Archive for March, 2010

Shabbat Hagadol: Beautiful and Humbling

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tzav / Shabbat Hagadol

In the portion Tzav, Aharon and his sons are given instructions for their duties as priest. prior to their dedication as priests, they have a seven day period of separation and preparation. Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Shabbat,” is the Shabbat just before Pesach; a special haftararah has the theme of future redemption.


It’s a few days before Pesach, and that means this Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, perhaps (or perhaps not) named for a phrase which occurs in the final line of the haftarah we read right before Pesach:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord!”  (Malachi 3:23)

The JPS translation above renders hagadol v’h’norah as “awesome” and “fearful” but other translations are plausible, since gadol can mean big or great and norah could mean amazing, humbling, or inspiring reverential awe.

Elijah the prophet is associated with the coming of messianic times, in the sense of a great healing of the world from evil and war; we put out a special cup for Elijah at the Seder in order to make clear that our reenactment of the past is really about hope for the future. That is, just as there was an “awesome and fearful” day in Egypt, when our ancestors left the House of Bondage, there will be an even greater day in the future, when the entire world will be free of chains and oppression.

Sounds great, but do remember, the day that is “great” is also “fearful.” In other words- don’t forget that change is hard! Even leaving Egypt wasn’t easy- getting used to a new life brought conflict, disorientation and negativity among the Israelites. Even the House of Bondage can be a “comfort zone” if that’s all you’ve ever known; leaving it will require changing oneself from the inside out, which is a tremendous challenge.

There’s a certain strain of religious thinking in America that minimizes the potential pain of spiritual growth – think of New Age books which promise only serenity, or the “prosperity gospel” which promises riches to the faithful. Life isn’t like that, and as the Seder itself teaches, there is often bitterness mixed with the joy, because – it bears repeating- change is hard. Matzah represents our liberation, but we eat it with maror, bitter herbs, because we must not pretend that redemption comes without cost. Think about it: leaving Egypt meant changing everything the Israelites ever knew, about themselves and others and even God.

Is our journey less challenging? We proceed, aware that the work of redemption is both great and awesome, beautiful and humbling, necessary and fearful. That’s what it means to have faith.

With best wishes for a warm and joyous Pesach,

Shabbat Shalom,


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Annotated Guide to Pesach Links

Hi Friends- if you’re looking for free and helpful tips on preparing for Pesach, leading a seder, asking different questions or keeping the kids engaged, here’s more links than you can shake a matzah at. These are provided with the thought that one might browse a bit and find something interesting- there’s no test after the seder, so no stressing out or anxiety is allowed!

First, if you’re wondering what’s kosher for Pesach, and what’s not, and what requires special certification, and what doesn’t, both the Rabbinical Assembly and the Orthodox Union have Pesach guides that are full of interesting information. The Rabbinical Assembly has changed some of its recommendations over the years, but the older guides can also be used.

Pesach cleaning can be a chore, so I appreciate Rabbi Aviner’s perspective on how to clean for Pesach in one day. I don’t always love his politics but I do think he gets to the heart of what really matters for Pesach.

If you’re looking for creative ideas for a seder, the mother of all Passover resource sites,, has haggadot, recipes, song files, audio files, ideas, suggestions, readings . . .it’s amazing and highly recommended and has resources for both kid and adult friendly sedarim.

A simplified haggadah with discussion questions was created by two very creative and distinguished Conservative rabbis, Harold Schulweis and Eddie Feinstein. Their haggadah is available as a word document- so you can personalize it and play with it- or a pdf. Even if you just take a few of the comments for discussion, it’s well worth a look, or a listen, since there are Seder mp3’s available on the same intro page.

Another group of scholars and teachers at the Shalom Hartman Institute has grouped all of their Pesach articles, teachings, lectures and resources on one page– this is a pluralistic center for Jewish studies in Jerusalem which hosts rabbis, academic, lay leaders and others for all kinds of great study programs. The Hartman Institute is also responsible for my favorite haggadah, A Different Night, which you can sample online here.

Of course, maybe you just want a general review of the history and practices of Passover- you’ll find that here, (at and creative ideas from a feminist perspective here, from On both sites, look for the links on the left of the page.

If you’d like to review how to lead the different sections of the seder, you can have lessons right in your home: has every major section of the haggadah available as a sound file to practice and review (as well as most of the siddur, too.)

Finally- in the year 5770, what else would you expect but the official Passover blog from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency? They’ve done a great job of putting interesting and eclectic articles on the blog, which has new entries every day.

As always, if you have any questions, comments or concerns about any aspect of the holiday, I’m just an visit, email, phone call, fax, text message, or facebook poke away!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayikra: Raise Up What You Already Have

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Vayikra

Vayikra, or Leviticus, is the third book of the Torah, and is largely but not exclusively concerned with the laws of the ancient priesthood. This week’s portion teaches about various korbanot, or offerings, including offerings brought for sin and atonement.

Dear Friends: Sorry for my inability to make it to your in-box last week, but I’m glad to be back with a short thought connecting this week’s Torah portion with the upcoming Pesach holiday, and then, in the email which follows, you’ll find an annotated guide to great internet Pesach resources.

