Archive for November, 2007

Vayeshev: What is Most Torn

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

It’s almost the festival of lights, but this week’s Torah portion,
Vayeshev, is not the most lighthearted portion of the Torah. Yosef is
sold into slavery by his brothers, but Yaakov, their father, thinks
he’s been torn apart by an animal. Yehudah, one of the older brothers,
then mourns for his sons in the story of his encounter with Tamar, his
daughter-in-law, and the parsha ends with Yosef in prison in Egypt.

OK, now that I’ve cheered you all up, let’s continue our discussion of
the practical actions of lived Judaism as they related to the Torah
readings. Yosef is sold into slavery, but his brothers take his
special jacket and dip it in animal blood, then bring it to their
father, so that he would think Yosef was dead (interesting how the man
who tricked his own father is tricked by his sons, but that’s another
discussion.) Yaakov is consumed with grief:

“Yaakov rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed
mourning for his son many days.” (Bereshit/Genesis 37:34)

As it turns out, Yaakov is not the only character in the Bible to tear
his garments in grief- in fact, just a few verses before, his son
Ruven did as well, when his plan to save Yosef didn’t work. We still
tear the garment today as a sign of grief, and in fact, to this very
day, we tear the garment standing up, from the example of King David:

“Then the king arose, tore his clothes and lay on the ground; and all
his servants were standing by with clothes torn.” (2 Samuel 13:31)

Yet as a mitzvah, a commandment, tearing the garment is supported by
Biblical verses but is actually a decree of the ancient rabbis, who
saw it as a strong tradition at a time of mourning and fixed it in our
practice. Tearing- called kriah- is usually done by the immediate
family of the deceased (i.e., if someone was your parent, spouse,
sibling, or child, you tear for them) but can also be done by anyone
present at the actual moment of death or even for one’s main teacher
of Torah.

The time of tearing is from the moment of death onwards, but nowadays
most people wait till the funeral and do it with the rabbi or cantor
(but it’s actually quite powerful to tear at the moment of getting the
news.) The garment is torn on the left side for a parent, and on the
right front side for other relatives, and one wears torn garments
through the week of shivah. (The seven-day mourning period, not
including Shabbat .) The blessing “dayan ha’emet” follows the tearing,
but we’ll explain that one another time.

Astute readers (which is any reader of rabbineal-list) will notice
that I keep using the word “garment” and not “little black ribbon on a
button.” The mitzvah is clear- one tears one’s clothing at a time of
grief. To put it another way, when one’s world is torn apart with
loss, to tear a garment says that it’s not clothing or material
possessions which really matter, but rather our relationships.

Not only that, but tearing the garment, and wearing the torn garment
for a week, goes along with the other shivah practices of being
unconcerned with physical appearance during a time of emotional and
spiritual introspection. To me, the little black ribbon common at
Jewish funerals does not adequately capture the power of our
tradition- I understand that people are squeamish about tearing their
good clothing, but I believe a more powerful ritual experience would
be had by wearing clothing that one is willing to tear- a shirt, a
tie, a blouse, a scarf, etc.

We tear- as Yaakov tore, as David tore, as Job tore- when those people
who make up a whole world of relationships (even highly imperfect
ones) are torn from us. Tearing the garment is a physical symbol of an
emotional reality- a way of expressing ourselves using the medium of
fabric rather than language. Words are often inadequate when emotions
are strong- tearing, like other rituals of relationship, picks up
where phrases fail.

Judaism doesn’t deny grief, but rather offers us a framework to hold
onto when grief is most intense. Tearing expresses the utter confusion
and vulnerability of loss, but it also gives us a way to move back
into the world, when after seven days regular clothes are worn- the
practice is not only to tear, but to put away the torn clothes when
one re-enters the workaday world after shivah. It’s a palpable symbol
of the human journey, from Biblical days to our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayishlach: Vengeance and Justice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, begins with the story of Yaakov
wrestling with a mysterious being the night before he meets up with
his estranged brother Esav; after he and Esav appear to reconcile,
they go their separate ways and Yaakov camps near Shechem.
Unfortunately, he must leave that area after his sons, led by Shimon
and Levi, take a terrible and bloody vengeance on the men of the town
in retribution for an apparent sexual assault upon their sister,
Dinah. In the view of the brothers, the prince of the town had treated
Dinah like a prostitute; in revenge, they deceived all the men of the
town, setting them up for death and despoilment. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 34)

