Archive for May, 2010

Beha’alotcha: Torah In Front

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Beha’alotcha has the Israelites preparing to leave Sinai. There are instructions for how to break camp, carry the Mishkan, and travel in formation, but as soon as the Israelites go into the wilderness, complaining and rebellion begin. At the conclusion of the portion, Moshe has a sibling conflict with Aharon and Miriam, for which Miriam is punished.

Greetings! I’ve been at the Rabbinical Assembly conference in New York, where there was much light (and some heat), appropriate for the week of Torah portion Beha’alotcha, which begins with the commandment to Aharon to light a lamp in the Mishkan or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan also contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was usually carried along with the other implements of the Mishkan by various families of Levites. (Cf. Bamidbar ch. 4)

Ok, so far, so good, but in our Torah portion this week, we read that Moshe made a prayer that the Ark of the Covenant would go in front of the camp:

“They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; and the Lord’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

‘ Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You! ‘ ” (Bamidbar / Numbers 10:33-35)

Those familiar with the morning synagogue service will recognize this verse- at least the half quoted above- as a congregational prayer, usually sung, said right as the Ark is opened and before the Torah is taken out. This connects the story of the Biblical Ark, or aron, which contained the tablets of law given to Moshe, with the story of Torah and the very scrolls in front of us. In this understanding, the Torah scroll is like the tablets given to Moshe, containing words handed down through generations.

The problem is: didn’t we just learn, earlier in chapter 10 (verses 12-21) that the Ark is carried by Levites after the tribes of Yehudah and Ruven? How can Moshe pray that it goes first to scatter enemies? How come it’s traveling in front in these verses but in the middle in verses 12-21?

Various commentators struggle with this contradiction, and explain that there were two Arks (one for the first, broken tablets, and another for the second set)  or this was a one-time exception. Modern Bible scholars assume that these two traditions reflect different historical sources of the text, yet the Torah as we have it includes both images- Ark in front, and Ark in the middle of the camp- for our contemplation.

The brilliance of taking this verse and putting it into our Torah service is that it connects the idea of journey with the routine religious act of taking out the Torah for its weekly readings. We may not be shlepping through the wilderness, but we are- as individuals and as a community- on a journey, one from spiritual constriction (= Egypt) to spiritual liberation and full responsibility for ourselves (= land of Israel.) The Torah “goes in front” when we seek in Torah discourse the challenge to take the next step along our way; the Torah is “in the midst of the camp” when we recognize that Torah (broadly conceived) is what holds us together and gives us common purpose and destiny.

When we open the Ark- in Beacon, Biloxi, or Bozeman- we sing the words of our ancestors on their journey because we hope that the Torah’s message of love and justice will break apart- scatter- the hardness of the heart and enable us to go on our journeys with faith and courage. “Advance, O Lord”- and let us go forward together.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Naso: Enlightenment

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso.

Naso finishes the story of the census in the wilderness, and continues with various laws covering suspicions of adultery; special vows of Divine service; and priestly duties. The portion concludes with the princes of the tribes bringing gifts to the Sanctuary.

Dear Friends:

Ah well, I didn’t keep up the “get-the-drasha-out-early-in-the-week” trend going for very long, but we did have a holiday this week. . . well, on to Naso.

Among the most famous verses in the Torah is the “priestly blessing,” a three (or six, depending on how you count) part blessing that is commanded to Aharon and his sons as the way they will bless the Israelites:

“The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Lord bless you and protect you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

(Bamidbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

This ancient prayer is almost the paradigmatic blessing of one person for another, and is found in the daily liturgy as a reminder of the ancient priestly service as well as many life-cycle events and happy occasions. Yet the precise meaning of these verses has been the subject of much interpretation; for example, what is rendered as “deal kindly” above is literally “shine God’s face upon you” [ya’er panav], or, as one line of interpretation goes, “may God enlighten you.” This works with our English understanding “enlighten”- that is, may you reach a higher level of wisdom, knowledge, depth and discernment. Hirsch says “enlighten” is a reference to Torah- again, a prayer that someone should grow spiritually.

What is rendered as “graciously” in the second line probably has the simple meaning of “may God be generous with you,” but it can also be understood as: may God grant you the gift of grace- that is, in your own being. May God “grace” you- fill you with generosity, empathy, and kindness. Seen this way, the priestly blessing is not so much about Divine providence in the realm of the material world but a wish that we should be transformed into exemplars of Divine qualities.

