Archive for November, 2006

Vayeitze: The “I” Who Didn’t Know

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

Greetings! In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, our ancestor Yaakov
is on the run from his (quite understandably) angry brother, and
headed toward his uncle’s home in Haran, a place connected to both
Rivka and Avraham. While on the way, Yaakov lays down in the desert
and has his famous dream of a ladder going up to the heavens and
angels going up and down the ladder. He awakes and admits his surprise:

“Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in
this place, and I did not know it!’ ” ( Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

The last phrase of this verse is difficult to translate elegantly, but
one could also read it as: “There is God in this place, and I, I did
not know”. The doubling of “I” comes from the fact that in Hebrew, a
verb is often enough to indicate who is speaking- so “anochi lo
yadati” is a bit redundant, because “anochi” means “I” (like “ani” in
modern Hebrew) and “lo yadati” means “I didn’t know.” So, of course,
when a verse is unusual, it attracts a great deal of attention from
the commentators, who in this case, derive a profound lesson from the
addition of “anochi” to “lo yadati,” a lesson about the nature of
spirituality itself.

In several Hassidic commentaries, the extra “I” of “anochi” is equated
with Yaakov’s ego or sense of selfhood. Thus, during a time when he is
on the run, presumably in fear and regret after stealing his brother’s
birthright and blessing, all alone in the desert, he is open to a
profound sense of the Divine Presence precisely because his ego, his
conception of “Yaakov,” has been cracked apart and opened up. So when
the text says “I, I did not know,” the Hassidic masters see this as
teaching that the “I” part of Yaakov- his pride, ego and illusion of
wholeness- is what “didn’t know” that God was in this (and every)
place, able to reach through to a deeper part of him and send him
further along his life’s journey.

This teaching is very real to me, both in my personal and rabbinic
experience. It is precisely the times when I’ve had no choice but to
let go of previous conceptions of myself- when I had no alternative
but spiritual openness- that my ability to move forward into new
journeys has been strengthened and renewed. Yaakov’s previous
relationships, with his brother and father, were broken and shattered-
but new relationships, with wives and children, were just around the
corner, if he could sense the possibility of purpose and meaning in
life, despite its pain and trouble. That’s where God comes in- to give
us a broader vision than our solipsistic sense of self, stuck in its
pain and habits, may allow.

Faith, in this sense, is not about what you believe with your
intellect, but about one’s ability to grow despite the natural human
fear of change. It’s the ego, our “comfort zone” of self-conception,
which resists change and often wants to keep things just as they are-
and that part of ourselves is what “doesn’t know” and holds us back
from the growth in awareness, compassion, and service which is every
person’s spiritual potential.

Yaakov, like all of us, has moments of profound change in his life,
and one such liminal moment is when he realizes that the Yaakov who
left Beersheva- the Yaakov who deceived his father and humiliated his
brother- is no longer somebody he can be. “I, I did not know”- I, the
person I was, is now seen as a barrier to the person I can be if I
journey with awareness of my spiritual potential. Such a realization
is painful, but part of every seeker’s journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Toldot: Prayer and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

For our readers in the 50 States- Happy Thanksgiving! For everybody
else- happy week of portion Toldot, which is the story of Yitzhak,
Rivka, and their children, Yaakov and Esav, twins with a troubled
relationship. At the beginning of Toldot, Yitzhak and Rivka are unable
to have children (like Avraham and Sara in the previous generation)
and thus we read that Yitzhak prays on Rivka’s behalf:

“Yitzhak pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was
childless . . . .” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:21)

Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary [the Torah with translation and
commentary that is used in many Conservative synagogues] offers a
beautiful interpretation of this verse. Etz Hayim sees Yitzhak as
being primarily concerned with Rivka’s needs in his prayer, asking not
for himself but for her. Now, it’s true that he probably wanted
children as well, but in my experience, prayer is often most authentic
when it is most generous and least self-centered.

