Archive for May, 2008

Bamidbar: Redemption and Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Shalom from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley, where there is
abundant woodland and wilderness- a perfect setting to write about
this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, or, literally, “in the
wilderness.” The book of Bamidbar [also the name of the first Torah
portion therein] opens up with the scene of the Israelites organizing
themselves for the long journey to the Land. Yet the focus on this
one-time event – organizing the people for their journey across the
wilderness- means that there are no explicit permanent mitzvot found
in this parsha, at least according to Sefer HaHinuch [a medieval
textbook of the commandments] and other commentaries.

However, our Conservative chumash [Torah commentary] does point out a
mitzvah connected to these verses:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘ I hereby take the Levites from
among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue
of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. For every
first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the
land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and
beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord’s.’ ” [Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:11-13]

The mitzvah connected to these verses is the redemption of the
first-born, or pidyon ha-ben. You should refer to Shmot/Exodus 13 and
Bamidbar 18 to see the verses which explain things more explicitly,
but the general idea is that the first-born male of every regular
Israelite family is consecrated to God, and needs to be redeemed back
from service by a short ceremony with a descendant of the ancient
priests and five silver coins [or equivalent.]

The Levites- the descendants of Levi, one of the twelve tribes- do not
need to be redeemed, because they were the tribe which had special
duties of service in the ancient Temple, including the Levite family
which served as Kohanim, or priests. To put it another way, the first
born were supposed to serve, but the Levites served in place of the
first-born, and the redemption ceremony acknowledged this idea.

In our day, a pidyon ha-ben takes place only if the first born male is
not a c-section or preceded by a miscarriage or abortion, so after all
these conditions are met, it’s relatively infrequent. Yet pidyon
ha-ben can be understood as not only a reminder of the deep history of
our people, but also as teaching a powerful theological idea: that we
do not “own” our possessions- not even our children- but care for that
which is ultimately God’s. [Cf. Sefer HaHinuch on this mitzvah.]

“Redeeming” a child is a way of ritualizing the idea of stewardship,
that we are entrusted with precious things, yet have a responsibility
beyond our own personal preferences, desires and ambitions. If this is
true of even our children, how much more true is it over other things-
our possessions, our land, our planet !

Even though pidyon ha-ben is not an “everyday” mitzvah, and even
though we can, and should, raise questions about a mitzvah which seems
to privilege the birth of one sex over another, we can still learn
what I believe the mitzvah is trying to teach: that ownership,
“power-over,” is an illusion, and that other people “belong” to God,
in the sense that the very purpose of a human life is service to
sacred ideals. That’s true not only of the first-born, but every
human, as we are all made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the template of the
Holy One.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bechukotai: Connections and Consequences

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

We’re reading the Torah portion Bechukotai, which is not the easiest
nor most fun part of the Torah. Coming at the end of the book of
Vayikra/Leviticus, Bechukotai opens up with a promise and a warning: a
promise of blessing if they are obedient to the covenant and warned of
great curses and disaster if they are not. Typical would be verses

“But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments,
if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe
all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this
to you: I will wreak misery upon you . . . . . ”

Well, that’s no fun.

Let’s be honest: most people reading this commentary probably have a
hard time accepting the the idea that suffering in this world is
directly connected to “sin,” as such. To believe that God directs
suffering upon the wicked in this world (as opposed to the world to
come) is not only contrary to the evidence available in most daily
newspapers, but deeply theologically problematic. To wit: shall we say
that those who suffer illness or disaster deserved it? That seems
rather unkind, to say the least.

On the other hand. . . . . . we can read these verses metaphorically,
as describing an inter-connected world of consequences and feedback
loops on the level of community and society. When we- big “we,”
meaning, the larger community- aren’t acting out of a shared vision of
ethical purpose, bad things happen and it’s going to bite us hard.
It’s hard to imagine a connection between sin and cyclones but not
hard to imagine that a society which grossly ignores environmental
responsibility is going to have higher cancer rates- which, in turn,
can lead to feelings of spiritual despair as described in the “rebuke”
verses of our Torah portion.

Another case in point: in case you missed it, the largest immigration
raid in U.S. history happened about a week ago, and the target was a
kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa. The news has been disturbing at best,
with allegations of underpayment and even sexual abuse of illegal
immigrants hired to produce kosher meat under the strictest religious
supervision. Because this company produces a large share of the kosher
meat in America, the virtual shutdown of one of its biggest plants
seems to be causing shortages of kosher meat in parts of the country
far from Iowa- it’s a complicated and distressing situation.

