Archive for August, 2007

Ki Tavo: First Fruits on the Way to Jerusalem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Late Elul greetings to one and all! Although the Days of Awe are just
days away (uh. . yikes!), in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we
encounter a text more associated with Pesach than Rosh Hashanah
(although it’s entirely possible that it was my Thursday ritual of
visiting the farmer’s market that explains our learning this week.)
Here’s the passage at the beginning of the parsha:

“And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God,
gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,
that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which
you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving
you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which
the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

Thus begins a famous commandment to bring the first fruits of the
harvest to Jerusalem, where one would make a declaration of
thankfulness for all the goodness and blessing God has shown the
people Israel, from the days before the Egyptian slavery until the
very day the blessing is offered. This text becomes part of the
Passover haggadah, but for today, I’m more interested in the first
part of the ritual, in which one takes first fruits [bikkurim] and
gathers them up in a basket to be brought to Jerusalem.

Our good friend Rashi, quoting the Talmudic tractate [called Bikkurim-
duh!] devoted to the ritual of the first-fruits, explains that “taking
of the first of all the fruit of the ground” is actually a process
that begins before the produce is put in the basket. According to this
view, the farmer actually takes an action to designate fruits while
they are still on the tree by tying a reed around a ripening fig (for
example), and saying “this is the first-fruit.” That fruit or produce
is later harvested, put in the basket in one form or another, and
taken to Jerusalem for the ritual of thankfulness.

What struck me about Rashi’s explanation is the thoughtfulness that
goes into the process; it’s not that one suddenly arrives in Jerusalem
ready to give thanks, but rather one has a steady discipline of
creating the conditions under which the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is one
that can result in a great feeling of thankfulness and connection to
the people, land and God of Israel.

The Mishna- by way of Rashi- points out that spiritual experiences
don’t always “just happen,” but are instead cultivated and nurtured. I
think of my own life, and wonder if the contemporary equivalent to
tying the reed around the ripening figs, designating them as
first-fruits, wouldn’t be to plan ahead to create the times and places
where my sense of spiritual connection can unfold. Obviously, we have
Shabbat every week, and times for daily prayer, but setting aside time
to prepare for Shabbat, or putting bikkur holim [visiting the sick] or
Torah study into one’s calendar in advance- preparing the way for the
experience- is probably a key factor in the spiritual discipline. It’s
where the date palm meets the Palm Pilot!

Not many people reading this are farmers with fig trees or grape
vines, but all of us have resources (time, money, energy, compassion,
skills, etc.) to share and at least a few blessings for which to be
grateful. Giving and thanking are fundamentals of a spiritual
orientation, but like first fruits, these practices develop over time,
and connect us to God and each other when we’ve made ourselves ready.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tetzei: Mastery and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This week we’re reading the
Torah portion Ki Tetzei, which has the distinction of having more
distinct commandments than any other portion, including commandments
pertaining to property, marriage, divorce, warfare, lost objects,
loans, charity- all sorts of topics.

Many of these commandments seem rather straightforward, but our friend
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch derives a big theological idea from what otherwise
appears to be good advice in animal husbandry:

“You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. . . . ”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:10)

Many commentators see this commandment as being a general rule not to
yoke two different kinds of animals together, and further see this as
an instance of refraining from causing “tza’ar balei chayim,” or “pain
to living creatures.” The assumption here is that the smaller animal-
the donkey in this case- would struggle to keep up with the bigger ox
if they were joined together in one yoke. Rashi says the rule extends
to any joining together of two different kinds of animals, even for
just leading them together on the same line as pack animals.

So far, so good- a specific rule pertaining to plowing with animals is
interpreted as a general principle not to use animals in such a way
that a smaller, weaker species will struggle to keep up with or be
pulled along by a bigger, stronger one. The ancient rabbis certainly
would not have prohibited plowing with animals or letting them pull a
load, but wanted to temper such practices with an ethical
consideration for the animal’s welfare and potential for suffering.

However, I told you that Hirsch derives an even bigger idea from this
verse- he says that observing ethical considerations in our treatment
of animals is a reminder that there is One who stands in relationship
to both the animals and to us, Whose law governs how we treat all of
the beings in creation. In other words- extending moral consideration
to the donkey and ox not only spares them unnecessary pain, but also
trains human beings in humility, constantly re-teaching us that we are
not the ultimate masters of Creation.

