Archive for June, 2010

Balak: Good Tents

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This week the Moabite king Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Bilaam’s mission, interrupted by an angel and a talking donkey, ends when his planned curse turns into a blessing for the camp of Israel.

Hello from the humid but not unpleasant Hudson Valley! This week we learn that curses can be turned into blessings: when Bilaam goes to a mountain to curse the Israelites below, he instead blesses and praises them:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water . . . . ”     (Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5-7)

Commentators have asked what the big deal is with nice tents and dwellings: Rashi quotes an earlier texts which says that Bilaam saw all the tents of the Israelites arranged for maximum privacy, which made the camp itself “good,” in the sense of morally and socially upright. Hirsch, on the other hand, thinks that the tents and dwellings are the houses of prayer and study which Israel establishes, and this interpretation, while anachronistic, fits with the liturgical use of the first line, above, at the beginning of the morning prayer service. That is- if the “tents” and “dwelling places” are really our synagogues and schools, then it makes perfect sense, when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, to say, hey, this is a good thing, I’m grateful to be here. (That is something that Mr. Not-So-Morning-Person writing this needs to remember!)

On the other hand, Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier sources, also gives us something to think about, because Rashi seems to say that the Bilaam blessed the camp of Israel because they were praiseworthy- that is, it wasn’t just that God opened Bilaam’s mouth in a certain way, but he was also moved by what he saw before him. In other words, if you want to be blessed, act in ways that bring blessing upon yourself ! This, too, is a powerful kavanna, or focus, before our morning spiritual disciplines, because it reframes the petitions we make, turning them into opportunities to think about the goodness and peace that we create (or don’t) as we go about the day.

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov. . . . . “How good are your tents, Jacob!,” can be a call to gratitude, if we follow Rashi, or a call to make ourselves worthy of blessing, if we follow Hirsch, but in either case, it’s also worth noting that these words, in the first few pages of our prayerbook, are spoken by one of the famous non-Israelites of the Torah. Perhaps those who turned this verse from scripture into prayer also wanted us to realizing something about the universality of spiritual experiences: being moved to utter a blessing upon seeing wondrous goodness is something for which anyone might hope. We pray a Jewish liturgy- that’s our heritage, our path, and our discipline- but prayer itself doesn’t belong to one religion or spiritual path. It is the “universal port” to connect to our Source- and perhaps that’s one of the most important lessons this brief verse teaches us bright and early in the morning.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- for an interesting exploration of the history of the “Mah tovu” prayer, go here, and for a guide to pronouncing it and a melody which fits the words, go here.

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Chukat: Waters of Strife

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Chukat

The portion Chukat begins with the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer, a red cow which is sacrificed in order to purify those who are ritually impure. Miriam dies, and there is strife and thirst. Aharon dies, and the people have a difficult path through hostile nations.

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’ Those are the Waters of Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12-13)

One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is the story of the “waters of Merivah,” found in Bamidbar 20:2-13. The people are thirsty and cry out for water, and God gives Moshe instructions to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Moshe instead strikes the rock (after making a snarky comment to the complainers), and is told that because he did not trust God enough in the sight of the people, he would not continue to lead the people into the Land. The place where this happened is called Merivah, from the word “quarrel,” as the Torah itself explains in the text above.

Let’s set aside the question of whether striking the rock was so bad that Moshe deserved to be punished- that’s a famous question and there’s lots of commentary on that. Since our theme this year is connections between the Torah and the prayerbook, instead let’s note a reference to these events at a most un-strife-ful time: the beginning of Shabbat. To wit: at the beginning of the service called Kabbalat Shabbat, we recite 7 psalms, beginning with Psalm 95, which begins with the invitation to sing together but also bids us to be different than those who grumbled at Merivah:

“Harden not your heart, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;
When your ancestors tried Me, proved Me, even though they saw My work . . . ” (Ps.95:8-9)

The story of Merivah, both in Bamidbar 20 and an earlier version in Shmot/Exodus 17, seems to represent resentment, anxiety, and lack of broader perspective on the part of the people who were speaking out against Moshe. Yet it also seems that Moshe didn’t act out of the deepest compassion- after all, the people were thirsty and fearful, and he appeared to respond with frustration rather than understanding of their needs.

So getting back to Psalm 95, above: as we go into Shabbat, perhaps the reference to Merivah reminds us that what we have, for the next 25 hours, is probably enough; Shabbat is a time to let go of the anxieties and fears and wanting “more” which pervade our working hours. Shabbat is a time to put away our resentments and impossible expectations- of God and each other- so that we can make sacred community in joy. We slow down so we can see more clearly what we have, and what we need, so there is not strife, but peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Korach: A Life of Service

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Korach

In this week’s portion, named for its protagonist, a gang of resentful Levites and tribal leaders start a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, who beg them to reconsider. The rebels are swept away in a miracle, and the parsha concludes with a set of laws for the priests and Levites.

