Archive for January, 2007

Bo: Adornments of Remembrance

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Our weekly Torah portion, Bo, continues the story of the Exodus, through
the penultimate plague and the laws of the Pesach [Passover]
offering. At the very end of the portion, God says that the Israelites
will tell the story of the Exodus in future generations, and perform
various rituals of remembrance. Among those is the mitzvah
[commandment] of tefillin, or “phylacteries,” the little leather boxes
that observant Jews (in egalitarian synagogues, both men and women)
wear during weekday services. These leather boxes contain passages
from the Torah in which tefillin are mentioned, including two passages
from parshat Bo.

In the first passage (13:9), tefillin are called a “zicharon,” or
remembrance, but in the second part of chapter 13, tefillin are called
“totafot,” a word which also appears in Deuteronomy. So what does
“totafot” mean, besides “tefillin,” in the traditional understanding
of the word? Well, we find “totafot” in one other ancient text, the
Mishnah, which is the first part of the book of Jewish law and lore
known as the Talmud. Admittedly, the Mishnah was compiled many
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, but it’s still
interesting to compare word usage.

In this case, the word “totafot” (in a variant form, “totefet”) occurs
during a discussion of what women may or may not wear when they go
from place to place on the Sabbath. In this context, “totefet” means
something like “adornment,” which would not be part of one’s clothing
and thus not necessary to wear on Shabbat.

So the next question is- what does the idea of “adornment” have to do
with wearing tefillin, especially given that a primary meaning of
tefillin is remembering the Exodus? One idea, set forth in the book
called “Popular Halacha,” by R. Jacob Berman, is that wearing tefillin
as a “diadem” truly shows that we are no longer servants in Egypt, but
free people, practicing our religion as we choose, and not beholden to
any earthly “crown.”

That’s a beautiful idea, and yet one more interpretation occurs to me.
Tefillin are not particularly beautiful objects in the conventional
sense- they are black leather boxes with carefully written passages of
Torah inside them, without jewels or bright colors or fancy patterns.
So to call them “adornments” is to make a claim about what is
“adorning” or beautiful from a Jewish perspective. Perhaps we “adorn”
ourselves with tefillin because there is a moral beauty to daily
rededication of the strength of our arms and the power of our minds
(symbolized by the head tefillin) to religious and spiritual ideals.

Furthermore, what is most “real” and hence most beautiful about
tefillin is on the inside- the words from Torah which speak of
covenant and the Exodus. So (ahem) to wrap things up, we might say
that when we put these “totafot,” or “adornments” on our arms and
heads, we are living out the proposition that what is most beautiful
in life is not outward appearances but inner, spiritual qualities. We
are no longer servants in Egypt, but free to choose the actions which
are the true adornment of a life lived well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vaera: Attacking the Right Problem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Greeting from (finally) wintry Poughkeepsie! Our Torah portion this
week, Vaera, continues the story of Moshe, Pharaoh, and the plagues.
At first, Moshe isn’t the most confident fellow, but God appoints his
brother Aharon as his spokesman and they go together to demand freedom
for their people- and they bring plagues and wonders when Pharaoh
refuses. One of the more interesting plagues is that of frogs, which
are so many in number they cover the land:

“Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came
up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same with
their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt” (Shmot/
Exodus 8:2-3)

The word for “frog” in Hebrew is “tzfardeah,” which is a collective
noun, like “sheep” or “fish”- it can mean one, or a whole bunch of
them. Thus, when it the Hebrew text says that “hatzfardeah” came up
and covered the land, the perfectly simple meaning is that lots of
frogs came up and hopped around. That being said, our friend Rashi
brings two interpretations to this verse, one of which follows the
simple meaning (that “frog” is a collective noun) and one of which
(from the Talmud) is more imaginative: that “hatzfardeah” [literally,
“the frog”] means one big frog came up out of the Nile, and when the
Egyptians struck it, it split up into many smaller ones.

It’s a special-effects scene that Steven Spielberg should film: a
giant frog (Frogzilla!) slowly emerges from the dark waters, sending
the Egyptians running in panic, until a few soldiers bravely rush the
giant beast, which divides itself into swarms upon swarms. This would
make a great movie scene, but when Rabbi Akiva originally suggested
that “hatzfardeah” meant one frog, the other rabbis teased him for
coming up with a ridiculous suggestion.

So if there is a simple grammatical explanation to the wording, why
would Akiva, and Rashi a thousand years later, suggest an
interpretation which seems so incredible? As silly as our “Frogzilla”
midrash is, it does suggest a certain moral truth: that attacking the
wrong problem only multiplies one’s troubles. After all, the frogs
were only brought upon Egypt as a sign that even Pharaoh was not the
ruler of heaven and earth; it was not the frogs that truly plagued
Egypt, but their own arrogance as a society, which lead them to
enslave the Israelites and benefit from their forced labor.

Thus, suggesting that the Egyptians attacked one giant frog, which
split up into swarms, may be seen as a parable of a society or
organization which is avoiding hard truths: it’s easy to attack an
obvious, external issue (like a giant frog) but unless it’s the real
problem, deep down in the hearts of the people, the difficulties will
only become more diffuse and pervasive.

For example, consider a congregation which blames its problems solely
on the rabbi or pastor, making them the problem, rather than seeking
to fully understand the tensions between conflicting dreams and
desires among the members of the community. Such a congregation can
fire its leader, but that will never solve its problems- only inner
change can do that.

Another example would be a family where one member is named by the
others as the source of its troubles- “if you would only stop [fill in
the blanks], everything would be fine!” Yet families are always
complicated webs of emotion, and no one person is ever fully to blame
for a whole system that’s in trouble.

