Archive for October, 2006

Noach: Come Out, and See

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

Shalom friends! This week’s Torah learning is dedicated to the memory
of my father, Robert Loevinger, whose first yahrzeit was yesterday. In
his own quiet way, he showed us with his life what it meant to “come
out” into the world as an engaged and globally aware citizen.

With that. . . . Parshat Noach. Many of you will recall the basic
outlines of the story of “Noah’s Ark:” the violence that filled the
land, the building of the Ark, the gathering of the animals, the
Flood, the dove bringing an olive branch. Some of us first learned
this story as a children’s song, but it’s not only a children’s story-
it’s also a profound meditation on the moral responsibility of good
people in bad times. Noach, the “righteous man” in his generation, is
told by God to build the boat and take the animals on board, yet those
readers who wonder why ostensibly righteous Noach didn’t protest to
God on behalf of doomed humanity are asking a venerable question.

Some of the ancient rabbis tried to soften the narrative somewhat by
interpreting the story as primarily about God’s patient forgiveness,
rather than God’s angry justice: this reading is supported by the
building of the Ark itself, which is seen as a warning to the violent
men around Noach that they do have an opportunity to change their ways
if they wish to avert the Divine decree. Reading closely, we notice
what seems to be a slight reticence on Noach’s part both to enter the
Ark and to eventually leave it. In both cases, the text tells us that
Noach didn’t act until God told him to:

“Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, with all your
household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this
generation.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 7:1)

“God spoke to Noah, saying, ‘Come out of the ark, together with your
wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives ‘ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 8:15-16)

One interpretation* suggests that Noach did, in fact, feel reluctant
to leave his neighbors behind and take refuge in the Ark, hoping till
the very last moment that the people around him would repent and be
saved, and would thus not enter the Ark until explicitly commanded. If
we posit that Noach was concerned about his fellow citizens, and
wished for their survival, this reading makes sense, and explains why
God had to say “Go into the Ark,” when otherwise we’d assume that one
doesn’t need to be told to seek safety.

So why, then did God have to tell Noach to leave the Ark? Would we not
assume that after being cramped up for 40 days, he’s be delighted to
see dry land? Again, if we go with our assumption that Noach was
concerned about the welfare of humankind- who are now all destroyed-
one can only imagine the pain of confronting the reality of such
destruction. It’s one thing to seek safety in a storm, it’s another
thing to go out and see what the storm has wrought; a morally
sensitive, compassionate person often finds it difficult to look
directly at scenes of pain, loss, and horror.

So God says: “Come out of the Ark”- that is, if you are charged with
rebuilding the world, you cannot avoid seeing what has happened to
beast and human alike. Noach probably preferred the safety of the Ark
to the full knowledge of the effects of the Flood- a human heart can
only absorb so much, and no more. Yet the story could not end with the
appearance of dry land, but only with Noach and his family (and all
the animals) walking upon it and rebuilding- that’s the real point,
that out of tremendous evil, even one person can rebuild the world in
closer conformity to God’s vision of justice and peace.

God’s call to Noach, to “come out of the Ark,” thus becomes one of
those moments in the Torah which is not a one-time event, but a
paradigm for living a fully human life. It’s always tempting to stay
in the Ark- that is, to stay in our comfort zones, avoiding the
spiritual task of rebuilding that which is lost and broken by choosing
not to see disturbing or painful realities. Whether it’s the poor of
Poughkeepsie, the bereaved of Boston, the refugees of Darfur, the
hungry halfway across the world, God says to each of us: “come out of
the Ark, the world needs you, you have planting and building and
healing to do, and if you don’t do it- who will?”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

* This week’s Torah study was inspired by a comment I read in “Talelei
Oros: The Parashah Anthology,” compiled by R. Yissachar Dov Rubin.

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Bereshit: Divine Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

It’s yet another wet, soggy, dreary, rainy, misty, foggy, damp day in
Poughkeepsie (not that I’m complaining or anything), so while reading
this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit/Genesis, when I came across the
verse about God gathering the seas to make “dry land,” I immediately
thought, “Good idea! Can we have some around HERE for a change?”

OK, enough kvetching, let’s study Torah. This week’s Torah portion
starts the yearly reading cycle all over again, from the verse “in the
beginning.” However, the creation narrative is only the first two
chapters of Bereshit; after that, the story of humankind begins: Adam
and Chava in the Garden, then Kayin and Hevel [Abel] out in the
fields.

