Archive for June, 2009

Korach: Remembering History

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

I hope everybody is have a pleasant and serene week- well, I would
imagine that most of us are at least having weeks better than the one
described in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, named for the
nefarious main character. Just to refresh our memories: Korach, along
with two buddies and a large gang of disgruntled tribal princes,
challenges Moshe and Aharon for leadership of the people. Korach and
his gang lose their bid for power and are swallowed up by the earth-
not a pretty scene for anybody.

Fast-forward several generations and the Israelites are living in the
Land, but things aren’t going so well: the tribes aren’t unified and
it’s hard to defend the borders and keep the peace (cf. the book of
Judges – the whole text, more or less- on this point.) A great
prophet, Shmuel [Samuel] is, like Moshe, both a political and judicial
leader, but the people want a king “like other nations.” (I Sam. 8)

So Shmuel appoints a king, Shaul, who promptly embarks on a great
military victory- so far, so good. Shmuel then takes Shaul to Gilgal
(where this week’s haftarah picks up the story), so the people can
reaffirm him as the new king, but Shmuel rebukes them for wanting a
king, and reiterates that he – Shmuel- has always been honest and
fair as leader of the people.

Gilgal is an interesting place – it’s where the Israelites first
crossed over the Jordan River into the Land; not only did a great
miracle of “crossing the waters” happen there, but memorial stones
were set up and the men of the wilderness generation were circumcised
before beginning to settle the Land. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua chapters 4
and 5.) Thus, our haftarah seems to be suggesting that Shmuel took the
people to Gilgal to remind them of their history- how the Holy One
brought them to the Land, and their own spiritual commitments,
symbolized by the covenant of circumcision.

Shmuel warns the people that a king may aggrandize himself and
oppress them; by taking them to Gilgal he reminds them that the nation
of Israel has principles and memories more powerful than even the
king, and which, in fact, must keep the king in check.

That all makes sense, but it’s astounding to realize that Shmuel is
himself is a direct descendant of Korach, his great-grandson, no less!
(See 1 Chronicles 6 for the genealogy.) Now we see an even more
poignant connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah: what
the great-grandfather, Korach, tried to tear apart, the
great-grandson, Shmuel, kept together. Korach tried to arrogate the
leadership for himself, but his descendant Shmuel willingly- albeit
reluctantly- turned the leadership over to Shaul, even when he had
great misgivings.

The connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is more than
just contrasting Korach and Shmuel; it also suggests, perhaps, that
because Shmuel knew his own history, he wanted to impress history upon
the people (by taking them to Gilgal), so that they would not let the
new king unmoor them from the meaning of that history.

This interpretation is both powerful and poignant: powerful, because
it turns a personal sense of history into a compelling tool for social
leadership, and poignant, because we as readers know that a Korach
arises in every generation, from Biblical times onward. The good news
is that from a Korach can arise a Shmuel, a wise teacher, who brings
insight and ethics and a sense of history to the people of his or her
community. From painful history can come great insight and commitment-
that’s the line from Korach to Shmuel, a truth which endures in each
one of us and challenges us to great things.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shlach Lecha: Living On the Edge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Dear Friends: with all the rain we’ve had around here, it feels more
appropriate to be studying the Torah portion Noach rather than
Shlach-Lecha, but nevertheless, it’s the season to talk about spies
and their clandestine reconnaissance. Fans of James Bond, take note:
the Torah portion tells the story of the spies who went up from the
desert to scout out the Land of Israel and came back discouraged,
while the haftarah tells of a much more successful mission 38 years
later.

To wit: after Yehoshua [Joshua] led the Israelies across the Jordan
river to begin their conquest of the Land, he sends two men up to
Jericho, where they enter the city and are saved from discovery by a
harlot named Rachav, who has heard about the wondrous miracles of
Israel from Egypt onward and so believes their victory is inevitable.
They make a deal with her: if she lets them escape, they’ll save her
and her family when the town is conquered in the coming battle.

Rachav is an interesting character: on the one hand, she’s a
prostitute and disloyal to her king and people, but on the other hand,
she is more “God-fearing,” in the most literal sense, than the tribal
princes sent by Moshe in the Torah portion. She is also, quite
literally, someone on the margins of society: she lives up against or
perhaps in the wall of the city, which allows her to let the spies
escape through the city wall from her dwelling. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua
2:15).

A recurring theme of the Bible is that insight and inspiration often
come from the poor or powerless- in fact, much of the spiritual
leadership in Biblical narrative comes from those without formal
power, status, wealth or authority. For example, the haftarah for the
Torah portion Metzorah tells the story of four “metzorim,” or men
afflicted with ritual impurity, who are outside the gates of the city
and thus able to see things that the king and his advisers cannot.
(Cf. 2 Kings 7.) A third example might be the haftarah for the first
day of Rosh Hashana, in which Hanna, the childless woman, shows the
officiating priest the meaning of true prayer. (1 Samuel 1)

The story of Rachav contrasts the king of Jericho- sitting at the
center of the city, physically and politically- who can’t see the
truth nearly as clearly as the prostitute living right at the outer
wall. Taken together with the stories mentioned above, perhaps the
message is this: leaders must listen to the people on the edges of the
community- they may have something important to teach, something
visible only from the margins of power or status. As ancient sage Ben
Zoma taught: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” To
learn from all people requires both openness – to remember that the
harlot at the gate may be wiser than the king on the throne- and
humility, to accept wisdom where it may be found.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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B’ha’alotecha: New Garments

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

This week’s Torah portion and haftarah both speak of lighting the
lampstand in the ancient Temple (which is one of the links between the
two texts) and I have to say it’s an appealing image after a mostly
cloudy and dark week here in the Hudson Valley.

