Archive for March, 2009

Vayikra: No Barrier to Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

It’s a nice spring day, it’s a few weeks before Pesach, and we’re turning to the
book of Vayikra, A.K.A. Leviticus, for our cycle of Torah readings. Vayikra is
called Leviticus, of course, because the tribe of Levi is the tribe designated
for religious service in the Mishkan, or Sanctuary, the ritual details of which
take up much of this book of the Torah.

The haftarah for the opening portion of Vayikra is from Yeshayahu [Isaiah}- or,
more accurately, “Second Isaiah,” from the latter half of the book of the same
name. These prophecies were spoken to the exile community in Babylon, in the
reign of Cyrus, who eventually allowed the exiles to return. Yeshayahu
encouraged the people to believe that God would redeem them and “take them back”
with a restored national and spiritual life in the land of Israel.

The relationship to the Torah portion has to do with the image of sacrifices and
offerings; the prophet says that even though the people haven’t been bringing
the offerings (they could not do so in exile, without a central Temple), God
would nevertheless renew the relationship spiritually:

” Even as I pour water on thirsty soil,
And rain upon dry ground,
So will I pour My spirit on your offspring,
My blessing upon your posterity.” (Yesh. 44:3)

The text goes on to decry the foolishness of idolatry and the love of God for
Israel, such that no matter what their sins in the past, they would be forgiven
and the covenant would be renewed:

“I wipe away your sins like a cloud,
Your transgressions like mist —
Come back to Me, for I redeem you ! ” (44:22)

In Biblical Israel, the offerings in the central Temple were the way our
ancestors drew close to God; without such a physical ritual, we turn instead to
a relationship grounded in love and forgiveness. Please note: the text is fully
aware that terrible things happen in history, and its explanation that the
tragedy of exile is due to the sins of the people is not one that I find

However, although Yeshayahu spoke at a particular moment in time, the problem of
exile- that is, estrangement or alienation from our truest spiritual center- is
a timeless one. Notice in verse 22, above, how sin and transgression- that is,
the thing that keep us far from a sense of alignment with the Sacred – are
compared to mist and cloud. That is, they are temporary, illusory things- a
cloud may block the light, obscuring vision, but it blocks no effort to move
through it.

Whatever is keeping us from coming home- to spiritual community, to Torah, to
covenant relationships in our lives, to our own souls- is no more a barrier than
a mist or cloud. Yeshayahu taught: the love at the center of the cosmos- that we
call God- is real and permanent and enduring; what keeps us from that love is
temporal, ethereal, cleared from view with only a simple desire to draw close.
That knowledge is what gave our ancestors hope, as it does to this day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shabbat HaChodesh: A Sustaining Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat HaChodesh

Shabbat HaChodesh, like the other special Shabbatot before Pesach, has its own
maftir (concluding) Torah reading and its own haftarah, in addition to the
regular weekly portion of Vayekhel-Pekudei. The Torah reading, from Exodus,
describes the preparations for the first Pesach, in Egpyt, while the haftarah is
from Yechezkel [Ezekiel], the prophet who went into exile in Babylon with his
people and preached a message of hope, restoration and renewal to the deportees

The haftarah opens up (if you’re reading the Sefardi version- Ashkenazim begin a
bit earlier) with an echo of the theme of the Torah reading: the importance of
the month of Nisan. Nisan is the month of Pesach and Exodus, the central
narrative of our people and the foundation of future hopes:

“Thus said the Lord God: On the first day of the first month, you shall take a
bull of the herd without blemish, and you shall cleanse the Sanctuary.”
(Yechezkel / Ezekiel 45:18)

As an aside: the “first month” above is Nisan, in the spring; Rosh Hashana, the
“New Year,” is in the seventh month, but that’s not a big problem. The former
marks the first month of yearly festival cycle and the latter refers to the
counting of years for the cycles of the sabbatical year and for accounting
certain agricultural practices. (Not unlike having a calendar year and a fiscal
year- see link below.)

