Archive for October, 2009

Lech-Lecha: Shield of Avraham

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Good afternoon!  It’s a bit overcast in Poughkeepsie but it’s going to be a lovely weekend with our special guest from Hazon and the Green Team Shabbaton- do come if you can.

This week’s Torah portion is Lech-Lecha, which introduces us to
Avraham and Sarah, who are chosen to leave the east and travel west to an unknown destination:

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  . . ‘ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1)

Avraham and Sarah arrive in the land of Canaan, leave for Egypt, come back, and then get mixed up in a battle between local kingdoms. Eventually, God reappears in a vision and renews the promise to Avraham:

“Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying:

‘Fear not, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.’ ” (Bereshit 15:1)

This promise, that God will be a “shield” [magen] to Avraham, shows up in our daily prayers as part of the opening blessings of the Amidah, or standing prayer, in the section recalling the avot or ancestors:

“Blessed are You, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak and the God of Yaakov . . .  Blessed are You, Holy One, the shield of Avraham.”

Traditionally, mentioning the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in many congregations) at the opening of the Amidah is understood as approaching God in the merit of our ancestors. This is called z’chut avot- the idea is that we may not be worthy of an audience before the Holy One but we are descended from those who were.

The phrase “magen Avraham” is interesting, because if there’s anything the Torah spells out clearly, it’s that our ancestors had challenging and tumultuous lives- Avraham, after all, had many difficult conflicts over the course of his life, both within his family and with the surrounding peoples.

So if God’s promise to be a “shield” doesn’t mean protection from
conflict and difficulty, why recall that promise in our prayers? To
me, it’s worth noting that a shield is not only a defense from what’s
outside, it’s also something that keeps and protects what’s on the inside. Maybe the meaning of “shield” in this sense is not protection from life’s difficulties but the shielding and keeping of faith despite those inevitable challenges.

That is, the meaning of “magen Avraham” is not: the One Who kept suffering away from Avraham, but rather: the One who protected Avraham’s spiritual dedication over the course of challenging years. fter all, the very idea of “I am a shield to you” came to Avraham in a vision- maybe the vision itself was what needed shielding!

Read this way, “magen Avraham” is not the false promise of a life free from pain; it’s rather a deeper covenant, that we can find meaning, vision, purpose and faith despite life’s difficulties. Everything on the outside can change in a minute, but what’s on the inside can be kept by faith- this is truly a great promise, and one that sustains us today.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: The Rainbow Sign

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This week’s Torah study is in honor of my father, z’l, whose yahrzeit
was this week; he constantly appreciated the beauty, diversity and
complexity of nature.

Dear Friends:

This week, we read the Torah portion Noach, with its story of the
flood, the ark, the animals who came on by twosies-twosies, etc. (I
think y’all know that part.)

Less well known is what happens after the flood, when God promises
never again to bring such destruction on the earth, and says that the
rainbow will be the sign of a covenant with “all flesh” (not just
humans):

“I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the
covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the
earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant
between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that
the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ”
(Bereshit/ Genesis 9:13-15)

It makes sense that the rainbow would be a seen as a sign of God’s
covenant with all creation, because without such an assurance, one
could imagine some anxiety on the part of our earliest Biblical
ancestors every time it rained- “uh oh, is this Noach all over again?”
In fact, to this day, Judaism teaches that we should make a blessing
upon seeing rainbows:

“Blessed are You, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in sacred covenant, and
fulfills the Divine word.”

That is, every time we see a rainbow, we’re supposed to remember that
God is not going to bring another flood, but instead desires that all
Creation flourish and live.

Now- let’s be clear- your humble Torah commentator knows that rainbows
are caused by a refraction of the sunlight and are a natural
phenomenon not necessarily reflective (or refractive, as the case may
be) of a specific act of Divine intent. Yet having brachot- blessings-
over natural phenomena doesn’t mean we have to reject the laws of
nature; on the contrary, Judaism sees natural phenomena as
opportunities for wonder and gratitude. Heschel coined the phrase
“radical amazement” to describe that sense of overwhelming wonder at
the beauty and blessing of existence – thus, a rainbow can not only be
understood as the refraction of sunlight, but also experienced as the
bursting through to our consciousness of the extraordinary gift of
life and Being itself.

