Archive for June, 2007

Balak: Seeing With Eyes Unveiled

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

The good news is that this week we’re
reading about everybody’s favorite sorcerer-for-hire, Balaam, who was
convinced by the king Balak to go and put a curse on the Israelites,
whom Balak feared would defeat his nation. Balaam goes on the mission,
but not before his donkey is derailed by an angel whom the animal sees
and the seer doesn’t- more on that theme later. Finally, when Balaam
does make it up to the mountaintop to behold the camp of the
Israelites, what comes out of his mouth is a great blessing, and not a
curse at all:

“Now Balaam, seeing that it was good in God’s eyes to bless Israel,
did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned
his face toward the wilderness. As Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw
Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.
Taking up his theme, he said:

‘Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Who has fallen down, but with has eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! . . . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 24:1-5- my
modification of the JPS translation)

My translation makes more clear what’s obvious in the Hebrew, which is
that the theme of “eyes” and seeing is the dominant metaphor of the
passage. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch thinks that Balaam is being haughty in
reporting himself as one who “beholds visions” and has his “eyes
unveiled”, and compares him unfavorably to other prophets who were
perhaps more modest. Rashi think that when Balaam says that he is
“fallen down” (or prostrate, in the JPS translation) it means that God
only appears to him when he his lying down- that is, when he is
asleep, he has dream-visions.

While there is plenty of reason to be critical of Balaam, one could
also offer a more favorable reading of this passage, taking it in the
context of the earlier story, when he failed to see an angel with a
sword right in front of him, which his faithful donkey perceived
perfectly clearly. Perhaps Balaam was chastened and humbled in finding
out that a donkey could see things that he- a man of great fame- could
not, and perhaps this led him to see the world in new ways.

To me, the key phrase is the one in the beginning of chapter 24, which
tells us that Balaam saw what was good in the eyes of the Lord- to
bless Israel rather than curse it. He then “lifts up his eyes,” sees
the Israelites, and reports that he sees clearly- he is “has fallen
down, but has eyes unveiled.” To put it in different words, perhaps a
newly humbled Balaam, no longer believing solely in his own wisdom,
sees the world through God’s “eyes,”- that is, from a perspective of
hesed, lovingkindness, rather than conflict, which was the purpose of
his journey. Seeing the world through the prism of love and justice-
which is what I believe the Torah teaches us to do- is itself a
humbling experience, as the gratification of the self is de-centered
and the imperative of gemilut hassadim, acts of loving-kindness, takes
its place.

This, to me, is the meaning of “fallen down with eyes unveiled;” it
means to achieve the clarity that comes only with humility, with the
realization that there is a higher purpose and greater wisdom in the
world than one’s own. To see the world through the “eyes of the Lord”
means to thoroughly integrate into the self the spiritual values of
our tradition, such that where other see conflict, we see the
possibility of reconciliation; where others see the opportunity for
taking, we see instead the possibility of giving; where others speak
curses, we instead speak only words of blessing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Korach/Haftarah: The Prophet & the King

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Dear Friends: It’s been a sad week here at the HQ of Rabbineal-list.
The world lost a great scholar and a wonderful man this week, who
happened to be my uncle, Sam Weissman. (Also known as Samuel I.
Weissman, but I never called him that.) Sam was a scientist, a
professor, a learned aficionado of classical music, and perhaps the
best teller of funny stories in all of St. Louis- especially if those
stories involved the colorful characters of his youth in Chicago.

In thinking about Sam- which is most of the thinking I’ve been doing
this week- I first thought to compare him to Korach, the villain of
this week’s Torah portion, and indeed, one could contrast the arrogant
and divisive Korach with a man who was gregarious, generous, and
confident enough not to talk down to anybody (though Sam had little
patience for pompous people or oversized egos.)

However, I take even more comfort from the fact that the haftarah
[prophetic reading] associated with the portion Korach is a story from
– you guessed it- the Book of Samuel, and more specifically the story
of how Samuel, who was both prophet and leader of the people, gave in
to the people’s demand to have a king. He tells the people that
they’ve done a foolish thing, but he assents nonetheless to their
demand, perhaps realizing that although a human king may lead the
people astray or oppress them, the alternative (not allowing them to
have a king who unites the tribes) may be worse. So Samuel crowns Saul
as king- which didn’t work out so well- and reminds the people that
they chose to have a king more out of fear of other nations than out
of faith in God’s law. (Important note: This year, in the Diaspora,
Korach falls on a Shabbat which is also Rosh Hodesh, or the New Moon,
so that haftarah takes precedence- the haftarah from Samuel is read
all other years.)

The emotional resonance of this story, for me, is the prophet’s
realization that he has to do something he finds problematic, because
the alternative is simply worse. To refuse the people their king could
have led to anarchy, military defeat, and discord among the tribes,
each with their own leader. In making Saul the king, Samuel had to
choose practical outcomes over idealism, which is never pleasant, but
is something confronted by sensitive and ethical people every day;
hard choices cannot be avoided in a life which encounters important
issues.