Conversely, it’s also true that praying for another can evoke great
compassion and empathy in our souls, which then enables us to be even
more compassionate in our actions going forward. Prayer and compassion
are linked in a cycle- if we are not compassionate, then prayer for
another can bring us to compassion, and if we are graced with
compassion, then prayer is its fulfillment and strengthening, leading
us back to reaching out to others in love.

Today, when so many of us take time to give thanks for our blessings,
perhaps Yitzhak’s example reminds us to remember others in our
prayers, especially those who do not enjoy the prosperity, freedom,
and security that so many North Americans do. Pray for others at your
table today, and give thanks for the human capacity for
loving-kindness, which is one of the greatest blessings of all.

Happy Holiday and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Chayei Sarah: Loss, Light, and Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Greetings on a blustery Thursday! As the fall winds pick up, the book
of Bereshit continues its history of the first family of the Jewish
people: Sarah dies, Avraham sends his servant out to find a wife for
Yitzhak, Rivka comes back with the servant to marry Yitzhak, and even
Avraham marries again and has more children.

In what is probably the verse with the most Freudian implications of
any in the Torah, Yitzhak’s relationship with Rivka is described as
bringing him comfort after the death of his mother:

“Yitzhak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he
took Rivka as his wife. Yitzhak loved her, and thus found comfort
after his mother’s death.” (Bereshit/Genesis 24:67)

Lest you think that the Oedipal overtones of describing the marital
home as “his mother’s tent” was lost on the ancient commentators,
here’s how Rashi brings an older midrash [imaginative interpretation]
on this verse:

“To the tent of Sarah his mother. . . . He brought her to the tent,
and behold, she was Sarah his mother. That is, she became the likeness
of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned
from one erev Shabbat to the next, there was a blessing in the dough,
and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, [these things]
ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed.”

At this point it would be almost too easy to analyze Yitzhak’s love
for Rivka as unresolved longing for his mother, but when we return to
the midrash and read it a bit more closely, I think the message is
much more about the journey of grief and healing than about sexuality
and its discontents. My reading of Rashi’s comment is based on the
three “miracles” which blessed the home when Sarah was alive: light
from Shabbat to Shabbat, “blessing in the dough,” and a cloud over or
attached to the tent.

The light from Shabbat to Shabbat seems to represent joy- a Shabbat
candle itself is about bringing beauty and honor to the day, as eating
the Shabbat meal in darkness (as our ancestors did before electricity,
if they didn’t light a candle) was not a happy, uplifting experience.
“Blessing in the dough” represents enjoying life’s simple pleasures,
like good food on the table, whereas the last item on our list, the
“cloud,” seems to be a reference to the “clouds of glory” which filled
the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary] and were a visual metaphor for the
Divine Presence. [Cf. Exodus 40:34]

Now let’s re-read Rashi; I think what he’s getting at is that after
Sarah died, Yitzhak went through a period where he could no longer
experience joy, pleasure, or spirituality- which are exactly what many
people go through in a period of grief, loss, or sadness. Things that
used to be fun can seem meaningless, one’s food doesn’t taste as good,
and prayer is hard when life is painful and God seems cruel. After a
loss- not just death, but loss- life can seem empty of meaning and
just no fun. Rashi’s midrash represents the emotional and spiritual
experience of grief in almost palpaple terms: darkness, bread which is
stale in one’s mouth, even the sense of disconnecting from one’s soul.

To me, this is why traditional Jewish practices in the period of
mourning both release one from parties and entertainment (because such
things are out of sync with one’s emotional reality) but forces the
mourner to both eat (when people bring food to the shivah) and pray in
community (one needs a minyan, a quorum of ten, to say the mourner’s
kaddish). It would be so easy not to do either, and yet both caring
for our health and the continued connection with others are part of
what bring us back into light (picking up on the image of Sarah’s
candle) after sojourning in the darkness of grief.