Yet the story of the emergence of humankind, and our unique capacity
to make moral (or immoral) choices, is an integral part of the earlier
creation narrative. In Bereshit 1, God decides to form humankind in
the “divine image:”

“And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our
likeness. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 1:26)

Now, clearly, this cannot refer to a physical image- not only because
a basic idea of Biblical theology is that God has no image or body,
but also because each human being is distinct and unique in
appearance, a fact obvious to our ancestors. So “the Divine Image”
must refer to some moral or spiritual quality- for today, let’s assume
that it refers broadly to the capacity for free will and moral choice,
without which questions of “good and evil” become irrelevant.

However, any consideration of what it means to be in the “Image of
God” has to grapple with another aspect of this verse, which is the
plural form of “let us make. . after our likeness.” The Hebrew is very
clear: “na’aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu.” OK, so who was God
talking to?

This is a classic problem of Biblical commentary, which cannot be
explained away through simple grammar. You might say “Elohim,” the
word for God in this verse, is a proper noun in a grammatically plural
form, and thus requires plural forms for the verbs and nouns following
it, but the first word of the verse, “vayomer,” or “said,” is
singular, referring to God alone. So some commentators have theorized
that God was talking to angels, who share in the Divine Image, or even
the animals, who partake of the “breath of life” which animates
creation. (See the Etz Hayim commentary for more on this.)

Our friend Rashi goes with the explanation that God was speaking with
the angels, but even so, what I love about his commentary is the idea
of God’s humility in seeking consultation and permission from others:

“Let us make humankind. . . . Even though they [the angels] did not
assist God in creation, and there is an opportunity for the heretics
to rebel (to misconstrue the plural as a basis for their heresies),
Scripture did not hesitate to teach proper conduct and the trait of
humility, that a great person should consult with and receive
permission from a smaller one. Had it been written: ‘I shall make
man,’ we would not have learned that He was speaking with His
tribunal, but to Himself.”

What an amazing idea! To me, the spiritual idea at the heart of
Rashi’s comment is that both humility and deep awareness of the
dignity of others are deeply connected with what it means to be a
human being created in “the Divine Image.” To put it another way, if
what it means to be “in the Divine Image” is the capacity for wise,
compassionate choice, then the very way the Divine Image is created-
in humility, consultation, and concern for others- indicates what
Godly choices and actions would look like.

To put it yet a third way: if Judaism teaches a story about God
consulting before acting, and that story tells us who we are,
shouldn’t we, who don’t have the Big Picture of creation, consult,
communicate, reach out, and be humble enough to receive counsel in
much less dramatic circumstances? To do so brings forth the Divine
within, which is the very reason we came to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- here are our usual links:

Summary of the parsha with study questions:
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_summary.\
htm

Further commentaries:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_index.ht\
m

Text of the Torah portion and haftarah, plus a nice commentary from
Dr. Eisen, the Chancellor Elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

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

Family Shabbat Table Talk:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2085&pge_prg_id=29219&pge_id=3720

Kid’s Parsha Page:

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4694&state=detail

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Simchat Torah: Endings and Beginnings

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Greetings on a glorious autumn day! I just came down the valley from
Albany and the mountains were gorgeous with colors and wind. Not only
that, but if the leaves are changing, then it’s just about time to
switch from the end of our Torah reading cycle back to “in the
beginning . . . ” This weekend is the two day holiday which marks the
end of the fall holiday season, Shemini Atzeret, the second day of
which is called Simchat Torah. “Shemini Atzeret” come from the fact
that it is the eigth day of assembly after the seven day Sukkot
holiday; in the Diaspora, where festivals are observed for two days,
the second day of Shemini Atzeret is the day of concluding the yearly
Torah reading cycle and turning back to Bereshit/ Genesis. (Even in
synagogues which use a three year or greater Torah reading schedule,
Simchat Torah is the day of concluding that year’s cycle.)

There’s something quite moving in concluding D’varim/ Deuteronomy,
lifting the scroll, and then immediately reading the creation
narrative in the opening verses of Genesis. D’varim ends with the
death of Moshe, who has been the center of the Torah narrative since
the first chapters of Shmot/Exodus. Moshe dies, is buried in an
unmarked grave, and the people mourn for 30 days- and then we turn
right back to the story of the creation of the world, as if we simply
can’t wait to read the familiar stories all over again.

The death of Moshe is poignant and sad, but the creation story is full
of hope and the promise of blessing. To hold these two emotions in our
hearts on the same day is itself a summary of the entire Torah, which
teaches us both the reality of human limitations and the unlimited
potential to experience life as a gift from God. Moshe dies with his
dream of reaching the Promised Land unfulfilled- as most of us die
with some dreams unfulfilled and relationships unconcluded. Yet we are
bidden to be anything but cynical, because the story of creation
teaches us that there are always new beginnings, new possibilities,
new hopes for renewal in a world of life, a world which God called “good.”