The story of the “rape of Dinah” (as it is usually known) raises
complex issues of gender, justice and morality; for today, we will
note only that Shimon and Levi’s actions seem to violate a later Torah
prohibition against “taking revenge,” as expressed in
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a
grudge against your countrymen.”

A clear explanation of this mitzvah is found in Abraham Chill’s book
on the mitzvot (which I recommend), where he brings the classic
rabbinic explanation of the difference between “revenge” and “grudges:”

1) Revenge, or “nekamah,” is when John comes to Hillary and asks to
borrow a tool, and Hillary refuses. The next day, Hillary comes to
John and asks to borrow a different tool, and John says: “you didn’t
lend to me, I’m not going to lend to you.”

2) Bearing a grudge is remembering past slights, as when Rudy comes to
Mitt to borrow a tool, and Mitt says: “OK, I’m lending you the hammer,
even though yesterday you refused to lend me a wrench.”

Please note: the mitzvah of not taking revenge does not mean we should
permit injustice or not hold people accountable for genuine misdeeds.
It means that the accountability should be proportionate to the wrong,
and limited to the actual problem. To put it another way, I might
explain this mitzvah as the spiritual discipline of attempting to stay
emotionally “centered” even when one feels hurt, insulted or harmed in
some way, and to respond from a place of thoughtfulness, not lashing
out. The mitzvah does not preclude protecting ourselves, or speaking
out when we feel hurt- it means that even if we were hurt, the Torah
challenges us to carefully distinguish between justice and vengeance.

There’s nothing easy about this mitzvah- in fact, it might be one of
the hardest in the Torah. Furthermore, it’s easy to say that Shimon
and Levi’s response to Shechem was totally disproportionate to the
offense, but it’s harder to say just how they might have acted in a
way which held the prince accountable and deterred further violence
against their family. While Yaakov himself condemns what the brothers
did, he does so on practical grounds- that they will be considered
outlaws in the region.

Finally, one should note that the verse from Vayikra specifies that we
are not to take revenge against “bnai amecha,” literally, the
“children of your people.” Thus, some commentators have limited this
prohibition to a behavioral norm only within the Jewish community (see
Chill’s quotation from Kli Yakar, for example), but I reject that
view. The rest of the verse tells us to love “our fellow” [re’eacha]
as ourselves- and our fellow humans are all peoples.

The word “vengeance” evokes images of bloody blades like Shimon and
Levi’s, but the examples given above are much closer to ordinary life.
Who among us has never made a cutting and unnecessary remark, or taken
some small action for the purpose of confounding another? The mitzvah
of refraining from revenge is about cultivating an ethical
consciousness even during rage or pain- that is, precisely when it’s
hardest and most necessary. Not bearing a grudge is really about not
letting other people’s actions determine your own- it is the path of
becoming our best selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayeitze: Discernment and Rebuke

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, Yaakov is on the run from his brother, who is quite
understandably angry with him. He goes back to his mother’s hometown,
in search of his uncle Lavan and his family. Yaakov ends up marrying
two of Lavan’s daughters, but before he even meets them, he has an
interesting encounter at the well outside of town:

“Yaakov resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep
were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that
well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the
flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth
of the well and the sheep watered. . .

Yaakov said to them, ‘My friends, where are you from?’ And they said,
‘We are from Haran.’ He said to them, ‘Do you know Lavan the son of
Nahor?’ . . . [Yaakov] said, ‘It is still broad daylight, too early to
round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.’ But
they said, ‘We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the
stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.’
(Bereshit/ Genesis 29:1-9, edited)

Rashi, along with other commentators, interprets this interaction as a
gentle rebuke by Yaakov to the herders he sees resting by the well.
Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“Since he saw them lying down, he thought that they wished to gather
the livestock to return home and that they would no longer graze. So
he said to them, ‘It’s still day’ i.e., if you have been hired for
the day, you have not completed the day’s work, and if the animals are
yours, it is, nevertheless, not the time to take in the livestock.”

