Archive for July, 2007

Devarim: Like the Sun and Stars

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This week we are reading the first parsha of the book of
Devarim, or Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, which is Moshe’s
final recounting and exhortation to the people before he dies and they
go on into the Land. Right at the beginning, Moshe reminds them that
his job of leadership has been difficult from the start, because the
people are numerous:

“Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.
The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous
as the stars in the sky . . . ‘ ” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:9-10)

Well, I can certainly understand how somebody with the responsibility
of caring for many others would feel overwhelmed- perhaps in its
simplest meaning, comparing the Israelites to the “stars in the sky”
simply reflects Moshe’s frustration at his inability to resolve all
the disputes of so many people without help. That, of course, is why
his father-in-law told him to delegate whatever he could to other
elders and leaders.

Rashi, on the other hand, takes Moshe’s words a little more literally
in order to make a different point. He points out that we actually
know how many Israelites left Egypt- about six hundred thousand,
according to the text- and while that’s a big number, it’s not an
infinite number like the stars in the heavens. So Rashi says Moshe
must have meant that the Israelites had a quality which made them like
the stars in the heavens:

“[This means] -you are compared to the sun, you will exist forever
like the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

Notice how Rashi takes a metaphor about numbers and turns it into a
metaphor about endurance, which makes sense in a historical context.
By the Middle Ages, when Rashi was writing, the people Israel were
small in numbers compared to their neighbors but would have derived
great hope from a promise that the people itself would always survive.

I like Rashi’s reading of the verse because it provides a bit of
perspective on current demographic debates in the Jewish community-
there seem to always be those who see the people Israel as on the
verge of disappearing. Rashi reminds us that we’ve never been a huge
people- “like the stars of the sky”- numerically. Rather, we are
“upheld” over the centuries- the literal translation of “exist”- which
to me means that the Jewish people will exist as long as we remember
to bring light into the world, as do the sun, moon and stars.

I certainly don’t meant to discount or ignore the many real problems
facing our world-wide communities, but I think Rashi reminds us of
something important: the people Israel has never been a numbers game,
but is instead about the enduring spiritual mission given to us at
Sinai. That mission includes compassion, justice, peace, and always
seeing human beings as made in the Image of God, with all the ethical
attention such a perspective demands. If we can do that, then I
believe we will be “upheld,” both as synagogue communities and as a
world-wide people.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Matot-Masei: The Journey Is Not Taken Alone

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

While I’m on vacation it
seems appropriate to bring to your attention that the second of this
week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei, is all about traveling and
journeys. Moshe recounts for the people all the places they made their
camp, from the days of Egypt to the borders of the Land of Israel. For
forty-nine verses of Bamidbar/Numbers 33, all Moshe does is recount
where they’ve been before, which leaves our friend Rashi with an
implied question: why do we need to read the “Triptik” (ah, the
pre-Mapquest days. . . ) again, since it’s all been recorded in
earlier chapters of the Torah?

Rashi gives two answers, the first of which is that Moshe recalled the
journeys in so that the people (including later generations,
presumably) would remember God’s kindness to the Israelites in
providing resting places along the long way towards the Holy Land.
Rashi does what I call “rabbi math” (i.e., don’t try this on your
1040) in order to show that the middle 38 years of the journey only
contained about half the number of total re-locations- i.e., most of
the moving from place to place was in the first and last years of the
40, so that there really wasn’t that much “journeying” as such over
the 40 years at all.

Rashi’s second explanation comes from an earlier sage, R. Tanchuma,
who offers a parable:

“It is like a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away
place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all
the stages of their journey, saying to him, ‘This is where we sat,
here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’ ” (Rashi on
Bamidbar/Numbers 33:1)

R. Tanchuma’s parable begs two questions: first, who do the characters
of the story represent in terms of the Torah narrative, and second,
why is it important for the son to know what happened along the way to
the place where he was healed? Isn’t it enough to know that everything
turned out OK in the end?

In many religious parables and allegories, the character of
the “King” represents God, and if that’s what R. Tanchuma meant, then
we have to understand that Moshe was following God’s instructions to
review all the stages of the journey. In that case, then it seems that
Rashi’s first answer and his second answer are the same: the review of
the stages of the journey is a praise of God’s kindness, both in
providing for resting places along the way and in staying with the
people in their times of trouble at various points.

However, perhaps another possibility is that the “King” in R.
Tanchuma’s parable is not God, but Moshe, and if so, that creates the
problem of understanding how Moshe brought the people- the “son”-
“back” home, since Moshe never came from the land of Israel. I have no
particular answer to that problem, but on the other hand, this reading
makes R. Tanchuma’s parable more poignant and human, casting the
relationship between Moshe and the people as one of parent and child.
Moshe comes across as more of a care-giver than a law-giver, more a
shepherd than a judge .Perhaps in recalling the stages of the journey,
he is really talking about his long relationship with the people,
saying: “here were all the places I took care of you as your leader
and friend.”