So here we have an example of covenant and consequences: hundreds of
news articles across the country are linking the kosher industry to
unethical employment practices, which creates an appearance that
observant Jews care more about how the cows die than how the workers
live. If that’s not enough to make our community “miserable,” as the
verse above says, then we’re not paying attention. We- the broader
Jewish community- haven’t demanded that kosher meat be kosher
according to all the laws of the Torah, including the ones which teach
us to treat our workers with dignity and fairness and the ones which
mandate that animals shall live and die free of unnecessary and
avoidable pain and suffering.

The Conservative movement is creating a “Hechsher Tzedek,” which is a
kosher supervision which addresses these broader ethical concerns, but
it’s a nascent project. The United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly
have released a statement- linked below- which urges kosher meat
consumers to evaluate whether meat from the Rubashkin’s plant (which
is under various labels such as Rubashkin’s, Aaron’s and David’s)
should be purchased at all. This story is far from over (as a quick
check of Google news will reveal- use the search term Agriprocessors)
and my hope is that it will provoke some soul searching in the Jewish
community about what it means to walk in God’s laws, to use the
language of Behukotai. What happens in Iowa affects the synagogues in
Poughkeepsie; we are connected, all people, all communities, for
blessing and for rebuke.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Behar: Honest Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Behar, which deals with
land, servants and money- always interesting topics. Many of the laws
in Behar only apply in the land of Israel but there is one law which
clearly articulates a permanent ethic of honest business dealings:

” When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your
neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. . . . Do not wrong one
another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/
Leviticus 25:14 & 17)

The ancient rabbis interpreted the “wronging” of each other that could
occur during buying and selling to refer to various forms of verbal
deception, including overstating an item’s worth by more than
one-sixth or asking about prices with no intention of buying [thus
deceiving the seller.] The sages also included verbal harassment,
dishonesty or manipulation in their interpretation of these verses.

The general idea here is that people have a right to make an honest
living buying and selling legitimately acquired property, but they
should not do so using tactics which would cause anger, conflict or
wasting another person’s time. We might think that one should be free
to charge whatever one likes for an item- after all, it’s a “free
market”- but there are always inequalities of information which give
one party an advantage, which the ancient rabbis direct us not to
exploit. (Just ask yourself how you feel after someone has taken
advantage of you. How could a compassionate person do that to someone

Furthermore, the phenomenon of “deception with words” is quite real in
the Internet age, wherein it’s easy to look at products in a local
store and then buy them cheaper online. I personally know of several
small business owners who have given up their specialty shops because
of this- and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. The point is not that we
shouldn’t “comparison shop,” the point is that if you <know> you’re
not going to buy something, then it’s a deceptive act to inquire about
it, because the seller thinks a sale could happen.

These are just two examples of the Torah’s ethic of honesty and
integrity as applied to all aspects of our lives; we can’t be pious in
shul and sharks in the market. I’d say it’s precisely in those areas
where it’s most tempting to cut corners that Jewish law provides the
most guidance; money flows in and out of our hands and every day we
must consider how we act in financial transactions.

On a deeper level, honesty and integrity in business come from
striving to see each person as made in the image of God, and thus
possessing rights and dignity. It’s a mitzvah to be honest in
financial matters because there’s always another human soul on the
other end of the transaction. In any exchange, a relationship is
formed, however brief, which can be one which builds bonds of trust
and community or which degrades the dignity of both parties- and
relationships, after all, are what makes us most truly human.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Emor: Two Kinds of Joy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which has lots of
rules for the priests, but also reviews the Jewish calendar, from
Pesach in the spring to Shimini Atzeret in the fall. We learn that the
holidays are also holy days, in which we refrain from “melacha,” or
purposeful labor, as on Shabbat (with some important differences which
we’ll explore another time.) For today, I want to point out that two
of the holidays- Pesach in the spring and Sukkot in the fall- are a
week long, with a holy day at the beginning and a holy day at the end:

“On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not
work at your occupations. 8 Seven days you shall make offerings by
fire to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you
shall not work at your occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:7-8)

“On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast
of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a
sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days
you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you
shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the
Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your
occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:34-36)

We see from the verses above- the first regarding Pesach and the
second set referring to Sukkot- that there is a period between the
first and last holy days of the festival. This is called “Chol
HaMoed,” or literally, the “non-holy days of the season.” However, as
anybody who has eaten matzah or slept in a Sukkah for a week can
attest, the intermediate days of these two celebrations are not
exactly “regular” weekdays, but they’re not “Yom Tov,” or full
festival days, either.

