Archive for June, 2008

Korach: Conflict and Peacemaking

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Shalom everybody, we’re reading the Torah portion Korach this week-
which is always an interesting portion to read in an election year. A
story of leadership and its challenges, most of the mitzvot in the
portion have to do with the priests and Levites, and are thus no
longer practiced.

However, while not being a separate mitzvah, as such, our friend Rashi
does derive an ethical principle from the verse in which Moshe reaches
out to two of the ringleaders of Korach’s gang of rebels:

“Moshe sent for Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We
will not come!’ ” (Bamidbar 16:12)

Rashi teaches that we learn from this that we should not persist in a
dispute [“machazikin,” literally, to grasp or hold tightly to the
dispute], as he understands “Moshe sent” as relating that Moshe
answered his opponents with peacemaking words. That is, “Moshe sent”
for Datan and Aviram in order to talk with them and answer their
concerns. As an ethical principle, this would be consistent with other
mitzvot, such as the prohibitions against holding a grudge or taking

According to this reading, Moshe tried to make peace with Datan and
Aviram even though, as the Torah presents it, Moshe was on the right
side of the argument and they were wrong, both factually and
ethically, in their challenge to his leadership. In other words, “not
persisting in a dispute” doesn’t only mean “letting it go,” in the
sense of no longer actively participating in the conflict, it also
means humbling oneself and trying to reconcile even if one is
absolutely convinced that the other person is wrong.

To say the least, this is not easy, especially in public settings,
where disputes become wrapped up in ego and honor and the argument
itself gets lost in the tangle of personalities and wounded pride. To
make peace is not always possible- as with Korach and his followers,
sometimes the best efforts at compromise tragically fail. Yet Judaism
teaches us that the ways of the Torah are “darchei noam” or “the paths
of peacefulness.” [“Noam” is pleasant, peaceful, nice, agreeable,
etc.] Nobody possessed a surer grasp of the truth from Heaven than
Moshe and yet he didn’t let his authority get in the way of his
humanity- how much more so must the rest of us, who do not have a
direct mandate from Sinai, be pleasant, humble, reconciling
peacemakers in a world full of (often quite legitimate) disputes,
arguments and conflicts.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Connecting Prayer and Ethics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

This week’s Torah portion is Shlach-Lecha, meaning
“send”, which tips us off that the big story of the portion is the
spies who were sent up to the Land of Israel and came back discouraged
and glum. That, in turns, sets off a bit of commotion which results in
the decree that the Israelites will stay in the wilderness until the
current generation has died- only their children will inherit the Land.

Towards the end of the parsha, we get the mitzvah of tzitzit-
“fringes”- to be tied on the corners of our garments:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and
recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you
do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you
shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to
your God. . . ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:37-40)

This passage is included in the third paragraph of the Shma, and is
the source for the practice of wearing a tallit or prayer shawl which
has the tzitzit attached to it. Sefer HaHinnuch, the “Book of
Education,” which is the medieval textbook of the mitzvot which we’ve
been referencing in the past year, points out that because this
passage mentions “corners,” the mitzvah of tzitzit only applies to
certain garments with corners, and only if those garments are actually
worn. So, for example, a bed sheet is a four-corned cloth, but doesn’t
need tzitzit because it’s not worn. If one made it into a poncho, then
one would tie tzitzit to it.

In other words, one could avoid doing this mitzvah entirely by never
owning and subsequently never wearing a four-cornered garment, just as
one could avoid the mitzvah of building a parapet around the roof of
one’s home by not having a flat roof, as such. (Cf.
D’varim/Deuteronomy 22.)

Yet tallitot- prayer shawls with tzitzit- are just about universal in
the Jewish world, even though it’s a “situational” mitzvah- that is, a
mitzvah which we only do if the conditions permit it. Typically worn
as a “tallit gadol” (big outer tallit) during morning prayers, or a
“tallit katan” (thin undershirt with tzitzit) throughout the day, the
tallit has come to represent the entire set of mitzvot, and thus is a
symbol of covenantal theology. Many commentators arrive at an equation
whereby the combined strings, knots, and windings add up to 613- the
number of commandments- so that the mitzvah of tzitzit is really about
being reminded of all the mitzvot, a outer sign of an inner commitment.

