Archive for October, 2007

Vayera: Presence and Healing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

The important thing [I mean, besides the Red Sox being in the World
Series] is this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, which means “he
appeared,” referring to a theophany [manifestation of the Divine to a
human- in this case, Avraham] right at the beginning of the portion:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting
at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw
three men standing near him. . . . . (Bereshit 18:1-2)

A key piece of context is the ending of last week’s Torah portion,
where Avraham circumcised himself and his household, because the
ancient rabbis assume that he’s sitting in the entrance of his tent
(and not riding around on one of his adventures) because he’s
recovering from the pain of the surgery. Thus, when the next sentence-
the first one of this week’s parsha- reads that the Lord appeared to
him, and then three mysterious men appear in the verse after that, a
beautiful midrash connects all three.

This midrash, or re-imagining of the text, says that God appeared to
Avraham as an act of kindness- hesed- to the sick (or recovering, in
this case.) The three men are manifestations of the Divine, there to
announce the birth of Avraham’s son, but also to bring healing to
Avraham. (Cf. Rashi on these verses, for example.) Healing, in this
case, does not- as I read it- mean physical healing, but an emotional
and spiritual healing and encouragement. The essence of bikkur holim-
visiting the sick- is not only the physical needs of the patient
(although that’s a huge part of the mitzvah), but also to provide
companionship, hope, friendship, and loving presence, which can make
the experience of illness or injury more bearable.

Now, an interesting point is that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is
demonstrated, but not actually derived, from the story of this divine
visitation to Avraham. In fact, many authorities say that bikkur holim
is not a separate mitzvah at all, but is part of the more general
principle of “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra/Leviticus
19:18), whereas others derive it from “you shall walk in [literally,
‘after’] God’s ways. . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 13:5.) The
authorities who says that bikkur holim comes from the general mitzvah
to “walk in God’s ways” see visiting the sick as an act of divine
compassion, which we are to emulate and develop within ourselves.

There are many practical aspects to bikkur holim, which you can learn
by following the links below. However, much of the mitzvah is common
sense and just showing up, in person or via telephone if someone is
far away, and behaving with generosity, humility and sensitivity. I
believe that Judaism teaches us something profound by categorizing
compassionate acts, such as bikkur holim as mitzvot, non-negotiable
spiritual disciplines. The fact is that it’s often no fun to confront
human frailty- visiting someone in the hospital or sick at home forces
us to confront our fears and our mortality, and can be unsettling.

Yet by understanding bikkur holim as an act of “walking in God’s
ways,” we affirm that both the patient and the visitor are made in the
Divine Image- that is, the patient is not just a disease, or symptoms,
or injury, but a whole person, affirmed and joined by another person
made whole in the very act of connecting with a fellow soul. That’s
the importance of bikkur holim- it reminds us who we really are:
bearers of Divine love and healers of the human spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Lech Lecha: Ancestors and Descendants

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Shalom from the Hudson Valley, where the leaves are starting to turn
and there’s a hint of fall in the air- and no more tomatoes at the
farmer’s market, alas. Well, we’ll survive, we’re a hardy bunch,
descendants of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, who left their home in
the east to travel to a land they’ve never seen, for adventures they
could not imagine. In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, not only
do they travel across many lands, but Avraham also receives a vision
of God in which he is given the sign of the covenant between God and
Avraham’s descendants:

“God further said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to
come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the
covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you
shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall
circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of
the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations,
every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 17:9-12)

From this paragraph we derive the mitzvah of circumcision- perhaps the
most controversial Jewish practice of all time. We will not, in the
space of a short email, be able to answer all critiques of this
covenantal practice, nor I can I, as a rabbi, adequately address the
all the technical and medical questions that readers may have. Nor is
it my intent to discuss, at this time, the implications of
circumcision in the context of our commitment to equality of the sexes
in a Conservative congregation. What I can do is point out a few basic
ideas about brit milah- the “covenant of circumcision”- which often
get left out of the discussion, along with my personal, idiosyncratic
interpretation of the mitzvah.