Now, perhaps it’s understandable that Moshe would like a little bit of
gratitude from the people, given that he knows that his days are soon
drawing to an end, but there is also something touching about the idea
that this long-serving leader would ask the people to remember all
they’ve been through together. In this reading, it feels to me that
these verses are about Moshe’s love and kindness for the people- which
perhaps is what he’d like them to remember about him, rather than the
times he was a strict judge and stern lawgiver.

Returning to Rashi, perhaps we can say that he offers two different
reasons for recounting each stage of the journey because the people
had multiple thanks to give, both to God and to Moshe. If so, then the
long passage at the beginning of chapter 33 is more than a log-book of
campsites, but is paradigmatic of all human journeys: we take them
with God, and we take them with our friends and loved ones. To God we
give thanks for the blessings and goodness along the way, and if we
are blessed enough to have companions and family who strengthen us, we
give thanks for the amazing gift that human hearts can be loyal and
loving. Remembering the stages of the journey, in this light, isn’t
about nostalgia, it’s about recognizing to Whom thanks are due, both
in the Heavens above and right here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Pinchas: Fire and the Mountain

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

It’s summertime, and the leyning is easy. . . . well, only because
this week includes some passages which are often read in the synagogue
as the maftir (concluding Torah reading) on festivals and Rosh Hodesh,
the new month. Before we get to those passages, which describe the
daily and special offerings in the Mishkan, [portable Sanctuary], we
have the conclusion of the story of Pinchas, a genealogical review of
the Israelites, and the story of the daughters of Zelophchad and their
legal case to inherit from their father. After all that, including
instructions to Moshe on appointing his successor, the Torah turns
back to the regular operation of the Mishkan, where the hereditary
priests made offerings of animals, wine, grain and oil.

Chapter 28 begins with the daily offerings, called “tamid,” or
“continual” offerings, since they were done morning and evening, every
day:

“And you shall say to them: ‘This is the fire offering which you shall
offer to the Lord: two unblemished lambs in their first year each day
as a continual burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer up in the
morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. . . .
A continual burnt offering, as the one offered up at Mount Sinai, for
a spirit of satisfaction, a fire offering to the Lord.’ ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 28 3-6, abridged.)

What’s interesting about this passage is the reference to Mount Sinai,
which seems a bit out of place and thus attracts commentary. The JPS
translation- found in the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary-
solves the problem by translating “olat tamid ha’asuyah b’har Sinai”
as “the regular burnt offering instituted on Mount Sinai.” It is true
that the tamid was indeed “instituted” on Mt. Sinai- that is, we got
the instructions for it along with the other laws of the Torah- but
it’s equally plausible to translate the passage as it is above, which
would indicate that the daily offering in the Mishkan was like the one
done on or at Mt. Sinai.

So which one is that? Our friend Rashi offers two explanations (for
the price of one!) First, he says that this “tamid” offering was like
the one done at Mt. Sinai when Aharon and his sons were invested as
priests, way back in Exodus 29. Rashi’s second theory is that this
daily offering was like the one offered by Moshe and some young men at
the foot of the mountain, when the people all agreed to the Torah and
its laws- this is at the beginning of Exodus 24. Rashi actually thinks
this episode happened before the Torah was given, even though in the
text it occurs some four chapters later- that’s a discussion for
another day.

S. R. Hirsch makes the connection between the daily offerings, which
were consumed by fire, and the “consuming fire” which appeared on Mt.
Sinai when the Torah was given. (Cf. Exodus 19). Hirsch sees the
daily offerings as a kind of regular reenactment of the offerings at
Sinai, not only because of the symbolism of the fire, but also because
the people promised there to live by the Torah’s covenant- the daily
offerings are a tangible symbol of daily rededication to that promise.

I see all of these explanations as tied together by a common idea:
that the daily offerings were not only a reminder of what happened at
Mt. Sinai, but represent our desire to recreate as best we can the
experience of feeling the Divine Presence immanent to and transforming
our lives. Hence the symbolism of fire- fire transforms that which it
touches, for better or worse, and so too an authentic spiritual
experience has the potential to deeply change a person, should they be
open to it.

To put it another way, Sinai is the place where the Divine Presence
broke through to humankind and forever changed the course of human
history (imagine no Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam.) The daily
offerings were our attempt to reach back to God, to bring the Presence
into our midst, to keep the fires burning, as it were, so the insights
and spiritual energy of Sinai were not lost. (I also like the
implication of Rashi’s first theory that the daily offerings gave a
measure of priesthood to the entire nation.)

What was true for our ancestors is true for us: regular spiritual
practices of prayer, study, and compassion are the discipline which
enable us to stay true to the powerful, transformative “Sinai moments”
which leave us humbled yet energized. Dramatic experiences of the
Divine don’t always happen right when we need them, but small,
recurring acts of spiritual practice open us up to the Sacred
Presence, over time, in no less powerful ways. Our offerings are not
agricultural, but of the heart and soul. Our prayers may be said in
Poughkeepsie, but they raise us up and calls us toward the sacred, no
less awesome and holy as the offerings of Moshe and the dedication of
Aharon.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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