Archive for May, 2007

Beha’alothecha: Would that all the people were prophets!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

Shalom and blessings!

Tthe following drasha appeared as the “Rabbi’s Corner” of the June
issue of the “The Voice,” which is the monthly newspaper of the
Dutchess County Jewish community; it’s based on this week’s parsha but
the message applies for the entire month 🙂

With that, let’s turn to the Torah portion Beha’alothecha, which among
other stories tells us a little about two fellows named Eldad and
Medad. It seems that these two men were having some sort of spiritual
experience in the camp of the Israelites, speaking in
prophetic words, and this caused a bit of a commotion, because the
people had previously seen only Moshe speak as a prophet. Yehoshua
[Joshua], Moshe’s second-in-command, perceived this event as a threat
to Moshe’s status, but Moshe himself saw the bigger picture: prophecy
was not a zero-sum game, but something which would lift up the
community. Moshe rebukes Yehoshua, saying “are you zealous for my
sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, with the Divine
spirit upon them!” [Bamidbar/ Numbers 11:25)

What impresses me most about this story is Moshe’s recognition that
that spiritual leadership is never restricted to only one person.
After all, earlier in his tenure he had learned to share the judicial
and managerial tasks with other elders in the community, and now he
sees that even prophecy is not his task alone. It would have been easy
for Moshe to agree with Yehoshua that these “upstarts” should be
stopped in their tracks, thus preserving his position as the sole
source of revelation for the community. I see both wisdom and maturity
in his graceful answer that God’s spirit should be upon as many people
as possible.

Dutchess County is not the only Jewish community which needs broader
participation in Jewish leadership- I’d say that Jewish communities
all across North America are seeking people to serve on boards, help
develop creative new programs, raise funds, teach children, lead
minyanim [prayer services], help formulate community policies,
originate new ways of reaching out to others in compassion and love. .
. the list of leadership opportunities would fill pages. Yet in order
to develop new leadership, we have to be more like Moshe and be
careful of reacting like Yehoshua- it’s much easier to preserve “turf”
than to nurture the untested and different ideas that new voices
leaders often bring to the discussion.

I saw a powerful example of “Moshe-attitude” a few months ago at a
breakfast of the Poughkeepsie Area Chamber of Commerce, where I had
been invited to give the opening prayer. One might think that a
Chamber of Commerce would be the place where established businesses
seek to consolidate their ties and shut out competitors, but instead I
witnessed an amazing encouragement of the newest entrepreneurs and the
smallest business, who were introduced to the other Chamber members
with applause and heartfelt welcome. Newcomers were seen not as
threats, but as participants in the task of building up a thriving
community- it was inspiring.

If only Jewish institutions welcomed Jews the way the Chamber of
Commerce welcomed the newest painting or printing business! If only we
could say “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets”- or
participants in classes, volunteer projects, prayer services, boards,
and innovative gatherings. To welcome all Jews means to welcome the
ideas they bring with them; to open wide our doors means seeing each
person as a fellow builder; to be like Moshe means to recognize that
none of us owns our institutions, committees, or projects, but only
safeguard them for a little while until they are passed along to the
next generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Seventy Nations, One God

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This weekend we read the portion Naso, which concludes with Moshe setting up the Mishkan [portable
Sanctuary] and all the leaders of the tribes bringing offerings as
gifts for its dedication. Each leader brought a similar offering of
silver, gold, flour, and animals:

“On the second day, Nethanel son of Zuar, chieftain of Issachar, made
his offering. He presented as his offering: one silver bowl weighing
130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary
weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal
offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull
of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt
offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of
well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling
lambs. That was the offering of Nethanel son of Zuar.” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 7:18-23)

One thing that is striking about this passage (which is repeated to
describe the offering of each tribal leader) is its detail of weights,
measures, and numbers: the bowl weights 130 shekels, the basin weighs
70, the ladle weighs 10 shekels, one bull, one ram, one lamb, for the
burnt offering, and so on. Our friend Rashi sees the gifts as
symbolic, sometimes finding the numbers to allude to other verses in
the Torah and sometimes using a technique called gematria- adding up
the numerical value of the letters- to link each gift to another idea
or verse.

Without getting into the specifics- which you can check out in the
links below, which give you Rashi’s entire commentary in English- it’s
interesting to me that Rashi sees the first gift – the silver bowl- as
alluding to Adam, and the second gift, the basin, as alluding to
Noach, who is really the “father” of all humankind after the flood.
Rashi makes this point clear by connecting the 70 shekel weight of the
basin to the “70 nations” of the world who emerged from the line of
Noach- in other words, all of humankind.