To put it even more starkly, evoking Hirsch’s language: this mitzvah
teaches us by analogy: just as the animal may have a “master” who has
purposes for it, so do we have a Master who has purposes for us, and
who (in my extended interpretation) desires us to be Godly in a
quality of compassion and mercy towards all of Creation.

A few weeks ago, scientists announced that the Yangtze River dolphin-
a rare mammal found only in China- was “functionally extinct,” meaning
that if any existed, they were too few to reproduce and revitalize the
species. I bring this up only to point out that ethical and
theological considerations of the fact that we share this planet with
other living creatures are hardly the relic of an agricultural past;
right now, today, our actions affect the well-being of whole species
of animals, all across the planet. If we believe that Torah wants us
to be attentive to the suffering of all beings, then animal welfare is
no longer the concern of activists on the fringe- it’s central to
developing the compassionate consciousness that is the core idea of
Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shoftim: Horses and Human Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

The portion Shoftim has many laws pertaining to civil,
criminal, political, and military governance, including a law which
warns the people not let the future king amass too much power and

“Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt
to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go
back that way again.’ ” (Deuteronomy/D’varim 17:16)

I can certainly understand a warning not to let the king have too
many horses- a king with a large standing army will be tempted to use
it unnecessarily. A large standing army will become an end in itself,
requiring ever more taxes and forced service from the people. Having
said that, what difference does it make where the king acquires the
horses he is, in fact, permitted to have? Why should it matter if he
buys them from Egypt or from any other country?

Perhaps the Torah warns against going back to Egypt because Egypt, in
our ancestor’s historical memory, was the paradigmatic place of
oppression, where human beings were treated as mere objects, to be
used and discarded at the pleasure of Pharoah. Egypt- in the
experience of our ancestors- is where classes of human beings had no
inherent worth or dignity, but only instrumental value as a means to
somebody else’s ends.

I think that is why no representative of the king could go to Egypt
to buy horses- because the Torah doesn’t want any member of the
Israelite leadership to experience such an objectifying way of seeing
his fellow citizens. “You must not go back that way again”- that is,
the way of thinking about human relationships which is characteristic
of “Egypt” in the Torah’s frame of reference. Perhaps a king was
especially vulnerable to losing sight of the inherent worth and moral
standing of each person, but the problem of Egypt, as a metaphor for
how humans dehumanize each other, is still with us, and so the
Torah’s warning still stands: don’t go back that way again.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Re’eh: Plain Choices

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

D’varim is a series of speeches which Moshe
gives in the mountains across the Jordan river, right before the
Israelites cross over and begin to settle the land. In fact, this
week’s portion,Re’eh , begins with Moshe telling the people that they
have the choice between blessing and curse, a choice symbolized by two
mountains they will see when they soon enter the Land:

“And it will be, when the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land
to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place those blessing
upon MountGerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Ebal . Are they not on
the other side of the Jordan, way beyond, in the direction of the
sunset, in the land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the plain,
oppositeGilgal, near the plains of Moreh ? For you are crossing the
Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is
giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:29-31)

These verses are rather typical of themes in D’varim; Moshe is telling
the people that they have choice: to follow the covenant and receive
blessing, or spurn the Torah and be cursed. This choice will present
itself as starkly as two mountains which face each other, which the
people will see clearly once they enter the land- the mountains
themselves are symbolic of the unavoidable choices the people will
have once they begin to govern themselves as a nation in its homeland.

Our friend Rashi notices that the geographical description of the two
mountains is “near the plains of Moreh,” and connects this to the
description of how Avraham [then called Avram]- way back in the
beginning of Bereshit/Genesis- first entered the Land:

“Avram traveled through the land as far as the area of Shechem, coming
to the plains of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 12:6)

OK, says Rashi, the plains of Moreh are the same as Shechem- the verse
from Genesis proves it.

Uh . . . (I can hear you asking). . . that’s a nice little geography
lesson, but so what?

As I read it, Rashi is doing more than showing us what towns are near
which fields – I think he’s making a subtle historical point about the
choices which will face the Israelites in the future. If Shechem was
only significant as a place where Avraham travelled, Rashi would be
making an interesting connection between Avraham’s journey and that of
his descendants, perhaps implying that their entry into the Land is a
kind of re-enactment of his, rooted in the covenant which began with
Avraham and which his descendants are now realizing.