My late Uncle Sam understood the necessity of hard choices, because he
participated in developing an atomic bomb for the USA during WWII, and
told me on several occasions that he and his colleagues did what they
felt they must do to win the war. Also like his Biblical namesake, he
was suspicious of human authorities, albeit for secular rather than
theological reasons- he lived long enough to know that human beings
often abuse their power and inflate their own egos, from the king on
down.

I understood his healthy scepticism of human foibles not as cynicism,
but as a reminder to pay even greater attention to the right things,
rather than get distracted by the wrong ones. In the prophet Samuel’s
case, the people would not suffer for their choice to have a human
king if they made the right religious choices, whereas for my secular,
humanist uncle, there was redemption, if I may use the word, to be
found in the humbling experiences of great art, reasoned discourse,
and the universal language of science – all of which required
diligence (and good humor) in their pursuit. I learned much of value
from my uncle Sam Weissman, and I thank each of you for allowing me to
dedicate this week’s Torah learning to his memory.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- if you’re curious, here’s a couple of pictures of Sam Weissman-
the first is his badge from the Los Alamos laboratories during WWII,
and the second is from a few years ago, when his portrait (seen behind
him) was dedicated at Washington University, where served on the
faculty for many years:

http://www.lanl.gov/history/wartime/images/ProjectYBadges/w/weissman-sam_i.gif

http://record.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/5851.html

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Shlach-Lecha: Making Judaism Beautiful

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

Greetings! Long before the world knew the names James Bond or Maxwell
Smart, the most famous spies in history were the 12 men sent by Moshe
to scout out the land of Israel; their story is the major part of this
week’s Torah portion, Shlach Lecha. After their mission and report to
the people – which didn’t work out so well- the Torah turns to
various rituals and laws of religious service, including the
instruction to tie tzitzit, or ritual fringes:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner.. . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-38)

From this passage (recited daily as part of the three paragraphs of
the Shma) the rabbis learned that tzitzit, or fringes, were tied on
garments that had “corners,” (four of them, as it turns out), and thus
we get the practice of wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, which is
always a four-cornered garment upon which we can tie tzitzit in order
to fulfill this commandment. The tzitzit are visual reminders of the
mitzvot [commandments] but wearing a tallit during prayer is often
much more than that- getting wrapped up or draped in a special garment
worn during prayer is a way of achieving kavannah [focus/intention]
during prayer, a tactile and visual way of moving our bodies and minds
into greater spiritual openness and connection. [Many Jews also wear a
special undershirt with tzitzit attached so they can do this mitzvah
all day, but that’s different than the “outer” tallit one wears during
morning services.]

Personally, I love putting on a tallit, and I even have several
different ones for Shabbat, weekdays, and holidays. That’s probably a
bit over the top for some people, but for me, wearing a differently
colored tallit on Shabbat than during the week helps me experience
Shabbat as a special and holy day, one which I honor by doing things a
bit differently and with extra attention to aesthetics and “hiddur
mitzvah,” or “beautifying the commandments.” This is an important idea
in Judaism, going back to Biblical days, and can be applied to many
areas of Jewish life, including ritual objects, books, decorations,
dress, how we set our tables for Shabbat and the holidays, and so on.

What’s interesting to me is that “beautifying” the commandments
necessarily involves the application of personal, subjective standards
of taste and individual preference- a beautiful tallit for one person
might be one with purple stripes but another person would care more
about the quality of the fabric or the decorations on the atarah
[“crown” or band right behind the neck, which is often decorated.] In
other words, a “commandment” – like celebrating Shabbat or wearing a
tallit- is something we do as part of a community, but making the
commandments beautiful- “hiddur mitzvah”- is something we do as
individuals within that larger system of teachings and practices.

That’s why I think it’s such an important step of Jewish growth to own
one’s own talllit; by choosing the color, style, fabric, and size of a
tallit, one fulfills the mitzvah in a way that is personally pleasing,
which in turn helps one have kavannah while wearing it. Taking a
tallit “off the rack” when coming to synagogue is fine, but going to
the trouble of choosing one’s own is way of bringing our whole,
individual selves, with our tastes and preferences and styles- into
the community of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- here’s a bunch of links to follow up on the discussion above.

First, here’s a page which goes into greater depth explaining the idea
of “hiddur mitzvah,” or “adorning the commandments”:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/About_Jewish_Holidays/Overview_Types_of\
_Holidays/Holiday_Types/Holiday_Art.htm

Here’s another take on it, from an Orthodox rabbi, who explores the
balance between aesthetics and communal concerns:

http://www.njop.org/html/TERUMAH5765-2005.html

Here’s a history and full explanation of the commandment of tallit-
but please note, in egalitarian synagogues, the mitzvah is open to
women as well as men:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/Prayer/Ritual_Garb/Tallit.htm

The spiritual significance of tallit:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/Prayer/Ritual_Garb/Tallit/Tallit_Spir\
itual_Signifcnc.htm

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