Archive for September, 2008

Nitzavim: Exhortation to Returning

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Sorry about getting this out so late- it’s that time of the year when
there are a few things which call for my attention. . . .

but putting out a weekly Torah commentary is not as hard as going up
to the heavens or crossing the seas, which brings us to a famous
passage in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim:

“. . For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in
that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and
keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of
the Teaching — once you return to the Lord your God with all your
heart and soul. Surely, this Instruction [literally, “this
commandment”] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling
for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you
should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us
and impart it to us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the
sea. . . ” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:9-13, JPS translation)

The verse above about “not in the heavens” has been quoted countless
times in countless sermons and drashot in order to encourage and
exhort- which is more or less its meaning in its Biblical context.
What’s interesting is how different commentators see the phrase “this
mitzvah which I command you today. . .” in verse 11. It’s translated
by JPS as “this teaching,” which means that JPS is following one of
two schools of thought about what the phrase means.

Given the entire passage above, some commentators see “this mitzvah
which I command you this day” as basically all the mitzvot; in other
words, the entire Torah is not in heaven, nor too hard or too esoteric
for you to do. Ramban and a few others see “this mitzvah” as being
specifically the mitzvah of t’shuvah, or repentance, based on the word
“return” [= t’shuvah or returning] in the verse before it. The Sefer
HaHinnuch, which lists all the mitzvot in every Torah portion, says
there are no specific commandments in Nitzavim, but as noted, Ramban
disagrees and says we’re being told that t’shuvah, or “returning,” is
the mitzvah that is not up in the heavens or across the oceans- that
is, t’shuvah is not an impossible challenge.

We’ve written about t’shuvah before, but just to refresh your
memories, the word means “returning,” which is a better translation
than the usual “repentance.” We all “get off track,” losing sight of
our ideals and falling short of the mark in various ways- imperfection
is a defining characteristic of being human! So our challenge- which,
according to this reading, is far from out of our reach- is to
remember our ideals, own up to our mistakes, apologize to others if we
have wronged them, and offer forgiveness if it is asked of us.

That’s the mitzvah of t’shuvah in a nutshell; it’s very simple, but
far from easy. This is why Ramban’s interpretation makes sense: not
only because the word “return” appears in verse 10, but also because
at this time of year, when we are asked to focus on t’shuvah in
preparation for the Days of Awe, it’s good to be reminded that we are
not alone in our tasks of fixing things. It may not be comfortable or
easy to ask for forgiveness, but neither is it “across the seas”- it
is something within our grasp, doable, an ordinary act with
extraordinary possibilities.

With best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a Shana Tovah,


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Ki Tavo: Walking The Way

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

This week we’re reading Ki Tavo, which has the them of arriving into
the Land, enjoying its agricultural blessings, and the consequences of
disloyalty- there are blessings for the people if they are loyal to
covenant and curses if they aren’t. In the middle of the blessings
which are promised, there is a verse which seems to be conditional,
but which is interpreted as containing a positive mitzvah [commandment]:

“The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as His swore to you,
if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His
ways.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 28:9)

In its historical context, this fits with the idea (problematic as it
may be) that if the Israelites “do good” in the Land, they are
blessed, and if not. . . oy. The ancient sages, however, read the last
clause of this verse as a general commandment to “walk in God’s ways.”

Well then, if God doesn’t actually “walk” anywhere, what does “walking
in God’s ways” mean?

The Sefer HaHinnuch, which we’ve been quoting a lot recently, says
about this commandment (#611 out of 613 !) that it’s about acting in
right and compassionate ways, like we believe that the Holy One does-
that is, “walking in God’s ways” is emulating qualities of goodness.
Not only that, but Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that “walking in
God’s ways” is about developing a moderate and thoughtful character
which avoids extremes and is trained towards the good and right.

What’s interesting about this commandment is that it’s not about doing
any one particular action (like saying the Shma, or waving a lulav),
but about a general spiritual and moral orientation- the mitzvah is to
develop ourselves into becoming people who habitually act in noble
ways. It’s a profoundly inward, personal mitzvah, concerned with how
we take stock of our own spiritual and moral development and guide
ourselves over a lifetime towards greater compassion and connection.

One of my pet peeves is the idea that an individual’s personal
conscience is somehow better or on a higher level than religious
ethics- as if religious people were robots with pre-programmed answers
to complex questions who don’t think for themselves. I find this
perspective absurd because if religion is doing its job (not a given,
by any means), personal conscience is challenged far beyond the limits
of most secular, utilitarian frameworks. If we are thinking about
“walking in God’s ways,” then we have to ask ourselves: am I being
compassionate, generous, forgiving, understanding, helpful, fair, and
just in the ways that I believe are most holy? (Good questions for
Elul before the Days of Awe. . . .)

Seen this way, religion isn’t at all about “having all the answers” –
it’s about struggling with harder questions. “Walking in God’s ways”
requires a “cheshbon hanefesh,” or “accounting of the soul,” in order
to fearlessly assess how we may better orient ourselves towards the
actions which bring about a world of peace, kindness, and justice.
That’s the goal- walking in God’s ways is the path.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shoftim: Encroaching Boundaries

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Just a few hours ago, I was going into this week’s Torah portion-
Shoftim- with a plan. I was all set to write about the mitzvah of bal
taschit [“do not destroy”], which is a general commandment of material
and resource conservation (cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy 20:19 and
attendant commentaries). Then I saw a comment in Abraham Chill’s book
called “The Mitzvot” and my plans changed, so we’re going to write
about another mitzvah, that of “hasagat gvul”, or encroaching on

This mitzvah is plainly spelled out in the Torah portion:

“You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous
generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”

This mitzvah is not hard to understand: we are not to move property
markers in such a way that one person’s land is increased at the
expense of his or her neighbor’s. Although the verse speaks of the
Land of Israel as its place of application, the moral idea behind it
is understood to apply universally. The idea of “encroaching the
boundary” is even understood to regulate unfair competition. e.g., a
new business moving into a neighborhood and conducting itself in such
a way that the established businesses would be driven out. (More on
this can be found in the link below.)

Going back to the comment that made me change direction for this
week’s drasha, first let me say that I had always assumed that the
moral idea behind the prohibition of “hasagat gvul” [encroaching the
boundary] was to reduce conflict and keep the peace in a competitive
society- that is, I always understood this mitzvah to be about
property or economic relations between equals. Then I read the
following passage in Chill, “The Mitzvot,” and I understood this verse
in a new way:

“In a free economy, it is not only conceivable but it is also a daily
occurrence that the financially strong can devise ways of encroaching
on the rights and property of the weak. The inescapable result is that
the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The Torah warns us
against hassagat gvul- encroaching on another’s property.”

Seen this way, a law to respect the integrity of a person’s property
(which includes, by extension, their established livelihood in a
particular area), is not only about reducing conflict but also to
protect the poor and weak, who may be unable to defend themselves
against predatory practices. Not only that, but a small landowner or
owner of a small business would be disproportionately affected by
“encroachment,” since they have less to lose.

Ultimately, the mitzvah of respecting the property boundaries of
another is about extending the respect they are due as a person to
those things- like their land or or their business or their web of
relationships- which they have worked to create and by which they may
be sustained. Seen this way, it’s not just about real estate, it’s
about creating a society with compassion, thoughtfulness and human
dignity as core values, which is the very work of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom,


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