The Noah story is only incidentally about a big boat full of animals;
more importantly, it’s about recognizing that the world we live in is
not a scary place bound to be destroyed by a vengeful God, but is
rather full of blessing and grace- if we choose to see it, and if (big
if) we act accordingly. Seeing the rainbow reminds us that God has
(and will not) not brought the flood- but are we ourselves seeing the
fragile grace of creation and working to protect it?

God remembers the covenant with “all flesh,” but do we? The rainbow
sign turns out be a question mark.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Bereshit: Seeing Beauty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

This year, our theme will be looking for links between the weekly
Torah readings and Jewish liturgy: there are lots of connections
between the weekly readings and the daily, weekly and festival
prayers. We might not do this each and every week, but certainly this
week, when we start our yearly reading with Bereshit, the story of
creation, is a good week to start. Every single day, in the daily
prayers said on weekdays, Shabbat and festivals, we praise God for the
“work of creation,” bringing the very idea of creation into our daily
spiritual awakening.

More specifically, we praise God as the “creator of lights” and the
“one who renews daily the work of creation.” This happens before the
Shma- the affirmation of Divine Oneness- with the blessing of
gratitude for Torah between them.

Now, I can hear the questions already- OK, we know the Torah says that
God created the lights of the heavens and all that, but we find more
plausible the scientific story of creation: a Big Bang followed by the
expansion and cooling of the cosmos and eventual slow evolution of
life on Earth.

To me, there is no contradiction- none- between the creation narrative
of the Torah, its poetic rendering in our daily prayers, and
scientific understandings of how the world came to be. In fact, I
think the siddur gives us an opening to make a connection between an
understanding of cosmic unfolding and the spiritual awareness evoked
by prayer: by speaking of God as the One “Who daily renews the work of
creation,” we can see creation not as a single event, either a big
bang or “Let There Be Light,” but as a sacred process of life becoming
and renewing, a continual growth and development of Being on this
terribly beautiful planet. Creation happens not in seven days or seven
billion years but every day, as life on Earth interconnects and
unfolds; the Torah doesn’t teach us science but instead points us to
perceiving all of creation as infused with the Divine Presence.

When we praise God for daily making creation happen, we”re choosing
to orient ourselves towards perceiving the Divine in all that is- what
could be more beautiful than living in a world where the Sacred is
manifested in each leaf and bud?

That is the world Judaism opens to us, and invites us to see.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Simchat Torah: In Every Age a Joshua

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Moadim L’Simcha! [Happy Holidays!] We’re in the middle of what’s
turning out to be a blustery Sukkot, but we’re just a few days from
Simchat Torah, the holiday upon
which we end the yearly Torah reading cycle with D’varim [Deuteronomy]
and begin it immediately with Bereshit [Genesis.] Even synagogues that
use a three year or longer cycle for Torah readings go “back to the
beginning” on Simchat Torah; in so doing we show that Torah is not a
one-time event of ancient history, but a living document which we
reapply to our lives in new ways each year as we grow, mature and
change.

The haftarah, for Simchat Torah makes this point
in a different way, by showing us what happens after the Torah
completes its narrative with the Israelites on the far side of the
Jordan River, preparing to cross over. The haftarah picks up where
D’varim ends, with the opening verses of the book of Joshua. After
Joshua succeeded Moshe, he encouraged them to be courageous along the
way and warned them to be faithful to that which Moses taught them.
After all, the generation going into the Land had never known any
other leader but Moshe, and one can only imagine what a tremendous
change it was for them to move forward under Joshua.