Now, as it turns out, Yaakov didn’t understand what he saw- he thought
the herders were slacking off, when really, they were waiting for
enough men to gather to roll the big stone off the top of the well,
which Yaakov then does for them. One could also reasonably point out
that it’s none of Yaakov’s business whether or not the shepherds are
resting or working- he didn’t hire them. Yet Rashi implies- and others
say explicitly- that Yaakov was justified in rebuking the shepherds,
because it appeared to him that they weren’t doing the job for which
they were hired.

It’s a gentle chiding, to be sure; Yaakov prefaces his questions by
calling the men “achai,” literally “my brothers.” Some commentators
see Yaakov’s comment as a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” which the Chafetz Chaim explains as a universal obligation
to point out to others when they are violating a Torah law. (Cf.
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:17) The Chafetz Chaim goes on to say that one
must never shame another person or humiliate them, and one is not
obligated to keep saying anything past the point at which one’s words
are rejected. Furthermore, as Yaakov’s interaction with the herders
illustrates, we often don’t have all the facts, and hasty judgments
could lead to highly problematic interactions.

Yet will all those caveats- and many more in the commentary on this
mitzvah- it’s still true that Judaism teaches the ethical duty to
speak up when one sees others engaged in wrongdoing. We have to be
careful, we have to be gentle, we have to be thoughtful, we have to be
humble, but we must also have the courage of our convictions. Yaakov
was wrong when he thought the shepherds were cheating their employer-
but imagine a world in which honest employees of Enron or Worldcom
spoke out when they saw violations of corporate ethics.

Imagine a world in which honest people routinely spoke out when they
saw dishonesty or cruelty, and you understand why this mitzvah is
crucial to religious ethics. “Tochecha,” or “rebuke,” isn’t about
setting oneself up as the judge of others- it’s about having the
courage to speak when the situation calls for it. It’s a very tough
mitzvah to do – in fact, there are some who say it’s almost
impossible- but it’s also a mitzvah which teaches us about moral
courage, which the world needs now more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Honoring Through Actions

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Good morning! We saw the first frost in the Hudson Valley this week
(well, it was the first frost that I saw), and there’s a nip in the
air, just the perfect weather for hot soup- red lentil soup, maybe?
Red lentil soup would not only be a good idea for the weather, but
would remind us of one of the central themes of this week’s Torah
portion, Toldot: the tricky relationship between the two sons of
Yitzhak, Esav and Yaakov.

Yaakov, as many of you may remember, bought his older twin’s
birthright of the firstborn for a pot of lentil soup. Some years
later, he tricks their father, Yitzhak, into giving him the blessing
due his older brother. This happens when Esav is out in the fields
hunting game at his elderly father’s request:

“When Yitzhak was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his
older son Esav and said to him, ‘My son.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’
And he said, ‘I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die.
Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt
me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it
to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I
die.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 27:1-4)

The Renaissance-era Italian commentator Ovadia Sforno (a.k.a. just
Sforno) suggests that Yitzhak asked Esav to get some meat for him so
that Esav would do the mitzvah of honoring his father, and thus be
worthy of the blessing to follow. This interpretation may or may not
be the most plausible explanation of Yitzhak’s request, but it fits
well with the general understanding of what it means to fulfill the
commandment of “kibud av ’em,” or honoring one’s father and mother.

This mitzvah is recognized as one of the “Aseret HaDibrot,” or “Ten
Speakings,” known in English as the “Ten Commandments,” and found in
Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. (As Jews, however, we don’t like to imply
there are only ten, important as those are.) The rabbi known as the
Chafetz Chayim, whose “Concise Book of Mitzvot” we have referred to
before, lists honoring one’s father and mother as a separate
commandment from “revering” them, as they are derived from different
verses: compare Shmot/Exodus 20:12 to Vayikra/Leviticus 19:3, for

However, for today’s purposes, it’s important to note that Yitzhak’s
request that Esav bring him his favorite food precisely fits the way
many sources understand the practical application of honoring one’s
parents; that is, one assists them, cares for them physically and
preserves their dignity as well as one reasonably can as long as such
requests don’t conflict with another mitzvah. Honoring one’s parents
is done even after they are deceased, as for example observing the
customs of mourning or donating to charity in their memory.

