Archive for May, 2009

Machar Hodesh: True Friendship

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Machar Hodesh

Spring is springing along: the month of Iyyar is coming to a close, and on Sunday we begin the new month of
Sivan. That confluence of calendrical celebrations [Rosh Hodesh, the
new moon, coming the day after Shabbat] gives us a special haftarah
for the week. Called “Machar Hodesh,” this special haftarah takes the
place of the regular reading when Rosh Hodesh- the new moon- is on a
Sunday; the reading itself is a story which begins on the day before
the new moon.

This story is that of David (not yet King David) and Yehonatan
[Jonathan], the son of King Shaul [Saul]. Shaul is jealous of David
and seeks to harm him, but Yehonatan and David, who are dear friends,
make a plan for Yehonatan to warn David if it’s not safe for him to
return to the king’s palace for the festival of the new moon. The plan
is a clever one in which Yehonatan goes out to shoot some arrows and
David will know by where they fall if Yehonatan is telling him to
return or stay away.

Many commentators have praised Yehonatan as one of the nobler figures
in the Bible; he is loyal to David even though he knows that David
will probably supplant him as king. He endures his father’s rage and
scorn rather than turn against his friend; he is an exemplar of
conscience and commitment even if it costs him the kingdom. To me,
Yehonatan’s character is revealed in a subtle but symbolic act, which
takes place after he goes out to communicate with the hidden David by
means of the archery trick:

“So Jonathan’s boy gathered the arrows and came back to his master. —
The boy suspected nothing; only Jonathan and David knew the
arrangement. — Jonathan handed the gear to his boy and told him,
‘Take these back to the town.’ When the boy got there, David emerged
from his concealment . . . ” ( 1 Samuel 28:38-41, JPS translation.)

Notice that after Yehonatan shoots his arrows into the field, and thus
sends David a coded message, he gives his bow to his servant and sends
him home. A bow is a weapon of war, but Yehonatan uses it for
friendship, and then leaves it aside entirely when it comes time to
meet David again. Yehonatan approaches his friend without any
defenses, as it were; contrast this with Shaul, who earlier in the
text brings his spear to the palace feast and tries to strike his own
son with it!

I see this small detail- Yehonatan’s sending the bow and arrows back
with the boy before he meets David- as a symbol of why he is so
admirable: he chooses to be vulnerable for the sake of those he
loves. He chooses to risk his father’s wrath to protect David, and he
chooses to be a friend without the trappings of rank or royalty. By
sending the boy home with the arrows, Yehonatan says to David: I wish
to be your friend without the defenses and postures of warriors and
princes.

This, then, is the message of Machar Hodesh: there are times when we
must lay down our arms, as it were, to truly encounter those we love.
We must risk relationship, because the love of friends is worth a
kingdom.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Behar/Bechukotai: Rewards Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai, which means we read the haftarah that goes
with Bechukotai, from the prophet Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah. Yirmiyahu
was not the most chipper chap running around ancient Israel; much of
his prophecy concerns the doom awaiting sinners, which thematically
corresponds to the section in Bechukotai called the “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” in which all sort of bad things are enumerated as the fate
of those who spurn the Divine Covenant.

These are problematic texts, to be sure; most of us over the age of
about 8 see that reward and punishment are not always so clear- at
least, not in this world. Yet to me, the the main theme of the
haftarah is not punishment, but faith. A beautiful and famous passage
describes a faithful life as ever-renewing:

“Cursed is he who trusts in man,
Who makes mere flesh his strength,
And turns his thoughts from the Lord.
He shall be like a bush in the desert,
Which does not sense the coming of good:
It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness,
In a barren land without inhabitant.
Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. ” (Yirmiyahu 17:5-8)

Now, on the one hand, this is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual
life: such a person is like tree planted by water, who can withstand
life’s vicissitudes and hard seasons. However, one might question the
first part of the metaphor- the person who trusts “in man, who makes
mere flesh his strength”- well, what’s so bad about trusting people?
Isn’t it good to be part of a web of relationships, which necessarily
involves a positive view of oneself and other people?

I think the first part of the passage above is clarified by comparing
it to another passage a few verses later:

“Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay,
So is one who amasses wealth by unjust means;
In the middle of his life it will leave him,
And in the end he will be proved a fool”

The prophet is saying something obvious (especially these days): if
you orient your life such that your happiness and security comes from
material gain to the exclusion of moral and spiritual connection,
you’re likely to end up unhappy, because external things- objects,
money, status- can be lost or taken. (Again, an obvious point these
days.)

