Archive for October, 2008

Noach: Exile and Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Noach: the flood, the animals, the Ark.  The story is well known, but the moral of the story is less well known. After the Flood, God promises to Noach and his family that
never again will such a thing happen- the Flood was a one-time event,
and going forward, with the world re-created from Noach’s lineage,
humankind does not have to fear total Divine retribution. (Cf.
Bereshit/Genesis 9.)

On a smaller scale, however, the Bible does seem to endorse a theology
of Divine action on the national or communal level (sub-planetary, as
it were.) Thus, this week’s haftarah (Isaiah 54-55) compares Israel’s
exile to the “waters of Noach;” that is, Israel’s exile is a
punishment for the people but only a temporary one, and just as there
won’t be another Flood, there won’t be another episode of Divine
retribution after the people are redeemed from exile. (Cf. Isaiah 54:9)

Besides the “waters of Noach,” other metaphors for exile and
redemption are:

1) Zion as a “barren one” who will bear children and enlarge her
dwelling (54:1-3)

2) Zion as a widow or estranged wife to be espoused by God (54:5-8)

3) A storm-tossed ship which will be as steady as a rebuilt city
(54:11-12)

4) One who is hungry or thirsty who will be satisfied greatly (55:1-2)

What all these metaphors have in common is the theme of a temporary
disruption or problem which can and will be fixed and healed. While
many contemporary readers will question a simple conception of exile
as Divine action in history (after all, that gets the dispossessers
off the hook in terms of moral responsibility), one can also read the
metaphors. . . well, metaphorically.

That is, we can remember that exile and redemption are not only
historical narratives but also symbolic of the necessary struggles
over a long lifetime of spiritual journey. There are times when we are
estranged, alienated- from others, from ourselves, from our Divine
Source- but like a storm, this too may pass. There are times when we
may feel barren, hungry, cut off- but faith means believing that these
states need not be permanent, nor does internal state depend on
external circumstance.

The waters of Noach were terrible, but they were temporary; the
promise that they will not occur again means that we can’t blame God
for destruction that humans have chosen. The haftarah reminds us that
hope is a fundamental religious orientation: hope for healing, for
fixing, for reconciliation. This is what faith means: not dependence
on miracles but seeing past despair. Out of such hope great things
happen!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Bereshit: Bringing Light

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

We’re pleased here at rabbineal-list to be taking a new direction
between now and next Simchat Torah: instead of looking at the weekly
Torah portion, we’re going to look at the haftarah, which is the
selection from the prophets or historical books of the Hebrew Bible
which accompanies every Torah portion or holiday.

This week, of course, we’re starting the Torah reading over “in the
beginning,” with the story of Bereshit- the Creation narrative. So
it’s fitting that our haftarah, taken from the book of Isaiah,
references the work of Creation with an image of God spreading out the
heavens:

“Thus said God the Lord,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth,
Who gave breath to the people upon it
And life to those who walk thereon” (Isaiah 42:5)

R. Shimson Raphael Hirsch notes that the word for “breath” in the
passage above- neshama- also means “soul,” in the sense of that unique
capacity for free-will and choice that makes us human. So just from
the first verse of our haftarah, we already have a commentary on the
Creation narrative: it’s not just about making the material stuff of
the cosmos, but also about humankind’s capacity to choose its actions.
This makes us unlike the heavens and earth and seas- they just sort of
do their thing according to the laws of nature. We, on the other hand,
have neshama, the Divine breath of life, understood as free-will and
the capacity for ethical discernment.

The next passage of our haftarah makes even more clear that our job in
Creation is not to merely obey the physical laws of nature, but to
fulfill a moral purpose:

“I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you,
And I have grasped you by the hand.
I created you, and appointed you
A covenant people, a light of nations-
Opening eyes deprived of light,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (42:6-7)

The rest of the haftarah goes on to elucidate the consequences of
unworthy spiritual choices and the promise of the Divine Presence with
the people Israel in their various journeys and sufferings, but for
the moment let’s just compare the images in the verses above with the
opening lines of the Torah itself. In the very first verses of the
Torah- you probably remember this- God brought light into being where
before there was only darkness. (“Let there be light!,” etc.)

In the haftarah, it is our job – not God’s- to bring light to the
darkness. Perhaps these “eyes deprived of light” are ones that suffer
from a moral or spiritual blindness, or perhaps, as the verse seems to
suggest, bringing light means bringing comfort and hope to those who
are trapped in a prison of suffering, alienation, or despair. God may
have done the Big Bang work of original Creation- however we
understand that process- but it is we who continue the work of
bringing light into darkness through our soul-capacity for compassion
and human connection. In the work of physical Creation, light comes
from the heavenly bodies; in the work of spiritual creation, which is
our task, light is a metaphor for the healing and lifting up which
humans can choose to do for each other.

Creation, in this view, isn’t finished- you may remember we even say
in the Siddur (prayerbook) that God “daily renews the work of
Creation.” Perhaps Isaiah is suggesting that this renewal is done by
giving soul-breath to humankind, and letting us be the ones who bring
light to the darkness, whenever we choose to see it.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Sukkot: Truest Rejoicing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Greetings all on this glorious autumn day! We’re back after a break
for Yom Kippur last week and right now we’re smack dab in the middle
of the Sukkot holiday. Our regular Torah reading cycle is preempted by
the special reading for the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot- check out
the link below for an explanation.

