Archive for March, 2007

Pesach: Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

This week is Parshat Tzav, which is largely concerned with the
dedication of the priests to serve in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary)
and also Shabbat Hagadol, so named for a special haftarah (prophetic
reading) which ends with the promise that God will send Elijah the
prophet to announce a “great and terrible day” in which evil is
requited and Israel is restored. The connection to Pesach is the image
of Elijah announcing the coming of the messianic age; Elijah also
shows up at the Pesach Seder, connected with the hope that God will
bring a future redemption even greater than the Exodus from Egypt.

That’s the Torah reading for this week. Next week is Pesach itself,
and Monday night being the first Seder, the Executive Steering
Committee of rabbineal-list made the decision to offer a Pesach
thought now, so that those who wish to bring it to their Seders would
have time to do so. It also happens that the paragraphs written below
were prepared for the spring e-bulletin of the Coalition on the
Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL – linked below.)


“Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience”

One of the most well-known customs of the Pesach Seder is to spill or
pour out a drop of wine during the recitation of each of the ten
“plagues” ( the blood, frogs, boils, lice, etc. . . ) There are
various ways this is accomplished: with a spoon, tipping the cup, or
using one’s finger, but the basic point, explained in most printed
Haggadot [Seder booklets], is that our feelings of sweetness and
gratitude (represented by a full cup of wine) are diminished by the
sufferings of others.

Given that the “others” in this case are the very people who enslaved
and oppressed our ancestors, the act of spilling wine is rather
remarkable- it’s not so easy to truly feel that one’s joy is
diminished because of the sufferings of one’s enemy. In fact, the
natural human reaction is the opposite, to rejoice in the sufferings
of one’s enemy; this ritual calls us to confront the moral
implications of believing that all people are “b’tzelem Elohim,” or
made in the Image of God.

Many modern Haddagot provide commentary or alternative readings for
the traditional plagues, often reframing the Biblical story in terms
of modern problems, such as pollution, deforestation, war, famine, and
other social and environmental causes of suffering. The desire to
connect the moral worldview of the traditional Seder ritual with
conditions in the modern world is exactly the goal, but to me, naming
“modern plagues” which diminish our cup of joy sometimes misses a
crucial point, which is that the traditional “ten plagues” caused
suffering to others in order to bring liberation to the Israelites. In
other words, in naming the plagues, we remind ourselves that something
which was good for us had a cost to somebody else. It might have been
a cost demanded by justice, but the suffering of the Egyptians, as
portrayed in the Biblical account, was real and worthy of remembrance.

With that in mind, I’d propose that any naming of “modern plagues” be
oriented towards reminding Seder participants that one person’s
freedom may be another person’s suffering. For example, North
Americans enjoy the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables,
flowers, and meats produced abroad, often under brutal labor and
environmental conditions; our luxury is somebody else’s suffering. Our
freedom to drive as much as we like “drives” a world market in oil
with obvious connections to huge political, military, and
environmental problems. Even the clothes on my back may have been
produced in a sweatshop eerily similar to conditions of slavery – and
of course, the meat on many Pesach tables came from animals raised and
slaughtered under conditions which should cause anyone to stop and
think about the cost of their comfort.

Seen this way, the Seder ritual of spilling the wine is a profound
moment of introspection and conscience, confronting each of us with
the reality that in a rapidly globalizing world, one person can never
be disconnected from the systems which literally enslave others and
distress our planet. The good news is that it’s in the celebration of
our freedom that we find the courage to change our ways and work for
social and environmental justice- such freedom is truly something to

Hag Sameach,

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Vayikra: Fire from Heaven, Fire from the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

The English title of the 3rd book of the Torah, “Leviticus,” gives us some
hint of the book’s contents: it is largely, though not exclusively,
concerned with the priests and their rituals in the Mishkan, or
portable Sanctuary. (Hence “Leviticus,” from the Levites, who are the
priests and their assistants.)

However, the Hebrew name for this book, taken from the first verse,
has a different nuance: “Vayikra” means “He called,” and refers to God
calling to Moshe from the Tent of Meeting. “He called” as a book title
might make you think of relationships, and in fact the entire ritual
framework of the Mishkan and priesthood was a means to bring about a
relationship between God and the people Israel- the very word
“Mishkan” is related to the idea of “dwelling place” for the Divine
Presence among the people.

