Archive for December, 2009

Vayechi: Blessings Across Time

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Dear Friends- greetings from the Jersey shore, where we’ve temporarily relocated our Torah commentary production facilities during a few weeks of packing and moving. (All local, no worries.) My apologies for missing last week and I’m glad to be with you again.

This week’s Torah reading concludes the book of Bereshit [Genesis], along with the long narrative arcs of the story of Yaakov and his sons. Yet more than only wrapping up the stories of Yaakov, Yosef, and the rest of the brothers, the final portion of Bereshit concludes one of the largest themes of the entire book, which is: how shall brothers dwell together in peace, especially when they must share their father’s blessing?

If you’ll recall, brothers don’t fare so well in Bereshit: Cain and Abel, Noach’s sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, Yosef and his brothers- all stories of conflict. At the end of the story, however, we find Yaakov in Egypt, taking Yosef’s two sons as his own, offering them a blessing, but blessing the younger before the older- a setup for anger and blame, if the past is prelude.

First Yaakov blesses the boys out of his own personal history:

“The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm —
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” (Bereshit 48:16)

and then, a few verses later, blesses them with a wish for all future generations:

“So he blessed them on that day, saying, ‘With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manashe,’ ‘ and he placed Ephraim before Manashe. ” (48:20)

Verse 20, above, makes it directly into our contemporary practice just as the Torah spells out: to this day, when parents bless boys, they bless them that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. There are many, many explanations for why this is, but perhaps the simplest is that after generations of conflict over unequal blessings, Ephraim and Menashe seem content to live with each other, despite the inequities and imperfections of the world. Would that all our brothers and sisters (in both the literal and larger meanings of the words) would live peaceably with each other despite life not being fair all the time!

Yet verse 16 is also an important verse liturgically, showing up as part of the “bedtime Shma” [which is the Shma along with other verses and prayers said in bed right before sleeping] and is also recited in many traditions on Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat. To me, what’s interesting about verse 16 is Yaakov’s framing of his own story: that an angel redeemed him from all harm and should similarly protect his grandsons. Rashi says this specifically refers to the angel who appeared in chapter 31 but to me it seems more of a general reflection on his life’s journeys.

Of course, Yaakov’s life was one of struggle, toil and danger, and perhaps only in retrospect was he able to have a sense of redemption. He specifically wants Ephraim and Menashe to be the agents wherein he- Yaakov- along with Avraham and Yitzhak, will be remembered, yet one might imagine that he hopes that his grandson’s life will be a bit easier than his was.

To me, the practice of reciting verse 16 at moments of transition- from waking to sleep, from Shabbat to the work week- suggests that what we’re asking for is not only protection, per se, but a sense of perspective, a sense of life’s progress having great meaning despite the temporary struggles. We want to remember that just as we recall our ancestors, someday, God willing, someone will remember us; history will unfold through us to future generations.

That, to me, is how Yaakov was blessing the boys: to remember the story of their ancestors and derive strength from it. That in turn might cultivate an awareness that they too will be somebody’s ancestors- and how might we all live differently with a constant consciousness that future generations may someday recall our stories? Perhaps this is what is means to be like Ephraim and Menashe- to be rooted in history but oriented towards the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- you’ll find the Torah readings here and a guide to the practice of blessing one’s children here.

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Hanukkah: The Continual Miracle

Dear Friends:

It is a very rare occasion when I get so many inquiries about something in the popular press that I use my weekly Torah study to offer reaction, but this week I’m going to make a rare exception, for two reasons:

1) It’s about Hanukkah, and it’s still Hanukkah.

2) Hanukkah rarely has two Shabbatot, but this year it does, which means there is a special haftarah read for the occasion, which won’t be read again for many years (till 2026, if hebcal.com is to be believed.)

With that, let’s first start with the inquiries I’ve been getting, which can be largely paraphrased as “What the heck did you think of what David Brooks wrote about Hanukkah in the New York Times?”