Let’s start with the opening verses of our Torah portion:

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. . . .’ ” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

Our friend Rashi explains this verse in great detail, and notes that that the verse seems a bit redundant- if a person is presenting an offering of “cattle” [behemah], then why tell us he should choose it from the herd or flock? Isn’t it enough to simply say, presents an animal? No, explains our French friend, because behemah is a general term for animals and you might then think that a wild animal is also acceptable for an offering. Thus the Torah limits the category by saying, “herd or flock” so you know it means the animals that are close at hand, with no special or exotic requirements.

In other words, Rashi wants to stress that the ancient offerings were not an esoteric or exotic system but rather a matter of taking what was close at hand and raising it up. This, in turn, is very much my own conception of normative Judaism: while we certainly have some unique spiritual practices, like tallit and tefillin, for the most part Judaism challenges us to take what we have at hand- our eating, speaking, spending, working, dressing, giving- and raise it up to the level of mitzvah, or sacred act. Judaism has lots of practices, but in the end, it comes down to a pretty simple (but not easy) idea: love God and love others in all that you do.

This, in turn, brings us to Pesach, which has its rules and customs and laws and texts and practices, but is, in the end, a simple (but not easy) idea: that which we call God enables our liberation from servitude, and therefore we are conscious, grateful, and responsible for our freedom. The seder expresses this idea using the materials at hand: words, music, food, text, sounds, smells- it’s all commentary on the basic idea of liberation and joy.

Matzah may seem exotic, but it’s the simplest thing: flour and water, baked quickly. It is both the symbol and the actual experience of liberation because it represents simplicity- it IS simplicity. That is, if you can experience tremendous gratitude and joy at a meal of matzah (maybe even matzah with bitter herbs), then your joy depends on no external factor and you are liberated to choose your path of service.

Returning to our Torah portion, Moshe tells the people: “serve God- but don’t make this too complicated- just offer up what you already have.” That’s a message I think we need to take to heart the week before Pesach, when the core ideas of the day can get overtaken by commercialization, logistics, cooking, shopping, family dynamics, competitiveness, and preparations. If Pesach is about joy and liberation, it also means that we can resist becoming enslaved by religious, emotional and spiritual anxiety brought on by the holiday itself! Pesach is really so simple: put away the chametz, tell the story, eat the matzah and maror (which is just another way of telling the story), sing our joyful praises- the rest is all commentary (go and study.)

To be clear: I love the holiday in all its potential complexity. The email that follows this one is all about preparing the home, heart and brain for the Yom Tov- I just want us to do it in simplicity and joy, without fear, resisting commercialization, authentic to the story of the Jewish people and our own individual stories as Jews.

That, to me, is always a great and wonderful miracle!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Ki Tissa: Built by Heart

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa , Shmot/ Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Special Reading: Shabbat Parah

Ki Tissa continues the details of the building of the Mishkan, but then takes a dramatic turn as the Israelites build an idol, a golden calf, and Moshe has to go back up the mountain to plead for the people to be forgiven.

Good afternoon!

Things go a bit wonky for the Israelites in the Torah portion this week: upset by Moshe’s delay in coming down from Mt Sinai, they press Aharon into building an idol, which causes Moshe to smash the tablets of the law and starts a minor civil war.

Countless theories and interpretations have been offered as to why the Israelites built their golden calf, but it strikes me that the Torah itself is quite deliberate in contrasting the details of building the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary, with the building of the golden calf- with one crucially important detail stuck in-between the two narratives.

In the beginning of the portion, we get the laws of the incense for the Mishkan; after the laws of the structure itself and the priestly garments are given in previous portions, this is one of the final details of the project. Then, in chapter 31, we are told that Bezalel, a skilled craftsman, will be in charge of the building of the Miskhan and all its wooden, cloth, metal, and jeweled implements. As I read it, the episode of the golden calf is a kind of inversion or perversion of the idea of the Mishkan; rather than being built and used with great deliberation and discipline, it arises out of mob behavior, a group anxiety which grabs at quick actions rather than thoughtful practices.

Yet right in-between the commission of Bezalel and the mob pressing on Aharon to make them an idol, we have set of verses about Shabbat:

“Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall surely die. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Shmot 31:15-17)

The latter two verses are recited in the synagogue every Friday night, right before the Amidah, and are often sung as a preface to the Shabbat morning kiddush [prayer over wine.]

To me, these verses are a key conceptual link between the story of the Mishkan and the story of the golden calf, because it is Shabbat itself which keeps us from turning that which we build into an idol. Shabbat is about ceasing our building so that we can focus on being. It is about patience, quiet, reflection, community, prayer, reading, and relationships- with each other, the earth, and the Source of our being. Shabbat is a clearing away of the distractions so that the greater unity of life is perceived, which in turn allows for reflection on the labors of the previous six days.

Shabbat is the antidote to idols (though perhaps it can become one itself) because Shabbat reminds us that nothing we build is as important as humility and joy; that is, what is most important to build is not built by hand but by heart. True service in a sanctuary is not defined by the gold or silver used to build it, but by the hearts of those who draw close to God within it.

Shabbat Shalom,


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