Thus even commentaries which seem rather technical in nature,
referring to details of the offerings and priestly ritual, can contain
great insight into what our sages believed about how to nurture a
relationship with the Sacred- or perhaps any relationship. In Vayikra
1:7, we read that the priests were to bring fire to the altar when
making a “burnt offering:”

“And the descendants of Aaron the kohen shall place fire on the altar,
and arrange wood on the fire. . . . ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:7)

Now, if you’ve been following my commentaries for a while, it should
not surprise you that our friend Rashi would have something to say
here- you can almost hear him ask (in a medieval French accent, of
course): “Fire? Why does the Torah have to mention the priests
bringing fire? It was for a burnt offering- of course they had to
bring fire! The mention of fire must teach something important. . . . ”

And thus, answering his own question, Rashi tells us (quoting from the

“shall place fire on the altar. . . Even though the fire descended
from heaven, it was a commandment for an ordinary one to bring fire to
the altar.” (Rashi on 1:7)

Let’s leave for another time the question of why the ancient texts
believed that fire came from Heaven to consume the offerings on the
altar. For today, it’s enough to take Rashi’s teaching as a striking
visual metaphor for what we now call “spirituality,” often understood
as experiencing something beyond or greater than oneself, which in
turn expands and transforms the very experience and conception of
self. Think of it this way: a spiritual experience cannot be entirely
an act of will, or we’d all be having them all the time. There is an
element of touching or experiencing a greater reality, and this
reality is apprehended or perceived to the extent that we let it in,
as it were.

Now, back to our image of the fire from heaven: even though the fire
“comes from heaven”- that is, spirituality must be about something
greater than ourselves, which we experience as humbling and awesome-
it’s also true that we have to create the conditions under which our
“fire” can touch the fire from heaven. Imagine two flames touching,
like on a havdalah candle used at the end of Shabbat: the fires are
one flame, entirely together, even if they are from two sources.

This, to me, is an image which describes what it means to have a
relationship with or experience of the Divine Presence: I am not God,
and God is not me, but to the extent that my ego is humbled and my
heart is open there exists the possibility of moments when the Image
or spark of Divinity within me touches, embraces, becomes one with the
greater One. It’s just like intimacy between human beings: nobody can
force it or will it to happen, but one can create the conditions under
which it’s more likely to happen, by extending and opening and
softening oneself. That’s why humans have to bring the fire to the
altar- it must be a mutual reaching out for the relationship to be real.

A fire from heaven, a fire from the human heart- but one flame. This
is an image of true prayer, true service, true love, true intimacy,
true devotion, the truest experience of being human, one made in the
Divine Image. It’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and it’s
entirely up to us to bring our fire to make it happen.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayakel-Pekudei: Building With Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel/Pekudei

Speaking of interesting, this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakel-Pekudei, tells us about
the actual building and assembly of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, and gives an
accounting of all the materials used. Previously, Moshe had received all the detailed
instructions for the Mishkan, but now he gathers the entire people to do the work of putting it

“Moshe then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: ‘These are
the things that the Lord has commanded you to do . . . . .’ ” (what follows is a few
verses about Shabbat, but after that, it’s all Mishkan, all the time.) (Shmot/Exodus 35:1)

The first word of our parsha, “vayekhel,” is related to the word “kehillah,”
which is often translated as “community,” as in a common idiom for synagogue, “kehillah
kedosha,” or “holy community.” It’s not an easy word to translate directly, but our friend
Rashi gives us an insight when he says that “vayekhel” is a causative form of the verb,
meaning, Moshe “caused the people to be gathered.” Rashi goes on to point out the difference
between assembling a bunch of boards and sockets- we just do it with our hands and
hammers, as a direct action- and causing a group of people to come together, which is done
through words. Thus, when our JPS translation says that Moshe “convoked” the people, it
means that he called out to them so that they would come together for the purpose of
doing the collective work of building the Mishkan.

To put it another way, to physically assemble the Mishkan required the action of
hands, but to make a true community out of the people required persuasion and the
articulation of both vision and values. A kehillah, a community, cannot be put together by
force, but is something chosen freely by people who have been inspired to come together for a
common purpose. The purpose of the kehillah that Moshe “assembled” was to build
the Mishkan, which represented the Divine Presence dwelling among the people. The
purpose of any contemporary kehillah is fundamentally the same, to create a spiritual
center for a purposeful community, which in turn requires no less persuasion than that which
Moshe offered to our ancestors, and which will in turn yield results that are equally
crucial to the vitality of our people and the healing of the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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