Archive for February, 2010

Shabbat Zachor: Sending Gifts

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tetzaveh

Shabbat Zachor

In Tetzaveh we learn laws of the priests and their service in the portable Sanctuary. Shabbat Zachor is right before Purim; we read a special Torah reading and haftarah reminding us of the dangerous nation of Amalek.

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Book of Esther, 9:20-22)

The quote above teaches us not only to observe Purim, but also two central practices of Purim observance: mishloach manot, or gifts of food, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. (Click the links to get further explanation of these mitzvot.)

I draw your attention to these practices- sending gifts- by way of reflecting on the reading for Shabbat Zachor, which begins with the remembrance of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites and continues with the prophet Samuel, in the haftarah, executing Amalek’s king, Agag, as part of Israel’s war against its enemy. These texts are connected to Purim through the figure of Haman, said to be descended from Agag; just as the Amalekites sought Israel’s destruction in its land, Haman seeks Israel’s destruction in exile.

The texts of Shabbat Zachor and even of Purim itself contain shocking violence and are thus a sobering reminder that our world is not always safe nor joyful. Some interpret these readings as reminders of the necessity for Jewish self-defense when Amalek returns; while I don’t disagree that self-defense is one theme of Shabbat Zachor and Purim, I also don’t think it’s the only significant teaching of these passages.

We read above that Mordecai instituted Purim as not a solemn memorial day, but of feasting and sending mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim, as explained above. To me, these practices- sending portions of food to our friends and family, and giving gifts to the poor- are also critical parts of the message. Precisely because the world can be cruel and unpredictable, our responses must not only be in kind, but also in kindness, creating compassionate communities. Compassionate communities, wherein the poor and lonely are remembered and sustained, will not in themselves stop an Amalek; but self-defense, in itself, will never heal us or the world from the scars that Amalek leaves. Perhaps Mordecai understood that after the people rose up against their enemies, the only way forward was to love each other more, and thus create the possibility that Amalek would be defeated in the realm of values, and not only in battle.

Shabbat Zachor calls us to remember what Amalek did to us, but Purim calls us to act in a way that defeats Amalek more completely: by acting out of our deepest vision of caring community, sustaining and gladdening each other, we show the world a different way of being, and this too is a triumph.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,


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Terumah: A House of Holiness

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah portion Terumah begins the third section of the book of Exodus, which is the instructions for and completion of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary.

Good morning!

This week we begin reading a difficult section of the book of Exodus; from the grand narrative of the escape from slavery and the drama of the revelation at Sinai we move to the slower-paced and greatly detailed description of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Yet one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah is found amidst the technical plans:

“They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.. . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 25:8)

In Hebrew, there’s an interesting and oft-commented-upon nuance: “in their midst,” from shachanti b’tocham, can be translated as literally “in them,” which turns the verse from a promise about what will happen if you build a sacred space in the middle of the camp to what will happen if you create a sacred space in the soul of each individual.

That’s a lovely interpretation and I commend you to study further the many sources and sermons built on it. Today, however, I want to go the other direction, back to the notion of a physical structure where we experience kedushah, or holiness. Our old friend Rashi (it’s been too long) interprets “they shall make Me a Sanctuary” as “they will make for My Name a house of holiness,” in Hebrew a bayit kedushah.

Now, this is interesting. Remember that the portable Sanctuary, or Mishkan, gets its name from the idea of the Divine Presence “dwelling” in the structure; Mishkan is derived from the word meaning “to dwell,” related to words like neighbor and neighborhood. Rashi, on the other hand, seems to imply that it’s not so much that God “dwells” in the sacred structure (since the Divine Presence is not more one place than another) but that we who enter it have a particular kind of experience there.

That is, we build a “house of holiness” because kedushah– holiness- is our experience of spiritual and ethical expansion and transformation. Much of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus conveys moral and religious practices which help us become a “holy people;” the key point is that it’s our decisions which make the difference. So as I read Rashi, he’s saying: the point is not that God inherently or objectively “dwells” in the Mishkan– or synagogue or shrine or anywhere else- but rather, it’s our responsibility to create places where we are open to our own potential for holiness. In this view, it’s not that the Presence is “in” the Mishkan, and therefore we are transformed, but the other way around: if we build holy places and enter them in humility and radical openness, we may experience the Presence as a result.

This, in turn, is why I wish American synagogues were not named “Temples,” because it’s not the place, but the congregation, that is the significant religious fact. The place reflects the hearts of those who pray there; without open hearts, a synagogue is just stone and mortar. The Presence depends on the people.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shekalim: Reparing the House

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Mishpatim.

