Archive for January, 2008

Yitro: An Ethic of Life

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Good afternoon- it’s that Ten Commandments time of year in our Torah
reading this week! After leaving Egypt, the Israelites travel for a
bit before arriving at Mt. Sinai, which they do this week in the Torah
portion called Yitro, named after Moshe’s father-in-law, who gives
some pretty important advice to his son-in-law in the beginning of the
parsha. After that, Moshe and the Israelites prepare for the
revelation at Sinai, which happens with fire and earthquakes and the
sound of the Shofar- quite something to imagine!

Most readers will know that among the “Ten Commandments” [“Aseret
HaDibrot”] is the famous injunction: “thou shalt not kill.”
(Shmot/Exodus 20:13). A good idea in general (says this vegetarian)
but the Hebrew most clearly does not say “do not kill;” it says “lo
tirtsach,” meaning, do not murder. (Which puts self-defense or
military actions in a different category.)

OK, so far, so good- I’ll bet the same readers who knew this was the
“Sixth Commandment” of the “Top Ten” have observed it rather
scrupulously, no matter how hard it is to resist violent urges when
dealing with the customer service operations of many large
corporations and public utilities. Yet the ancient rabbis interpreted
this mitzvah more broadly than simple murder in the Agatha Christie
sense- they saw this commandment as including actions which would
destroy life or hasten death. Thus, “lo tirtsach” includes the
prohibition of euthanasia, even if natural death is imminent.

Furthermore- and here’s where things get sticky for the non-homicidal
among us- the Torah commentator Abravanel, among others (and following
earlier texts), even includes actions which are seen as the moral
equivalent to murder, such as destroying someone by publicly
humiliating them or holding back from giving aid which could save
someone. Perhaps that particular reading is a lexical stretch, but
more generally, many commentators see “do not murder” as being rooted
in the fundamental idea that human beings are created “b’tzelem
Elohim,” or in the Divine Image.

Thus, to destroy a person out of rage or spite or greed, is to deny
God, as it were. To to put it another way, the theological problem
with murder is that a person arrogates to themselves the power of God
over another- and this would be true whether we’re talking about
physical violence or the psychological destruction of a person through
humiliation or public shaming. This also explains why euthanasia is
considered “murder:” even if natural death is close at hand, we should
have great humility in matters of life and death. (Cf. Abraham
Chills’ book “The Mitzvot” for more on this theme.)

As far as I know, there aren’t many murderers on rabbineal-list. Yet
the ancient sages knew that people are capable of hurting each other
in many different ways. They reached for a spiritual broadening of the
“sixth commandment” in order to make the point that refraining from
violence isn’t the same thing as nurturing life, which is, after all,
the greater vision of Torah and Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beshallach: Being in Place

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This week’s Torah portion is Beshallach, which tells of the escape from Egypt, the crossing of the
Sea of Reeds, and the miracle of manna in the wilderness. The manna is
a miraculous food that the Israelites gather each day, but they are
told that on the sixth day they’ll gather enough for the sixth and
seventh, thus obviating the need to collect the manna on Shabbat, the
seventh day.

However, as will surprise few readers of this commentary, sometimes
the Israelites just won’t listen and have to find things out the hard

“Yet some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but
they found nothing. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you men
refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? Mark that the Lord
has given you the sabbath; therefore God gives you two days’ food on
the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his
place on the seventh day.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 16:27-29)

This passage is one of the few places in the Torah where Shabbat
practices are explicitly defined. In this case, we learn that one
aspect of Shabbat is not “going out from your place,” which is
understood by the ancient rabbis to mean that we should not go more
than a certain distance (a little less than a mile) from the town or
village or city or other inhabited place where we are on Shabbat. In
other words, somebody in a big city like Los Angeles or Toronto could
walk a few miles to visit a friend within the city, but somebody in a
small town might not be permitted to walk a mile outside of town to
visit their friend who lives out in the woods. [Please note: walking
and carrying things are two different issues, we’re only talking about
walking here.]

So the next question might be (actually, I can hear someone thinking
it out there): why is it OK on Shabbat, the day of rest, to walk miles
within the city but not OK to walk about 20 minutes outside the city
to visit someone in the nice green outdoors?

On the one hand, it’s a question of history: in ancient days, even big
cities weren’t miles and miles across like a modern metropolis, so we
should probably understand the intention of “staying in our places” as
not going from one city or town to another, that is, not setting out
on a journey.

Yet we can also understand the “Shabbat boundary” [techum Shabbat] as
a reminder to pay attention to the nature of the earth we’re standing
on during the 25 hours of Shabbat- it’s a kind of mindfulness of place
which refrains from the restlessness and excitement of needing to go
somewhere different. If you’re in the country, stay within a mile or
so of where you are; if you’re in the city, don’t leave your community
to go on a long trek across the fields or roads.

The practice of Shabbat teaches us not to need what we don’t have at
hand on Friday afternoon, including the need to be anywhere other than
where we are (excluding emergencies, of course.) With all the rushing
around the average North American does, it’s a tremendous spiritual
discipline to be relatively still for 25 hours- and only through
staying “in our places” can we truly notice, appreciate, and feel
blessed by the people and environment around us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bo: Bound to Freedom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, continues the story of
the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh, and contains the first
commandments to the people Israel as a nation. These mitzvot concern
counting the months and preparing the Pesach [Passover] rituals, but
at the end of the Torah portion, among the commandments to remember
the Exodus events, there are two verses which mention signs upon our
hands and heads:

“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on
your forehead — in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your
mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.”
(Shmot/Exodus 13:9)

“And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between
your eyes, for with a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt.”
((Shmot/Exodus 13:16)

This “sign” is understood by the ancient rabbis to be tefillin, or
“phylacteries” (a word which means tefillin!), which are those little
black leather boxes containing passages of Torah that many observant
Jews wear upon their arms and heads during weekday morning prayers.
[This certainly includes women in an egalitarian synagogue like Temple
Beth-El.] A more complete description of the origins and construction
of tefillin can be be found in the link below, but for today, I only
wish to point out the Torah’s linkage of remembering the Exodus with
the mitzvah of “binding” our arms and foreheads with words of Torah.

Tefillin are bound upon the arm, symbolizing the strength of our
bodies, and upon our heads, symbolizing the orientation of our
intellectual powers, as an act of remembrance of liberation from
servitude. It might seem paradoxical that “binding” ourselves would be
connected with a story of freedom, but I think it points to a core
Jewish idea, perhaps most concisely summarized by that famous
philosopher Mr. Zimmerman: “you gotta serve somebody.”

The story of the Exodus is not only about physical freedom; it’s also
about freedom from what Pharaoh represents in human history, which is
the objectification of human beings into mere means to a more powerful
person’s ends. Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that every human
being is made in the Image of God, and thus mistreatment, humiliation,
manipulation or abuse of any person is a sin against God, against the
other person, and against our own Divine capacity for compassion and
justice. We always have a choice: we can be enslaved to Pharaoh- that
is, go with the Pharaoh way of doing things so prevalent in the world-
or we can be servants of the Holy One, Who commanded us to recognize
the sacredness of all life.

That’s why tefillin are both a symbol of “binding” and a symbol of
freedom: in wrapping ourselves in tefillin, we recognize that the way
to be truly free of Pharaoh every day is not be like him in the way we
treat others, but instead to bind ourselves to the ideals of Torah,
which demand our involvement in healing the world through compassion
and justice. We orient our thoughts- the head tefillin- and our
actions- the arm tefillin- towards an Exodus view of the world every
morning because the choice between Pharaoh and the God of Liberation
never goes away- it confronts each of us every day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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