Archive for August, 2009

Ki Tetzei: The Impermanence of Sorrow

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This week’s haftarah is both beautiful and disturbing: beautiful,
because the poetry is evocative and hopeful, and disturbing, because
the metaphors can be jarring and hard to fit with a contemporary
sensibility.

To wit, the dominant theme of this week’s haftarah, from Isaiah 54, is
a comparison of the people Israel, soon to be redeemed from exile, to
a woman who is “shamed” but soon to joyful. This “shame” (e.g., loss
of status) is either inability to bear children, widowhood or
abandonment; the image of Israel as a bereaved woman stays constant
throughout the text but the source of the sorrow shifts as the passage
progresses.

It’s a difficult image to digest, but what makes it harder is the
extension of the metaphor to include God’s role in the exile; that is,
if Israel is the abandoned wife, and redemption from exile is like the
reconciliation between spouses, then God, as it were, is like the
husband who rebukes or spurns his wife but then takes her back. This,
in turn, raises all kinds of questions about theodicy, or God’s
justice: how can we be grateful to God for bringing the people back
from exile if He [following the metaphor from the haftarah] was the
one who put us there in the first place?

Lest you think I’m reading too much into the poetry, consider these verses:

“For a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In slight anger, for a moment,
I hid My face from you;
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love” (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 54:7-8)

OK, what do we do with this? I am unwilling to articulate a theology
in which suffering is due to sin, either for persons or communities;
doing so not only posits that inflicting suffering is a choice God
makes, but relieves (in this case) the Babylonian empire from moral
responsibility for how it treated other, weaker nations. However, if I
can’t read the haftarah as an explanation of history, I can still
understand it as a poetic rendering of the experience of exile. That
is, rather than being prescriptive (don’t sin or God will banish you
from home), we can read it as descriptive: exile (or other suffering)
is so terrible it feels like even God has abandoned us.

This makes sense to me, and brings the images in the haftarah closer
to our experience: who among us has not experienced frustration,
anger, and even a sense of profound spiritual loneliness during
moments of grief or pain? Even the faithful have moments of doubt and
darkness- it is a natural part of the spiritual journey, rendered here
in images of bereavement and loss, soon to be transformed. The promise
of Isaiah is that these feelings don’t have to be permanent; there is
healing from sorrow, and thus hope endures where love is remembered.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Rising from the Dust

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

We’re continuing with our discussion of the seven haftarot of
consolation (see previous messages), and we’re up to number 4 with the
haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. All of these readings
are taken from the book of Isaiah; in these chapters the prophet
addresses a personified Jerusalem, telling the city to awake and
arise:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck . . . (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 52:1-2)

Astute readers of the Hebrew and even the English may note that
phrases from these verses are quoted in “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn for
bringing in Shabbat. In context, the idea that Zion, or Jerusalem,
arises or shakes off the dust is clearly a metaphor for the Jewish
people regaining hope and dignity as their redemption approaches.

The phrase “arise, shake of the dust” [hitna’ari, m’afar kumi], is
interesting not only for the image of a people “arising” from a
degraded state but also because the word for “shake off” has a root
similar to that of “youth,” or “na’ar.” Thus Hirsch says that “when
Israel attains her goal she arises in youthful beauty,” which itself
is a metaphor not for physical beauty but the moral beauty of youthful
passion and idealism.

Along these lines, a homiletic interpretation of “hitna’ari” could be
“make yourself youthful again,” and perhaps the prophet himself
intended this doubled meaning, given the homonyms. If so, “shaking of
the dust” could be understood as shedding our cynicism and fear, and
renewing our ability to hope and thus work towards a better and
brighter world. Please note: I am not saying that young people are
never cynical, nor that older people lack hope; rather, I’m
interpreting these verses as poetic images, in which the process of
redemption is compared to regaining the passion and hope and idealism
commonly associated with youth.

In this reading, what we “shake off” is not dust on the outside, but
attitudes from the inside. An inner transformation is the beginning of
redemption; or, to put it another way, we can’t bring about what we
don’t dare to dream.

with best wishes for a good month of Elul and a peaceful rest of the summer,

RNJL

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Re’eh: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re continuing our stroll through the latter half of the book of
Yeshayahu, or Isaiah, from which the seven “haftarot of consolation”
are taken, read at this season leading up to Rosh Hashana.