This is not the only way these verses can be understood, and we’ll save a discussion of lines 1 and 3 for another day. For now, let’s merely note that we can understand our most ancient prayer for each other as expressing the Jewish idea that what is most precious is also priceless- for it is something that can’t be bought. Opening up one’s heart to spiritual enlightenment arises out of prayer, out of relationship, out of willingness to change- this is the grace we hope for ourselves and others.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: Bound Up with Justice

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Bamidbar begins the book of Numbers- so called for the opening commandment to take a census of the people. Moshe organizes the 12 tribes, with the Mishkan at the center of the camp. Then he assigns various duties to clans of Levites.

Hello one and all, it’s almost Mitzvah Day in Dutchess County and we’re excited for Sunday’s various activities!  Not only that, but do see the bottom of the page for a special announcement. . . .

Now- on to Torah study. This week we have a very clear link between our weekly readings and our daily prayer practice. The haftarah for Bamidbar comes from the book of Hosea and the theme of Israel in the wilderness links the Torah portion to the prophetic reading. Hosea is not an easy text; the first section is a long and complex set of images in which the prophet is told to take a wife, who is unfaithful. This is then compared to Israel, which is unfaithful to covenant.

In the end, however, there is reconciliation, both on the personal and national level. This reconciliation is portrayed as a new betrothal:

“And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to the Lord.”  (Hosea 2:21-22)

This passage, which is the uplifting end of our haftarah, is found in the weekday prayers right at the beginning of the service, connected to wrapping tefillin straps around the hand before the morning prayers.

This takes the image from Hosea – the people Israel as estranged bride- and turns it around: in every act of wrapping tefillin (around the finger, like a wedding band), one orients the heart towards the Sacred. Yet note the conditions of this “espousal”: justice, goodness, mercy. In other words, right at the beginning of morning prayers, we remind ourselves that the ticket into prayer is ethics: we have no right to wrap ourselves up in God- as it were- if we’re not acting with compassion and justice towards others. To be “bound up” with the Sacred is not an ethereal experience but a commitment to make manifest these values or ways of being.

Prayer may lift up our hearts towards The Holy One, yet our faithfulness must also be with those around us. The straps of the tefillin wrapped around our hands keep us “down to Earth,” while pointing us towards Heavenly deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: Now for that special announcement I told you about: the latest episode of the Rabbi’s Roundtable is now on cable TV, in many (but not all) states, and featuring yours truly. Go here for more information on how to find The Jewish Channel in your area.

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Behar-Bechukotai : Call to Freedom

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Behar-Bechukotai is a double portion which concludes the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Behar begins with the Shmitta, or Sabbatical year, and includes laws of helping others and debt repayment. Bechukotai is difficult; it contains a long series of blessings and curses related to covenant.

Shalom one and all!

We’re delighted to be working on this week’s drasha before the “OMG it’s almost Shabbat” timezone- let’s hope this trend continues !

Continuing with our exploration of the connections between the Torah portion and our various prayer services, this week we note that the practice of blowing the shofar is linked to the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which servants are released, debts are forgiven and land is returned to its original owners:

“Then you shall sound the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land  and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. . . ” (Vayikra 25:9-10)

Now, most readers of this commentary know that the shofar is associated with Rosh Hashanah , but actually, the Torah doesn’t tell us directly to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Rather, the Torah (in Vayikra 23:24) speaks only of teruah, the “sounding,” on Rosh Hashanah. The ancient rabbis note that in the verse above, teruah and shofar show up in the same verse, and they thus deduce that since the Yovel proclamation has a shofar on Yom Kippur, all the “soundings” of the month must be the same, so we must blow a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, too.

So when we hear the shofar on the New Year, one association is Yovel, the year of freedom, equality, and justice. One commentary links teruah with re’ut, or friendship, implying that in the Yovel year, all the social tension caused by economic struggles is relieved when society “resets” itself by forgiving debts and letting servants go free.* Freedom was proclaimed for servant and master alike (“all of its inhabitants”), reminding us that we can be enslaved by our possessions, and true freedom requires putting material desires into the context of an ethical and compassionate life.

That’s why the linking of teruah– shofar sounding- and re’ut, friendship- is so profound. It reminds us that what sets us free is focusing on people, not on objects; we can never be fully free to become loving friends if we are oriented more towards ownership of things than service to others. When we sound the shofar for the new year- and, as many synagogues do, every Rosh Hodesh, or new moon- we challenge ourselves to be released from relationships constrained by the illusion of ownership and control. Getting more stuff doesn’t make us more free; being a better friend and more loving human being is our true calling.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- This is cool. My friend Rabbi Eli Garfinkel made an iPod/ iPad application for learning Torah trope. Check it out.

* Quoted in Y. Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parashah.

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