Rashi connects the gold ladle to the Torah, and its weight of ten gold
shekels is for him an allusion to the Ten Commandments. The animal
offerings, for Rashi, are allusions to the Israelite patriarchs and
leaders: Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon. Each gift,
and even part of a description of a gift, is connected to another
verse in the Torah by connections of words and numbers, but it’s not
the methodology that I find most compelling.

What I find striking about Rashi’s symbolic interpretation of the
chieftain’s gifts is how he sees these gifts as alluding to both our
universal humanity and the particulars of Jewish history and
peoplehood. To put it another way, if the gold ladle alludes to the 70
nations of the earth – i.e., the diversity of humankind- then
precisely in the most specifically “Jewish” place- the Mishkan- we are
reminded of our link with all other peoples. It’s not surprising to me
that he would find hints of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov in these
gifts- after all, in their lives begins the covenant which is
expressed most dramatically by the Mishkan itself.

On the other hand, when Rashi says that the gold and silver bowls and
basins are reminders of Adam and Noach, he’s reminding us that
spiritual practices are always done in the context of a particular
tradition, but they lead us to transcend the particulars of tribe,
community, denomination, or nationality. In this way, religion is a
like a language; for example, love is experienced among all peoples,
but love poems can only be written in a particular language, whether
English or Persian or Chinese. This, to me, is the significance of
Rashi’s interpretation of the gifts of the Mishkan: it’s precisely by
doing our particular practices well that we come to deeply understand
that all people are made in the Divine Image, which has been given to
all people, in all seventy nations, across the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Bamidbar: Centered in the Wilderness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

With that- on to the book of Bamidbar, or “Numbers,” as it’s called in
English, so named because the opening scenes are a census of the
Israelite population. However, the Hebrew word “bamidbar” tells us
that this enumeration happened in the “wilderness” [midbar] of Sinai,
which conveys something different: the book of Bamidbar is a book of
transitions, from the bondage of Egypt to the settlement of Israel.
Transitions, almost by definition, create an “in-between” space while
a person or community gets where they are going, so to speak. (It’s
interesting that we have mostly spatial metaphors to describe
something emotional or spiritual.)

Thus, while the image of the “midbar,” or wilderness, is a physical
“in-between” space, denoting the unsettled (in both sense of the word)
place between Egypt and the Land of Promise, it’s also a metaphor,
symbolizing the emotional and spiritual transitions that the
Israelites must grow through. Along the way, they’ll try to organize
themselves, suffer great conflicts, lose hope, strive for faith,
complain constantly, and pull together against outside threats- it’s
quite a story of conflict and survival.

Perhaps the key point comes from the first verse of the book:

“God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting,
on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the
Exodus, saying . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:1)

What I find striking about this introduction to the book of the
“wilderness” is the contrasting images of the “Sinai wilderness” and
the “Tent of Meeting,” which was at the center of the camp, where the
Divine Presence was felt and instruction conveyed. The Israelites were
in the wilderness, but they retained a sacred center, a place where
spiritual truths could be heard, a holy place which became a common
reference point for the diverse tribes.

It’s interesting to me that even in contemporary English, we say
“staying centered” to mean retaining a core sense of purpose,
identity, spirituality or vision precisely when things get chaotic or
confusing. That’s the challenge facing communities in transition, but
the Torah itself gives us a working model: organize yourself such that
there is an “Ohel Moed,” a Tent of Meeting, that gives an individual
or community a sense of sacred purpose, and like our ancestors did,
eventually we’ll make it together to a place of great promise.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Behar/Bechukotai: Roots and Fruit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

Dear Friends: The following thought grew out of a eulogy I gave
yesterday for a long-time member of Temple Beth-El, whose life was
both interesting and inspiring. I have adapted the interpretation of
the verses below for our weekly study together, but those folks in
Poughkeepsie who think they’re hearing something familar are indeed
paying attention.

With that said, let’s turn not to our Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai,
but the haftarah, or prophetic reading, which comes from the book of
Jeremiah, who was a prophet who lived sometime around the late 7th or
early 6th century BCE. In this part of the book of Jeremiah, the
prophet uses a variety of metaphors, symbols and images to contrast a
person who is faithful to God to one who has strayed from the religion
of Israel. Over and over again, the prophet tells of the blessings of
the loyal Israelite and the futility of the idol worshipper, whose
choice is not only mistaken theologically, but leads to spiritual
destitution.

