Archive for December, 2007

Shemot: True Beauty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Speaking of arduous labor, this week we begin the
book of Shemot, or Exodus; the story opens with the Israelites in Egypt
and a new Pharaoh oppressing the people and setting taskmasters over
them. We meet Moshe, who grows up in the palace but soon flees Egypt
after striking an Egyptian captain. Moshe flees to Midian where he has
the famous encounter of the “burning bush,” where God appoints him to
confront Pharaoh and bring hope to the people.

Moshe doesn’t particularly want this commission, and argues with God
that perhaps someone else should be appointed. Finally, God agrees
that Moshe’s brother Aharon can serve as his mouthpiece and partner:

“[God] said, ‘Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levite? I know
that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you,
and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 4:14)

Rashi emphasizes how much it is to Aharon’s credit that he will greet
Moshe with great rejoicing upon Moshe’s return to Egypt- after all,
one might think that an older brother would resent a younger one for
having achieved such a high position (think Fredo Corleone) but Aharon
is portrayed as humble and wise in this regard.

This leads to our connection with the practical aspects of Judaism.
Rashi concludes his comment on the verse above by connecting Aharon’s
support of Moshe’s appointment as prophet to Aharon’s own appointment
as the “High Priest’ after the giving of the Torah. More specifically,
Aharon’s humility, his good-hearted acceptance of his younger
brother’s prominence, is linked to the bejeweled breastplate he wears
as Kohen Gadol [High Priest.]

To put it another way, Rashi sees the priestly breastplate as symbolic
of Aharon’s humility- in this view like an adornment of the heart-
which is most evident in how Aharon rejoices over his brother’s
spiritual achievement. This symbolism is brought into contemporary
Judaism by the “breastplate” which hangs over and decorates a Torah
scroll; in fact, most of the decorations on a Torah scroll are
evocations of the garments of the High Priest. (Cf. the Torah portion

Thus, we arrive at an interesting junction: the silver plates in front
of a Torah scroll recall not only the grandeur of the High Priest, but
the humility and lack of ego and resentment which made the first High
Priest worthy of the office. A beautiful decoration is linked to a
beautiful perspective: that we should rejoice in each other’s
achievements without envy or spite, which in turn reminds us that
beauty is more in actions than in objects.

Happy Winter Break to all,


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Vayechi: Truth and Peace

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude the book of Bereshit/Genesis: the grand journey of Yaakov’s life is concluded with
his final return to the Land of Israel, where he is buried by his sons
in the cave purchased by his grandfather Avraham. After Yosef and his
brothers return to Egypt, the brothers are quite understandably
concerned that Yosef may finally exact revenge for their violence
against him when they were younger:

“Now Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,
‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did
to him.’ So they commanded [messengers to go] to Yosef , to say, ‘Your
father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to
Yosef : please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their
sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of
the servants of the God of your father.’ ‘ Yosef wept when they spoke
to him. ” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:15-17)

This passage has inspired veritable rivers of commentary, because of a
neon-bright textual problem: there is no record in the Torah of Yaakov
saying what the brothers reported. Thus, Rashi (basing himself on
older sources) makes the obvious conclusion: the brothers lied about
their father’s putative plea so that there would be peace in the family.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, well, it seems to have worked,
and in fact, most commentators don’t have a problem with this
particular instance of lying, precisely because it leads to an
ethically desirable result: peace between the brothers. In general,
the Torah condemns lying and falsehood, as in, for example:

“You shall not bear false witness” (Shmot/Exodus 20:13)

“Keep far from a false matter” (Shmot 23:7)

“Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:11)

One could argue that these mitzvot have a juridical context- that is,
witnessing and legal testimony- but it’s still clear that our system
of religious ethics has truth-telling and integrity as a core value.
Still, the point that Rashi and others make is that truth in itself is
not the ultimate value; peace and human dignity may in certain
instances be a higher value. This makes sense when one considers the
underlying reason that truth is a value in the first place: when
people can’t trust each other, whether in the marketplace or the
courtroom or anywhere else, they cannot build bonds of intimacy,
caring, and justice.

Detailed discussions of these principles can be found in the links
below, but for today, it’s enough to point out that refraining from
lies is a clear principle of Jewish ethics and practice. However, in
certain extraordinary circumstances, it <may> be permissible to
“fudge” the truth or even lie in order to achieve peace,
reconciliation, or human dignity. “Shalom” is understood to be one of
the names of God in the Jewish tradition, and thus we do not condemn
Yosef’s brothers for bending the truth for the sake of life and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Honoring Rightly

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

That’s right, we’ve reached the dramatic climax of the story of Yosef
and his brothers, when Yehudah pleads on behalf of the younger brother
Binyamin and Yosef finally reveals himself as their long-lost sibling.
After a reconciliation with his brothers, Yosef sends them home to get
their father, Yaakov, who hurries to go down to Egypt to see the son
he thought was dead.

The Torah tells that that before Yaakov leaves the Land of his fathers
to go and join his son in Egypt, he makes grateful offerings to God,
who then appears to him with comforting promises:

“And Yisrael and all that was his set out and came to Be’ersheva, and
he made sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzhak. And God [spoke]
to Yisrael in visions of the night. . . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:1-2)

The commentators notice that Yaakov gave thanks to the God of his
father Yitzhak, which would not be unusual, but for a previous event
near Be’ersheva. Back in Bereshit/Genesis 28, Yaakov has his famous
dream of a ladder to the heavens, during which God is self-revealed as
the “God of Avraham your father, and of Yitzhak.” The text actually
says Yaakov left Be’ersheva and was headed towards Haran, but still,
it’s significant that Yaakov has spiritual experiences at or near
Be’ersheva in both cases.

