Archive for January, 2010

Beshallach: Daily Liberation

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Beshallach: Shmot/ Exodus 13:17-17:16

In Beshallach, the Israelites cross the Sea to safety, but after celebrating redemption, grumbling and dissension sets in. Amalek attacks the stragglers and the journey to Sinai begins.

Good afternoon! This week we have one of the clearest and most famous connections between the Torah and the siddur [prayerbook], in a quote from the Song of the Sea, which Moshe sings on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds after cruel Pharaoh’s army is destroyed while chasing the Israelites:

“Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!”  (Shmot 15:11)

Even those who go to synagogue only occasionally may remember these verses, recited after the Shma [declaration of Divine Unity} and before the Amidah [standing prayer] every morning and every evening:

Mi chamocha b’elim Adonai?
Mi chamocha, nedar b’kodesh . . . .

This quote is attached to a blessing which calls God the “redeemer” of Israel, and which not only recalls the great redemption from Egypt but also call for a new redemption:

“Rock of Israel! Arise to Israel’s aid! Remember Yehudah and Israel as You have promised, One Who redeems us. . . ”

It’s perfectly obvious from the siddur, or the Passover seder, or our holiday liturgies that the Exodus from Egypt is seen not only as the paradigmatic redemption but also one that prefigures an even greater miracle in the future- we recall the Exodus not to be nostalgic but as an act of radical (I might even say audacious) hope. Yet the grammar of the prayerbook is interesting: it calls God “redeemer” not only in the past tense, but in the present tense [go’alenu] as if the Exodus is happening right now.

Which, of course, it is.

We sing a piece of the Song of the Sea (and in many congregations, the whole thing) every day because every day, within each of us, redemption from Pharaoh is an ongoing possibility. Pharaoh wasn’t just a wicked king way back when- Pharaoh represents that aspect of human nature which treats others as mere means to self-centered ends, which sees humans only in terms of power, control, economics and institutional imperatives, rather than spiritual beings, manifestations of the Divine Image. The very job of Judaism is to overcome Pharaoh every day when we meet each other in right relationship, characterized by the fundamental attributes of hesed [loving-kindness] and tzedek [justice].

So it makes sense to recall the Song of the Sea every day, because every day is a potential liberation from the inner Pharaoh. Yet- to invoke Paul Harvey- don’t forget the rest of the story: after the joy of the miracle came the hard path of making a community and starting across the wilderness. That’s why we remember the Exodus twice daily: because we constantly have to do the work of leading ourselves away from Pharaoh, and towards Sinai, and every day we sing for joy in the opportunity to do so.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bo: A Strong Arm

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Bo: Shmot/ Exodus 10:1-13:16

In the portion Bo, Moshe continues to confront Pharaoh with plagues. Laws of Passover are given and the people prepare to depart.

Hello one and all! This week, in the Torah portion Bo, the Israelites are about to leave slavery in Egypt, but before they go, they are given laws so that they will remember the Exodus in future generations. Among those laws is the commandment to put on tefillin, or “prayer-boxes,” on one’s arm and head:

“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead — in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.”  (Shmot 13:9)

“And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’ ” (13:14)

As some readers may know, it is a mitzvah to put on tefillin daily during the week (not Shabbat or festivals.) The tefillin contain passages from the Torah which speak directly of this mitzvah, but these passages, four in total, also speak of the Unity of Divinity, the centrality of Torah, and remembering the Exodus. Note how the passages above specifically use the image of the “strong arm” or “mighty hand” for a mitzvah which ends up being bound, literally, to our arms.

The symbolism is unmistakable: just as we were liberated from slavery by a “strong arm,” so too should our own arms be devoted to equally sacred purposes. Of course, “a mighty hand” is never meant to be taken literally, but rather as a metaphor for how the Divine operates within the human heart to break bonds of servitude and bring forth freedom and justice. Ultimately, anthropomorphic language in our sacred texts isn’t really about God, it’s about us- it challenges us to embody the Divine qualities relayed in the metaphors and poetry. Thus, in putting on the tefillin, we become- if we choose- the strong hand of God in bringing forth redemption and mercy.

We all choose our own path of sacred service, becoming the hands of the Holy One according to our unique strengths and talents. How we serve is a matter of individual reflection; that we serve is imperative, should we wish to be fully human, embracing our capacity to do the work of God.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- American Jewish World Service is doing work on the ground in Haiti. If you haven’t done all your giving to Haiti disaster relief, please consider AJWS along with other worthy organizations- and give now, and give generously.

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Vaera: Faith and Justice

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Vaera ; Shmot/ Exodus 6:2 – 9:35.

Vaera tells of the first plagues in Egypt, but Pharaoh does not relent.

