Archive for July, 2009

Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu: Clearing a Path

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu

Now, back to the Torah readings. . . as we’ve been discussing, the
three weeks before the Ninth of Av [Tisha B’Av] are times of
introspection, with special haftarot of “rebuke” calling the people to

However, immediately after Tisha B’Av, the theme of the the hafatarot
switches from rebuke to comfort and consolation, and these readings
continue for 7 weeks, until Rosh Hashana. In fact, this week’s
haftarah gives this Shabbat its name: “Shabbat Nachamu” or the
“Shabbat of Comfort” (in the sense of console or encourage), taken
from the first verse of Yeshayahu, chapter 40:

“Comfort, oh comfort My people,
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her
That her term of service is over . . . .

A voice rings out:

‘Clear in the desert
A road for the Lord!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!’ ” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:1-3)

On the surface, it appears that the Yeshayahu is speaking in the name
of God, telling him (Yeshayahu) and others to “comfort My people,”
while in the next verses, he (the prophet) is telling the people
themselves to “clear in the desert a road for the Lord.” The “highway
for our God” (or “of our God”) seems to be a reference to returning
from exile: that is, the people in exile will return along a straight
road, right through the wilderness, with few obstacles.

So far, so good. Our friend Samson Raphael Hirsch- a great rabbi who
lived in Germany in the 1800’s- notices that in the first verse,
“comfort my people” is in the future (or imperative) tense, while “a
voice rings out” is in the present tense. (Tenses work differently in
Biblical Hebrew than in English, but let’s take this interpretation as
homily rather than linguistics.)

For Hirsch, “comfort my people” is a promise to be fully fulfilled
only in the future, when history is healed and humankind has overcome
its propensity for self-destruction. “Clear in the desert a road” is a
call, now, to us- we’re never going to get to the place where we can
console each other, in the future, if we don’t clear a path to God,
today. That road is not concrete (in both senses of the word) but an
inner path- we need to clear within ourselves the obstacles to
returning to God, and what sustains us along that difficult challenge
is the hope given by the first verse, that our efforts are not in
vain, that consolation for the pains of the past is promised.

Hirsch’s reading of these verses (which I have in turn paraphrased and
interpreted) is an encapsulation of the spiritual challenge of this
season: to slowly grow towards the Days of Awe by “clearing the path”
within ourselves, so that we can renew our sense of deep connection to
God, Torah and Israel on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s worth
noting hear that the word “halacha,” often mistranslated as “law” (in
the sense of “Jewish law”) comes from the word for “walk” or “go”-
Judaism itself is our path, our way of going forward in the world, our
“road to God.” Someday, our world will be fully healed, but to get
there, each one of us has to take small steps, today.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Devarim and Shabbat Hazon: Choosing Not to See

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim and Shabbat Hazon

This week there is no confusion about which Torah
portion goes with which haftarah: we’re starting the book of D’varim/
Deuteronomy, which always begins right before Tisha B’av, and is thus
always accompanied by the opening verses of Yeshayahu [Isaiah]. In
fact, since the book of Yeshayahu begins with the word “hazon,” or
“vision,” this Shabbat is often called “Shabbat Hazon,” after the

Before digging into the haftarah, let’s review where we are on the
Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, or the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,
is the saddest day of of the Jewish year, a day of penitential fasting
marking the destruction of Biblical Jerusalem- a disaster
traditionally understood as arising from the sins and disloyalty of
the Jewish people. For the past two weeks, we’ve read haftarot of
“rebuke” in line with this theme of cosmic moral accountability;
regardless of our personal theology regarding the relationship between
suffering and sin, we can agree that this period in the Jewish
calendar is one of cheshbon nefesh, or “soul-accounting,” and
acknowledging how far we are from our professed ideals, both
individually and communally.

Enter Yeshayahu, who explicitly links the looming overthrow of
Jerusalem with the hypocrisy and selfishness of the people; he
declares that the holiday and new moon offerings are rejected by God
because the people’s hands are “stained with crime.” (Is. 1:14-15)
Twice, the prophet mentions the people’s failure to protect widows and
orphans, two categories of people who would be marginalized in a
patriarchal society. More specifically, Yeshayahu castigates the
leaders not so much for oppressing widows and orphans (that is, the
powerless and marginalized) but for ignoring them:

“Your rulers are rogues
And cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents
And greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (1:23)

The Hebrew of the latter verse is clear: “the cause [or case] of the
widow never comes up to them” [lo yavo aleihem].

Now the prophet’s anger makes sense- it is one thing to condemn evil,
but far more common is apathy and willed ignorance. Criminals will
always be with us, and there will always be laws condemning them, but
what about those people who are simply “off the radar screen” of those
who could help? This is the more widespread offense: to choose not to
see, to be too busy to hear, to simply close one’s perceptions to the
cry of those in pain.