First, please note, the Torah mentions nothing about hygiene, health
or medical advisability. Brit milah is not a medical act; it is a
religious one, and to a certain extent, the medical justifications for
circumcision can obscure the more fundamental idea, which is that as a
religious practice, Jews see a transcendent value in bringing a
spiritual idea into profoundly physical manifestation.

Second, the Torah is highly specific that milah- circumcision- happens
on the eighth day (barring any medical reason to delay, of course.) A
purely medical circumcision which happens in the hospital before the
eighth day does not fulfill the criteria for brit milah- there is no
mitzvah in a purely medical procedure without the right timing and
blessings. (If that happened, and you want to learn more about next
steps, consult a local rabbi.)

Why the Torah specifies eight days- or afterwards, in the case of
necessity- is open to interpretation, but one can certainly note that
seven days signify creation, the making of the whole world- the eighth
day is when the world has been created and human agency begins. Seen
this way, milah reminds us that each life is a whole world.

Finally, please note that in the passage above, milah is a symbol with
two meanings: it’s a sign of being descended from Avraham and Sarah,
and it’s a sign of the covenant between Avraham and God. As I see it,
milah reminds us that we are a people, with earthly needs and a
physical existence, as well as individuals in relationship with God.
It’s never either/or, but always both/and: we are always cognizant of
the physical needs of ourselves and our people, for safety, for
material sustenance, for right livelihood and stable communities. Yet
we are also incomplete if our physical needs are met without striving
for transcendent purpose. We are in relationship with God and with
each other at all times- we have a body and a soul, we are of Earth
and of Heaven.

I’ve had the privilege of attending two gatherings for brit milah
recently, and in both cases I was struck, again, by the sheer
physicality of this mitzvah, as well as the incredibly profound
emotions felt by the family and guests. Those emotions ranged from
fear to joy to reverence to anxiety- all of which are a normative part
of the human experience. Perhaps brit milah, precisely because of its
emotional intensity, reifies the Jewish conception of covenant as no
other mitzvah does- it brings us down to earth, forces us to
experience the gamut of emotions, and connects us with our God, our
people, and our history, all at the same time.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Noach: The Right Questions At the Right Time

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

The Torah
portion Noach, as the name [Noach=Noah] indicates, begins with the
choosing of Noach, then continues with God’s instructions to build the
Ark, the flood, and the eventual renewal of humankind. Yet an ancient
question concerning this story points out that God didn’t need to send
a flood to wipe out those doing evil, nor did God need Noach to build
an Ark in order to save him and his family. So why did God tell Noach
to build the Ark?

Rashi, quoting an earlier text, tells us that the building of the Ark
was meant as a public warning to those engaged in violence and
wrongdoing- perhaps they would see Noach engaged in this huge project,
make some inquiries, find out that disaster is on its way, and repent
of their misdeeds, which would presumably avert the flood. (Cf. Rashi
on Bereshit/Genesis 6:14.) This midrash [homiletic interpretation]
changes the tone of the story from one in which an angry God desires
to punish wrongdoers to a story of a patient God desiring that
humankind change from within.

The idea that we are given the capacity for reflection, and the
responsibility to use it, is a fundamental concept in Judaism,
reflected in the positive mitzvah [that is, a commandment to take a
specific action] of confession and “returning,” or t’shuvah. This
mitzvah is based on Bamidbar/Numbers 5:6-7, which says that a person
who wrongs another must confess and take reparative actions. The
Chafetz Chaim* lists confession and t’shuvah as mitzvah #33 on his
list of positive mitzvot, saying that the essence of this commandment
is remorse in the heart and resolve to act differently in the future.
Most commentators also include verbal admission of doing something
wrong, apology, and making amends, when possible, in the practical
application of t’shuvah.

In other words- in Judaism, reflection on one’s deeds and awareness of
their consequences isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law! The mitzvah
of t’shuvah- “returning”- presupposes that nobody is perfect, but
everybody has the capacity for good. We are called to do t’shuvah all
year round, not just before Yom Kippur, because we are all created in
the image of God- the mitzvah teaches us about our potential to lead
lives reflecting the ideals of compassion, justice and truth which are
the core orientations of religious striving.