However, Shechem is mentioned in several other Torah narratives, two
of which are a bit more sobering than a mention of Avraham’s campsite.
In Bereshit 34, Shechem is the name of the prince who raped Yaakov’s
daughter Dinah [it seems that the town bears the same name], which
leads Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons, to deceive the
townspeople in order to take a terrible vengeance on them. Yaakov
rebukes his sons, and worries that their actions will bring trouble
from the other peoples in the Land.

A few chapters later, Shechem is mentioned as the place where Yosef’s
brothers would pasture their flocks- it is where Yosef looked for them
when his father sent him to his brothers after he offended them with
his dreams. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 37)

So what does all this have to do with the two symbolic mountains? As I
read it, by connecting “blessing” and “curse” with the area near
Shechem, Moshe may be reminding the people of what can go right, and
what can go wrong, once they enter the land. The Israelites are
blessed by the example of Avraham, who left his home in the East and
traveled on faith to the Land of Israel- remembering his journey as
far as Shechem might inspire them and give them hope, faith, and
confidence in the future. On the other hand, Shechem is also where
Shimon and Levi used violence far disproportionate to their conflict,
and where Yosef’s brothers nursed their grudge against him. These
stories remind the people to guard themselves against anger, hatred,
and the desire for revenge- all of which can only bring curse, not

Seen this way, the plains of Moreh- near Shechem- offer a historical
example of the choice between blessing and curse which Moshe lays out
for the people. Be as courageous and faithful asAvraham, or choose
resentment and vengeance as Yaakov’s sons did with their neighbors and
even with their brother.

It’s nice to live in a place like Poughkeepsie, in a beautiful valley
with mountains on one side and the other, but the two mountains from
our Torah portion represent a more universal truth: that every day and
in every place we have the choice to make the journey one of curse or

With warm wishes for a thoughtful Elul,


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Ekev: Might and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This week’s parsha is Ekev, which has Moshe alternately exhorting and
rebuking the people as they prepare to enter the Land. He wants them
to remember all that God has done for them over the past 40 years, and
if they do, they’ll better appreciate the blessing of the land they’re
about to receive. To that end, Moshe reminds them that God is both the
mighty and merciful:

“For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the
mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,
but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends
the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:17-18)

Our friend Rashi points out the contrast between the first part of
this passage (where God is called great, mighty, awesome, etc) and the
second part, which names widows, orphans and “strangers”- that is,
non-Israelites- as special categories of Divine concern. Here’s Rashi,
first quoting the verse:

“[God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow. . . . This
[first part] showed God’s power, but alongside God’s power [gevurah]
one finds God’s humility. ”

Rashi says that where you find descriptions of Divine mightiness,
there you will also find hints of Divine humility. Notice what
humility is linked to: not a set of emotions, as such, but a set of
actions, namely, taking up the cause of widows, orphans and strangers.
These latter three are often found together in Torah passages
concerning justice, because in a patriarchal, tribal society, widows,
orphans and strangers are without protection and of liminal status. As
I read it, Rashi’s moral point is that if God – Who has just been
described as the Almighty – cares about the most marginalized members
of humanity, then clearly it’s a sacred value for us to do the same.

So humility, in this case, means encountering and caring for others
without regard to status- or, put another way, with regard only to a
person’s humanity and not any external factor. Humility does not mean
thinking of oneself as less than others, but as not separate from
them. It’s not about feeling small, it’s about remembering that no
matter our title, status, honor, or label, we are never free from the
spiritual obligation to see each person as equally created in the
Divine Image, and act accordingly.

I remember vividly a Shabbat dinner at Beit T’shuvah, in Los Angeles,
which is a residential recovery center for Jews struggling with
addictions. I was serving as a rabbinic intern with the men’s house,
and a retired rabbi had given the d’var Torah [Torah talk] during erev
Shabbat [Friday night] services. Commenting on how much he respected
and loved that retired rabbi, one of the men said with reverence:
“I’ve known him a long time, and he never talks down to anybody.”

That, to me, is the essence of Rashi’s portrayal of Divine humility-
which is really the humility that we experience when we are most in
harmony with the Divine within each of us and in others. It’s about
never talking down to anybody, because we are living deeply in the
experience of knowing that all people are expressions of the Divine
Image, and thus represent a chance to encounter God in the face of

Shabbat Shalom,


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