Archive for August, 2010

Ki Tetzei: Basic Respect

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

Greetings from beautiful Lake Como, PA, where I’m attending the Quad-Region USY [United Synagogue Youth] Encampment at Camp Ramah Poconos !

This morning at Encampment services I offered a brief introduction to the weekly Torah reading, and what follows is an edited and  expanded version of the connection I made between the three mitzvot [commandments] in the verses we read. Try to pretend you’re in a camp social hall when reading it. . . .

The weekday morning Torah reading is D’varim/ Deuteronomy 21:10-21, and while there are many, many mitzvot in the Torah portion Ki Tetze, the weekday reading has three: a law regarding women captured in wartime, a law about inheritance rights in a difficult marriage, and the law of the “stubborn and rebellious son.”

The first law says that if a soldier in Biblical times took a woman captive in battle, he was not allowed to do whatever he wanted, but had to wait before taking her as a wife. The ancient rabbis assumed that if he had to wait, he’d probably change his mind and send her home, but even if he didn’t, he had to treat her like a human being and not like property. What this teaches is that even in wartime, when everything is chaos and most normal rules don’t apply, men still had to treat women with respect, like real human beings, not just objects- so how much more so does that apply in everyday life!

The second law says that if a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he doesn’t, he still has to give a fair inheritance to the sons of the wife he doesn’t like. That is, whatever problem there might be between the husband and wife, the parent can’t put that on the child, who gets the inheritance that’s due to him, even the bigger inheritance of the firstborn. What this teaches is that even if you really have a problem with somebody, your problem with one person doesn’t apply to anybody else- not that person’s friends, family or acquaintances. People are individuals, and deserve to be treated that way.

The final law of this morning’s reading is really hard: it’s the “stubborn and rebellious son.” The Torah says that if a young man is really horrible, a drunkard and a thief and a glutton and totally disrespectful, his parents can take him out to be stoned to death! Most of the rabbis say that actually never actually happened- what kind of parents would do that? So maybe this section of the Torah using an impossible example to teach that that some kinds of behaviors are so serious, they can make people so angry and feel so disrespected it might be a matter of life and death.

What these three mitzvot have in common is treating others with respect, even in difficult situations. We’re not soldiers at war, and I hope nobody hates somebody in their family, but the idea is this: if in those extreme situations, people had to be treated as individuals, with basic human dignity- it applies even more so in normal interactions with friends and family. To put it another way, sometimes the Torah gives an extreme example so we’ll see how it applies even more in normal situations, like how we treat each other today and every day, at camp. at school or at home.

Shabbat Shalom,

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Shoftim: Shake off the Dust

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Hello again!

It’s been too long since we’ve been learning together. This week we’re reading the Torah portion Shoftim and the fourth of seven haftarot of consolation , which are read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.

All of these haftarot [readings from the prophets] are taken from the second half of the book of Isaiah, which has the general theme of redemption, restoration, and rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. These texts are poetic, with metaphors upon metaphors; the prophet addresses the city of Jerusalem as if she were a person, yet it’s understood that Jerusalem herself is symbolic of the people Israel, ready to return from exile:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive one, Fair Zion!” (Is. 52:1-2)

In context, this and other verses (cf. 51:17) which commands Jerusalem to “arise,” “rouse” or “awake,” are probably exhortations to the people to find courage and encouragement in the imminent return from exile. That is, exile to Babylon is like the dust that needs to be shaken off or the sleep which dulls one’s senses- awakening, rousing, and shaking off the dust are metaphors for the people’s return and restoration. (See Rabbi Riskin’s take on this here.)

Some readers will recognize these verses in the Shabbat evening him Lecha Dodi, which we’ve discussed previously. I’d like to interpret these verses a little differently than I did last year, based on a text from the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings I’ve been learning with a friend. The Besht, as the Ba’al Shem Tov is know, draws a distinction between two spiritual states: katnut and gadlut, which literally mean “smallness” and “bigness” but which refer to a spiritual experience of constriction, fear, or distraction, compared to an experience of expanded awareness, connection and love.

Yet these ways of experiencing aren’t real or objective. Even when we’re in katnut, or smallness, if we can just think of the “upper worlds,” we’ll be there, “for a person is where his thought is.” [Tzava’at HaRivash 69] That is, you might think you’re “covered in dust,” or in a constricted spiritual place, but that’s just your thinking talking to you, as it were. The Besht teaches that you can think of the “upper worlds”- that is, expand your spiritual horizons- because you’re already there. If you weren’t already there- how could you think of it?

Returning to our text, and to its placement on Shabbat evening, I see the image of “shaking off the dust” as remembering that it’s possible to be in a different state than the hurried, distracted and ego-centric rushing around that many of us are doing throughout the day. Just thinking: “I can be more centered, more God-aware, more generous, more connected to the Source of love,” moves us there, because if that wasn’t the root of our being, how could we even think of it?

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shoftim: Rising from the Dust

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

(This was posted on rabbineal-list Aug 21, 2009)

Hello one and all!

We’re continuing with our discussion of the seven haftarot of
consolation (see previous messages), and we’re up to number 4 with the
haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. All of these readings
are taken from the book of Isaiah; in these chapters the prophet
addresses a personified Jerusalem, telling the city to awake and

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck . . . (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 52:1-2)

Astute readers of the Hebrew and even the English may note that
phrases from these verses are quoted in “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn for
bringing in Shabbat. In context, the idea that Zion, or Jerusalem,
arises or shakes off the dust is clearly a metaphor for the Jewish
people regaining hope and dignity as their redemption approaches.

The phrase “arise, shake of the dust” [hitna’ari, m’afar kumi], is
interesting not only for the image of a people “arising” from a
degraded state but also because the word for “shake off” has a root
similar to that of “youth,” or “na’ar.” Thus Hirsch says that “when
Israel attains her goal she arises in youthful beauty,” which itself
is a metaphor not for physical beauty but the moral beauty of youthful
passion and idealism.

Along these lines, a homiletic interpretation of “hitna’ari” could be
“make yourself youthful again,” and perhaps the prophet himself
intended this doubled meaning, given the homonyms. If so, “shaking of
the dust” could be understood as shedding our cynicism and fear, and
renewing our ability to hope and thus work towards a better and
brighter world. Please note: I am not saying that young people are
never cynical, nor that older people lack hope; rather, I’m
interpreting these verses as poetic images, in which the process of
redemption is compared to regaining the passion and hope and idealism
commonly associated with youth.

In this reading, what we “shake off” is not dust on the outside, but
attitudes from the inside. An inner transformation is the beginning of
redemption; or, to put it another way, we can’t bring about what we
don’t dare to dream.

with best wishes for a good month of Elul and a peaceful rest of the summer,


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