Shabbat Shekalim.

The Torah portion Mishpatim is concerned with the laws of a fair and just society; we also have a special Shabbat, called Shekalim, which recalls the collection of money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple. More on Shabbat Shekalim here.

Good afternoon! Hope them’s that are digging out are dug out from the snowstorm, and if you’re not dug out, it’s a perfect time to learn a bit of Torah.

This week we read special passages, a concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah, for the occasion called Shabbat Shekalim, which recalls the collection of a half-shekel from each Israelite for the upkeep of the Temple. The announcement came a month or so before the tax was actually due, and that’s why we read these passages just before the Hebrew month of Adar.

The haftarah for Shekalim tells the story of King Yehoash, who came to the throne at a young age and then set up a system whereby the priests in the Temple would pay for the repair of the property out of a general donation fund. After a while, the king realized that the priests weren’t actually doing the repairs on the building as they should, so he ordered that the funds for the Temple and for the priests should be kept separate, so that they would not be tempted to keep more for their own sustenance and pay out less for the Temple maintenance. Yes, there is actually Biblical precedent for the idea of a synagogue Building Fund!

There’s another lesson here, related to our theme of prayer and what makes it happen (or not.) When the house of prayer is in disrepair- physically, financially, organizationally, or spiritually- somebody has to take the initiative to fix it. Synagogues don’t magically repair themselves, and those in charge may not see all the problems. In our Torah reading, every single Israelite gave a half-shekel for the ancient Temple, indicating that the responsibility for the house of prayer belonged to the entire community, not just the leadership class- which, as the haftarah points out, sometimes gets a little too comfortable with the status quo.

Shabbat Shekalim poses the question: who repairs the house of God? The answer is: while a few people may have specific duties, everybody has the responsibility, and no class of people is exempt from contributing. That, in turn, reminds us that our house of prayer is not truly built unless it is a house of prayer for all people, representing every part of our kehillah, or sacred community. When we collect spiritual gifts from every soul, our house is truly renewed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Yitro: Giving Permission

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Yitro : Shmot/Exodus 18:1-20:23

In Yitro, Moshe begins his leadership of a people in transition and brings them to Sinai, where they have a tremendous revelation of Torah.

Shalom Friends!

Here’s hoping those mid-Atlantic-seaboard readers are not going to be unduly stressed by the snow- something that is, at least on the East Coast, temporary. (Snow melts, after all, especially in Maryland, if childhood memories are accurate.)

Well, snow falls from the heavens to the earth but our haftarah this week has an image going the other direction. As the Torah portion, Yitro, tells the story of the revelation at Sinai, the haftarah tells the story of the prophet Yeshayahu [Isaiah] who was commissioned amidst a vision of the heavenly Throne:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple.  Seraphs stood in attendance on the Holy One. . Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other:

‘Holy, holy, holy!
The Lord of Hosts!
God’s presence fills all the earth! ” (Yeshayahu 6:1-3)

Many readers will recognize this phrase from the morning and afternoon prayers: it is a key phrase of the kedushah part of the Amidah [standing prayer], and is also quoted earlier in the morning liturgy, before the Shma. In that earlier section, Yeshayahu’s vision of the angels calling to each other is richly imagined as choruses of expansive praise, during which they:
. . . . ” accept from each other the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and give each other permission to to praise their Creator, with open spirit, pure speech and sacred song.” [Translation mine.]

Now, why would we describe the angels as encouraging each other before calling out to God as “holy, holy, holy?” What’s the point of imagining angelic religious sociology in the middle of our davenning? [Yiddish for praying the liturgy.]

To some, this passage may be a praise of the heavens but I think it’s all about what happens here on Earth- for aren’t we, the earthly community, the ones calling out “holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of God’s glory?” That is- the image of the angels is really about creating sacred communities among humans, who too often put each other down for being “too religious” rather than “giving permission” for each person to praise in their own pure song. To me, the image of the heavenly chorus is all about getting us to think about the real live people sitting in the seats of the sanctuary- how do we give or take away permission to pray deeply and authentically?

How do we- each of us in the synagogue- offer each other and accept from each other the spiritual orientation that Judaism calls “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven?” Are we humble enough to accept it from another, and are we generous enough to offer it?

These questions, to me, link the Torah portion- in which the Israelites receive Torah at Sinai- to our haftarah and our prayerbook, because ultimately Torah is only received among particular people in real communities. We can, if we wish, be like the angels in creating communities unafraid of spiritual vitality- communities in which we see the Divine Presence “filling the earth” precisely because we begin by seeing it in each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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