As the scholar Michael Fishbane points out, in his commentary on the
prophetic readings, what happens at the beginning of the book of
Joshua is a move from direct revelation to a tradition of transmitted
teachings- that is, a shift in religious paradigms from one person
connecting to God on behalf of the people to a one in which learning
how to apply the tradition is the responsibility of every member of
the community. The transmission of leadership from Moshe to Joshua is
an opening for intellect, conscience, and reason to enter religious
discourse, values which are sorely needed in a world in which, then as
now, many religions find themselves torn between the timid faith of
their most progressive streams and the violent fundamentalism of the
most extreme adherents.

When Moshe gave the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he said: it’s up
to you to take the Israelites where I cannot go. By reading, on
Simchat Torah, the post-Torah story of how Joshua assumed leadership
of the people after Moshe, we reject a religion of personalities
rather than principles. We can have the tradition of Torah, and we can
have reason in applying it in each generation. We can be grounded in
the legacy of Sinai, and we can recognize that each age calls for new
leadership to apply Torah to its circumstances. We can be loyal to the
past and embrace the future with new vision. That balance is authentic
Judaism, and the real legacy of Moshe, our teacher.

with blessings for a joyous festival,

Rabbi Neal

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Sukkot: Hope Wisely

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Well, it’s almost Sukkot- the holiday of “booths” which follows hot on
the heels of Yom Kippur- and the events of the season feels familiar:
the rush to get everything done, the cloudy skies over the Hudson
Valley, the upcoming baseball playoffs – which, we hope, will end up
with a Red Sox- Yankees series.

Ah, yes, the haftarot of Sukkot, which speak of the eventual triumph
of good over evil in the days to come. (No connection to the MLB
post-season is officially implied.)

Sukkot, like Pesach, has two days of Yom Tov, or full festival days,
at the beginning of the week long observance; each of those days has a
special haftarah, and the two are very different. The haftarah for the
first day of Sukkot is a prophesy of messianic redemption, in which
all nations shall be brought to account but will eventually be united
in worship in Jerusalem on Sukkot itself:

“All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem
shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of
Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16)

The days of the messiah are imagined as days of both awesome and
terrible justice as well as the eventual spiritual unity of humankind-
a provocative yet hopeful imagining of the future.

The haftarah for the second day of Sukkot, however, is set in the
distant past, when King Shlomo [Solomon] constructed the Beit
HaMikdash, or Temple, in Jerusalem

“All the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast, in
the month of Ethanim — that is, the seventh month. When all the elders
of Israel had come, the priests lifted the Ark and carried up the Ark
of the Lord. . . ” (I Kings 8:2–4)

In the text above, “the Feast” refers to Sukkot, which was a time of
great communal pilgrimage and rejoicing. Shlomo goes on to recount how
his father, King David, intended to build the Temple, but it was given
to Shlomo to complete the task- thus fulfilling a promise made to God,
as God fulfilled the promises made to David and his descendants.

Both haftarot refer to events which happen on Sukkot- although the
messianic gathering of nations hasn’t happened yet, the connection to
the holiday is clear. Yet it’s interesting to note the order in which
we read these texts: we describe our hopes for a redeemed future
before we relate our connection to the Biblical past. One could
imagine the ancient sages putting the story of King Shlomo first, thus
establishing the idea of the Temple and its connection to Sukkot,
before the Zechariah text, which describes Sukkot as the temporal
symbol of our most universal hopes.

Hirsch suggests that we put the story of the past after the story of
the future, as it were, because while we might entertain great hopes
for the future redemption, we also have to be mindful of the mistakes
of the past. We know what happened after that great moment of unity in
King Shlomo’s day- the nation of Israel tore itself apart, fell to its
enemies, and suffered defeat and exile. So yes, we believe in
redemption, but we are not naive- in fact, our faith is not a matter
of naivete, but of determination: despite the contrast between the
story of King Shlomo and the tragedies which follow, we yet believe
that the uplifting of humankind is possible. It’s been a hard struggle
at times since the days of Shlomo, but we will nevertheless rejoice
and look to a brighter day ahead. Putting the two haftarot in this
order teaches us to hope wisely, to learn from history, to temper our
messianic fervor with the acknowledgment that our work is not yet
done.

With warmest wishes for a happy and healthy holiday,

RNJL

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