Archive for September, 2007

Sukkot: Between the Forest and the Hearth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

I hope everybody had a wonderful and thought-provoking experience on
the Days of Awe- it’s kind of awe-inspiring in its own way that the
Jewish calendar asks us to go from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the
festivity of Sukkot just a few days later. A Sukkah, as most readers
know, is a temporary hut or booth constructed under the open sky, with
some sort of plant material like branches or stalks or boughs loosely
covering it. The practice is to eat and learn and rejoice in the
Sukkah for the week-long holiday, making it our “dwelling-place,” as
it were.

In its most ancient context, it’s possible that the practice of Sukkah
originated in agricultural huts that farmers would put up out in the
fields during harvest time, in order to be able to work from dawn
until dusk. Sukkot is still clearly associated with the fall harvest
and our connection with the natural world, but lest one should think
that a Sukkah would be even better placed out in the woods, the Talmud
tells us not to build one under a tree, saying that “if one made a
sukkah under a tree, it is as if he made it within the house.”
(MIshnah Sukkah, 1:2)

The plain meaning of the comparison is that just as a Sukkah built
inside the house is not under the open sun, so a Sukkah under a tree
is also not under the sky and sun. There are all sorts of reasons
given why a Sukkah has to be out under the sky, but a common teaching
is that the Sukkah reminds us of our “exposure” and frailty in the
world- we are not as sheltered as we think from either the forces of
nature nor from the potential for upheaval in society. That’s why
building a Sukkah under a tree- symbolic of feeling sheltered in
nature- is like building one in a house- our more “civilized” shelter.

Human beings are subject to floods, fires, hurricanes, recessions and
more, but message of Sukkot is not esoteric: life is fragile, subject
to all sorts of changes and problems, but we rejoice anyway. Sukkot is
“Zman Simchatenu,” the “Season of our Rejoicing,” even if its primary
symbol- the Sukkah- is by its very nature something temporary and
rickety, like life itself. On Yom Kippur, we confront mortality and
resolve to use our moments wisely; just a few days later, on Sukkot,
in a very different way, we confront life’s unpredictability and
resolve to rejoice in every blessing given to us.

Hag Sameach,


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Yom Kippur: Fasting Reveals Simplicity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

I heard the most beautiful teaching at Seudat Shlishit- the
Third Meal late on Shabbat afternoon- last week, from a gentleman
whose name I never heard but whose Torah stuck with me. He pointed out
that “ten day of t’shuvah” from the beginning of Rosh Hashana through
Yom Kippur are actually seven days when you subtract the holy days
themselves- in other words, seven days, the space of a week between
two holidays. Creation was completed in a week, so we can compare the
seven days it took to make a world to the seven days in which we think
about re-creating & re-orienting ourselves, going forward into the New
Year. It was even suggested that on every day between Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur, one think about how one wants that day – be it Tuesday,
Wednesday, Shabbat, etc.- to be for the coming year.

Excellent idea!

And with that, let’s consider Yom Kippur for just a moment. Most
people reading this know that the practice of Yom Kippur includes
fasting from food and drink (for those who are physically able to do
so), and other will remember that the idea of fasting also includes
refraining from bathing, anointing oneself with oils or cosmetics,
wearing leather shoes [a sign of luxury], and sex. The Torah tells us
to “afflict ourselves”- “tanu et nafshotechem,” literally, “afflict
your souls,” which is understood as including more than just food and
water. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:29, and 23: 26, among other places.)

We’ll talk more about the moral and spiritual meaning of fasting- in
its five components- here at TBE tomorrow night, but for today, I’d
like to bring to your attention a small disagreement over the
obligations of Yom Kippur found in the Mishna, the early part of the
Talmud. In a Mishna discussing the Yom Kippur restrictions, one rabbi
proposes that the idea of “afflict yourselves” doesn’t apply to everybody:

“On the Day of Atonement, eating, drinking, washing, anointing,
putting on shoes, and sexual intercourse are forbidden. But a king,
and a bride, may wash their faces, and one who gave birth may put on
her shoes- this is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages forbid
it [to everybody].” (Mishna Yoma 8:1)

Perhaps R. Eliezer thought that it would be especially psychologically
difficult for a king- who is used to luxury- or a bride to refrain
from washing their faces, but the Sages understood that the whole
point of Yom Kippur is to recast the way we think about ourselves and
other people. On Yom Kippur, we’re ALL aware of our frailty- it only
takes a day to feel pretty weak and grumpy from hunger. On Yom Kippur,
it really doesn’t matter what you look like- you can say your prayers
in bedroom slippers. On Yom Kippur, the king and the pauper are equal
before God, each person grappling with his or her core values and
spiritual struggles, without benefit of titles or the distractions of
being “consumers.”