OK, here’s a question: doesn’t the paragraph above actually tell us
why we’re wearing the tzitzit: “so that you do not follow your heart
and eyes in your lustful urge?” [There are varying translations of
this verse, but you get the idea.] Isn’t that a bit different than
being reminded of the commandments in general?

Well, yes, and in fact, Sefer HaHinnuch and others list “not following
after one’s heart” as a separate mitzvah, a negative (that is, don’t
do this) commandment forbidding thinking certain kinds of problematic
thoughts or giving into sinful temptations and desires. We’ll leave a
detailed discussion of this mitzvah for another time, but for now,
please note how the rabbis have taken a very specific practice-
putting tzitzit on one’s garments- and expanded it from being a
reminder not to go astray to a more positive symbol of Jewish
commitment and spirituality overall.

That, in turn, helps us understand why a conditional mitzvah- putting
tzitzit on a garment with corners- became the important spiritual
discipline of wearing a tallit during prayer. If the tzitzit represent
all the commandments, then wearing a tallit during prayer is a
profound statement of the central insight that spirituality is not
primarily about what happens in synagogues or at minyan [prayer
quorum]. After all, most of the commandments are about what happens in
“real life,” as we talk, eat, buy, sell, plant, reap, give, take, and
love. Wearing a tallit during prayer makes an unbreakable connection
between our prayers and our actions, our rituals and our everyday
interactions, and “ties” them together in one Jewish covenant.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beha’alotcha: Prayer and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’aloteha

In any event, this week it’s full steam ahead in the Torah portion
Beha’alotcha, which has many and varied laws and narratives: the lamp
of the Mishkan, the “second-chance” Passover, grumpy and complaining
Israelites, prophets among the people, and a bit of a family conflict
between Moshe, Aharon and Miriam- the “first family” of the wandering

This sibling squabble occurs at the end of the portion, and it’s not
exactly clear exactly what happened, but the basic idea is that Aharon
and Miriam said something uncharitable about Moshe (and maybe his
wife) and as a rebuke, God punishes Miriam with “tzara’at,” or the
sort of scaly skin disease that is commented on at great length back
in Vayikra/Leviticus.

Moshe, to his credit, prays for Miriam’s recovery using just a few
short words in Hebrew, in a verse which has been incorporated into
many prayers and liturgies. (Cf. Bamidbar/Numbers 12:13). Connecting
this story with a contemporary mitzvah practice, we may note that
several traditional sources say that praying for a sick person is an
essential part of bikkur cholim, or “visiting the sick.” Moshe wasn’t
exactly visiting Miriam, as such, but his response is nonetheless
deeply moving; at that moment of crisis (emotional, physical,
theological) he put aside any personal issues and offered his
compassion in the best way he knew how.

By praying for the sick, we are not necessarily relying on miracles or
a suspension of the laws of nature to take the place of modern
medicine. Rather, I see prayer as part of strengthening and lifting up
the whole person and defining them as more than their illness or
symptoms. To put it another way, illness can be demoralizing, and
deeply felt prayer communications connection, dignity and love freely
offered. Prayer on behalf of the sick says: “I care about you so much
I’m going to bring your pain into my relationship with the Holy One,”
and this in itself gives strength to the spirit.

That’s why prayer is such an important part of visiting the sick, to
the extent that some commentators say you haven’t done the mitzvah if
you haven’t prayed for them.

Returning to our Torah portion, we note that Moshe prayed for Miriam
using only five words- demonstrating that prayer doesn’t have to be
poetic, alliterative, metaphorical, rhetorical, elegant or literary.
It has to be honest, heart-felt and real in the moment, and when it
is, hearts are connected and made strong.

Shabbat Shalom,


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