The Torah portion is B’ha’alotecha, which has many topics and laws,
but begins, as noted, with the commandment to Aharon, the HIgh Priest,
to light a seven-branched menorah [lamp] in the ancient Sanctuary. The
haftarah, from the book of Zecharia, lived at the end of the period of
the first Exile (about 538 BCE) and conveys a hopeful message to the
Israelites about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and a re-lighted menorah
in Jerusalem’s Temple. That’s also why this haftarah is read during
Hanukkah- so if after reading this commentary you have a craving for
jelly doughnuts, now you know why.

There’s another interesting set of images in the haftarah, concerning
the High Priest of the day, who the prophet sees as dressed in filthy
clothes, standing before the “Accusing Angel,” who is in turn rebuked
by an “angel of the Lord:”

“Now Joshua was clothed in filthy garments when he stood before the
angel. The latter spoke up and said to his attendants, ‘Take the
filthy garments off him!’ And he said to him, ‘See, I have removed
your guilt from you, and you shall be clothed in [priestly] robes.’ ”
(Zechariah 3:3-4)

One commentary suggests that Joshua, the High Priest, represents the
spirit of the nation in exile- that is, as I understand it, the
“filthy robes” are the condition of humiliation and alienation of a
defeated people. The “Accusing Angel,” then, is that natural human
tendency to say: because of their sins, they deserved their suffering,
and do not deserve redemption.

According to this reading, that harsh view of history is what is
rebuked by the “angel of the Lord.” The High Priest, representing the
people, is to be clothed in new garments- that is, given a new spirit,
a renewed confidence and sense of moral purpose. Note, please, that
the “angel of the Lord” doesn’t tell us why Joshua deserved his new
garments, but that’s the way of Divine hesed [lovingkindness]: it
forgives, takes back and reconciles without needing to answer all the
objections of “the Accuser”- that is, the impulse to keep account of
every misdeed and failing.

Sometimes it seems that the loudest voices representing “religion” are
those of strict judgment- self-appointed keepers of public morality
who claim to speak for God and never miss an opportunity to do so in
front of a microphone. The prophet Zechariah, however, gives us an
entirely different perspective: it’s the Accuser who is rebuked, while
the orientation of the Divine is seen in the “new garments,”
representing the redemptive act of disregarding previous failings in
order to renew covenantal relationship and lift up the people in love.
That, to me, is a truer message of prophetic religion, one applicable
to individuals and nations, in the past and in this very day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Great Things From Unexpected Places

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The good news is, we’re back, and this week’s haftarah is one the most
interesting of the year. The haftarah is from the book of Shoftim, or Judges,
chapter 13, and tells the story of the birth of Shimon, or Samson, the first
Biblical “superhero,” who has a miraculous birth and a life of amazing deeds of
strength, bravery, and some really puzzling decisions (which we’ll discuss
another day.) Our haftarah tells us that Shimshon’s birth was announced to his
parents by an angel, who gave them clear instructions that he was to be raised
as a “nazir,” that is, one who took a special oath of sacred dedication and
refrained from cutting his hair or drinking any sort of intoxicating beverage.
The status of nazir is a bit more complicated than I’m discussing here, but it’s
the clear link between our Torah portion, Naso, and our haftarah; the rules for
the nazirite are given in Bamidbar/Numbers 6, read this week.

The story of Shimshon and his parents is both funny and poignant, and told with great attention to detail. One such detail comes right at the beginning of the story:

“There was a certain man from Zorah, of the stock of Dan, whose name was Manoah
. . ” [Shoftim/ Judges 13:2]

The Bible often tells us about a character’s origins, both geographical and
genealogically; in this case, we learn that Manoach, Shimson’s father, is from a
small place of no particular distinction. In fact, what’s interesting about
Zorah is that the Bible itself tells us that it was first given to the tribe of
Judah (near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh), but then the tribe of Dan
settled there- i.e, Judah apparently didn’t fight over it! Eventually Dan lost
some of its territories, including Zorah, in war and moved north, to the edges
of the kingdom. (I’ll post a map and some references below.) In other words,
Shimson, the great hero, is born in a marginal town to an undistinguished family
of one of the smallest and weakest tribes of Israel.

As R. Hirsch puts it, this fact “could not be without significance.” As I see
it, just as the Torah portion, in teaching us the laws of the nazir, reminds us
that extraordinary spiritual dedication is not reserved for the hereditary
classes of priests and Levites, the haftarah reminds us that extraordinary
individuals can come from the most humble of circumstances. This, in turn, has
two powerful implications:

1) Great things can come from ordinary people who live in undistinguished
places. Therefore, treat everybody as if they were capable of extraordinary
deeds !

2) Great things can come from ordinary people who live in undistinguished
places. Therefore, there’s no excuse for not doing extraordinary deeds !

Not everybody will win great battles over the Philistines (even in the
contemporary sense) but the story of Shimshon reminds us that history is not the
exclusive domain of the elite. Encounters with the Divine can transform us
anywhere, any time, setting us on a new course, no matter where we were born or
how well-connected our parents were. You just never know where an angel might
show up to tell you something important!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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