Archive for July, 2010

Va’etchanan: Nothing Else

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan/ Shabbat Nachamu

In Va’etchanan, Moshe reviews how he was denied entry into the Land, and warns the people to stay loyal to the covenant once they enter the Land. He tells them that God is One (the Shma) and reviews the Ten Commandments.

Good morning!

Va’etchanan has so many links to the prayer service I could hardly choose- but then again, many commentaries have been written on the Shma , so let’s look for something with less ink (fewer electrons?) spilled over it.

How about Aleinu, then? Aleinu, as you may recall, is one of the penultimate prayers of a typical service- morning, afternoon, or evening- and has two paragraphs. The first paragraph (here is the text) speaks of Israel’s uniqueness as a people, and the second paragraph speaks of the hope that someday all idolatry will be swept away and the world will be united in a common spiritual consciousness.

Yet it’s interesting that the first paragraph of Aleinu ends with a quote from the Torah- from this week’s portion, of course- that also speaks to a universal spirituality, a radical monotheism which in its Biblical context served as a rebuke to any thought of worshiping other gods:

“Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 4:39)

The final word of this verse- ein od– literally mean “no other” or “nothing else”, or “nothing but this”, and again, when you look at the verse in its Biblical context, it’s clear that Moshe is warning the people not to make the theological mistake of assigning the different parts of nature- heaven and earth- to different gods or lesser powers than the One who is the Source of all realms. Yet more recent commentators from the mystical streams of Jewish thought have interpreted ein od– “no other”- more radically: there is nothing else but God. Heaven, earth, animals, plants, seas, stars, people. . .it’s all God, all connected, all ultimately One. The goal of religious practice is to learn to perceive this unity in a world of infinite diversity and complexity, and to let those experiences transform us into more compassionate, connected, less ego-bound beings.

You might object that the first paragraph of Aleinu is not at all about the unity of the cosmos- it’s about how the Jewish people have a unique mission and obligations. To which I would reply: of course Judaism is a unique spiritual path, and it’s uniquely suited for Jews because of our shared history and spiritual inheritance, but the deepest experiences of Judaism also open one up to the awareness of connection and surrender to . . . well. . . there’s no other way to put it except: ein od. We delve deep into a particular tradition in order to see the interconnection of all things, just as we delve deep into a language in order to understand poetry and song.

We can’t write a love poem, which is a universal thing, without using a particular language. Similarly, Aleinu teaches us that if we want to understand, through deep experience, that God is One, there is no other, then we have to delve deep into our specific practices of mitzvah, study, and community, which pry us from solipsism and open up the heart to connection and love. Our verse says: know and take to heart, that is, know in your intellect but let your heart be changed when you feel deeply that what we call God is right here, filling the cosmos, there is no other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Matot-Masei: Unselfish Prayers

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot-Masei

The double portion of Matot and Masei concludes the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. Laws are given for annulment of vows, spoils of war, and division of lands. The history of the decades in the wilderness is reviewed and the portions conclude with laws for cities of refuge and more on the division of the land.

It’s hot in Poughkeepsie!

Probably not as hot as it was those 40 years in the desert, though, so who am I to complain? This week we finish the book of Bamidbar – literally, “in the wilderness”- with laws that only apply once the people arrive in the land of Israel. Among those laws are the cities of refuge, to which someone who accidentally killed another might flee, safe from avenging family members of the victim. The one who committed manslaughter was safe as long as he was in the city of refuge; if he went out of the city, and was met by a blood-avenger. . . .well, let’s just say he should have stayed home and caught up on reruns.

However, the term of the manslayer’s confinement is variable: in a seemingly odd detail, the Torah tells us that the accidental killer must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Cf. Bamidbar 35:25.) It makes sense that remaining in the city of refuge is not a permanent sentence- after all, it was an accident, and presumably some period away from home gives the victim’s family time to cool off and forgive. (As an aside: if one could forgo vengeance in the case of manslaughter, as the Torah seems to hope, isn’t it rather embarrassing to realize all the lesser things we struggle to forgive?)

Yet commentators have no consensus regarding the seeming non sequitur of the death of the High Priest- what does he have to do with a mishap far from the capital ? Our friend Rashi brings two interpretations from earlier texts: first, the High Priest and the killer are sort of cosmic opposites. The HP blesses the people with life, but the killer causes death, and is thus unworthy of standing before the current High Priest and is only free when the next one takes office, presumably “resetting” the cycle of guilt and innocence.

