Archive for September, 2009

Shabbat Shuva/Yom Kippur: Questioning Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur

I hope, for them’s that were observing Rosh Hashanah, that your holiday was beautiful and joyful. We’re in the middle of the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur- these days
are known as the “ten days” or the “ten days of repentance” (The first
day of RH was day 1 of the ten days, which ends on YK itself) in which
we are enjoined to examine our actions and make amends or apologies
where necessary.

The haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a
“combo pack” of verses from the books of Hosea, MIcah and Joel (this
is the Ashkenazi tradition), which taken together proclaim a message
of repentance and forgiveness. There are- at least for those
communities that read the section from Joel- allusions to the
practices of shofar and fasting on the Days of Awe:

“Blow a horn in Zion,
Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly!
Gather the people,
Bid the congregation purify themselves. . . ” (Yoel/Joel 2:15-16)

The rest of the passage proclaims God’s faithfulness to the people
Israel and their eventual redemption. The theological message of the
haftarah for “Shabbat Shuva” (Sabbath of Returning/Repentance) is
pretty straightforward: if the people examine their ways, God will not
forsake them. This makes sense as a prelude to Yom Kippur: we declare
our fasting as a communal commitment to cheshbon nefesh –
“soul-accounting”- secure in the faith that if we return in integrity,
we will be accepted. Divine forgiveness becomes a model for human
behavior- for if God accepts and forgives, shall we not as individuals
do the same with each other?

So far- so good.

Now, fast forward a few days to Yom Kippur, to the famous haftarah
from Yeshayahu/Isaiah, which throws some cold water on our plans to
fast, pray, and be renewed:

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

In the passages preceding this rebuke, the prophet imagines the people
complaining to God that they’re fasting and doing everything right,
but God isn’t heeding their prayer. This is no surprise, because
(according to the prophet’s evocative images) they may be fasting and
praying and doing the rituals of repentance but they are also carrying
on as usual with strife, selfishness and greed. Yeshayahu thus chides
the people for thinking that fasting alone constitutes t’shuvah; they
may be fasting, but they are not growing in compassion and justice,
and thus missing the point.

To me, the contrast between these two haftarot is both striking and
profound: on Shabbat Shuva, this weekend, we’re called to proclaim the
fast day, but on Yom Kippur, the haftarah tells us that the fast day
itself might be part of our problem or even a sign of our hypocrisy,
especially if we grow arrogant about our piety while in denial about
our lovingkindness. The resolution, I think, is to see the two
haftarot hinting at a process: first we gather together, because if
doing the hard work of a fearless moral inventory seems overwhelming,
at least we can support each other in community and grasp on to the
liturgies and rituals of Yom Kippur to prod our introspection.

Then, when we’re in the middle of the process, Yeshayahu comes and
says: be careful not to confuse the outward sign of the t’shuvah
process with the real inner work. Don’t confuse the day, which is the
container, with the contents, which is humble acknowledgment of our
imperfections and a commitment to create more compassion in our lives
despite those imperfections.

Thus there is the instruction: “solemnize the fast day!” and the
bracing question: “is such the fast I desire?” One leads to the other,
and the prophet’s question, framed as God’s demand, is really the
question all of us need to ask ourselves.

With warmest wishes for an beautiful Yom Kippur,

RNJL

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Rosh Hashana: True Hearing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hashana

I’m reasonably certain that those readers of rabbineal-list who are
attending Rosh Hashanah services will hear lots of good Torah this
weekend, so we’ll keep it short for today’s email commentary. (If you
really loved some piece of Torah you heard, pass it along to me- after
all, I don’t get to hear other rabbis teaching on the Days of Awe.)

Back to our haftarah study: the haftarah for the first day of Rosh
Hashanah is the story of Hannah, who was unable to conceive with her
husband, and who took her broken heart into the priestly altar at
Shiloh. She prayed there with such emotion visible on her face that
the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. Hannah told
him that she was hardly drunk, but rather was pouring out her soul in
prayer- at which point Eli realized his mistake and turned his rebuke
into a blessing:

” ‘Then go in peace,’ said Eli, ‘and may the God of Israel grant you
what you have asked of Him.’ She answered, ‘You are most kind to your
handmaid’ So the woman left, and she ate, and was no longer
downcast.” (I Samuel 1:17-18)

It’s striking that Hannah is “no longer downcast” as she takes her
leave- even though her prayer, for a son, has not yet been granted,
and indeed there is no assurance, at this point in the story, that it
will be granted. The only thing she has at this point is Eli’s
recognition of her longings- and it was enough to lift her up from
despair.

This private moment between two strangers is a paradigm for building
kehillah, or sacred community: we cannot offer each other assurance
that our prayers will be answered from above, but we can indeed offer
the assurance that our prayers will be heard right here and now. We
can offer each other the gift of presence; of recognition; of some
relief, however short, from the loneliness of the ever-more-busy
modern world- and this recognition of each other’s humanity is a basic
function of religious community.

So wherever you’re going for Rosh Hashanah (or whichever spiritual
community you’re visiting or call home), do remember this: we all come
into the sanctuary with different burdens of heart, and so a warm
greeting, a kind word, or a friendly touch might mean more than all
the sermons and rituals put together. After all- Hannah wasn’t lifted
up by Eli’s priestly role, but by the human connection he offered to
her.