In summary: if Judaism didn’t believe that every person can grow in
awareness, sensitivity, responsibility and compassion, we wouldn’t
have a mitzvah to reflect on our actions, apologize when necessary,
and think hard about the ways we’d like to be in the future. It
shouldn’t take somebody building an Ark in his backyard to get us to
ask a few basic questions- but in our day, the questions are for each
person to ask him or herself. But as in ancient times, the answers can
return us to becoming our truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


* R. Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan, d.1933- this year we will frequently
refer to his short book listing the mitzvot operative in the Diaspora.

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Bereshit: Creating On Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

If you’ve been celebrating the holidays I hope they have been full of
joy and insight. It’s time to announce a slight in of focus for this
weekly commentary- we’ve now completed three years of Torah study
focused on the texts and commentaries, and so I hope you’re ready for
something a bit different. At the urging of the new Chancellor of the
Jewish Theological Seminary, many Conservative rabbis have been
speaking over the holidays about the mitzvot, or “commandments,” but
understood broadly as the actions and spiritual disciplines which are
the core of Jewish practice. I too spoke on Rosh Hashana about the
meaning of mitzvah (notes for those sermons will at some point be up
on the TBE website) and I want to continue the conversation here on

Thus, we’ll still look at the Torah portion every week, but for the
coming year I’ll bring to your attention a mitzvah which is connected
to or found in the parsha, along with my suggestions for how to apply
this mitzvah in your life.

Please feel free to offer feedback, commentary, and suggestions as we
go along.

And with that. . . . .

Tonight we observe Shimini Atzeret, the final holiday of the fall holy
days, the second day of which is known as Simchat Torah, when the
yearly Torah reading is concluded and a new one begins. Because
there’s no space between Simchat Torah and the regular Shabbat of the
new year, we’re going to leave the holiday discussion for next year
and go right into the portion Bereshit, at the beginning of the book
of the same name, Bereshit/ Genesis.

The opening words of Bereshit are familiar to many: “In the beginning.
. . ” with a description of the seven days of creation following. The
seventh day is Shabbat, the Sabbath, because:

“. . . on the seventh day God finished the work that God had been
doing, and The Holy One ceased on the seventh day from all the work
that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it
holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that The
Creator had done.” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:2-3)

The word “Shabbat” comes from a Hebrew root which has among its
meanings to “cease” or “stop,” so when the text says that God “ceased”
the work of creation, the lexical connection is clear: our day of
“ceasing” is a reminder that God stopped creating after the sixth day.
(As an aside, let me be clear here: the official position of
rabbineal-list is that there is no conflict between Biblical
narratives, which teach spiritual truths using narrative and metaphor,
and scientific explanations for the world’s origins.)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book called “The Sabbath,” points out a
slight tension in the text, which is a bit ambiguous as to whether the
work of Creation was finished on the sixth day, leaving the seventh
day with no “creating,” or on the seventh day itself. Heschel quotes a
midrash which says, yes, there was something created on the seventh
day- “menucha,” commonly translated as “rest” but understood to be
more than physical renewal. The rabbis posit that something was
created on the seventh day in order to teach that menucha, as a
concept, is not just “not working” but a positive, active state of
contemplation, of renewal, of peace and wholeness.

The paradox is that we can only achieve menucha- a heightened state of
perspective and spirituality and renewal- if we create space for it by
not filling up our lives with other activities. Heschel stresses over
and over again that Shabbat is not just a bunch of restrictions, but
the ceasing of some kinds of activities creates the opportunity for
something else to happen- the positive experience of menucha, as he

The mitzvah of Shabbat is central to any serious Jewish spiritual path
because of a simple truth: the world keeps us so busy doing things we
often don’t have time or space or context for just be-ing, for
appreciating the wonder of our existence and our connections to God,
nature, and each other. The practice of Shabbat is something that
grows over time, but initially, one can turn off the tv, the computer,
and the stereo, so that learning, talking and thinking is uncluttered.
Shabbat creates space for walking, sitting in a garden, or reading
something which touches your soul, none of which can happen without
choosing to create menucha on the seventh day.

Moadim L’Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,


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