This, I believe, is the source of the prophetic sense of moral
outrage: a society where some are not seen, whose case is not heard,
is a society that cannot, by definition, be just or fair. In the week
before Tisha B’Av, when we are mourning the brokenness of the world,
we can ask ourselves: how can I heal that which I may not even see?
What causes are not coming before us as a community? What have I
dismissed through constricted vision?

When we choose to see what we’ve previously not, we give our hearts a
chance to be stirred- and that’s the moment things change.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Matot-Masei: Broken Cisterns, Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This week’s haftarah is a continuation, more or less, of last week’s;
we’re in the second of the “Three Weeks” before Tisha B’Av, the
mournful commemoration day, and the prophetic texts continue their
“rebuke” of the people. (See last week’s commentary, linked below, for
more context.)

This week, I just want to look at one beautiful verse from the haftarah:

“For My people have done a twofold wrong:
They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters,
And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,
Which cannot even hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

The contrast is stark: a “broken cistern” is compared to the “Fount”
(or spring) of “mayim hayyim,” or “living water.”

The Hebrew for “broken cisterns” is a bit ambiguous; Hirsch would
translate it as something like “empty pits,” but in either case the
contrast is clear: the Israelites who have strayed from the covenant
are like somebody who has only an empty pit where their water should
be, whereas had they stayed true to their God, they would be like
people who had a constant spring of living water, which in the most
basic sense means fresh or drinkable water, as opposed to brackish or
muddy water. However, pay close attention to the doubling of language:
“hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,” implies not just that the
people lack spiritual refreshment, but that their work has been flawed
from the start- they made “broken cisterns,” that is, wasted time and
energy on a misleading path.

This, too me, is a resonant image, because it suggests that any
spiritual or moral path or system that is not a “fountain of living
waters”- that is, a constant source of the deepest renewal- is a
“broken cistern,” or a waste of time. A cistern that leaks is no good
to us, and a spiritual path that doesn’t help us grow is a leak in our
lives! Too often, we chase after a feel-good spirituality which is
like candy: it’s great in the moment, but has no lasting effect. A
real “makor,” or wellspring, is something that lasts a lifetime,
calling us back and never running out of the capacity to renew and
inspire. A deep practice of study, prayer and conscious compassion is
just such a spiritual wellspring, and lucky for us, you can find such
a practice wherever an authentic Judaism is taught with love and
brought into open hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Pinchas: Priest and Prophet

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

We’ve just entered the “Three Weeks” between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the
9th of the month of Av; these three weeks are a sad and penitential
period, culminating in the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av], a memorial day of
fasting for the disasters of Jewish history.

As a way of evoking reflection in this semi-mourning period, the three
haftarot of the “Three Weeks” are prophetic texts which rebuke the
Israelites and call them to account for their misdeeds. This week’s
haftarah is from the book of Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah, and comprises the
opening passages of the book, in which the prophet receives his
commission to preach difficult words to his people.

Like Moshe, Yirmiyahu doesn’t feel qualified to speak as a prophet,
but is given two visions: the branch of an almond tree and a “steaming
pot,” to impress upon him the importance and meaning of his task.
(Jer. 1:11-14) The “steaming pot tipped away from the north” seems to
symbolize the trouble that will come from the north, in the form of
invading armies (that’s not the only interpretation, but we’ll leave
further discussion for another day), but why would the prophet be
given the vision of an almond branch?

Let’s see the verse in context:

” The Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me:

‘Herewith I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.’

The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I
replied: ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’

The Lord said to me:
‘You have seen right,
For I am watchful to bring My word to pass.’ ” (Jer 1:9-12)

In Hebrew, the almond is “shaked,” which seems to be a pun on the word
for “watchful” (shoked) in the following verse. So on the most basic
level, the vision of the almond branch (or rod) is a kind of visual
metaphor: the prophet sees the branch and is reassured that God will
be “watchful,” that is, reliable or trustworthy, to bring about
accountability to the people.

However, this wouldn’t be the first time the rod of an almond tree has
appeared as an important symbol: recall Bamidbar/Numbers 17, where
Aharon’s staff blossomed with almonds as a sign that God had picked
him to become the priest. Not only that, but the Jewish Study Bible (a
great resource- go get it!) has a note in which we learn that
archaeologists found a pomegranate-shaped cap to a staff with an
inscription which indicated that it belonged to priests or Levites,
serving in the Temple. So with that piece of evidence, and the story
from Numbers, we might assume that the vision of the almond staff is a
way of signifying priestly authority, which in turn makes sense
because Yirmiyahu himself was a priest.

