Archive for February, 2009

Terumah: Mere Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

Adar is upon us but hopefully this week’s commentary on the haftarah
will not fall into the category of “Purim Torah.”

The book of Shmot, or Exodus, takes a thematic turn this week as we
shift from the laws of civil society to the laws of building the
Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The plans for the Mishkan were laid
out in great detail in this section of Shmot, and it’s always
interesting to study them. Our haftarah continues the story some
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, when the details of the
Mikdash, or Jerusalem Temple, are laid out as King Shlomo [Solomon]
arranges and supervises its construction.

The haftarah, from the first book of Kings, describes how Shlomo made
a treaty with the king of Lebanon in order to secure building supplies
for the Temple- so far, so good. However, unlike the description of
the free-will offerings of people which went into the construction of
the Miskhan, the king decrees forced labor, sending thousands of men
to Lebanon to bring the stones back to Jerusalem.

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch sees an ominous tension between the two narratives
of building sacred spaces- in the Torah, the freed slaves gave
willingly of all they had to build the Mishkan, whereas in First
Kings, the people are under the king’s orders, and there is little
joy- and no choice- involved in the project. To Hirsch, the final
verse of the haftarah is a warning to Shlomo not to mistake a
beautiful building for a truly sacred place:

” Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon, ‘With regard to this
House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules
and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the
promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the
children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’ ” (1
Kings 6:11-13)

What made the Temple- well, the Temple- was not where and with what
materials it was constructed, but that the presence of the Sacred was
felt to be “dwelling” there among the people of Israel. To achieve
that required not physical but spiritual architecture- starting at the
top, with a clear understanding on the part of the king that it was
his moral standing which gave him the right to build the Temple, and
not the reverse.

Hirsch’s interpretation of the haftarah is timeless, and not limited
to Judaism. Human beings, being embodied inhabitants of the physical
world ( a good thing!), have a tendency to confuse the “klipah,” the
outer shell of a thing, for the inner experience. Buildings are not
congregations; prayerbooks are not prayer; the Torah is not words on a
page but a dialogue which shapes covenental love and connection.

It humbles me to think that even Shlomo, ostensibly the wisest man of
his generation, needed to be reminded that the Temple was mere stone
if the people did not experience the Sacred within its walls. Even the
ancient Temple was only worthy of its name- Mikdash, the holy place-
if the king built it and the people approached it deeply committed to
the moral covenant which is the true center of Jewish life. Buildings
are not congregations – but they can house congregations, and only
then be filled with the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shabbat Shekalim: Sacred Donations

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shekalim

A few days ago, I received in the mail a fundraising letter from a
charity with programs in Israel and North America. As a rabbi, I
probably get 20-30 such requests per week, by paper mail, email, and
telephone; although I wish I could donate more, I do appreciate
learning about the wide range of Jewish and general charities and the
good works they do.

However, the letter I received this week touched a raw nerve, because
it based its emergency appeal for funds on the premise that (this is
not an exact quote, but pretty close) “we believe we may have lost
funds in the Madoff scandal.” I was astounded that this organization
would not begin its appeal by apologizing for its lax oversight
procedures, and explain how such things could never happen again
before having the temerity to ask for further donations. To put it
another way: I’m not sure it it’s chutzpah or obtuseness which would
lead somebody to say: “we don’t have any idea what happened to the
money given to us in the past, so please give us more.”

Ordinarily, an unprofessional appeal letter would get recycled without
comment, but this is the week we read a special passage from the
Torah, and a special haftarah, which mark what is called “Shabbat
Shekalim,” which is all about being responsible for donated money. The
text from the Torah is Exodus 30:11-16, read as maftir (before the
haftarah), which teaches that in ancient days, every Israelite had to
give a half-shekel for the building and upkeep of the Mishkan
(portable Sanctuary) and, later, the Temple in Jerusalem. We read
these texts now, at the beginning of the month of Adar, to remember
that notice went out a month in advance of the time the half-shekel
was actually due.

The haftarah is from 2 Kings, and tells the story of King Jehoash,
who, some years after assuming the throne, discovered that the priests
in charge of collecting the donations to the Temple were not using the
money for its intended purpose of upkeep and repair. So the king put
in a new system, wherein donations brought into the Temple were kept
in a special chest and periodically counted by both the “royal scribe”
and the High Priest himself. Then the money was distributed to the
workers according to the repair needs at the time.

This system of accountability, in which both the king and the priests
shared in oversight of the donations, ensured that the money was used
for its proper purpose- which brings me back to the fundraising letter
mentioned earlier. To me, the great scandal of our age is not that an
evil man stole billions- there are always evil people, and it’s the
job of good people to create systems of defense against them.

The greater scandal, in my view, is how many charitable institutions
turned their money over to opaque and exotic “investments” based on
personal connections rather than financial transparency. In some
cases, organizations didn’t even know where their money was, having
turned it over to somebody who turned it over to somebody else.

The Jewish world needs a Jehoash, somebody who can articulate a clear
vision of financial responsibility and accountability in its largest
and best institutions. Every dollar given to tzedakah represents a
mitzvah, a commandment to give of ourselves to help others- if these
funds are not treated as sacred by those put in charge of them, then,
just as in Jehoash’s day, we may need to fix the system.

Shabbat Shekalim calls us to think about our giving- where it’s going,
towards what ends, and in whose care our funds are entrusted. My hope
and prayer is that the mitzvah of tzedakah will only be strengthened
in these hard times, and good leaders will arise to help us help each
other through acts of sacred giving.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Grow the Fire

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, named for Moshe’s father-in-law,
who helps Moshe with a few management problems. Then even bigger
things happen: Moshe is told to prepare the people for a great
revelation, which happens on Sinai, amid thunder and lighting and
smoke and the sound of the shofar.

