Archive for April, 2009

Shabbat Rosh Hodesh: The First Mitzvah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hodesh

We’re back hard at work here at rabbineal-list after the
Passover break- so far after the Passover break that we’re already celebrating
the new month of Iyyar. So this week we do not read the haftarah for our Torah
portion, Tazria-Metzora, but a special haftarah for Rosh Hodesh, the minor
holiday of the new moon.

This haftarah, taken from Yeshayahu [Isaiah] 66, is, like many of the haftarot
taken from the latter half of Yeshayahu, a messianic prophesy: the nations that
oppressed Israel will have Divine justice brought upon them; exiles will return
to the Land, and Jerusalem will be rebuilt and restored. The connection to Rosh
Hodesh is a set of verses which imagines the nations of the world worshiping
together in Jerusalem, acknowledging the God of Israel:

” For as the new heaven and the new earth
Which I will make
Shall endure by My will

— declares the Lord —
So shall your seed and your name endure.
And new moon after new moon,
And sabbath after sabbath,
All flesh shall come to worship Me

— said the Lord . . . ” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 66:22-23)

What’s interesting about this image is the tension between the universal
spirituality of a new moon festival and the uniquely Jewish expression of time:
after all, while we are all under the same moon, the very first mitzvah
[commandment] in the Torah is to keep a Jewish calendar, beginning with the new
moon. [Cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 12] Furthermore, while some sense of the cycles of
the moon, linking us to the seasons of the year, may be a universal human
experience, Shabbat, as such, is not. The Torah tells us that Shabbat is (among
other things) a remembrance of our slavery and exodus from Egypt, which is the
specific historical paradigm which binds together much of Jewish history,
practice and theology.

So let’s assume for a moment that the prophet is accurately relaying some
message of Divine inspiration: if so, what’s the significance that the various
nations that used to oppress Israel will someday come worship in Jerusalem on
Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh? I don’t think it’s merely triumphalism regarding the
other nations- “see, we were right and now you’re coming to acknowledge it!”-
but rather a message for Israel itself about the real meaning of its sacred

To wit, what Israel needs to remember is that although Shabbat and the rest of
the Jewish calendar are uniquely Jewish ways of living in sacred time, the
spiritual message of the calendar is universal and it’s our job to take those
teachings to the world. The Exodus was a particularly Jewish event, but humans
oppressing each other for economic gain is a problem throughout history. Shabbat
is a reminder of the Exodus because Shabbat embodies the moral truth that no
human authority- not a boss, not a Pharaoh, not our careers, not anything-
should command our souls. One day a week is for our spiritual connection to God,
to Torah, to each other, and to our deepest selves- this is a truth needed not
just for those who were slaves in Egypt, but all those who serve earthly powers.

This is why the first mitzvah of the Torah is to establish our own calendar- so
our sense of time and our growth within it is not governed by Pharaoh’s work
needs but our own spiritual imperatives. Rosh Hodesh symbolizes the seasons of
year and the journey of our lives- waxing and waning, growth and renewal, over
the course of a year in which we celebrate days dedicated to unique spiritual

That’s why our messianic vision includes the nations coming to worship on Rosh
Hodesh: because the message our calendar embodies is one which it’s our job to
bring to the world.

Wishing you a joyful Rosh Hodesh and a Shabbat of peace,


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Pesach: On Holy Ground

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Now, onto the business at hand- which is quite a bit, actually, since
with Pesach falling on Thursday and Friday, we have the unusual
situation of three “haftarah days” in a row- the first and second days
of Pesach, then Shabbat, also with a special reading for Pesach.
You’ll find all the relevant texts at the link below, but for today,
we’ll just look briefly at the haftarah for the first day of Passover.

This haftarah picks up where the Torah itself ends: at the beginning
of the book of Joshua (well, chapter 3, to be precise), with the
Israelites crossing the Jordan River and beginning their journey into
the Land of Israel. The text makes clear that Yehoshua [Joshua] is
truly the heir of Moshe [Moses]:

1) Just as Moshe was told to purify the people at Sinai, Yehoshua is
told to purify the people before they cross the river, which is
stopped up so they can walk across as if it were dry land. (This part
of the story is not part of our haftarah.)

2) Just as Moshe and the people make a Pesach offering and eating
matzah, so too Yehoshua and the people make a Pesach offering and
eating matzah.

3) Just as Moshe has an unexpected encounter with the Divine at the
burning bush, so too Yehoshua is surprised by an angel:

“Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man
standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and
asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, ‘No, I
am captain of the Lord’s host. Now I have come!’ Joshua threw himself
face down on the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, ‘What
does my lord command his servant?’ The captain of the Lord’s host
answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place
where you stand is holy.’ ” And Joshua did so. (Yehoshua/Joshua
5:13:-15, JPS translation)

The parallel with the burning bush is obvious: Yehoshua is told to
remove his shoes in recognition of the holiness of the place, and he
does so. (Cf. Exodus 3)

So our next question is: if the Bible goes out of its way to portray
Yehoshua as symbolically living out the key events in Moshe’s life,
why choose this text as the haftarah for people (that’d be us) who are
not leading the people out of slavery or into the Land?

To me, the story above, of Yehoshua and the angel, is so fitting for
Pesach precisely because it’s about encountering the Sacred when you
least expect it. Remember, when Moshe encountered the burning bush, he
was a fugitive, working as a shepherd, on the side of some unimportant
hill that could have been anywhere. Yehoshua, too, when he encounters
the angel, is just “near Jericho”- not expecting any great theophany,
not having any great dramatic moment (yet.)

This is the deeper meaning of the Pesach story: that we recall our
history precisely because it can be a symbolic template for our own
lives. We may not be leaders of armies or makers of great miracles,
but all of us are commissioned for a spiritual task, the unique work
of our lives. We may not be confronting Pharaoh, but all of us have
the capacity to be liberators, of ourselves and others who may be
stuck in a dark and dismal place. We may not be leading our people
across seas and rivers, but all of us have the opportunity to lead
others from darkness to light, from constriction to freedom, through
the power of our compassion and generosity.

Both Moshe and Yehoshua took off their shoes on holy ground not
because the ground was holy in itself, but because their experience
and renewed spiritual consciousness made that moment holy. That’s
what’s important: any ground can be sacred if we experience rededication and
uplifted vision there. Pesach is all about movement, growth, change and hope;
these things can start right now, wherever you are, because the place you are
standing is holy ground.

A happy and healthy Pesach to one and all,


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