Well, in brief, I thought it was great, but I’d better explain why. Brooks retells the story of Hanukkah by casting it as a paradigmatic tale of the ironies of history, in which we (American Jews) celebrate “good guys” (the Maccabees) who were really fanatics fighting a civil war against their assimilated, Westernized brethren. The Maccabees, seen this way, look an awful lot like the “bad guys” (i.e., religious fanatics) in the Middle East today, whom we wish would just assimilate some Western values and not be so fanatical, as it were.

So if Brooks makes a none-too-subtle comparison between the Maccabees and contemporary religious extremists, why would I think his column is great, and even more importantly, why celebrate Hanukkah at all?

I liked his column because, to me, a fundamental Jewish value is smashing idols, which are not so much hunks of wood and stone but rather dead and immobile and unreflective ways of thinking. I appreciate the efforts of an iconoclast because a bit of idol-smashing keeps us honest, and in truth, the notion that Jews are always on the side of right and good versus the evil oppressors who want to kill us is our own idol of victim status and moral self-satisfaction.

Please note: the Hanukkah story, like any other important story, can be told at different levels of complexity depending on the audience. I have no desire to ruin Hanukkah for young children, who deserve their Hasmonean heroes, but neither do I wish to tell children’s stories to grownups, who can, in fact, handle the truth, and probably prefer it.

Not only that, but understanding the history of Hanukkah actually helps me appreciate the transcendent element even more, and this brings us to the once-a-decade (or so) haftarah for the second Shabbat of Hanukkah, from the book of 1 Kings. It’s the story of how King Shlomo [Solomon] commissioned the first Temple, and hired a guy named Hiram to oversee the work and make the stone and metal vessels and structures. In fact, this haftarah isn’t much more than the report of a successful building project, with the mention of the gold lampstands being the obvious connection to Hanukkah.

What this haftarah does, however, is complete the implicit narrative of Hanukkah that the ancient rabbis tell with the Torah and haftarah readings, which details the dedication of the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary] under Moshe, the building of the First Temple by Shlomo, and the building of the Second Temple by the generation of Zechariah (as we discussed last week.) The Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple, which was destroyed a few generations later by the Romans, which started the next major era of Jewish history.

By linking the Mishkan, the First Temple, and two phases of Second Temple history, the rabbis tell a larger story of Hanukkah, the story of how in every generation Jews found a way to dedicate themselves to religious ideals in the face of difficult historical challenges. That story doesn’t end with the Romans destroying Second Temple; rather, it continues in the observance of Hanukkah itself, which is in its very practice a continuation of the story of Jewish dedication. To me, that larger story- of Jews in every generation somehow finding a way to make the light shine- is only deepened by knowing the complexities and ironies and problems of Jewish history. Somehow, despite our flawed heroes, in every generation we’ve built something holy. Somehow, with our faults and divisions and conflicts, we’ve lived as a unique people despite all odds. Somehow, in the face of tremendous social and political barriers, with no lack of miscalculation on the part of our leaders, we’ve managed to find enough spiritual fuel to keep going past all logical limits, far outliving the empires that once oppressed our ancestors.

That’s also the real story of Hanukkah, and it’s more than enough for me.

Hag Urim Sameach,

RNJL

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Hanukkah: Bringing Light

Good morning!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so let’s take a detour from our Torah readings for a Hanukkah thought or two.

Since we’re looking at the liturgical tradition this year, let’s see what the prayerbook has to say about Hanukkah. In the prayer which begins al ha’nissim, or “for the miracles,” which is a lengthy addition to the Amidah [standing prayer], we review the Hanukkah story, but with a decidedly theological perspective:

“. . . You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation . . . . ”  [translation taken from ou.org and full version here]

This version of the Hanukkah story has no little jar of oil, not much praise for the Maccabees, and pretty much says that the entire victory was a miracle from the Holy One. In this version of the story, Hanukkah is a remembrance of miracles that God did for us, and our response is thanks and praise.