On Yom Kippur, the ancient rabbis wanted us to understand ourselves
and each other as human beings, unadorned, simple, stripped of our
distinctions and artifice, each of us equally made in the Image of God.

That’s something to consider for more than a week or ten days.

With wishes that each of you is inscribed for a good year,


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Ha’azinu / Rosh Hashana: The Soul’s Thirst

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Rosh Hashana

Right after Rosh Hashana is the Shabbat called “Shabbat Shuvah,” or
the “Shabbat of Returning/Repentance,” so called because (among other
reasons) the haftarah, or prophetic reading, calls upon the Israelites
to return to God. The Torah portion itself is Moshe’s final
impassioned plea to the nation, a plea for loyalty to covenant in the
new land. Moshe opens up his poem with a promise that he’s going to
say something significant:

” Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the
words of my mouth!
My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm
winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1)

Our friend Rashi says that Moshe’s words of Torah are compared to
windy rain and dew because just as the rain and dew cause the plants
and crops to grow, so too words of Torah cause people to grow and give
life to those who hear them. From my perspective, it’s important to
note that “Torah” is to be understood here not only as the fixed words
of the Biblical text, but more widely as the Jewish conversation with
text and tradition. Torah is the words on the scrolls, but it’s also
the words of the prayerbook, the commentaries, and even- brace
yourself- the words of the teachings, sermons and meditations that
rabbis and educators and others prepare for the holy days.

Moshe compared his words to life-giving water. This image resonates
for me as I sit in a building with hundreds and hundreds of chairs set
up to accommodate the holy day crowds, who come because they are
thirsting for something- perhaps a sense of being part of a larger
community, perhaps a connection with personal or Jewish history,
perhaps a reminder that the soul needs attention as much as the body
or intellect. Like plants soaking up the water after a dry spell, our
communities soak up music, Torah, prayer, Shofar, and the very
experience of just being together, and with grace, the Days of Awe
give life, and sustain.

I thank you all for allowing me to share words of Torah in the past
year, and look forward to another year of learning together.

L’Shana Tovah U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year-


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Nitzavim: Nowhere Too Far

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

It’s late in Elul, the season for the Children of Israel to
be doing cheshbon hanesh [“soul-accounting”], which not coincidentally
is the season for rabbis to be stressing out over the Days of Awe,
fast approaching. . . but not this rabbi, who has transcended mere
stress by elevating himself into an entirely different realm, an
almost meditational state of last-minute preparations.

On the other hand, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is not about
last minute details; in fact, it’s about wrapping up a project that
took 40 years to complete, which is of course the sojourn from Egypt
to the Land of Israel. The book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy reaches
rhetorical heights as Moshe exhorts the people to stay faithful to God
and covenant in the new land- but also makes a prophecy that someday
they will stray from covenant and be taken into exile. This image
seems both very literal and also a metaphor for the state of
estrangement between the people and God which will inevitably unfold.
Moshe encourages the people with a great faith that God will bring
them back in love; “returning” to God includes the promise that God
will “bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord
your God has scattered you.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:3)

This promise, of being brought back from among the nations, is an
enduring idea in Jewish thought, and certainly helped keep Jews
faithful to the idea of a restoration in the Land of Israel. Jeffrey
Tigay, in the comprehensive commentary produced by the Jewish
Publication Society (JPS), points out that this verse is alluded to
in the modern prayer for the State of Israel, recited in many
synagogues, which includes the theme of gathering the exiles. Tigay
also suggests that the image of God gathering or returning people is
an ancient one, and shows up in other places:

“God’s ability to retrieve people from anywhere was apparently
proverbial. It is alluded to, with reference to fugitives, in Amos
9:2-3: ‘if they burrow down to Sheol [the realm of the dead], from
there My hand shall take them, and if they ascend to heaven, from
there I will bring them down; if they hide on the top of Carmel, there
I will search them out and seize them.’ ” (JPS Torah Commentary,
Deuteronomy, p. 284).

This idea also calls to mind other famous texts from the Torah,
including the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the prophet Jonah’s
inability to escape his mission, which we read on the afternoon of Yom

Leaving aside theological paradoxes associated with a Being of spirit
omnipresent in material space, what appeals to me about the verses
from Nitzavim is their essential hopefulness. To a people suffering in
exile, Moshe’s message continued to inspire the faith needed to combat
despair. To an individual who feels alienated, lost, or frustrated in
attempts to connect with God, Torah or the Jewish people, the message
is equally clear: there’s a way back to a place of hope, blessing and
feeling at home in the world. Our journeys take us far from our roots,
but Nitzavim reminds us: you are never so far from the root of your
own soul that you can’t return and be whole again. You might be
“scattered among the peoples,” that is, spiritually distant from a
place of peace and strength and purpose and vision, but as our verse
implies, maybe the returning is essential to the learning.

Shabbat Shalom,


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