Many years go, I heard a story from Rabbi Howard Alpert, then as now
the Director of Hillel organizations in the Philadelphia area. He was
visited by a young woman whose parents had not treated her kindly
(probably an understatement) but as a matter of religious observance,
she understood that she had a mitzvah to honor people with whom she
didn’t have a close or warm relationship. Rabbi Alpert opened up a
Torah commentary and pointed out that the Torah does not command us to
love our parents; the mitzvah instead is to honor them with certain
actions which embody the consciousness that they brought us into the
world. This gave the student a framework for fulfilling the mitzvah
without having to fully resolve complicated emotions.

I’m paraphrasing R. Alpert’s language, but the central point is this:
the mitzvah of honoring parents has to do with actions, not feelings.
Family relationships are complicated, but as Jews, we believe that
life is a gift, and honor is due those who gave it. Seen this way, the
mitzvah of honoring parents can be understood as a discipline of
gratitude for life itself.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chayei Sarah: Blessing and Consolation

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where your humble correspondent
and only a select few other people are celebrating the valorous Red
Sox. . . . .but I digress, and we haven’t even started yet. Baseball
is on hiatus till next spring, but Torah study is a year-round
endeavor. This week’s portion is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the
death of Sarah and ends, more or less, with the death of Avraham.
After Avraham’s death, his son, Yitzhak, is blessed by God:

“After the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzhak. And Yitzhak
settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:11)

Now, perhaps the simple meaning of this verse is to show that Yitzhak
is inheriting the blessing of his father’s covenant, but many
commentators (including our friend Rashi and our Conservative Etz
Hayim commentary) see God’s “blessing” of Yitzhak as directly
connected to his status as a mourner for his father. That is, the
“blessing” was really the comforting and consolation extended toward a
mourner. The Talmud (Sotah 14a) links God’s “comforting” of Yitzhak
with the example of visiting the sick that we discussed last week,
deriving both from a verse in D’varim/Deuteronomy:

“You shall go in the ways of the Lord your God, and revere the Holy
One and the Holy One’s commandments. . . (D’varim 13:5, my translation.)

Again, as we discussed last week, the idea of “walking in God’s ways”
means to emulate or manifest in our lives the compassionate ways of
being that we understand as holy. The mitzvah of “nichum avelim,” or
comforting the mourners, is not a separate mitzvah in itself but is
part of the general command to be compassionate and generous as we
believe God to be- which is to say, to the extent that we are
compassionate, generous and caring, we are true to the Image of God
within each of us.

However, although the mitzvah to “go in God’s ways” is a general one,
there are practical guidelines for the specific ways we practice it.
In the case of nichum avelim, this would include the way we greet
mourners (or, more precisely, allow them to greet us), the way we
conduct ourselves in their presence, what we bring if it’s a visit at
home, how we address their pain, and so on.

An excellent set of guidelines on how to comfort mourners can be found
below, but if I had to sum up Jewish wisdom on the topic in just a few
words, I might say: when it comes to offering consolations, less can
be more. That is, one’s presence is usually the greatest consolation;
many words or big piles of food or gifts are sometimes incongruous
with the mourner’s more stark and introspective state. To paraphrase
Woody Allen, perhaps 80% of the mitzvah is just showing up.

After the death of Avraham, God blessed Yitzhak- it is, in fact, a
blessing to be consoled by friends and community when life brings
loss, as it inevitably will. Judaism doesn’t pretend that life never
hurts; rather, Judaism gives us the mitzvah to bring the blessing of
love and companionship where there is pain and grief. The Holy One
blessed Yitzhak; it’s up to us to bless each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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