The Days of Awe can be a grand pageant; but right in the middle of the
pageantry, we read a story about the simplest and most meaningful of
human connections: hearing a prayer, seeing a broken heart. This is
where healing begins, and the blessings of the New Year start.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year,

RNJL

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Nitzavim: Garments of Righteousness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Friends, we have reached the end of our seven-week cycle of “haftarot
of consolation,” and indeed, we have gone from sitting on the floor,
in sackcloth and ashes (metaphorically if not physically) on Tisha
B’Av, a mere seven weeks ago, to the exultation of imminent redemption
as portrayed by the opening verse of our haftarah:

“I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
My whole being exults in my God.
For He has clothed me with garments of triumph,
Wrapped me in a robe of victory,
Like a bridegroom adorned with a turban,
Like a bride bedecked with her finery.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 61:10)

Notice how the image of garments is fourfold, in just one verse:

1) garments of triumph [bigdei yesha, literally “garments of salvation”],

2) robe of victory [me’il tzedakah, literally “robe of righteousness,”
but more on this in a moment]

3) a bridegroom adorned with a turban [ ke’khatan y’khahen p’er,
literally “like a groom, like a priest, glorious”- the Hebrew is tough
to translate]

4) a bride bedecked with her finery [ kha’kalah ta’adeh khale’ah-
again the Hebrew is hard but you get the idea.]

Hirsch picks up a the connection between “me’il tzedakah” and the most
famous “me’il,” the robe of the High Priest, and translates this
phrase as “in the priestly mantle of devotion to duty He has
enwrapped me.” That, in turn, is supported by the next line, wherein
the bridegroom is glorious, like a priest [y’khahen is like kohen,
priest]. The prophet seems to be suggesting that redemption is going
to convey the glory of the priesthood on all Israel, and the joy will
be like that of bride and groom.

These images of outer finery and glory are not only in contrast to the
torn garments of the mourner that we (metaphorically) wore at Tisha
B’Av, but also suggest an inner transformation. We have gone from
exiles to priests; that is, distant from the Divine Presence,
symbolized by distance from Jerusalem and the Temple, to being in
communion with the Sacred, symbolized by the act of priesthood, which
in Biblical terms is what connects Israel to God. A further analogy is
suggested between the priest- who connects the people to God, bringing
them to spiritual intimacy- and the bride and groom, another image of
bridging distance and creating relationship.

Perhaps a further implication of the “me’il tzedakah” is the
transformation of the priestly “me’il,” or robe, symbolizing the
ritual duties of the priest, to a moral state, of tzedek, righteous or
just behavior. That is, the journey from exile to communion is one in
which our very being comes to display the moral or spiritual qualities
associated with redemption, or the healing of disconnection and
alienation. The new garments are the way we are seen and experienced
in the world, that is, coming to manifest in our actions the
redemptive qualities for which we pray.

So we’ve come full circle: on Tisha B’Av we mourn that which we lost,
and seven weeks later, we celebrate that which we might become. This,
in turn, brings us to Rosh Hashanah, when we contemplate the context
of our lives and renew our deepest commitments. On Tisha B’Av, we
grieve the past; on Rosh Hashanah, we are called to the future, when
we can, like the exile putting on the priestly robes, become something
nobler, more compassionate, more befitting our true selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ki Tavo: Rise and Shine!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

I hope you are enjoying the last days of summer. This is the season when we notice the days getting shorter,
but the theme of radiant light begins (and ends) our haftarah for this
week:

“Arise, shine, for your light has dawned;
The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth,
And thick clouds the peoples;
But upon you the Lord will shine,
And His Presence [will] be seen over you.
And nations shall walk by your light,
Kings, by your shining radiance. (Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 60: 1- 3)

As in previous weeks, we’re in the realm of poetry and metaphor as we
read the seven “haftarot of consolation.” The prophet Yeshayahu
[Isaiah] is speaking to a people in exile, portrayed as darkness,
while the redemption, the return home, is portrayed as a time of
radiant light.

So far, so good, but what’s interesting about the passages above is
the portrayal of two kinds of light: “your light” and “The Presence of
the Lord” [Hebrew “kavod”] which will shine upon the people. The
nations of the world will walk by the light of the people Israel, but
Israel itself will be illumined by God’s Presence- at least, that’s
what it seems to be saying.

Given that light is a metaphor- the people are not physically going to
shine like Glo-Sticks – what does it mean that redemption- return from
exile- is a shining or radiance?

To answer that question, let’s refer to a midrash- or creative
interpretation of the Torah- from the Talmudic tractate Chagigah. The
question is posed: if God created the sun and stars on the fourth day
of creation, how can it say, “Let there be light” on the first day?
What was that first light of creation if there was no sun and stars?

The rabbis postulate that the first light was a kind of spiritual
illumination, which enabled people to see from one end of the world to
another. This light was then hidden away for the righteous of a future
time. That is, the first “light” of creation isn’t light at all, in
the sense of waves and energy, but is rather the spiritual insight or
perspective that enables us to see “from one end of the world to
another;” that is, the world in its unity and totality.

Getting back to our haftarah, “your light has dawned” could be
understood as saying: exile, as the paradigmatic suffering, could be
something that wounds your soul and turns the people bitter and cruel.
Letting our light shine after exile means: returning from a period of
suffering ready to lead in kindness and compassion.

After all, the first light of creation showed us the world “from one
end to another”- that is, from the Divine perspective, wherein so much
that divides humankind is revealed as small and insignificant. This
spiritual light- or, in English, what we might call “enlightenment”-
is saved for the righteous, but I see this as a description: the very
definition of righteousness would be the ability to return from exile
shining with compassion and positive faith!

This, then, is how I understand the idea of letting our light shine: I
won’t allow suffering to darken my soul, but instead will further
commit to serving the world in deeds and example. The light of the
Divine – the greater perspective which transcends the narcissism which
can sometimes comes out of painful experiences- is what changes me on
the inside; the light I share with others is how I change the world
through my acts of compassion and spiritual mindfulness. Arise and
shine- because our light comes from within and from a greater Source,
refracted through our hearts into a world which needs our glory.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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