Rashi’s second interpretation is more germane to our year 5770 theme of prayer and spirituality: the life of the HP and the freedom of the accidental killer are connected because the priest should have prayed that such a terrible thing should not have happened in his lifetime. Notice, please, that in the first interpretation, the killer was confined because he was unworthy of being in the presence of that particular High Priest; in the second, it’s the High Priest whose death atones in some way for a problem for which he bore some responsibility.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that the priest, way off in Jerusalem, is responsible for a bar fight in Beersheva, regardless of the intensity of his prayer. Rather, I think we can take from this midrash that the High Priest should have included the safety of all the citizens in his prayers; his failure to pray for the well-being of the people reflected a shortcoming in his spiritual leadership. Prayer, if it is genuine, is unselfish and broadens our vision; when we pray for others, we take into our hearts their pain and needs, and displace the incessant self-centeredness that gets in the way of compassion.

Accidents happen, and are not typically prevented by good davenning. What is prevented by prayer is indifference to suffering. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in the moment; it’s about becoming more deeply aware of our connectedness to others- because we area all, in the end, part of One-  so that their welfare is our own. So perhaps the death of the High Priest was an atonement for indifference, or perhaps it was imagined as such an occasion for mourning in Israelite society that people had no desire to see more pain and loss. In either case, for us, the question remains: how shall we make our prayers other-directed, inclusive, compassionate, and unselfish? Of course- when we change our prayers, we change ourselves.

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Pinchas: Additional Offerings

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the Torah portion Pinchas, we begin with an accounting of families and tribes, continue with the changes demanded by the daughters of Zelophechad, set the stage for Joshua to succeed Moshe, and end with many laws regarding many of the ancient offerings: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly holidays.

Greetings at the end of a beautiful week!

The end of this week’s Portion is a long list of special offerings- bulls, lambs, rams, wine and flour- made in the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, daily and on special occasions. The direct connection with our prayer service is in the musaf, or additional prayer, recited on Shabbat and the holidays. In the musaf prayer, we take the text describing the ancient offerings and recite it as if the words were the offerings themselves. Thus, on Shabbat, the core of the musaf prayer is the law of the Shabbat service in the Mishkan:

“On the sabbath day: two yearling lambs without blemish, together with two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in as a meal offering, and with the proper libation —  a burnt offering for every sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 28:9-10)

When discussing musaf prayers, many commentaries bring a text from the prophet Hosea:  “Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; saying: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips’ ” (Hosea 14:3)

This idea- that we offer words in place of agricultural sacrifices- allows us to have a direct historical and theological link to the ancient practices of our Biblical ancestors, and for many Jews, myself included, that sense of historical continuity is itself spiritually grounding and broadening. Other commentators say that the ancient offerings were expressions of gratitude for the blessings of the land, and while most of us may not have bulls and rams in our backyard, we are no less dependent on the blessings of the land than our ancestors were, and therefore no less obligated to cultivate an awareness of that interdependence with nature and express humble gratitude for it.

Yet musaf isn’t only about the past (our ancestor’s practice) and the present (our gratitude for our blessings.) It’s also about the future, since most traditional versions of the prayer include the hope that someday we will return to Jerusalem to once again make these offerings as before. Because of that, some prayerbooks omit, abridge or modify the musaf prayer; for example, the Conservative prayerbook Sim Shalom uses language of once again worshiping where our ancestors did, rather than how our ancestors did.

For me, the traditional language of restoring sacrificial offerings doesn’t pose a dire theological dilemma, because I understand the language of the prayerbook as poetic and evocative in its use of images. I don’t literally want to restore offerings of bulls and rams, but the image of doing so allows me to imagine that the pain and brokenness of two millennia in exile have been totally healed and our people fully renewed and made whole.

I experience musaf as a powerful expression of faith and hope, a theological commitment not to ancient offerings but to overcoming cynicism and despair. Reading the headlines, it’s often impossible to believe that someday Jerusalem will be a place of perfect peace and utter joy for all her children, yet that’s what musaf asks us to imagine. There is no hope without imagination, yet with hope and faith, the world will be made new again.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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