So far, so good, but things are rarely simple when comparing texts written
hundreds of years and hundreds of kilometers apart. The ancient rabbis could not
help but confront the fact that Yechezkel, in describing to the people what the
future, rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, seems to add details to the rituals which
are not found in the Biblical texts:

“On the fourteenth day of the first month you shall have the passover sacrifice;
and during a festival of seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten. On that
day, the prince shall provide a bull of sin offering on behalf of himself and of
the entire population . . . ”

Without going into all the particulars, for today it’s sufficient to note that
the Biblical account of Pesach preparations has no mention of the bull for a sin
offering, as above, and that’s just one example where the prophet’s account of
the future, rebuilt Temple seems to deviate from earlier texts.

Yet rather than discard Yechezkel as mistaken or delusional, some commentators
proposed that the additional offerings were not about Pesach at all, but were
meant to describe the dedication or inauguration ceremonies of the new and
rebuilt Temple, which would be purified and dedicated before the first festival
celebrated in it. In other words, the prophet was so sure that the people would
be returned from exile that he’s not just reminding them of the holidays they’ll
someday celebrate at home, but also helps them envision the act of rededicating
their spiritual center.

With this interpretation, Shabbat HaChodesh takes on a whole new meaning: no
longer is it about recalling the past exile and the previous redemption, but
rather it’s about strengthening our faith and hope for the future. If the
prophet Yechezkel was describing a future, rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, then we
are powerfully reminded as we go about our own preparations for Pesach that our
ultimate goal is neither nostalgia nor remembrance – rather, our goal is faith,
hope, and joy.

This is the true meaning of Pesach: that Egypt- or Mitzrayim, the “narrow
place”- could not contain us forever, and neither could the exile to Babylon nor
the much longer exile which followed. There is hope, and there will be (soon and
speedily!) peace in Jerusalem, and there will be a renewal for our people and
all peoples. That is the meaning of redemption, and just as that hope sustained
our ancestors, so too must it sustain us, for without hope, cynicism sets in,
and compassion seems irrelevant. Yechezkel told the people: there will be a
rebuilt Jerusalem. For us, there is no more powerful symbol of a healed world,
which may not be l’shana haba, next year, but is surely within our capacity to
bring forth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shabbat Parah: A New Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Parah

This week we read not only the Torah portion Ki Tissa- which describes the sin
of the Golden Calf- but also have a special concluding Torah reading and
haftarah, which, coincidentally, continue the bovine theme in the Torah readings
with a description of the “Red Heifer” needed for ritual purity. The haftarah,
from the book of Yehezkel [Ezekiel], takes the theme of ritual purity in a new
direction, making a condition of the body a metaphor for the state of the soul:

” The word of the Lord came to me: ‘O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on
their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their ways were
in My sight like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman.’ ” (Yehezkel 36:16-17)

Let’s review for a moment: in Biblical times, our ancestors had a strong concept
of ritual purity-” taharah,” or the state of being “tahor”- and its opposite,
ritual impurity, or “tumah,” or the state of being “tameh.” The reason I say
“ritual” impurity is that one who was in this state could not enter certain
areas designated for holiness, or in extreme cases, even the camp of the
Israelites. However, it wasn’t a moral failing to be tameh; you got that way
from touching a dead body, or an unclean animal, or from having certain kinds of
bodily emissions, among other examples.

Conversely, one got to be “tahor” through a process of waiting and immersion in
water, or sometimes bringing an offering. The ritual of the Red Heifer (cf.
Numbers 19) created a way for those who are tameh to become tahor again- a
subject to revisit another time.

Now, moving along to the haftarah, we see that the prophet makes a shift in
meanings: just as (in the Biblical purity system) a woman who is tameh would not
be allowed to enter certain areas, the people Israel, through their moral
failings, are no longer worthy to inherit the Land of Israel. Let me be clear
here: by no means do I endorse the idea that a woman’s menstrual cycle is
“defiling;” rather, I’m saying that one must understand the background of the
text in order to understand the larger message of the prophet, which is that
despite the people’s moral failings, they can have a “new heart” and a new
spirit. (Cf. verse 26).

