Archive for September, 2010

V’zot Habracha: Breaking Tablets

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah/ Vzot Habracha

Greetings on this beautiful Hoshana Rabbah ! We’re about to go into the home stretch of the fall holidays, concluding with Simchat Torah, the festival of concluding the yearly Torah reading and immediately starting the new one. In just a few days, we’ll conclude the book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy with these verses:

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moshe displayed before all Israel.” (D’varim 34:10-12)

It’s fitting that the book of D’varim concludes with the death of Moshe, the story of his burial, and final words of praise: these three verses are like a concise summary of the narrative from the beginning of Exodus through the end of the Torah, covering 40 years of sojourn. Our friend Rashi explains each piece of the last verse: the “great might” is receiving the tablets of the Torah by hand (the phrase “great might” is literally “strong hand.”) “Awesome power” is miracles in the wilderness, and “before all Israel” is. . . . . the breaking of the tablets of the law at Sinai, when Moshe came down the mountain to find the Israelites dancing before the golden calf. (Cf. D’varim 9:17 for the prooftext.)

Now, this is interesting. Of all the praises for all the great works of Moshe, the Torah concludes- according to Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash– with a reference to his angry breaking of the tablets at Israel’s not-finest hour?

I think Rashi wants us to remember Moshe not for his meteorological marvels but for the moral miracle of willingness to confront idolatry in all its forms- even, or perhaps especially, among his own people. Commentators suggest that these broken tablets were also carried by the Israelites from Sinai, perhaps as a reminder that the medium of Torah is not stone, parchment, or paper- but people. Moshe’s signature act of leadership, in this reading, is not his conflict with Pharaoh but his prophetic pursuit of truth even among his friends and community.

Here is Moshe in a moment of great risk: he sees his own people losing their way and breaks the very symbol of their sacred covenant if it will shock them back to consciousness. That is, indeed, a mighty miracle, but not one that comes from God- it’s one that comes from a brave heart and passionate spirit. Most of us will not encounter a burning bush, nor call forth manna from the heavens: but all of us have the opportunity to break tablets, speak bravely, and act from prophetic ethics. That, to me, is why we should always remember that Moshe’s greatest miracle was not from above, but from within: because such miracles are possible today, and perhaps needed more than ever.

Hag sameach and Shabbat Shalom,


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Sukkot: Ingathering

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. (Shmot/ Exodus 34:22)

Shalom one and all!

We’re just about to start the week-long holiday of Sukkot, with its several mitzvot and interesting history, which includes its several names: Sukkot, or the festival of “booths;” Chag Ha’asif, or the Festival of Ingathering; or simple He-chag, “the festival.” Sukkot is called the festival of “ingathering,” or harvest, a few times in the Torah; the verse above is taken from the reading for the Shabbat which occurs during the week-long holiday.

The word used for “gathering,” or harvest, asif, is interesting, precisely because there’s a regular Hebrew word for “harvest,” which the Torah could have used if it wanted to make it plain that it’s commanding a harvest festival. Our friend Rashi learns from another verse that asif means not just harvesting, but bringing the grain into the house- that is, the whole process of preparing the harvest and storing it for later.

It makes sense to me that Sukkot is both the harvest festival, celebrating the bounty of the Earth, and also the festival of “gathering into the house,” understood metaphorically. We’ve just come through the “ten days of returning,” ending with a marathon of introspection and fasting on Yom Kippur. We took a personal and collective moral inventory, extended forgiveness when we could, tried to leave in 5770 what deserves to stay there. . . and now, a few days later, it’s time to gather the thoughts and experiences of the previous weeks, from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, and “bring them into the house,” that is, into ourselves, into the way we live. It’s a time to take the experience of the Days of Awe out into the “real world,” as a Sukkah is literally only valid if it’s outdoors, outside our private realms.