Themes in the haftarah this week include God’s role as creator and the
eternal nature of the Davidic kingship, as well as the putative
tension between our spiritual needs and our material needs:

“Ho, all who are thirsty,
Come for water,
Even if you have no money;
Come, buy food and eat:
Buy food without money,
Wine and milk without cost.

Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
Your earnings for what does not satisfy?

Give heed to Me,
And you shall eat choice food
And enjoy the richest viands.

Incline your ear and come to Me;
Hearken, and you shall be revived.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 55:1-3)

These verses are among those which demonstrate the silliness of the
claim to take the Bible “literally,” given that the plain meaning of
these verses is, most likely, best understood as metaphor: the people
are hungering for spiritual instruction, for hope and faith, but are
misled (or misfed, as it were) by the idolatry and materialism
surrounding them. To be fair- one could interpret these verses as
promising material abundance to the people upon their redemption, but
I don’t think that’s the simplest way to understand the passage in
context.

Rather, I think “spending money for what is not bread” means both
literally spending money and also spending our time and energy. We all
hunger for purpose, meaning, love, depth, aliveness, vitality- if
these are not nurtured in positive ways, then we tend to do things to
satisfy our longings but which prove illusory. “Bread” in this context
means a true nourishment- not just of the body but of the soul.
(Apologies to those on the Atkins diet.) It wasn’t the Rolling Stones
who pointed out that human beings have a hard time getting
satisfaction- our great spiritual traditions have long taught that the
path to fulfillment can never be pleasure for its own sake, or
material goods in themselves, or the magical thinking of flimsy
religion. Rather, fulfillment- or enlightenment, if you prefer- can
only come from being called to a greater purpose, which in our passage
is understood as hearing the voice of the Divine.

In this reading, there is no inherent tension between satisfying one’s
body and satisfying one’s soul. This is not about asceticism – it’s
about putting our needs in context, and realizing that our need for
purpose is what gives ultimate meaning – even pleasure- to our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ekev: Look to the Rock You Were Hewn From

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

Our haftarah this week is the second of the seven haftarot of
consolation, all taken from Isaiah, which we read between the sad day
of the ninth of Av and Rosh Hashanah. The theme of “consolation” seems
especially appropriate here in San Diego, where I’m visiting family
and yesterday took my niece to see the Braves stomp all over the
hapless Padres, who have the second-worst winning percentage in the
National League. Consolation, indeed. . . . . .

But I digress. Back to this week’s haftarah, which begins with a
lament that God has forsaken and abandoned Israel, the haftarah
proceeds with a series of rhetorical questions and flourishes, all
leading up to the idea that God has not forgotten the people, and
indeed, will redeem them from suffering.

Towards the end of the reading, at the beginning of Yeshayahu/Isaiah
51, the prophet calls out to the people who are still hoping or
yearning for justice, even in their harsh conditions of history:

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice,
You who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him,
But I blessed him and made him many. (Is. 51:1-2)

It’s a bit hard to tell from the translation, but there is a subtle
aspect of the Hebrew phrases “rodfei tzedek,” or “pursuers of
justice,” and “mevakshei Adonai,” or “seekers of God.” As Hirsch
points out, the words “pursue” and “seek” are in the noun form, not
the verb form; as he sees it, there are people for whom the pursuit of
justice and the seeking of the Divine are who they are, in their
essence, not just something they do. This to me speaks of a deep truth
about Judaism: it’s not just about changing what we do, it’s
ultimately about changing who we are, so that what we do flows from a
sense of profound connection to God, to humankind, and the world
itself.

However, even those people- the pursuers of justice and the seekers of
the Divine- can become discouraged in hard times. Justice often seems
so far away, and as soon as progress is made, it often turns out to be
a fleeting victory. So the prophet says to these forward-oriented
people: you can find your hope not only in your vision of the future,
but from your history, as well.

After all, who ever had more faith than Avraham and Sarah? Avraham
left his home, as a seeker of God, and argued with the Holy One at
Sodom, as a pursuer of justice. (Cf. Bereshit 18) Sarah, for her part,
bore Yitzhak [Isaac} when she was already an old woman; I understand
this story not as the history of a biologically improbable event, but
as a tremendous metaphor for the refusal to give up hope in the
renewal of life. Sarah was every bit as much a person of faith, of new
hope, of new life, as Avraham was, and when we remember how Avraham
was a “rock,” that is, one who stood by principles of fairness- even
for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah – we can find new hope in the
capacity of humans for faith, hope, and justice.

yours from sunny San Diego,

Rabbi Neal

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