Archive for July, 2008

Matot: Sacred Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot

I haven’t had much time for parsha prep this week- despite being only
steps away from one of the most glorious Jewish libraries in the
world- but yesterday I did hear a wonderful piece of Torah from Rabbi
David Ackerman, who does national outreach for JTS.

Rabbi Ackerman drew our attention one of the two mitzvot in this
week’s portion, having to do with vows:

“If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an
obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry
out all that has crossed his lips.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 30:3)

As R. Ackerman taught this, he pointed out how this verse deals with
imposing an obligation on yourself, that is, a vow to do something or
not do something not necessarily in reference to anybody else. In
other words, it’s obvious that we have to keep our promises to others,
but what if I make a promise to myself not to eat so much junk, or to
exercise more? (Not that those examples have anything to do with me,
of course.)

Rashi, basing himself on earlier texts and similar Hebrew roots,
compares the idea of “breaking one’s word” to treating our words as
ordinary and insignificant, and takes from this verse the idea that
when we speak, we should really take our words to be completely
meaningful and sacred. If we’re making commitments to ourselves, it’s
just as much a matter of sacred honor to fulfill it as it would be if
the vow was to somebody else.

Well, speaking as one who has promised many times to do many things I
think I ought to do in order to become the person I’d like to be, I
think Rashi’s point is well taken. Am I less than others to whom my
promises are given?

Something to ponder!

with that, we’ll wish you a very late Shabbat Shalom,


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Pinchas: Shofar Sounds

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Pinchas, which has in its
latter section may commandments related to the Jewish calendar. Many
of these mitzvot are connected to the priestly rituals and thus no
longer operative but a few still are, including one which will be
familiar to many reading this:

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall
observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You
shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 29:1)

Seventh month, first day. . . hmm- sounds like Rosh Hashana, and this
verse is indeed one of the sources of the commandment to blow the
shofar on the New Year. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:24.) The textual
wrinkle is that our verse, above, doesn’t actually mention shofar- it
says that this day will be a “yom teruah,” or “day of horn-sounds,” as
it were. To connect “teruah” (a sounding of the horn) to “shofar” (the
kind of horn we use on Rosh Hashana), the rabbis rely on another
verse, Vayikrah 25:9, in which the two words appear together in
relation to the “Yovel” [Jubilee] year, in which servants are
released, debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original

So right away shofar has positive associations: freedom, redemption,
justice. Another very interesting insight comes from Sefer HaHinnuch
(a medieval textbook of the commandments, which I’m paraphrasing a
bit), which points out that the shofar is a commandment based on a
particular physical object, but which has a spiritual purpose, that of
“arousing” or “awakening” [me’orer] a human being. Since human beings
are physical, embodied beings, we need a physical, tangible object to
awaken us, like soldiers being aroused for war by the sounding of

Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that we should be stirred up or
awakened on Rosh Hashana for the purpose of asking forgiveness for our
misdeeds and mercy from the Holy One. The shofar sound called “teruah”
is especially good for this because it’s “broken,” that is, a series
of short, quick sounds, “broken” like the broken heart of one who is
trying to do t’shuvah, or returning.

I think this insight is an important one: as humans, we are not
ethereal spiritual beings. If so, prayer and study itself might be
enough for Rosh Hashana. Everything we do is in our bodies- all our
acts of compassion and charity and caring and the baser deeds as well.
So we take a physical object- the shofar- and use it to speak to the
heart, thus integrating the senses and desires of the body with our
emotions and aspirations. It’s not one or the other, because we are
never spiritual beings without embodied existence. It’s always both
together, body and spirit, mind and heart, as one, always returning.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat: Service from Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

In addition to all those memorable days, we’re also reading the Torah
portion Chukat, which has no mitzvot which are currently practiced as
such, but which opens up with wording which leads to an important
discussion relating to the mitzvot- religious commandments – as a whole.

The first verses of Chukat concern the “red heifer”- the red cow which
was sacrificed in a complex ceremony connected to ritual purity. Thus
we read in the JPS translation:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘This is the ritual law
that the Lord has commanded. . .’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1-2)

The first words of the second clause- “zot chukat hatorah” – give the
portion its name, but it’s a hard phrase to translate. For the key
word “chukat,” which is a form of “chok,” JPS has “ritual law,” but
other translations use “statute,” “decree,” or simply imply the idea
of a commandment or imperative. Rashi explains that this word, “chok,”
is used because the nations of the world will demand a rational
explanation for the ritual of the red heifer and Israel can respond
that it is a decree – that is, a religious practice which comes from
revelation, not from reason.

In many discussions of the mitzvot, a distinction is thus drawn
between chukkim- decrees- and mishpatim, or laws which could be
derived from reason or principles of justice. [The word “mishpat” is
related to the idea of justice and the fair governance of society.] To
put it another way, mishpatim are commandments that reasonable people
could figure out on their own (for example, don’t steal, lie, or
murder.) Chukkim are practices which have no obvious basis in fairness
or rationality- like not mixing linen and wool, or not eating ham, or
as we learn this week, sacrificing a red heifer to make what is
sometimes called “waters of lustration.” (Lustration = purification,
more or less.)

Figuring out which mitzvot are chukkim and which are mishpatim would
take a long time- and never yield consensus- and many commentators
find “ritual” meaning in the “ethical” mitzvot, and vice verse. Yet I
still think the idea of chukkim- mitzvot which we can’t reduce to
purely rational principles- is an important one, because for me, it’s
connected to the idea of serving out of love.

Think for a moment about your love for a spouse/ partner, a friend, or
another family member- I’ll bet there are things you do for that
person, to please them and make them happy, which comes from knowledge
of that person’s preferences, tastes and idiosyncrasies. You might
cook certain foods or find decorations of a certain color simply
because that’s what this particular person likes and doing those
things deepens the relationship. The actions may seem arbitrary-
baking raisin cookies rather than snickerdoodles- but the reason for
doing it is anything but: your friend or loved one likes raisin
cookies and making them is an action which makes love real.

Thus, to me, chukkim are those aspects of Judaism which I do because I
love God (as the Divine Source), Torah and the Jewish people- or,
perhaps more precisely, because I want to love God, Torah and the
Jewish people. I won’t lightly override my conscience to obey ritual
law, but I’ll celebrate Shabbat on Saturday, rather than Sunday,
because that’s what my relationship to the Holy One, Torah and Israel

I’ll wear certain clothes and eat certain foods and pray certain
prayers because these actions are the expression of my particular
connection to my faith, my people, my history, and my spiritual path.
Chukkim, to me, are what make Judaism . . . . well, Judaism, and not
just some abstract ethical monotheism. The rational laws connect Jews
to universal moral ideals; the chukkim, “decrees,” celebrate the
possibility of a unique Jewish spirituality. Both are good, and both
are gifts from Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


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