One of the homiletic images Jeremiah employs is that of a tree planted
by streams of water, which is contrasted in earlier verses with a
dried-up bush in the desert:

Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Verse 7 may be familiar to those who recite the birkat hamazon, or
blessing after the meal, in which it is quoted. In its own context,
the meaning of the image is clear: the one who trusts, or has faith
in, the God of Israel will be sustained in hard times and better able
to “blossom” in good times than one who worships false gods, who
cannot help a person through times of suffering or achieve any sort of
real spiritual growth.

One reason I find this image powerful and evocative is because it
portrays a rich human life as one that both “takes in” and “brings
forth”- the image of roots is one of drawing from inner resources and
the image of yielding fruit, to me, suggests the acts of caring and
love which we are able to offer in the world. A healthy tree can’t
“yield fruit” if it doesn’t have roots- that is, a person cannot
consistently offer of him or herself without some spiritual resources
to draw upon when times get tough or inner strength gets depleted.

For the prophet, the inner resource was faith in God, but I don’t
think this meant only an intellectual faith- I think it also meant
living one’s life in faithful ways, even when – returning to our image
and updating it with a modern idiom- the “heat was on.” To put it
another way, the prophet’s image of the tree compels each of us to
ask: upon what source of spiritual strength or moral courage do we
draw upon when we feel “dried up” (o, in a modern idiom that retains
the same resonance, “burned out”) ?

Jeremiah suggests that each of us needs “roots”- that is, an inner
life of connection to the sacred and faith in spiritual principles- in
order to “yield fruit”- that is, live a life of deeds which offer
sustenance to others and bring sweetness to the world. Roots without
fruit are meaningless, and a tree which blooms and blossoms without
roots isn’t going to last very long- this is the reason that Judaism
teaches that learning is a life-long practice, with growth achieved
over the arc of a lifetime, with wisdom and deeds balancing and
reinforcing each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Emor: Leaving the Corners, Building Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we read parshat Emor, in which we find discussion
of the priestly service, the holy days, and what Moshe did with a
difficult legal case in the camp. Stuck right in the middle of the
discussion of the holy days is the mitzvah of peah, or “corners,” in
which we are told to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, so
that they could come and collect sustenance without having to beg for
charity. Rashi, quoting earlier sages, asks: so, nu, why do we have
this mitzvah of caring for the poor in between the commandments for
observing Pesach and Shavuot [the holy day of “first fruits”] ? It
would make sense to first describe the spring holiday and its ritual
observances, and then the summer holiday with its special rituals, and
then the fall holidays, and put this non-timebound mitzvah somewhere
else in the text. (Cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 23:4-22)

From a purely practical standpoint, it makes a certain amount of sense
to put the mitzvah of peah before Shavuot, which is the holiday of the
early summer harvest: before beginning the harvest, one should make
sure not to reap the entire field, so that some can be left for the
poor. However, Rashi brings a more theological interpretation: the
mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields for the poor is listed
along with the holy days to teach that one who leaves the “corners”
and “gleanings” of the fields is considered as if he or she had built
the Temple and made offerings within it.

Rashi’s startling midrash [interpretation] creates an internal
coherence to the text which allows it to live and be relevant in
post-Temple Judaism: since many rituals are no longer possible without
a central Temple and priesthood, we might think that living in
covenantal relationship to the Holy One is also no longer possible.
Rashi’s commentary reframes the problem by pointing out that the ways
in which we can, in fact, live covenantally are “considered” (by the
Holy One, presumably) just as valid and beautiful as were the
practices of our Biblical ancestors.

So far, so good, but I also see in Rashi’s creative equation (leaving
the corners for the poor = building the Temple and making offerings
within it) more than just a theory of evolving Jewish practice. Why is
leaving some of the harvest for the poor like building the Temple and
making offerings within it? Because for our ancestors, the Temple was
the center of the entire nation by virtue of being the place where the
people felt the Divine Presence, and for us, concrete acts of humble
generosity and loving-kindness are what “builds” a sacred community
and helps us experience the Divine in the midst of that community.

I say “humble” generosity because the mitzvah of leaving the corners
of the field was done precisely so those who needed help didn’t have
to beg; those who had, gave what they could, in such a way that human
dignity was promoted as a communal value. For our communities, the
simple acts of attending to each other’s spiritual, emotional and
physical needs is what “builds the Temple,” as it were, laying the
foundation for all who participate to feel love and thus be drawn
closer to God and each other. When that happens, our holidays are made
even more joyous, and each day becomes holy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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