That’s one perspective on the religious meaning of Hanukkah. Another perspective comes from the Torah portions we read every day of the holiday, taken from Bamidbar/ Numbers, chapter 7. This is the story of the dedication of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, in the days of Moshe, and what makes this story unusual is its repetition of the accounting of each gift that each prince brought on behalf of each tribe of Israel. The gifts were all equal, and the Torah goes out of its way to list each one separately, even though we can see that each prince brought the same set of dedication presents on behalf of his tribe.

To me, there’s an interesting tension between al ha’nissim and the Torah readings: the text from the siddur is all about what God did for us, and the text from the Torah is all about what we bring to God. I see the meaning of Hanukkah as the creative space between two basic religious orientations: the first being awareness and gratitude for wondrous things in our world, and the second being our response to that wonder, which is a bringing of the self into constantly increasing mindfulness of our obligations towards others and the world. To put it another way, if Hanukkah was only about remembering the military victory of our ancestors, it might be important, but it wouldn’t be a sacred practice; if it were only about gratitude for miracles, it would teach a spiritual and moral passivity that is the very opposite of the qualities we admire in the Maccabees.

Hence, the symbol of light, which is something we create, and yet reflects back to us the possibility of a transcendent experience. We bring the Hanukkah lights, and yet, like the gifts for the Mishkan, they point us to something beyond mundane concerns, an aspect of the Sacred which we can draw upon as we rededicate not a place, but ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Hanukkah,

RNJL

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Vayishlach: The Blessing of Enough

Shalom and salutations to one and all. I hope everybody reading this has a measure of serenity as North America goes into the month-long frenzy known as December- as for me, it’s a month will little commercial radio but other than that life goes on in the world of weekly Torah commentaries.

A few weeks ago , we explored the connection between Avraham’s blessing and birkat hamazon, or the blessing after a meal. The key phrase for the portion Chayei Sarah was bakol, that just as Avraham was blessed “in everything,” so should we be blessed. Fast forward in the Torah to this week’s portion, Vayishlach, and once again, we find that our patriarch, in this case Yaakov, is blessed with kol:

“But Yaakov said, ‘No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.  Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 33:10-11)

What JPS translates as “plenty” is our word kol, literally “all things” or “everything.” The context of the passage above is the reconciliation between Yaakov and his brother Esav; Yaakov, guilty of stealing his brother’s blessing from their father many years earlier, urges his brother to accept gifts of animals as a token of Yaakov’s humility and contrition. Esav is initially reluctant:

“Esav said, ‘I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.’ ” (Ibid, verse 9)

Notice that Esav says he has “enough.” The actual word is rav, which means “a lot” or “plenty,” and in fact, our friend Rashi understands it this way, unlike the JPS translation above. Following Rashi, Esav’s demurral of Yaakov’s gifts is because he has “plenty,” which may be a boastful way of saying “I don’t need what you have to offer,” whereupon Yaakov urges him to accept, saying (again according to Rashi) “I have everything [that I need].” Yaakov, in this reading, knows he has “everything,” in the sense of the necessities, and therefore has enough to share in order to make amends to his brother.

Let’s return to our passage in birkat hamazon, the blessing after the meal:

“Just as God blessed our ancestors Avraham Yitzhak and Yaakov, ‘in all things,’ ‘by all things,’ with ‘all things,’ so may we all be blessed together with a complete blessing.”

Now we see that one way to understand Yaakov’s blessing of kol, or “all things,” is not so much about quantity but attitude. In Rashi’s reading, Esav may have had more wealth than Yaakov, but Yaakov felt that he had “everything” that he needed, and was thus able to part with riches in the service of his moral and spiritual goals. So in asking to be blessed like Yaakov, “with all things,” we’re not asking for more stuff, we’re asking for the capacity to know we have enough. We’re not asking for a material blessing, but for perspective on our material blessings- and that in itself is both priceless and sacred.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- see the links in the previous drasha on this topic for comparison, and go to Hebcal for the text of the Torah portion and haftarah.

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