Greetings from my childhood state of Maryland, where I’ve just concluded  a rabbinic retreat, with learning and reflection on the practice of prayer and the meaning of liturgy- which is a great thing since that’s our theme for this year’s Torah  studies. In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, there’s plenty of prayer on the part of both Moshe and Pharaoh, but the connection to the siddur [prayerbook], is a little more obscure- but it’s  there all right, in both the morning and evening liturgies.

In both the morning [shacharit] and evening [ma’ariv] services, after the recitation of Shma [declaration of Divine unity], there is a paragraph of praise, in which God is extolled for defeating our enemies and bringing Israel to salvation. This paragraph precedes a direct quote from the song at the Sea of Reeds- we’ll get to that in future weeks. For this week, it’s enough to notice some uncomfortable language in our praises:

” . . . . vindicating us with miracles before Pharaoh, with signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt. God smote, in wrath, Egypt’s firstborn, brought Israel to lasting freedom and led them through divided waters as their pursuers sank in the sea. . . . ” (from Siddur Sim Shalom.)

The wording above is from the ma’ariv service but the phrasing in the morning is comparable in theme. Viewed through the lens of a simple theology of God working in history, on our side and against the enemies of Israel, the praises above are clear enough. From another perspective, the words are troubling, for they seem to have a triumphalist tone, celebrating the downfall of an enemy rather than regarding all suffering as tragic. That  is the sensibility of our Passover tradition of taking drops of wine out of the cup in acknowledgment of the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues; one might imagine that the siddur would similarly temper its praise when terrible retributions are mentioned.

Personally, I can’t connect the work of prayer- which is necessarily both a humbling and expansion of the self towards greater compassion- with praises to God for wreaking vengeance on our enemies. So maybe the mention of the “signs and wonders” after the Shma can be understood as a particular image of a general principle: that the God of Israel is found on the side of those who struggle against oppression, with those who suffer and not with their tormentors. From God-consciousness, or faith, arises a sense of moral accountability beyond that which is immediately apparent, and it is that larger moral vision which is the object of our praise.

In other words- I’m not praising God for plagues in Egypt, as such. Leaving aside questions of historical veracity, the mention of the plagues, is, for me, a reminder that faith in God means faith that justice will eventually triumph, even if- to paraphrase Dr. King- the arc of  history takes a long time to bend in that direction. Not only that, but remembering this in my prayer makes it about my own accountability rather than another’s, and in this way, the very act of praying pushes me towards participation in acts of justice rather than acquiescence to Pharaoh. Rather than triumphalism, recalling the Exodus celebrates our experience of God as Liberator, and reminds us each day to make the Exodus real again for all who cry out.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shmot: Recalling the Ancestors

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

This week’s Torah portion: Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Greetings from snowy Poughkeepsie!

This week we read the famous story of the “burning bush,” where God appeared to Moshe and commissioned him to confront Pharaoh with the demand for freedom. As Nechama Leibowitz points out , Moshe demurs several times, protesting that he is unworthy of this great responsibility. (See the second link for the relevant verses and her learned perspective on this question.)

Among the answers Moshe receives to his protestations is a phrase which will be familiar to those with at least a little experience of traditional Jewish liturgy:

“And God said further to Moshe, ‘Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you . . . ‘ ” (Shmot 3:15, and cf. verse 6.)

This phrase, “God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov,” is quoted daily in the opening paragraph of the Amidah, or standing prayer, a core part of the daily and holiday liturgy. In fact, the Amidah is so basic to Jewish spiritual practice that in classic rabbinic commentaries it’s just called tefillah, or prayer. This, in turn, raises the question: why would God’s answer to Moshe, when Moshe was trying to wriggle out of his appointed tasks, be something that we’d turn around and use as our pathway to prayer itself?

As I see it, Moshe’s sense of unworthiness at the moment of theophany [revelation of Divine Presence] is not unique but paradigmatic. That is, we are to learn that if even Moshe was utterly humbled and discomfited by a deep spiritual experience then surely we too may have those feelings without shame or guilt- it’s a normal part of spiritual growth. Note, however, that this idea is actually contained in the words that were spoken to Moshe- God is identified as the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and this is not only reminds Moshe that he is a Hebrew and thus connected to the fate of his people, but also reassures him that just as the ancestors, each with their unique personalities and imperfections, could nevertheless have a relationship to the Divine, so could Moshe.

That is- when Moshe protests “who am I that I should to to Pharaoh?,” the answer is: you are you, just as Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov were themselves, each with their own faith but also their flaws and blind spots, which did not keep them from their spiritual destinies. In turn, when we, in our own prayer, praise God as the God of our ancestors, we are recalling not just the three patriarchs (and in many versions of the Amidah, the four matriarchs as well) but also Moshe, who was overwhelmed and frightened and humbled and confused, but who went forward from the bush, one step at a time, to achieve great things. That’s the key point, to me: we recall our ancestors not so that we will be exactly like them, but to be reminded that flawed people can nevertheless hear the call of the Divine and be transformed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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