We gather the sparks from Torah learning, prayer and self-reflection over the Days of Awe and bring them into the Sukkah, where we celebrate, feast and enjoy life- precisely because we are not stuck in the previous year, but celebrating the new one. Our physical harvest is the crop planted in the spring; our spiritual harvest is forward-looking, towards the “turn of the year,” as we rededicate ourselves to those ideals and goals which are the worthy basis of life itself.

A happy and joyous holiday season to one and all,


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Yom Kippur: Kings in Sackcloth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

And the word reached the king of Nineveh, whereupon he rose from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. (Jonah/ Yonah 3:6)

Of all the characters who show up in the Torah readings and haftarot of the Days of Awe, one of my favorites is a supporting actor who turns out to be more important than we might think. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, and meet the king of Nineveh, “that great city,” who, upon hearing Yonah’s prophecy of doom, instantly rose from his throne and sat in sackcloth and ashes, presumably as a way of showing his humility and repentance. Not only that, but the story goes on: the king made a proclamation that the entire city should do t’shuvah, everybody fasting and sitting low, from the noblemen right down to the cattle and herds!

This almost comical example of communal t’shuvah is obviously part of the reason that the book of Yonah is chosen for Yom Kippur afternoon- it seems to gently make light of our difficulties achieving return and reconciliation in our own lives. To put it another way: don’t be so proud of praying and fasting and taking your inventory all day- even the goats of Nineveh did t’shuvah more completely than we do ! Sometimes, laughing at ourselves a little bit helps us be introspective without shame or fear, and this, too, is a central concern of Yom Kippur.

Not only that- but neither the Ninevites (nor, certainly, their flocks and herds) were Jewish: t’shuvah, return, is a path open to any and all human beings who sincerely renew their spiritual core of decency and kindness. That’s a rather startling message on the most Jewish off all days, when our individual and communal looking-inward is linked to Biblical rituals of atonement and purification practiced in Temple days.

The ancient rabbis illustrate this with a truly amazing midrash, which identifies the king of Nineveh with none other than Pharaoh in the day of Moshe. Based on a nuanced reading of the Exodus story, the ancient text called Pirke D’rabbi Eliezer imagines that Pharaoh did not die at the Sea of Reeds but instead lived and was transported by an angel to Nineveh and became its king (sort of an heavenly placement service for deposed tyrants.) It’s really an outrageous claim: that the king who is the very example of t’shuvah on Yom Kippur is none other than the murderous villain whose heart was hardened throughout plagues and disasters in the days of the Exodus!

To me, this midrash sums up the radical message of Yom Kippur: that t’shuvah really is a possibility for anybody, and it’s our ongoing responsibility to deny it neither to ourselves nor others. After all- who could be less deserving of a second chance (make that an 11th chance, after ten plagues) than Pharaoh? And if even Pharaoh got his 11th chance. . . . what’s holding us back from offering a second or third chance for return and reconciliation to ourselves and others? To imagine that Pharaoh is our model of t’shuvah (this time he got it right when the prophet showed up ! ) is to force the question: do we truly recognize that all human beings- including you-  are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, and thus have the capacity for reflection, change and growth?

Our midrash imagines that Pharaoh got another chance to get it right: it’s a not-too-subtle hint that maybe we should give ourselves and others some second (and third. . . .) chances, too. Like many of the most important things in life, it’s simple, but not easy.

with warmest wishes for a meaningful fast,


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Ha’azinu/ Rosh Hashanah: Painter of Creation

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

The Rock! — His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright is He
. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 32:4, JPS translation)

There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no rock like our God.
(1 Samuel 2:2)

Dear Friends:

This Shabbat, after two days of Rosh Hashanah, we’ll be reading the Torah portion Ha’azinu, the penultimate parsha, in which Moshe recounts in poetic form how God brought the people from Egypt, yet they will betray the covenant in some future time. A recurring image of the poem is God as tzur, or “rock,” as above. In context, it probably connotes strength, immovability, and/or a sheltering presence.

