Archive for October, 2010

Chayyei Sarah: Cities of Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayyei Sarah

Sarah died in Kiriath-arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. . . (Bereshit 23:2)

At the beginning of this weeks’ parsha, Sarah, Avraham’s wife, dies near Hevron [Hebron] and Avraham goes to great lengths to purchase a burial site for her. This became known as the Cave of the Machpelah, or “doubled cave,” where according to the Torah all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs- except for Rachel- were buried.

Today, there is a building over those caves which house a mosque and a synagogue- parts of this shrine date from the medieval period, if not earlier. Surrounding the Machpelah is a city of about 120,000 people, mostly Arab, with a small Jewish settlement in the heart of the city. Just outside Hevron is a much larger Jewish town, Kiryat-Arba, mentioned in the verse above and now a busy community of thousands.

I was last in Hevron in 1998, and it was a confusing experience. I was thrilled to be in the places where Avraham walked, and being in the Machpelah helped me understand and truly feel the Jewish history embedded in that sacred place. On the other hand, Hevron is the center of much controversy: the Jewish enclave in the heart of the city was surrounded by barbed wire and guards and relations between the Jewish residents and their Arab neighbors was tense, at best, with violence a regular occurrence.

As far as I know, the basic dynamics in Hevron haven’t changed much in the past 12 years, and while there are, of course, widely differing narratives and claims on the city, my point today is a simple one: it’s easy when reading the Torah to imagine holy sites, connected to our ancestors, and feel that deep connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, our historic homeland. It’s much harder to remember that the holy sites of the Torah are today places where real people live complicated lives. There is the eternal Hevron, the site of Avraham’s purchase from Ephron the Hittite, and there is the earthly Hevron, where conflict between Avraham’s children is exacerbated by poor leadership and fiery extremism on both sides.

To make this distinction is not to give up any claim or belief; it is simply to acknowledge that history produces complex outcomes, and rights should sometimes be exercised with wisdom. I have my personal perspectives on the situation in Hevron, but I’d rather you found your own, and you might start at this page, put together by rabbinical students for the purpose of helping people understand  various aspects of the city. The site creators have their own leanings (everybody does), but you’ll find links to various Jewish and Arab websites and sources of information, along with divrei Torah and text resources here.

My prayer is that someday soon, all of Avraham’s children will celebrate in Hevron- and all across the world- in peace and joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayera: Healing Through Giving

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

Good morning!

This week the Torah portion opens with Avraham in his tent:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. . . .” (Bereshit 18:1-2)

Many commentators assume that he’s sitting in the tent recovering from being circumcised, which happened at the end of last week’s parsha. (Cf. Bereshit 17.) Not only that, but since the three visitors appear to be divine messengers, the classic commentary is that the Holy One appears to Avraham to visit him in his recovery- doing the mitzvah of visiting the sick and setting the example for the rest of us.

Our friend Rashi says that Avraham sat in the opening of the tent to see if he might welcome any wanderers, and makes this point even stronger by quoting an earlier text which notices that the text says this happened “as the day grew hot.” According to this midrash , we learn about the heat of the day in order to teach that there was a special miracle to make the day especially hot so that Avraham would not encounter travelers, so he would not have to trouble himself with hospitality. The problem was that Avraham himself- according to the midrash– was troubled by not having guests, so God made the three angels appear in the likeness of men.

This interpretation is a bit complicated, but it gets to something important: sometimes the way out of pain- physical or spiritual- is by giving. Avraham might have been recovering from his circumcision, but according to this midrash he didn’t want his discomfort to prevent him from the hospitality, the hesed [lovingkindness], to which he was committed. In fact- if we go with this reading- not giving seems to have been more painful for him than surgery, since he was so troubled being all alone that God appointed the men to appear so Avraham would have the joy of generosity.

Seen this way, Avraham is not only an example of hesed- loving/giving- but also of healing, for his path of healing was not to withdraw from the world but to surpass his pain with a greater pleasure. This is not to say that we should never take time to rest and focus on our own healing, but giving to others can, under the right circumstances, lift us out of self-focus and provide a vital connection which itself is part of the healing process.

True story: many years ago I served as a chaplain intern at a large Jewish independent living complex for seniors. Some of the residents ran a tutoring program for local elementary and junior high school students, who came to the apartments for help with their schoolwork. I will never forget that one woman had a serious operation (more serious than circumcision!) and was bedridden for weeks- but as soon as she could, she invited her students to come to her bedside and she tutored them while lying flat on her back, with blankets covering the bandages.