Our haftarah this week also has images of smoke and fire: the prophet
Yeshayahu [Isaiah] is visited by seraphim- angelic beings- who take a
coal to his lips as a sign of his commission as a prophet:

” I cried,

‘Woe is me; I am lost!
For I am a man of unclean lips
And I live among a people
Of unclean lips;
Yet my own eyes have beheld
The King Lord of Hosts.’

Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he
had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my
lips and declared,

Now that this has touched your lips,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin be purged away.’ ” (Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 6:5-7)

A connection to the Torah, if not exactly this portion, is obvious:
when God first commissions Moshe, Moshe also objects, saying that his
lips and tongue are slow (cf. Exodus 4.) In both cases, the prophet
seems to be saying: why me? I’m unworthy and impure- surely there is
somebody better than me to speak this message!

So far, so good- the humility evoked in both Moshe and Yeshayahu is
both poignant and appropriate for one who has just had an overwhelming
“spiritual experience.” I’d even go so far as to say that it would be
disturbing if a prophet did not feel unworthy- after all, a great
leader knows the enormity of their task and surely knows their own
weaknesses and sin better than anybody else. The image of the coal
touching the lips of the prophet seems to imply that imperfection is
not a barrier to service. This too is a welcome message for all of us
radically imperfect people who nevertheless hope to bring something
good into the world.

S. R. Hirsch sees the image of the coal rather differently: he does
not see this image as about the prophet’s unworthiness, but about his
great capabilities. Hirsch compares the word for “coal,” in the verse
above, to words which mean “covered,” and thus brings the insight that
the coal or charcoal touched to the prophets lip’s was not burning hot
(as in the image of burning away Yeshayahu’s sins) but was cold on the
outside, with only a small glow of remnant heat in the center of the
coal. In this view, the angel touched the coal to Yeshayahu’s lips not
to purify him instantly, but to show him that there remained a spark
of holy fire which could be brought into blazing heat with the
prophet’s breath in the form of words. This, in turn, is a metaphor
for the prophet’s mission: to seek the embers of faith and devotion
under the exterior of a cynical people, and bring it forth into
something more beautiful and holy.

Not only that, but this turns around our notion of how a person is
“purged” of sin or guilt: not by angels from the outside, but through
bringing forth his own faith, from the inside, and engaging with
people and helping them to grow and change. What makes the prophet
worthy of his mission is not the encounter with the angel, as such,
but the subsequent actions of living out that encounter.

Personally, I love the image of the prophet having a cold coal touched
to his lips, with the angel saying: “feel that little bit of heat on
the inside? It’s your job to make it grow!” This is the image of the
prophet as partner, as a human being with a human task: to start with
a small flame and make it grow. That’s a task that each of us can take
on, and we don’t need a seraph to get started.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Beshallach: Awakening the Spirit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

We have just enough time to sneak in a
little bit of Torah study before Shabbat, and a good thing, too,
because the haftarah this week is the longest one of the year, in the
Ashkenazi liturgical tradition.

The Torah portion, Beshallach, concludes the story of the Exodus with
the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and a great song of gratitude once
the Israelites have reached the other side. In the haftarah, Devorah,
a prophet and judge, gives instructions to her general Barak to defeat
the enemy general Sisera. Sisera’s army is routed, he flees to the
tent of Yael, who lures him into a deadly trap, and once again a great
redemption song is offered by the leader of a grateful nation, in this
case Devorah herself. Because of the Song at the Sea and its related
haftarah, this Shabbat is actually called “Shabbat Shirah,” or the
Sabbath of Song.

The song of Devorah is considered by many scholars to be older than
the story which precedes it; it’s not hard to imagine that victory
songs were part of the ancient culture of tribal and national
leadership. There are other examples of exultant poems in the Bible,
including poems of gratitude from figures as diverse as Hanna and King
David. (Remember, in Hebrew, “shir” means both poem and song.)
Devorah’s song is poetry, but it’s also about war- she, like Moshe in
our Torah portion, is grateful to God that her people has been spared,
and the enemy has not.

Yet one line from Devorah’s poem has made its way from victory in war
to the peace of Shabbat:

” Awake, awake, O Devorah!
Awake, awake, strike up the chant!” (Shoftim/ Judges 5:12)

This line: “uri, uri, Devorah, uri, uri, daberi shir,” which literally
means “arise [or awake], Devorah, arise, my words of song,” was used
in the fifth verse of the famous Shabbat hymn “Lecha Dodi”:

“Uri uri shir daberi , Kavod Ado-nai alayich niglah. . . .”

Perhaps for poetic reasons, the author of Lecha Dodi switched the
words “daberi shir” to “shir daberi,” but the intent, as far as I can
tell, is the same: “arise, arise, the song of my words, let the glory
of God be upon you and revealed. . . ”

Lecha Dodi is also about redemption, in the classic Jewish
understanding: that one day we will be returned from exile and free
and peaceful in the Land of Israel. In the meantime, we only have a
little “taste” of redemption, in the peace of Shabbat. Yet Shabbat
doesn’t happen automatically: we have to awaken our consciousness to
embrace a day of gratitude, of reflection, of connection to others, to
God, and to our own deepest self. Just as an ancient victory could not
be taken for granted- one had to arouse oneself to a state of great
gratitude and praise- so too Shabbat slips from our awareness without
conscious and deliberate acknowledgment.

The songs of our soul don’t just happen by accident- we may be graced
by inspiration but we also choose the circumstances under which our
spirits are most likely to be opened wide. If we want to scale the
spiritual heights, we have to awaken our hearts and let them arise anew.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- Some of my thinking for this commentary was sparked by this
week’s chapter in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, edited by my
teacher and friend Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. You can check it out on
Google books- then go buy one!

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