To put it another way: change comes from within, when people look into
themselves and hold themselves to the highest standards of truth,
compassion, and justice. Seen this way, Rashi’s midrash of the giant
frog is no longer comical, but tragic, representing the human tendency
to see problems as “out there,” rather than “in here,” in the heart,
where t’shuvah, or inner redirection, really happens. One “frog” can
split into many, even to the point of covering the land, when we miss
the deeper source of our troubles. Yet therein lies the hope: that we
need not be like Pharaoh, of hardened heart and closed mind, but can
instead change at anytime- it requires only the gifts of desire and

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shemot: True Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where it’s almost winter! This
week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, or Exodus, which
starts off with a recollection of how the Israelites ended up in
Egypt, and quickly proceeds to a description of painful oppression
under harsh rule. Moshe is appointed by God to bring a message of
liberation to the people, and in his famous encounter with the Divine
Presence at the “burning bush,” Moshe hears that God has taken note of
how the Israelites are suffering under slavery:

“And the Lord continued, ‘I have marked well the plight of My people
in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters;
yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 3:7)

The opening words of God’s proclamation, translated by JPS as “I have
marked well,” are a doubling of the Hebrew verb “to see.” In Biblical
Hebrew doubling- in this case,”ra’oh ra’iti”- brings emphasis to the
action of the verb. Thus, another translations has been “I have surely
seen,” which also captures the alliteration of the Hebrew. The
sentence goes on to say: “I am mindful of their sufferings,” which
again is subject to translation choices: “ki yadati” could also mean
“for I know [their pains].”

So the question is- how is it that the Torah portrays God as saying
that only now is their Divine notice of suffering and pain? Did God
not see or know before this? How, then, would the Torah understand
God’s transcendence if God’s knowledge is limited?

Rashi tackles this problem by implying that “for I know” means a
choice to do more than hear or know passively:

“This is similar to: ‘and God knew’ [cf. Exodus 2:25]. That is to say:
for I set My heart to contemplate and to know their pains, and I have
not hidden My eyes, neither will I block My ears from their cry.

Now, Rashi’s comment doesn’t really solve our theological problem,
because it still begs the question: so why did God decide to pay
attention now, and not earlier? Did God not know, or not care?

On the other hand- I think Rashi is telling us something about the
nature of compassion which is more practical than abstract theological
problems relating to Divine cognition. Rashi’s comment says that God
knew about the suffering (how could God not know?), but at some point
made a decision to pay attention, to contemplate, and to be fully open
to the reality of another’s suffering- which, to me, is much less a
description of how God knows something than a prescription for how
human beings should open themselves in order to truly see the reality
of other lives. Rashi seems to be implying that we will only arouse
ourselves to relieve the suffering of others once we truly understand
it, and thus acts of compassion and justice also require a decision to
open oneself emotionally- to remove the blocks from one’s eyes and
ears and set one’s heart in the proper direction.

We are all made in God’s image, which means that we can make the
choice to really see and truly understand the emotional, material, and
spiritual needs of those who suffer. It’s so easy to see, but not pay
attention; to know, but not care; to hear, but not respond. To walk in
God’s ways is to truly see, to truly hear, to truly know, and to set
one’s heart towards healing and justice.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayechi: Life as Light

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

Shalom and happy new Gregorian year! It’s a new year on the date line
of your checks, but we are still reading from the book of
Bereshit/Genesis, just finishing it up this week with Vayechi, during
which Yaakov dies and is taken back to the Land of Israel, and Yosef
dies and makes his brothers promise to take his bones back to the Land
when they return.

However, in between those two dramatic moments is another: after
Yaakov dies, the ten brothers who sold Yosef into slavery become
worried that now he’ll take revenge on them. After all, he’s still the
Prime Minister of Egypt and they are just shepards out in the
boondocks- they are dependent on him and it’s reasonable for them to
assume that their father’s death might change the emotional dynamics
in the family. However, Yosef seems to forgive them, noting that
everything worked out for the best in the end:

“But Yosef said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?
Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so
as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.
And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he
reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

The last few words of verse 21 are actually a bit more poetic than
rendered in the JPS translation quoted above: the Torah says that
Yosef spoke “al libam,” or “to their hearts.” Picking up on this
emotional language, a rabbi of the Talmud [in tractate Megillah, 16b]
explained that Yosef spoke words which were accepted by the hearts of
his brothers- that is, that he was effective in comforting and
reassuring them. He (R. Binyamin bar Yafet, in the name of R.
Eleazar), goes on to say that Yosef offered his brothers a parable,
which helped them understand that he harbored no ill will:

“If ten lights could not extinguish one light, how could one light
extinguish ten lights?”

A simple explanation of the parabel is that if the ten brothers could
not harm Yosef, because it was God’s will that Yosef would become a
ruler in Egypt, then certainly he, Yosef, cannot bring harm to his ten
brothers if they are destined to live and return to the Land. Yet
what’s fascinating about R. Binyamin’s midrash is that he imagines
Yosef speaking of his life, and the lives of his brothers, as light,
which seems to be a symbol of soul or spirit, connecting the life of a
person with the Light of God.

Perhaps R. Binyamin imagines Yosef as reminding his brothers that he
and they are not prisoners of the emotional past, enslaved by the
desire for revenge, but spiritual beings, children of the Living God,
who can always choose the way of holiness. The children of Avraham and
Sarah, of Yitzhak and Rivka, of Yaakov (who becomes Yisrael) and
Rachel and Leah are meant to be bearers of light, not of vengeance.
Thus it is incumbent upon them- and us, their spiritual heirs- to
choose forgiveness over grievance, to choose reconciliation over
resentment, to choose awareness of our spiritual gifts rather than
being mired in old hurts. In this way, light is added to light, and
the world is illuminated with love and grace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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