also teaches
us something about the relationship between religious leadership and
spiritual experience. We are told that the one traveling to Jerusalem
brings his basket of produce to the priest:

“You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘I
acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the
land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.’ ” (D’varim/
Deuteronomy 26:3)

Our teacher Rashi, quoting the Talmud, interprets the phrase “in
charge at that time” [literally, “who is in those days”] as meaning
“you don’t have any other priest except the one in your time, however
he is.” Rashi brings this interpretation because the Torah could have
just said: “go to the priest and say. . . .” and it would be obvious
that one goes to the priest who is actually there. Thus, by specifying
“in charge at that time,” the Torah is teaching- according to Rashi’s
view- that even if the priest in charge at any particular time wasn’t
so great compared to others, one still had to go to him, give him the
basket, and recite the prayer of gratitude.

In other words, one is not released from the mitzvah [commandment] to
connect with the history, land, and God of Israel just because one
particular priest happens to have off-putting flaws. The priest is
merely a vessel, a spiritual catalyst, and should not be a stumbling
block to the experience of wonderment and thanksgiving which the
sacred place of Jerusalem might otherwise evoke.

I think what was true for the priests of Jerusalem is equally true of
rabbis and cantors, and presumably of other clergy and spiritual
teachers as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people
say that they aren’t going to synagogue because of the rabbi, or
because of the cantor, or the Board politics, or . . . . well, lots of
reasons. I often wonder how bad things really are, or whether the
rabbi’s (or cantor’s, or president’s) flaws are merely the screen upon
which to project spiritual insecurity. After all, a real spiritual
experience can be profoundly transformative, compelling us to grow
and change and go forth in entirely unexpected ways. It’s a lot easier
to avoid growth than embrace it, but embracing growth means risking
relationship, with both other people and with God.

“You don’t have any other priest except the one in your time.” In
other words, do not let expectations of human perfection become a
stumbling block to connecting with others- not in your spiritual life,
or anywhere else. You don’t have any other family except your family,
you don’t have any other community except your community, and you
don’t have any other society except your society- all of whom are
flawed, and all of whom need you to bring yourself to them with a full
and open heart, so that we can find love and gratitude here and now,
just as our ancestors did in the courtyards of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the first link has a summary of the Torah portion and
further commentary, and the second link leads to the text of the
portion and haftarah, and further commentary:

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Ki Tetze: Of Cloaks and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Dear Friends:

It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River Valley, and perhaps it’s
appropriate for Labor Day Weekend that our Torah portion, Ki Tetze,
includes laws pertaining to the relationship between rich and poor. In
Chapter 24 of the book of Dvarim, we find a link between the
historical experience of slavery in Egypt and the moral imperative of
defending those who are weakest and most marginal in society:

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless;
you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were
a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there;
therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” (Dvarim/
Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

Rashi sees the first part of verse 17 as linked to an earlier warning
not to “pervert justice” in the case of a poor person: i.e., somone
who oppresses a widow or orphan would then be in violation of two
commandments, which lends extra weight to the idea that it’s precisely
the powerless who must be on the moral “radar screen” of the
community. (Cf. Dvarim 16:19) Rashi goes on to say two amazing things,
which I want to explain in reverse order.

First, Rashi interprets “remember that you were a slave in Egypt” as
meaning that the only reason we were redeemed from Egypt was to obey
the commandments of the Torah- even if they cause monetary loss. He
brings up monetary loss because of the second half of verse 17- “you
shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.” Rashi (and other
commentaries) understand this to mean that one can’t take a widow’s
(presumably solitary) garment after she’s already defaulted on the
loan. Now it’s clear what he meant about “monetary loss:” even if you
lose the value of a poor person’s cloak, you cannot rob that person of
their only warmth just to satisfy a debt. You must let it go- it would
be unfair and cruel to let someone freeze just because they are too
poor to repay a loan .

So far, so good- the Torah teaches compassion even to the “repo man!”
However, I think there is another message built into the guidelines
for charitable economic dealings. To wit, the Torah could easily have
taught us not to take the poor person’s last possessions as a law by
itself- what does the experience of slavery in Egypt have to do with it?

To me, the Torah’s message is this: remember what it felt like to be
treated as an object, a means by which someone else is enriched or has
their needs met, regardless of one’s own needs or feelings. Slavery,
of course, is the ultimate objectification of human beings, who are
made into mere possessions, objects of someone else’s will. Taking a
poor debtor’s cloak doesn’t seem the same as forcing an entire nation
into brutal labor, but both involve cutting off one’s empathy for the
other, and disregarding their essential humanity.

Perhaps those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born in
North America have never experienced the kind of slavery that our
ancestors did, but all of us, at one time or another, have felt the
profound frustration and powerless rage that comes with being treated
as a number, case file, nameless customer, disrespected employee, or
victim of someone’s greed. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where
was more convenient to blame you for a problem than to have a hard
discussion about what’s really going on in the office, or perhaps
someone chose to take advantage of you in a business transaction or
emotional relationship.

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt”- that is, remember how bad
it felt to be treated as less than fully human, and don’t do that to
anybody else. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for flawed human beings
(which includes everybody reading and writing this paragraph) to be
perfectly empathetic at all times, so at this time of year, we reflect
on our deeds, both public and private, and attempt to do t’shuvah,
returning and repairing, when we have treated others as we would not
wish to be treated. All of us suffer the petty indignities of living
in a bureaucratic, hurried world, where people are capable of cruelty
and narcissism; the challenge is to stay in touch with the pain
without becoming callous or cynical. The Torah’s promise is that we
can transcend our experiences, and become people of genuine empathy,
compassion, and love- for this we were redeemed from Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- as usual, the first link leads to a summary of the Torah
portion, and further commentary, and the second link has the full text
of the Torah portion and haftarah.

P.P.S.- if you are at all interested in current events within the
Conservative movement, and some of the changes and controversies in
our midst, then these two links will make for very interesting
reading. The first is an article about the discussions regarding the
Movement’s stance on gay and lesbian inclusion (including ordination)
and the second is a reflection on a now-famous speech that the
outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary gave last
spring. Do read, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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