Shalom from sunny Poughkeepsie!

“I hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to the Lord, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 18:6)

After the accusations, recriminations, conflicts, insults and power struggles- and no, I’m not talking about the California and Arkansas primaries, I’m talking about this week’s Torah portion- there is a set of laws in Bamidbar 18 which govern how gifts are given to the Kohanim and Levites. To review: the Levites, descendants of Levi- are set aside as a tribe of service, performing such duties as packing up and carrying the Mishkan and singing psalms in the ancient Temple. The Levites also serve the Kohanim, the priests, who are also Levites but are a special family within the tribe, descendants of Aharon.

To this day, in traditional synagogues, we honor those who are descended from either the Kohanim or Levi’im [Levites] by calling them to the Torah for the first and second aliyot or readings. The Kohanim also offer the “priestly blessing” to the congregation on various occasions, and the Levites re-enact their ancient role of service in washing the hands of the Kohanim before they come up to offer the blessing.

The liberal movements (Reform and Reconstructionist) have by and large done away with the ritual remembrance of Kohen and Levi, and various Conservative synagogues have different practices. On the one hand, it can rub against the grain of a modern, egalitarian ethos to honor members of a hereditary class- especially one which performed animal offerings which most modern Jews would not like to see restored. On the other hand, making new meanings out of our most ancient practices is what connects us as Jews to our shared history and common destiny.

So. . . what do we do with the Kohanim and the Levi’im? One way to understand the honor given to these families is to see the status of Kohen and Levi as representing or symbolizing particular spiritual concepts to which we can all aspire. To me, the idea of a Kohen, a priest, is about being one who feels fully empowered to enter into the presence of the Holy, and helps to bring others into that spiritual state. The Levites, on the other hand, represent the idea of selfless and humble service, giving to others with no need to gather glory.

Let me illustrate this with a story: here at Temple Beth-El, we have recently re-instituted the priestly blessing on holidays, and some months ago, I took two Kohanim and two Levi’im out into the hallway during services for the hand-washing and to go over the prayers. As it happened, the two Levi’im were older gentlemen, both refugees from Europe and both older than the Kohanim whose hands they washed by pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl. It felt wrong to me- should not the younger ones serve the older?

I was humbled and awed by the Levi’im recalling how their fathers took them to do this when they were boys- and humbled and awed that such men would gladly perform a simple task for others. I learned a lesson that day about the meaning of service, about the connection between generosity and humility, about the enduring truth that giving to others is an honor unto itself.

That, to me, is why we honor the Levites- because their ancestors served with joy and song, giving up a share in the Land in order to help the people be close to the Sacred Presence.

That, to me, is something worth remembering.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Big Ideas, Small Reminders

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

This week the Israelites get very close to the Land- but are afraid of what they might find there, and are condemned to spend a generation in the wilderness. Laws of offerings are taught and the parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, or fringes.

Greetings one and all!

So much is going on in the world- sometimes people ask me if I’m going to address the crisis of the day in my d’var Torah, and the answer is, usually not. There are millions of words of political analysis out there, and this is a small sanctuary of Torah study (at least  most of the time.) To put it another way: if I write about the latest political crisis, then me and the New York Times and Fox News will all have covered it- but none of us will have written anything about the Torah portion.

With that. . we’re on the portion Shlach-Lecha, which is mostly about the spies sent up to the Land of Israel but concludes with the laws of tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of the garment. This passage is recited daily as the third paragraph of the Shma:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘ Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.  I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.’ ”  (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

You might reasonably ask: if the Shma is about Divine Unity, the One Foundation of the cosmos. . . uh, what do little tassels on the garments have to do with that? Talk about moving from the sublime to the ridiculous!

To which I might respond: yes, but Judaism usually takes big ideas and distills them into particular actions. For example, we take the idea that spiritual growth must be given weekly precedent over economic activity- and we practice Shabbat. We take the idea of moving from constriction to freedom, from bondage to true spiritual service, and we make a Pesach seder. We take the idea that God is One- and therefore each moment is an opportunity to make manifest the sacred values of Divine compassion and justice, and we turn that into tzitzit, fringes, which are a visual reminder of the ever-present challenge to “set God before me always.” (Ps. 16:8)

We can’t always live at the highest spiritual levels: although God is One, we are embodied human beings, who get busy, get caught up in things, have our ups and downs, and need to work every day on integrating our ideals with our actions. Tzitzit bring the Shma down to earth, as it were- by including this paragraph in the Shma, the ancient rabbis acknowledged that we will sometimes get distracted from the big spiritual teachings. We sometimes need reminders, because the big spiritual ideas live in ordinary busy people. That’s as it should be: who could reach the level of Shma if we had to get it right the first time?

Tzizit remind us to get back on the spiritual path when we stray; they also remind us that the Torah was not given to angels- but to us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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