We read the text of the Red Heifer on Shabbat Parah- a few weeks before Pesach-
as a reminder of the ancient system of tumah and taharah, which was an important
element of Pesach observance, since nobody in a state of ritual impurity could
eat the Pesach offering. The haftarah takes this idea and moves it into the
realm of moral preparation for the holiday: just as someone in Biblical times
could be rendered clean after impurity, so too could those who had transgressed
or strayed be brought close to the Holy One and renewed in spirit.

The point of the haftarah is not that the people are defiled: it’s that they
can, and will, be renewed, and brought home from exile. Exile, in turn, is also
not limited to where the body resides; it also describes the state of our souls,
when we feel far from “home” and alienated from our Source of Being. This is the
key idea: there is no point from which we cannot return to our Source, and when
we remember that, hope is never lost.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shabbat Zachor

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week we have a special reading on Shabbat; in addition to the regular Torah
portion, Tetzaveh (mostly about the garments of the priests), we have the
observance of Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. On Shabbat
Zachor- which means “rememberance”- we read a maftir, or concluding Torah
reading, from Deuteronomy 25, which recalls how Amalek, a warlike nation,
attacked the stragglers of the Israelites on their way out of Egypt.

Years later, when the Israelites have settled in the land, the prophet Shmuel
[Samuel] commands king Shaul [Saul] to attack Amalek and utterly destroy it, all
the people and all their property. Shaul wages the war, and wins, but lets the
troops keep the spoils of war, and Shaul himself spares the Amalekite king,
Agag. Shmuel condemns Shaul as disobedient and announces that God has chosen
another to be king, and dispatches Agag with his own hands.

The haftarah for Zachor links the earlier stories of Amalek with the Purim
narrative, in which the ancient enemy turns up as Haman the Agagite, a
descendant of Amalek. Yet the haftorah presents great moral problems, not the
least of which is this: can it really be that the God who commands us to care
for widows, orphans and strangers commands scorched-earth warfare against even
innocent non-combatants, children and animals? How is it possible that our
tradition endorses a text which seems to suggest that the children of an evil
nation are to be included in collective punishment? It goes against every
ethical instinct which might be inculcated by the very texts in which this story

It’s not an easy story, and perhaps, in the end, that’s the point. Those who
reject warfare against Amalek- in whatever form it takes in our generation- are
responsible for the blood on Amalek’s hands. (Remember, Amalek’s attack was
precisely on the weakest and most defenseless.) Yet those who would wage warfare
too easily end up like Shaul, with his moral credibility in tatters because he
disobeyed and allowed the army to take the animals as spoils of war- but did not
disobey in order to spare the women and children. Some commentators say that
Shmuel commanded Shaul to wipe out the entire nation precisely to make it clear
that this was a war against evil- any taking of booty or treasure might lead to
the conclusion that it was a war like any other, caused more by greed than

So what do we do with this difficult text? We sit with it, and allow ourselves
to be confronted with the messy truth that violence is sometimes necessary to
achieve a more just and safe world, but it’s equally true that those who use
violence for these ends often achieve neither justice nor safety. We must fight
Amalek, understood here as that part of the human soul which preys on weakness
and fear- but we must not become Amalek in the process, lest future generations
have a queasy feeling about our deeds the way we might when reading of Shaul’s.

This, to me, is precisely the greatness of a serious encounter with our sacred
texts: we are not given easy answers, but harder questions. Our march toward
frivolity on Purim night is preceded by stark contemplation of what good people
must do to confront evil, without becoming evil themselves.Yet even in a world
with such haunting questions, we can make room for the great joy awaiting us on
Purim, just a few days away, which brings the radical message of great joy
outlasting the darkest fears.

with blessings for a joyous Purim,


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