Later on in the portion, Moshe rebukes the people for forgetting the “Rock that begot you . . the God who brought you forth.” (32:18) This image suggests Rock as First Cause, the Source of All, implying timeless strength in contrast to human fickleness. Maimonides has a lot more to say about this sense of the image, but in the meantime, one can compare this use of “Rock” to Psalm 95:1 and 92:16, both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, are part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights.

However, there is some dispute among the sages that tzur means “rock” in these verses; some see tzur as related to tza’yar, the one who forms or makes. That would also make sense for these verses; God formed the world and implanted justice within it, as per the opening of Ha’azinu, above.

In modern Hebrew, tza’yar is a painter, or artist, obviously related to the meaning of maker or one who forms. Yet thinking of God as artist implies something very different than simply “maker;” such a metaphor urges us to be open to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos as a whole, even if our particular piece of it contains pain or injustice. Compare the two verses above: the first, from Ha’azinu, is often recited at funerals, while the second comes from the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. That’s the story of Hannah, who prays for a son and exults when she gives birth and eventually dedicates the boy to sacred service.

In other words, both at sad times and happy ones, we find the image of tzur, God as artist, making a universe which can be fearsome and which can be bountiful but is never less than beautiful. There is a timeless quality to the cycle of birth and life, death and renewal, which is awe-inspiring, wondrous and incomparable beyond our momentary experiences; this, to me, is the complex meaning of tzur. Over the Days of Awe, we attempt to grapple with issues of justice and mercy, judgment and forgiveness, the meaning of our lives and the inevitability of our deaths, and yet God is not only tzur, Rock, but tza’ar, Artist, the Source of extraordinary wonder among which we are blessed to live.

Experiencing that awesome beauty can help us see our lives as part of a greater tapestry, spread across time and cosmos. It’s humbling and uplifting and challenging at the same time, as is any spiritual experience.

Wishing you and yours a New Year of blessing, peace, beauty and wisdom,


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Nitzavim-Vayelech: Gather the People

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech

Hello again!

I really thought I’d be able to write a commentary last week but traveling kept me from the books- and of course, when you get back from a week away you spend a week catching up, so here we are, a bit off course from our theme of prayer but we’ll be back to that next week.

This week we read a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, in which Moshe gives the people the final mitzvot of the Torah, including the interesting mitzvah of hekel, or gathering the entire people every seven years to hear words of Torah:

“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 31:10-12)

Most commentators understand “this teaching” to refer to D’varim [Deuteronomy] itself. The public reading was done by the king, in Jerusalem, in the beginning year of the seven-year Shmittah [Sabbatical year] cycle. The scholar known as the Kli Yakar asks why the Torah commands all the people to be gathered during Sukkot, and why it had to be in the year right after the Shmittah, in which many kinds of labor and finances ceased (at least in theory.)

The Kli Yakar sees the timing of the gathering as part of the message: we’ve just concluded Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for individuals, yet there are some sins which are not individual but communal, on the level of the society or nation. Thus, while Yom Kippur is the day when we do individual “returning” or repentance, there has to be a time when we resolve together to correct problems in society, such exploitation of the poor or weak. (His example, not mine.) This message of social t’shuvah or repentance is connected with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, which symbolize the connection and integration of different parts of society into a greater and more just whole.

Not only that, but the reason that the national gathering happened right after the Shmittah year, when debts were forgiven and the land rested, was to remind the nation not to fall back into its habits of abusing or neglecting the poor. As I understand the teaching, after a radical interruption of “business as usual,” there was an opportunity to remind the people as to the moral meaning of the preceding year, in the hopes that the ethic of the Shmittah year would continue throughout the next cycle.

Some sins are personal, but some are structural, and we have to imagine how our society might look differently after a communal return to core values.

“Gather the people. . . . ”

Personal spiritual introspection is necessary. . . .but there are some things we have to fix together.

Shabbat Shalom,


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