Moshe’s death at the end of the 40 year sojourn is paradigmatic:
life’s journey is not infinite, and awareness of this inescapable fact
can orient us to live each day of our “40 years in the wilderness”
with great care and love. Yet awareness of life’s finitude need not
make us somber- Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday, with dancing and
singing, because Torah itself teaches us to live maximally in God’s
Presence, as if we were witnessing the creation of the world each
moment. We dance with the Torah because it teaches us not to despair,
to appreciate the gift of life rather than living in the fear of
death, and most of all, to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that
each day creation is made “good” through a renewal of the
lovingkindness which which both we and the world are fashioned.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach [happy holidays],

rnjl

PS- for more about Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, go to the first
link, and for the Torah readings for each day, go to the second:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/index.htm

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

For a summary of the Torah portion and some family discussion
questions, go to the next link, and for a “kid’s Torah” version of the
end of D’varim, go to the one after that:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2488&pge_prg_id=14420&pge_id=3723

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4693&state=det

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Sukkot: Both Then and Now

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach [happy holidays!] It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River
Valley- the trees are beginning to show incredible colors, and the
squirrels in my backyard are overjoyed at the all-you-can-eat buffet
I’ve just put out on top of my sukkah [I used cornstalks for s’chach,
the covering, with ears of corn still on the stalk].

A sukkah is, by definition, a temporary structure, at least partially
open to the sky, and covered with branches, leaves, boughs, or stalks-
some kind of natural plant covering. Aside from being beautiful and
fun, the sukkah is a mitzvah [commandment] of memory and reenactment,
as we are told in Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:

“You shall live in booths [sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel
shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I
made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of
the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God. ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:42-43)

We have other mitzvot of remembrance and re-enactment in Judaism; for
example, eating matzah on Pesach is a reenactment of the experiece of
eating “lechem oni,” or “bread of affliction.” What’s interesting
about the sukkah (actually, matzah too, but that’s another discussion)
is that it’s not entirely clear what is being remembered and
reenacted. Two famous rabbis, Akiva and Eliezer, of the early Talmudic
period, had a well-known dispute regarding the nature of the sukkah:
Rabbi Akiva thought that we build a sukkah to remember the actual
dwellings of the Israelites during the 40 year sojourn in the
wilderness, but Rabbi Eliezer thought that the sukkot were the “clouds
of glory,” or manifestation of the Divine Presence, which accompanied
and guided the Israelites along the way. (Cf. Shmot/Exodus 40:33-38,
for example.)

Of course, the problem with Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation is that the
Israelites are described as living in tents, not “booths,” in their
encampments; for example, in Bamidbar/Numbers 16, the story of Korach,
tents are referred to several times. On the other hand, Rabbi
Eliezer’s view- that God sheltered the Israelites in the Divine
Presence, like a sukkah- requires a certain leap of the imagination,
as it is not directly supported by the text, as far as I can tell.

However, both Akiva and Eliezer seem to be making a philosophical
point in their interpretation of the sukkah: for Akiva, when we sit in
the sukkah, we are to remember the hardships that our ancestors went
through, the lived history of our people and our dependence on their
sacrifice. For Eliezer, the experience of a sukkah is more
theological: it’s not so much about the faithfulness of our ancestors
as the faithfulness of God, Who was Present for them, and Who can be
present for us when we open ourselves up to spiritual awareness by
sitting in a reified symbol of that Presence.

By now you’re probably thinking: “but wait! this is a false choice!
it’s about both God AND history,” and of course, you’re right, and
that’s why the Talmud lets both views sit side by side. A Judaism
denuded of connection to the lived history of our people is an
abstraction, a mere faith, without the tremendous moral obligation
towards community that is at the core of both Jewish ethics and
experience. On the other hand, a Judaism which is only history and
memory tends towards guilt and nostalgia, both of which are deadly to
joy, vitality, orientation towards repairing the world, and a sense of
the Divine Presence in <our> lives.

So we need both Akiva’s sense of history and Eliezer’s sense of
spiritual experience to fully appreciate what a sukkah is. Even
better, when we can feel both things at once- the “then” and the
“now”- then our sukkah is more than a remembrance, and more than a
commandment, but is rather a connection to the past, a grounding in
the present, and an orientation towards the future, which is, after
all, a definition of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,

rnjl

PS- our first link is towards a page of resources and learning for
Sukkot, and our second link is for the Sukkot Torah readings:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Sukkot.htm

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

For family discussion, the first page has a study guide and questions,
and the second link has a GREAT rendition of the Talmud on various
kinds of permitted and forbidden Sukkot, with pictures and Dr.
Suess-ical rhymes:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2224&pge_prg_id=14432&pge_id=3724

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=content&cid=4685

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