Thus, my take on Rashi’s commentary is not that Yitzhak loved Rivka
out of a need to find comfort after his mother’s death, but the
reverse: he was able to love Rivka because his journey of grief had
reached the stage where he was now open to light, joy, and gladness.
Perhaps Yitzhak himself was surprised at his renewed capacity for love
and pleasure, or perhaps he simply wasn’t able to take a wife into
“his mother’s tent” – that is, into his heart, which had been full of
grief, with no room for other emotions- until enough time had passed
such that he was once again able to feel at home in the world and
experience its blessings, the greatest of which is the renewed
capacity for love, in all its forms and expressions.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- before we go to our customary links, here’s a very different
interpretation of Rashi on this verse:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5761/hayyeisarah.shtml

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Vayera: The True Legacy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This week’s parsha, Vayera, continues the story of Avraham and Sarah,
who have been promised a child, but who have not conceived together;
the text describes them both as elderly, but Avraham has had a son
with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. When our parsha opens, Avraham is sitting
in the door of his tent, on a hot day, when he sees three strangers
appear- he then runs to prepare food and refreshments for them. It
turns out that these three strangers are angelic messengers who
announce that Sarah will indeed have a child, but when Avraham greets
them and offers them hospitality, all he knows is that they are dusty
travelers.

So far, so good- we learn that Avraham is a man of hesed
[“loving-kindness”] and generosity, and we see this story as the
paradigm of hachnasat orchim, or the welcoming of visitors. However,
it’s important to see this story in the context of the end of the
previous parsha, in which Avraham was promised by God that he and
Sarah would have a child, and then Avraham re-dedicates himself to God
by circumcising himself and the men of his household. (Cf.
Bereshit/Genesis 17.) In fact, the angelic visitors are understood to
arrive shortly after Avraham’s circumcision, and are seen as
performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, or visiting the sick.

Of course, if Avraham were still recovering from the circumcision, it
makes his commitment to hospitality and hesed that much more
praiseworthy, but at least one midrash [interpretive rabbinic
commentary] sees in this story a profound turning point in Avraham’s
life, connected to other themes in Bereshit. This midrash- quoted in
Bialik’s “Book of Legends” but from a much earlier source- inserts a
fantastic story into the text, right into the story of Avraham calling
out to his wife to get the men something to eat, after which he
himself goes to get a calf from the herd, which he then gives to his
servant to prepare.

The midrash I’m about to quote turns on the fact that the word for
“herd” is a collective noun- it is singular grammatically but means “a
bunch of cattle.” Thus, in verse 18:9, it says that Avraham “ran to
the herd,” but our midrash reads it to mean that Avraham “ran after
one herd animal.” So where did he run to? To a place which will
feature prominently in later stories:

” ‘And Avraham ran after the calf. . . ‘ The calf had run away from
Avraham and entered the cave of Machpelah. When Avraham entered after
it, he saw Adam and his mate lying on their couches, lamps burning
above them, with their bodies giving off a sweet odor. This is how
Avraham was eager to have the cave of Machpelah as a burying place.”

Machpelah, you may recall, is the burial cave that Avraham will buy at
the beginning of the next parsha when Sarah dies, and which becomes
the burial place of several generations of his descendants. However,
there is no mention in the Bible of Adam and Chava [Eve] being buried
there, and even less mention of Avraham having time for this adventure
between the time that the guests show up and his giving of the calf to
the servant later in the same verse – so what’s going on here?

One possibility is that by imagining Avraham having a vision of Adam
and Chava – the first parents of humankind- we are meant to understand
that Avraham and Sarah are about to become the first parents of the
Jewish people. It also strikes me that this midrash brings the theme
of death into a story about new life, thus perhaps suggesting that the
promise of a child has brought Avraham into a place of contemplation
about his own mortality – either because the child has not yet been
born, and thus Avraham is thinking of the finality of death without an
appropriate heir, or perhaps because he realizes that having the heir
means that someday he will, indeed, pass on the covenant to Yitzhak
after his death.

What I find most interesting about our midrash is the image of Adam
and Chava stretched out as if asleep, their bodies perfectly preserved
since the dawn of history. To me, the interpolation of this image into
the cave of Machpelah, where Avraham and his descendants will be
buried- and the whole midrash interrupting a narrative in which he
finds out that fatherhood is again imminent – suggests that Avraham
grows in his understanding of what is most significant in his life.
The image of Adam and Chava perfectly preserved in his future
ancestral burial grounds suggests that Avraham comes to understand
that what is “preserved” in a person’s life is their moral and
spiritual legacy across the generations.

