Archive for December, 2008

Shabbat Hanukkah: Bring Light!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

This year the calendar falls out such that there are two Shabbatot
during the week of Hanukkah, so we have two special haftarot taking
the place of the usual haftarah for each week.

This week we read from the prophet Zechariah, who lived at the time
when the Second Temple was being built (about 520 years before the
common era) after the first exile. Zechariah has a great vision of a
rebuilt and restored Temple service, so it’s easy to see how that
connects with Hanukkah, which remembers the rededication of that same
Second Temple a few hundred years later. In particular, in Zechariah
4, there is a vision of a golden menorah (lampstand), which again
provides an obvious connection to Hanukkah.

Somewhat subtler is the verse in Zechariah 4 which explicates the
vision of the menorah:

“This [the preceding vision of the golden menorah] is the word of the
LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit —
said the LORD of hosts. Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path
of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that
excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful!
Beautiful!'” (Zech. 4:6-7)

OK, once again, I can hear you asking: what’s a Zerubabbel? The answer
is, not a what, but a who: Zerubbabel was the grandson of an earlier
king of Judah, and he himself was a leader of the community that came
back from exile and started working on the Temple. Thus, when the
prophet says that the vision of the menorah is a word to Zerubbabel,
it means that the prophet is conveying to the leader of the community
a vision of what he must do, along with encouragement that he can
accomplish it.

Note that the Temple and its lights will be rebuilt “not by might, and
not by power, but by My spirit.” Some have seen in these words a
subtle hint on the part of the ancient rabbis that however much we
might admire the Maccabees, we ought not rely on military means to
secure redemption for our people. (That argument probably made a great
deal of sense in the time of the Roman occupation of Palestine but
it’s probably a moot point after the establishment of the State of

Another quite beautiful interpretation of “not by might, and not by
power” comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in Germany in
the late 1800’s. He says that this prophecy teaches that when our
efforts are oriented towards holy ends, we should never be discouraged:

“Let every human circle know, every individual person, even the
outwardly weakest and smallest, that as soon as he is penetrated with
My Spirit, and thereby places himself in the service of justice,
brotherly love, and holy living, he has the strength of giants in
accomplishing his work. . . .”

With this interpretation, what was in Biblical times the work of
building a physical structure is expanded to include all who toil to
create a more sacred world. It’s not by physical might or power of any
kind that the Divine Presence is made real to us, but by openness of
the soul and orientation towards the Holy. That’s a great message for
Hanukkah: that our work of justice and compassion is not held back by
the fact of our being ordinary, flawed human beings. We can accomplish
great things with nothing more than humble and open hearts- and
thereby bring light to the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,


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Vayishlach: Outrage at Injustice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, concerning the reconciliation
but eventual parting of the brothers Ya’akov and Esav. The haftarah,
however, is a bit harder to pin down, because there are, as last week,
different traditions as to which text is read, and in fact, one of the
traditions is that Ashkenazim read this week what Sephardim read last
week, from Hosea.

However, we’re going to follow the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, which
follows the practice of reading the book of Ovadiah, in its entirety
(only 21 verses), as the haftarah for Vayishlach.

OK, now that we’re all together on what we’re learning, what’s in the

The book of Ovadiah (probably a pseudonym, since Ovadiah means
“servant of God.”) is mostly a prophecy against the nation of Edom,
one of Israel’s neighbors that apparently took advantage of Israel
being in conflict with another nation and either plundered Israel or
at the very least didn’t help. (Cf. verses 1`2-14.) The connection to
the Torah portion is that Edom is understood to be descended from
Esav, brother of our ancestor Ya’akov (AKA Yisrael) – thus linking the
conflict between the brothers to later conflict between Israel and its

The ancient rabbis saw this conflict continue, and identified Edom
with the Roman empire- and thus the book of Ovadiah, who prophesied
Edom’s downfall, was seen not as the past, but as the future, a future
in which the hated Roman domination would be ended and the military
empire overthrown. The cruelty of Edom/ Rome is brought out in a
poignant verse:

“If thieves were to come to you,
marauders by night,
They would steal no more than they needed.
If grape-gatherers came to you,
they would surely leave some gleanings.” (Ovadiah, verse 5)

The basic idea is that even thieves have some honor- they would not
take everything out of a home, but only what they could sell or use,
and even those who raided a vineyard would surely leave <something>
behind, not out of compassion, but because a thief has at least some
rational self-interest, and doesn’t wantonly destroy. Yet I also hear
in these verses a rage against arrogance- because Edom/ Rome has not
been humbled, never experienced a sense of communal violation or
shame, they have no compassion, no understanding of justice and fairness.

There is a real anger in the book of Ovadiah, a sense of outrage at
the perceived lack of basic humanity: “how could you gaze with glee on
your brother that day, on his day of calamity?” (Verse 12) The prophet
is no dispassionate philosopher, but one who is offended at injustice;
not a magician or seer, but a deeply engaged voice of moral clarity.
Seen this way, the prophecy against Edom is not so much about a
particular nation at a particular time, but a symbol of a recurring
theme of history: those who that believe might makes right, and who
crush others because they can, will not stand forever. To believe this
requires both faith and courage- faith to keep struggling for justice
in a world which is often cruel, and the courage to ask hard
questions. That’s a prophetic faith, one which sustained our people
through periods of darkness, and which is no less needed today.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayeitze: Exile and Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Vayeutze, which tells the
story of Ya’akov after he journeyed from Beersheva towards Haran,
leaving his family home after stealing the blessing belonging to his
brother. Ya’akov gets married- twice- and has a large family while
working for his father in law, Lavan. Yet the story is full of tension
and drama: Ya’akov, the deceiver, is in turn deceived by his father in
law, who substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, and the two
men spend many years seemingly wary of each other before Ya’akov
decides to go home again.

This narrative background helps us understand the haftarah for this
week, which comes from the book of Hosea. Ashkenazim read Hosea
12:13-14:10, but the Sephardic tradition is to read the preceding
chapters: 11:7 – 12:14. This week we’ll look at the opening of the
Ashkenazi version:

Then Ya’akov had to flee to the land of Aram;
There Yisrael served for a wife,
For a wife he had to guard [sheep].
But when the Lord
Brought Yisrael up from Egypt,
It was through a prophet;
Through a prophet they were guarded. (Hosea 12:13-14)

The text goes on to describe the rebuke and defeat of “Ephraim,” or
the northern kingdom of Israel, as well as its eventual salvation and
return to God. You’ll see above the obvious connection to our Torah
portion: just as Ya’akov had to “flee” his hometown, so too would his
descendants, the nation of Israel, have to one day leave their land
and go down to Egypt, where they would someday be redeemed. The
further implication seems clear to me: as God sent a prophet to the
Israelites in Egypt (Moshe), God sends one to them in Hosea’s time,
with the task of lifting them up out of sin.

By linking Ya’akov’s flight from Beersheva to Haran- a personal exile-
with the exile of the nation in Egypt, the text allows us to connect
the stories of our ancestors with the stories of our nation, and vice
versa. What happened to Ya’akov is prologue to what happened to our
people as a whole- but even more importantly, the reverse is also
true. That is, the stories of our people – of exile to Egypt, of
turning away from the covenant in prophetic times, of eventual return
and triumph- are also stories about individuals, who – like Ya’akov-
go on personal journeys of exile and return, of conflict and
reconciliation, of despair and renewal.

If Ya’akov’s journey- from exile to home again to his final years with
his sons in Egypt- is a foreshadowing of our journey as a people, then
the journey of our people is can also been seen as symbolic of a
person’s lifetime as well. Just as God promises in this haftarah to
take the people back if they return, so are we- as individuals-
promised that t’shuvah, returning, is always possible. Even Ya’akov,
after twenty some years, returned home. Exile and estrangement, as an
inner condtion of the soul, are not permanent destinies, not for
Ya’akov, not for the Israelites in Egypit, and not for us.

Shabbat shalom,


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