Not only that, but if you go back to Bereshit 21 and 26, you find that
Be’ersheva is the site of important events in the life of both Avraham
and Yitzhak, who, of course, are Yaakov’s grandfather and father,

So the commentators have an implicit problem: why, if Yaakov goes to
Be’ersheva to make offerings to the God of his father, is “father” in
the singular? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make offerings to
the “God of his fathers, Avraham and Yitzhak?”

Rashi and others learn from this question that Yaakov makes his
prayers to the “God of his father Yitzhak” because the obligation to
honor one’s father takes precedence over the obligation to honor one’s
grandfather. As we discussed a few weeks ago for parshat Toldot, the
rabbis see the matriarchs and patriarchs of Genesis as fulfilling
various mitzvot, including honoring one’s parents, so perhaps they
imagine that Yaakov takes halachic (practical laws) into account when
making his offerings.

I see three points of applied wisdom from Rashi’s inference of the
honor of a parent taking precedent over the honor of a grandparent:

1) As we discussed a few weeks ago, honoring one’s parents is a
mitzvah which applies even after they die; this helps us understand
why the sages would see Yaakov’s act as one of honoring his father.
Rabbi Nachum Amsel, in his book “The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and
Ethical Issues,” points out that we can do this by mentioning them in
conversation and telling others what we learned from them – to which
I would add acts of ritual remembrance and charity.

2) Rashi’s comment, based on older sources, does not, of course, mean
that we don’t, as a mitzvah, honor elders other than grandparents; it
just means that one fulfills the first obligation first, as it were.
There is, in fact, a separate mitzvah to honor the living elderly,
given in Leviticus 19:32. That wouldn’t apply in Yaakov’s case; I
bring it up only to point out that honoring parents does not mean we
don’t honor others.

3) Given point #2, I see this halachic comment- about honoring parents
taking precedence over honoring grandparents- as pointing us towards
an awareness how one mitzvah affects another. Perhaps parents take
precedence over grandparents when doing acts of service because it may
be harder to honor (with actions) those who have both given to us and
disciplined us. In Yaakov’s case, it’s striking that he makes prayers
to “the God of his father Yitzhak” when Yitzhak was the parent who
favored his brother Esav. It might have been easier to pay honor to
the memory of the great ancestor Avraham, but the mitzvah is to honor
our parents, despite the complexity of the relationship.

Let’s be clear: in most cases, there is not a great conflict between
honoring parents and honoring grandparents. Furthermore, if Yaakov had
mentioned Avraham in his offerings, it probably would not have
diminished the reverence of his act. The commentators wish to make
this point because the language of the Torah demands explication, yet
given Yaakov’s complex relationship with Yitzhak, it’s striking that
he can, at this latter stage of his life, humbly recognize himself as
his father’s son. This is another dimension of not only the mitzvah to
honor one’s parents, but all mitzvot: in the doing there is great

Shabbat Shalom,


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Hanukkah: Revealing Miracles

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah!

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the story of
Yosef and his brothers, but today, following our theme this year of
looking at the application of Jewish practice, we’ll briefly consider
a more . . . (ahem) . . . .burning issue: where to put the Hanukkah
menorah, or Hanukkiah.

[“Menorah” just means “lamp,” and in the Bible, the “menorah” was the
seven-branched lamp in the Temple. A special menorah for Hanukkah is,
technically, a Hanukkiah.]

Many will know that the blessing we say after lighting the Hanukkiah
is called “al ha’nissim,” which is a short blessing of gratitude for
the “nissim,” or miracles, done in this season (of the year) in those
days (of the Maccabees.) The lighting of the Hanukkiah is a way of
doing what’s called “publicizing the miracle,” that is, proclaiming it
or displaying our re-enactment of it. Maimonides, [A.K.A. Rambam]
uses slightly different language in his book of Jewish law called the
Mishnah Torah: he says that we light the lamp near (or over) the door
of the house in order to “show and reveal” [l’ha’rot u’l’galot] the
miracle. (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah, 3:3)

So why do so many people light their Hanukkiah on the dining room
table, or over the fireplace? Probably because of a practice inherited
from their ancestors to do so- it goes back many generations that in a
“time of danger” it was permissible to make the lighting of the
Hanukkah a private, family affair. In other words- if it wasn’t a wise
idea to draw attention to the fact that there were Jews celebrating a
holiday in the the house, one didn’t have to do so.

However, in contemporary North America, where by and large Jews are
not in danger, it would seem that the proper way to fulfill the
mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkiah would be to put it in a window or
doorway, to “make known” the miracle to those who pass by. In fact,
one can say “al hanissim” when seeing Hanukkah lights that are not
one’s own, even though the mitzvah is to light in each household.

Yesterday a major candidate for President of the United States
mentioned his belief that “nativity scenes and menorahs should be
welcome in our public places.” Whatever one’s political or legal
opinions about putting “nativity scenes and menorahs in public places”
(recognizing a difference between “public” in the sense of communally
owned, like City Hall, versus “public” in the sense of a space open to
all, like a privately owned shopping mall or plaza), what’s
interesting is that precisely to the extent that one feels safe as a
Jew in North America, one should, according to the traditional
practice, be willing to “go public” with Hanukkah lighting. This is
not an argument for a Hanukkiah which is 25 feet high- one doesn’t
have to be garish to make known the miracle- but only the observation
that putting a Hanukkiah where more people can see it is in keeping
with the traditional view of how to observe the mitzvah.

Seen this way, putting one’s Hanukkiah in the window is an act of
Jewish confidence, as it were. That, in turn, is an even greater
re-enactment of the history of the Maccabees than even lighting the
lights- we become the ones who say: “this is who I am, and this I
Hanukkah is not only when we remember the “days of old,” but when we
declare to ourselves and others who we and what we hold precious- today.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy Festival of Lights to all,


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