For today, just a quick thought about the Sukkot holiday, also known
by two other names: “Hag Ha’asif,” or “the holiday of ingathering,”
and “zman Simchatenu,” the “season of our joy.” Sukkot also has two
sets of very distinctive mitzvot: dwelling in the Sukkah, or booth,
and waving the lulav and etrog, the “four species” we are told to take
in Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40:

“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches
of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and
you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”

So far, so good- although we do not customarily take up the lulav and
etrog on Shabbat, doing so the rest of the holiday is part of our
rejoicing and celebrating. Well, OK, but what’s so joyful about
holding a piece of fruit and some branches and shaking them around?

Sefer HaHinnuch offers an interesting interpretation of the meaning
behind lulav and etrog, based on the fact that rejoicing comes
naturally during a festival celebrating the successful harvest. We are
rejoicing for our harvest and bounty, and so we have a special
mitzvah- lulav and etrog- which helps us grasp (quite literally) that
our rejoicing should be “before the Lord.” That is, by taking lulav
and etrog, we are reminded to give thanks to the God of our
understanding for the many blessings of our lives. Having a
distinctive spiritual practice for this festival raises up our
rejoicing from “the harvest is done- it’s party time!” to “the harvest
is done- and I am grateful to be alive, to be sustained, to be
connected to the Land of Israel, for all my blessings.”

Seen this way, lulav and etrog transform something ordinary-
celebrating when the work is done- to something extraordinary: an
opportunity to practice gratitude on the deepest level. This is true
joy: not a transitory pleasure but a heightened consciousness. This is
what mitzvot, our spiritual disciplines, are all about: a greater
perception of our connection to the earth, to each other, and to the
Source of All.

With warmest wishes for the most joyous Sukkot, and Shabbat Shalom too-

RNJL

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VaYelech: Writing Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Today is a momentous day in the history of Rabbineal-list, for two
reasons. First, all year we’ve been reflecting on the mitzvot, the
commandments, of the Torah, as they present themselves in each weekly
parsha, and this week we’ve reached the very last mitzvah of the
Torah. Second, having spent a year studying the mitzvot, I think it’s
time to change themes in the coming year, and so we’re pleased to
announce that starting with the Torah portion Bereshit, after the fall
holidays, our weekly commentary will focus on the haftarah [text from
later Biblical books] associated with each week or holiday. We’ve
never done a haftarah commentary at Rabbineal-list HQ before- not
online and not “live”- so it’s going to be a great project for the
year to come.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled Torah portion, VaYelech, which
contains the final commandment of the Torah, which is for every person
to write a scroll of the Torah (but don’t break out the quills just
yet.) The rabbis derive this mitzvah from a passage in which Moshe is
told to write down “this song” [or poem], which in context probably
means the final passages of the Torah but which is taken to mean the
entire Torah itself:

“Therefore, you write down this poem and teach it to the people of
Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My
witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Again, in context, the “you” of the verse above seems to be Moshe, but
the rabbis expand the “you” to include everybody. [Women were not
understood by the ancient rabbis to be so obligated, but I would
certainly view this as an equal-opportunity mitzvah.] So by the time
we get to the middle ages, the mitzvah is for each man so qualified to
either write a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] or have one written for his
use, so that the number of Torah scrolls is increased and people will
be more motivated to study from their own personal copy.

Some commentators say this includes writing (in the days before
printing) other sacred texts, like books of halacha or midrash
[rabbinic practices and interpretations]. One modern scholar (link
below) has suggested that the way to fulfill this mitzvah today is for
everyone to learn to read and properly chant the Torah text- the idea
is that the mitzvah of writing was to fix the text in a person’s mind,
and in our day, printed editions are plentiful but actually reviewing
them and learning them and deeply internalizing the text would be
better achieved through the work of learning and performing the
cantillation.

I think that’s a great interpretation, and I want to add another
(especially because Torah reading is hardly my strongest skill set).
Sefer HaHinnuch says that one needs to write (or commission) a sefer
Torah even if one already has one as an inheritance; that is, the
mitzvah is fulfilled through the process of writing or acquiring, not
about the end-result of ownership. To me, this teaches that we must
actively acquire our own Torah- that is, deep internalization of
Jewish narratives, values and wisdom- rather than simply “inheriting,”
or passively accepting, the Torah of a previous generation. That’s no
slight to anybody, but rather a basic truth that if you don’t acquire
it yourself, through study, reflection and questioning, the Torah
won’t be. . . . well. . . . . yours.

We can’t all write a scroll, and commissioning one is a big (but
entirely doable) project, but we can all take ownership, as it were,
of our own Judaism. Some Jewish books are timeless, and some suit well
a particular generation- each of us has to find the sources of
teaching and spiritual orientation which we can truly grow into. Each
of us will create a different library, have a different Sukkah or
tallit, make their Shabbat unique with family traditions as well as
universal liturgies. Writing or acquiring a Torah is a tremendous
mitzvah; internalizing Torah and making it alive through our actions
is an even bigger one.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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