There is a tractate of the Talmud, called Moed Katan, largely devoted
to the question of distinguishing these intermediate days from either
regular work-week days or “Sabbath” days of refraining from work. In
general, the idea is to make the holidays- all week- as joyful as one
can by not doing during the festival what one could do before or
after, if there was no significant loss involved. This includes happy
occasions like weddings, which the Mishnah specifically mentions as
something we do not do during Chol HaMoed, because of the great joy
involved. (Cf. Mishna Moed Katan 1:7)

Now, granted, there usually isn’t a great demand for weddings or bar
mitzvah celebrations during Passover, but since Sukkot is called “the
Season of Our Joy,” you’d figure that it would be a great time for a
wedding, right? A Sukkot wedding might have interesting catering
possibilities, but the ancient rabbis prohibited weddings during Chol
HaMoed because they wanted us to focus on the joy of the festival- or
the joy of the family occasion- exclusively. Someone who celebrated a
wedding during Sukkot or Passover would be emotionally oriented
towards the life-cycle event, and would not really give due honor to
the festival.

This is why in many traditional synagogues you will rarely, if ever,
see a bar or bat mitzvah during the major festivals (Pesach, Shavuot,
and Sukkot). The rabbis taught us not to “mix joy with joy,” that is,
to let the holiday be the holiday and the simcha [happy occasion] be
the simcha. I do realize that some synagogues do schedule bar or bat
mitzvah celebrations during holidays, but I think it takes away from
each event to mix them together, so I try to discourage it.

Besides the practical concerns, one might note that the major
festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) each have a historical theme
(leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, and sojourning in the wilderness,
respectively) as well as an agricultural theme: they are the spring,
“first fruits of summer,” and fall harvest festivals. Seen this way,
we are reminded that celebrating the major holidays is about
connecting our personal lives as individuals with the life of our
people and the seasons of our homeland. A wedding or bar mitzvah, on
the other hand, is much more personal- it’s a time for reflecting on
the joys and history of one particular family and the special
individuals who comprise it.

Thus, “not mixing joy with joy” can be seen as part of the balancing
between communal and personal spirituality which is part of a mature
Judaism. Sometimes we need to connect with the history of our people,
and sometimes we want to celebrate the ups and downs of our personal
lives in a Jewish way, and these complement each other. For a week in
the spring, and a week in the fall, we have special mitzvot with which
we live out our sacred history, a history so rich, with traditions so
compelling, that they invite our full attention.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Kedoshim: Honoring Wisdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

Kedoshim has many ethical and religious principles but one of the most
universal is respect for the elderly:

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you
shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:32)

Our friend Rashi explains that this verse seems to teach the same
thing twice but actually clarifies its application: the use of the
word “zaken” in the second clause means that we should honor the
elderly who have acquired wisdom, and not necessarily any senior
sinner. “Zaken” means both “elderly” and “beard” (not unrelated
meanings, obviously, at least, when one considers Bronze age
lifespans) but has a context in the Torah which leads Rashi to
conclude that it means those who have wisdom.

We might also take Rashi’s point in a slightly broader way: we are to
honor the elderly because they are presumed to have wisdom. This
means, in practical terms (again, according to Rashi) not sitting in
an elder’s customary place, not contradicting them or taking their
turn to speak. I don’t think Rashi means to limit the way we honor the
elderly by these examples, but rather intends them as the kinds of
behaviors which are paradigmatic of honoring.

Honoring the aged isn’t just good manners; it’s a core mitzvah of
Judaism which stands in stark contrast to the the youth obsessed
culture of contemporary America. We assume that young is “cool” and
the latest styles are worthy of the biggest news, but Judaism teaches
humility literally “in the face of” age [p’nai zaken] and the wisdom
it may impart. To put it another way, to honor the aged is to practice
the discipline of service and to train ourselves in humility,
precisely when it might be easiest to be arrogant and condescending.
It is to remind ourselves that every human being owes gratitude to
those who came before, and we are all, indeed, one human family.

Shabbat Shalom,


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