Returning to the first passage, recall that the one who “trust in man”
is one who “makes mere flesh his strength”- that is, such a person
relies on temporary, external things, like physical strength, status
and materiality, and this is why he is like the tree in the desert-
there’s nothing to fall back on when the stock market crashes or the
body declines or whatever external circumstances change. The person
who “trusts in the Lord alone” is not a hermit, but one who knows that
one’s spiritual accomplishments- giving, loving, doing good, helping
others, acting in compassion- can only be practiced in community and
can never be taken away. Such a person lives more deeply because of
the spiritual dimension of their life- that depth is its own reward,
and is cultivated from within rather than given from above.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Emor: From Exile to Renewal

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

The Hudson Valley is blossoming all over, and along with the glories of the
springtime come the Torah readings at the end of the book of Vayikra, or
Leviticus- so named for the tribe of Levi, set apart for religious service in
the ancient Temple. Only one family out of the tribe of Levi were the actual
priests- those were the direct descendants of Aharon, Moshe’s brother and the
first Kohen Gadol, or High Priest.

Yet this week’s haftarah, from the 44th chapter of Yechezkel [Ezekiel], opens up
with a prophesy that not all the descendant of Aharon will serve in the ancient
Temple to be rebuilt after the exile to Babylon:

“But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of
My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me — they shall approach
Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me , , , They alone may enter My
Sanctuary and they alone shall approach My table , , , ” {Yechezkel/Ezekiel
44:14-16]

Zadok was priest in the time of Shlomo [Solomon- see 2 Samuel 15 and 1 Kings 1],
and he and his descendants were regarded by the ancient rabbis as exceptionally
loyal, pious and praiseworthy. So when Yechezkel says that the restored
priesthood will be only the line of Zadok, he seems to be saying to the
community in exile that when they return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple,
those who serve in it will be even greater than the priests of previous
generations.

This reading is reinforced by the details that follow, which seem to apply rules
formerly only for the High Priest to all the priests, perhaps implying that
after the exile, even ordinary priests will be on a more elevated or exalted
spiritual level.

We’ll leave those details for another time; for today, it’s enough to note that
Yechezkel’s main message: that out of the tragedy of exile can come a renewal
which brings the people to an even higher level than before. Out of suffering or
brokenness can come healing which makes a person, family, or community even more
whole than before- this does not mean that suffering is good, but that a period
of brokenness, alienation, or pain doesn’t have to be permanent, nor a bar to
future growth and service.

There’s a famous saying in the Talmud that in the place where a ba’al tshuva
[one who has repented or returned] stands, even the completely righteous cannot
stand. I take this to mean that human beings have an extraordinary capacity for
spiritual renewal, and this capacity is known and appreciated greatly in one who
has experienced such a return and recentering. That, to me, is the central
message of our haftarah: you may be in exile now, but upon return to your roots,
you can serve with even greater reverence than before. It’s an great message of
hope, of possibility and grace, for all peoples, in the prophet’s age and in
ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: What is Truly Ours

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim

We read a double Torah portion this week, Acharei-Mot/ Kedoshim, and there are
different haftarot assigned to the portions depending on whether you read them
together or separately. Not only that, but there are different traditions for
the haftarah in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities; today we’re discussing
the reading from the book of Amos, from the Ashkenazi custom.

The prophet Amos is an early prophet, who spoke harsh words against both the
Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, condemning their religious and moral
sins while also proclaiming an eventual renewal of the united monarchy. That
time will be a time of great blessing; the prophet says that the land will be so
blessed that the “mountains shall drip wine:”

” When the plowman shall meet the reaper,
And the treader of grapes
Him who holds the [bag of] seed;
When the mountains shall drip wine
And all the hills shall wave [with grain].

I will restore My people Israel.
They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine;
They shall till gardens and eat their fruits.” [Amos 9:13-14]

It’s a consoling image for a divided people, and yet the images of vineyards and
fields overflowing with their harvest brings to mind mitzvot, commandments, from
the Torah portion, regarding agricultural bounty:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the
edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick
your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave
them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” [Vayikra/Leviticus
19:9-10]

These mitzvot, of leaving the edges of the fields and the gleanings [these are
called peah, the corners, and leket, the gleanings], teach us a powerful
perspective: when we are blessed with enough, some of what we think is “ours” is
really only entrusted to our stewardship for sharing with others. In our
society, so many have so much, and yet the action of leaving for others teaches
us powerful lessons about spiritual fulfillment, which is not found in having
more than one needs but in acts of service to God through giving to others.

Getting back to our haftarah, I wonder if the images above of the hills waving
with grain and the mountains dripping with wine are meant to remind the people
that such blessings are not just for individuals, but opportunities to build
powerful communities of caring and inclusion. Along with the fields and
vineyards comes the mitzvah of peah and leket, leaving for the poor; in the
Biblical mind, you can’t have the blessing without the mitzvah to share it.

In our day, even in these hard times, the Biblical linking of blessing and
obligation is no less relevant, even if our bounty takes forms other than the
produce of the field. If we are blessed, we must give, because ultimately, what
is truly ours is not our property, but the goodness we have brought forth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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