That’s what it means to be a descendant of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Lech-Lecha: The Righteous are Chariots

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech-Lecha

“And when God finished speaking with him, the Holy One ascended from above Avraham. . . .” (Bereshit/ Genesis 17:22)

Good afternoon!

This week we begin the story of Avraham, who travels far and wide, fights mighty battles, makes a covenant with God, and is promised a son with Sarah, his wife, despite their advanced age. Towards the end of the portion, after the astonishing conversation in which Avraham is given the mitzvah of circumcision and told that both his future and present sons will become mighty nations, we read in the verse above that God finished speaking and then “ascended from above Avraham.” The JPS translation says merely that God was “gone from Avraham” but our friend Rashi and other more traditional commentators see the preposition “from above,” [m’al ] as a significant piece of information.

According to Rashi, “from above” is a euphemism for the presence of the Shechina, or immanent Divine Presence, understood as close by or hovering near or above us. This is, of course, just a metaphor in spatial terms, but it conveys a sense of immediacy and direct experience of the Sacred. Not only that, but Rashi goes on to play with the metaphor a bit more, saying that “we learn from this that the righteous are the chariots of the Holy One.”

OK, I can feel your brows creasing as you read this: “chariots? As in, wagons pulled by horses? What does that mean?”

Maybe it means something like this: the image of God being “from above” someone may be related to the image of a chariot and its driver above it. Yet even more to the point, a chariot is only useful if it has someone directing it- it is, literally, a vehicle for a greater purpose. In that sense, the righteous make their lives vessels for a higher power, constantly aware that their direction is guided by an immediate, almost palpable sense of the sacred.

Please note: being guided by sacred purposes does not mean relinquishing free will, rationality or conscience. On the contrary: it means developing the discipline of conscious awareness of one’s choices, but framing those choices within a sense of greater possibilities and spiritual ideals. To wit: Avraham himself is portrayed as constantly struggling with his choices, but staying loyal to covenant overall.

Rashi doesn’t tell us that “the righteous are the chariots of God” only to praise Avraham; rather, he uses the story of Avraham to teach something for all of us. Every one of us is guided by something, but what sets the direction is a choice freely made.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: Small Things

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach / Rosh Chodesh

“God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth . . . ‘ ”
(Bereshit / Genesis 6:13)

Greetings on this glorious morning!

Well, as we see from the verse above, it may be a glorious morning in the Hudson Valley but at the time of Noach, things weren’t so great. The “lawlessness” [chamas] in the verse above (and verse 11) is understood by the ancient rabbis to indicate a special fondness for robbery among the people of Noach’s generation.

Now, let’s leave aside the ethical problems with collective punishment- to say nothing of the theological difficulty in this story- and let’s just take it at face value for a moment that the generation of the flood was indeed so evil, so selfish and so committed to stealing and preying on each other that the only way to start over was to wipe the slate clean, as it were. Again, let’s bracket for today the harshness of the decree and just focus on the dramatic scene: a whole society utterly corrupted, with no respect for rights, property, dignity or safety.

You”d probably imagine that everybody in Noach’s time was Bonnie and Clyde, stealing brazenly, but the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud told a startling midrash:

“What did they steal? If someone walked out carrying a basket of beans, they would steal an amount worthy less than a penny so they would not be guilty in court.” (Adapted from the Torah Temimah)

This is interesting- the robbery and stealing wasn’t, in this telling, like Bonnie and Clyde- guns (well, bows) blazing and bold heists- but was more like petty shoplifting on the order of noshing out of the bulk bins. This image hardly suggests a world filled with corruption, deserving of an unmerciful fate. . . . does it?

Perhaps the ancient rabbis of the land of Israel (where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled) were suggesting that nonchalant cynicism is just as destructive to society as overt lawlessness. Countless small acts of self-centered disregard for others will also bring collapse on a community, just as surely as the more dramatic kinds of crime. Now, to be sure, most people reading this don’t make it habit to steal beans out of each other’s baskets- but perhaps the midrash is suggesting that we should pay better attention to the small ways we can respect each other, better to create a warmer, more generous and compassionate community as a whole.

To put it another way, I remember a sign up in the Essex County Correctional Facility, where I used to visit as a volunteer chaplain: it said something like “character is what you do when nobody is looking.” In terms of our midrash on Noach, I might rephrase that as: “society is sustained from small things- and we are all potential builders.”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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