To put it another way, Avraham wants his legacy of faithfulness to God
and hesed towards humankind to remain unspoiled in the lives of those
who come after him- wanting to buy the Machpelah is symbolic of his
yearning for a permanent legacy of giving spiritual life to his
descendants, comparable to the giving of physical life to humankind on
the part of Adam and Chava. Having “gone into the cave” – that is,
gone into the depths of his own being, where the meaning of his life
can be clarified and renewed- he is ready to return to his “guests,”
ready to hear the news he’s been waiting for, ready to be not just
Avraham, the great adventurer for God, but Avraham Avinu, Avraham our
Father, whose example of faith, courage, and generosity is the legacy
of all his children.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Lech Lecha: Hesed and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Greetings on a beautiful fall day! Before we begin this week’s Torah
study, the Department of Torah Typos here at rabbineal-list has an
announcement regarding last week’s Torah study, and that announcement
is: Duh! Noach was not on the ark for 40 days- that’s how long it
rained- but for more than a year. (Cf. the last part of Bereshit 7 and
the first 14 verses of chapter 8, where the timing is clearly
enumerated, unless you miss it, which we blame on insufficient coffee
while writing.)

With that important bit of business out of the way, we can send our
fearless fact-checkers back to the garage until we need them again,
and turn to this week’s Torah portion, Lech-lecha, which begins the
story of Avraham and Sarah and their descendants. In Lech-lecha, Avram
(as he is first known) is called by God to go to the land of Canaan,
where he stays for a bit before heading down to Egypt to escape a
famine. Upon his return, he separates from his nephew Lot, who has
been travelling with him, and then Lot gets caught up and taken
captive in a battle between various allied kings and tribes near the
Dead Sea. Avram calls out his men, they go and rescue Lot, and Avram
gets a blessing from one of the kings.

One interesting detail about this story is that Lot, Avram’s nephew,
is sometimes called “achiv,” or “his brother,” and sometimes Lot is
called “his brother’s son.” In most modern translations, it’s assumed
that “ach” doesn’t only mean “brother” in the limited sense, but also
means “kinsman” in the more general sense, and thus JPS translates
these verses like this:

“They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions,
and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis
14:12)

“When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he
mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three
hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. . . ” (14:14,
but see also verse 16 and 13:8)

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, noticing that Lot is called “his brother’s son” in
one verse and “his brother” just two verses later, links this to
Avram’s great empathy and sense of duty towards Lot:

“Before the separation, Abraham had said: ‘we are [anashim achim]- men
who should be brothers.’ But when he heard of Lot’s misfortune, the
unfortunate Lot is at once ‘achiv,’ his brother.”

Now, as an uncle myself, I certainly feel that that I’d go to great
lengths to rescue a nephew taken captive, but my sense is that Hirsch
sees Avraham as motivated by more than family or clan loyalty,
powerful as that is. In the broader Jewish understanding, Avraham is
understood as possessing great hesed [“lovingkindness’], which we see
most clearly in the beginning of chapter 18, when he welcomes the
three dusty strangers to his tent and generously provides for their
needs.

With that as background, we can understand Hirsch as teaching that
precisely because Lot was suffering, Avraham grew in his attachment
and sense of obligation towards him- he was his “brother” because he
needed help, not only because he was family. That, in turn, clarifies
what the trait of hesed is all about- it’s about responding with great
empathy and dedication to human needs.

Hesed could be described as being oriented towards others such that if
you know someone is suffering, then indeed, they become your brother,
or sister, and you must not be afraid of extending yourself towards
them, even to the extent that Avram saddled up and went off to battle
to rescue “his brother.” We won’t all have the dramatic adventures
that Avram did, but all of us, every day, have a chance to regard
someone as “our brother,” as “our sister,” and give of ourselves as
Avram did- and that’s what becoming a blessing is all about.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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