So maybe the vision of the almond staff is a way of telling the
prophet that his role as priest can no longer be merely ritual, but
must also include the moral message of repentance and return. Hirsch
points out that the word for staff or rod, “makel,” connotes not only
authority but also a means of correction or punishment, as when Bilaam
took his rod to strike his donkey. (Bamidbar 22:27)

Here’s how I put these interpretations together: as a priest,
Yirmiyahu was used to bringing people into the Divine Presence with
rituals and offerings. As prophet, however, he need to bring people
close with words of rebuke and a larger moral vision. The prophecy of
the almond rod means: you have just as much authority with your words
as you would with your rituals, as long as your words come from a
spiritual vision such that their true purpose is bring people back to
their Source.

Seen this way, the almond branch is itself a symbol of the richness of
a religious journey, which at times is contemplative or celebratory,
connecting with God in the manner of our ancestors and bringing great
beauty and depth to our everyday experience. Yet sometimes
spirituality requires great introspection, a “chesbon nefesh,” or
soul-accounting, in which we are called to examine ourselves and our
deeds and get back on the path if we’ve strayed. Both are good, and
neither is the sole component of spiritual growth. The vision of the
almond rod conveys to the prophet that sometimes a priest has to be a
prophet- sometimes we need deep rituals and sometimes we need bracing
words to connect to our Source.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat-Balak: Two Kinds of Memories

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat/Balak

This week we have a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, and so we read the
hafarah for Balak, from the book of Micah. This collection of prophecies can be
a bit confusing, as it’s not exactly clear which historical events form the
context for the preaching, but for today, it’s enough to know that the basic
idea of the book is that God has sent troubles to Israel, in the form of
surrounding enemies, as recompense for their sins- but Israel will ultimately be
redeemed and restored. The part which forms this week’s haftarah specifically
mentions the king Balak, who, as related in this week’s Torah portion, hired
Bilaam to curse the Israelites and stop their advance. So Micah tells the people
to remember how God saved them from Balak, so they may again turn to God, and
this is the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah:

“My people,
Remember what Balak king of Moab
Plotted against you,
And how Balaam son of Beor
Responded to him.
[Recall your passage]
From Shittim to Gilgal–
And you will recognize
The gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5)

OK, so far, so good, even if the idea of “God will send enemies to punish
Israel” is a difficult and problematic concept- we’ll unpack that more another
day. Let’s turn instead to another interesting detail in the verse above: the
prophet’s exhortation that the people should remember all that God did for them
from “Shittim to Gilgal.” Astute subscribers will remember that we discussed
Gilgal just last week- it’s the place where the Israelites first camped after
arriving in the Land, and the place where Shaul was affirmed as the first king
of the united monarchy. However, Gilgal is also mentioned in later texts as a
place of sin and wickedness (see Hosea 4:15 and 9:15, for example, among other

Similarly, Shittim has both positive and not-so-positive historical associations
: in the book of Bamidbar [Numbers], it’s the place where Joshua was affirmed as
leader after Moshe, but it’s also the place where the Israelite men sinned with
Moabite women. (Cf Numbers 25-27.) It’s where Joshua sent spies out in the
beginning of the conquest of the land, as well. (Josh. 2)

So it’s not clear what Micah means when he tells the people to remember what God
did for them “from Shittim to Gilgal.” Does he mean that God sends leaders to
Israel, and Israel accepts them, as they did with Shaul at Gilgal and Joshua at
Shittim- thus implying that the people have a history of celebration and
blessing? Or does he mean that despite Israel’s sins at Gilgal and Shittim, God
will never forsake the people? To put it another way, are we supposed to
remember the good things that happened at these places- so that Israel will be
inspired to return to the spirit which prevailed at those times- or are we
supposed to remember the bad things that happened at these places, so Israel
will be chastened and humbled by Divine grace despite our noodnik behavior?

Well, as it turns out, great Torah commentators haven’t figured this one out
either. Hirsch, for his part, favors the latter interpretation- it’s about
Divine grace and patience in the face of Israel’s not-so-illustrious history.
Fishbane, however, in the Etz Hayim commentary, sees this geographical reference
as a “synopsis of place of divine beneficence,” citing the transformation of
Bilaam’s curse into a prayer and the people’s acceptance of Shaul as king. To be
fair, these interpretations are not contradictory- it’s a matter of emphasis.

Yet perhaps the prophet is being more subtle than first reading might suggest.
Maybe it’s precisely because both Gilgal and Shittim are places of complex
memory that they serve as shorthand for the richness and complexity of a deep
and long-standing relationship, whether it be between a people and its Source or
even on a much smaller scale, a community, family, or friends. In any long
relationship, there is love and there is disappointment; there is the memory of
celebration and the memory of tension, and so perhaps renewal requires a more
holistic introspection. Israel both celebrated and sinned at Shittim and Gilgal-
so to move forward into the future, Israel must remember its ideals and
commitments, to be called back to them, as well as remembering how the covenant
stood firm despite Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Seen this way, Shittim to Gilgal isn’t about two places, it’s about two kinds of
memories: memories that call us back to who we truly are, and memories of the
good that has been bestowed on us. Taken together, they lead to healing,
humility and forgiveness, and that’s truly hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,


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