Archive for November, 2010

Vayeshev: True Success

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev


I hope all the Americans reading this had a lovely Thanksgiving with friends and family. In our Torah readings, family gatherings aren’t so happy. . . . the portion Vayeshev begins the story of Yosef, who appears as a kid with a fancy coat who acts arrogantly towards his brothers. They respond by throwing him into a pit, perhaps as an indirect form of fratricide, but Yehudah has the bright idea of making a few shekels by selling Yosef to the Yishmaelites, who in turn take him down to Egypt.

When the brothers set upon Yosef, they apparently mean to kill him, but Reuven, the eldest, prevails upon them to cool their murderous rage:

“And Reuven went on, ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves’ — intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Bereshit 37:22)

It’s unusual for the Torah to tell us what someone is thinking- usually we just read what they said, or did, and in fact, this attention paid to Reuven’s intentions becomes the occasion for an interesting commentary found in the Torah Temimah, a collection of rabbinic texts which connect teachings of the sages to passages in the Torah. On the verse above, the Torah Temimah quotes an earlier sage as saying that we should learn from this that it’s proper to publicize or make known when somebody does a mitzvah– as Reuven tried to do when he thought that he might return Yosef to their father. That is- we learn from the fact that the Torah tells us about Reuven’s actions that it’s proper to praise people for doing a mitzvah– to which I would add, even when it’s not entirely successful.

Note, please, that Reuven wasn’t able to return Yosef to safety- but the commentators are willing to give him moral and spiritual credit for worthy actions even if the outcome was not what was hoped. To me, this illustrates an important point: that “success” in the spiritual realm is not the same as “success” in the external world.  A spiritual success can be a moment of growth, perhaps the widening of moral vision or the discovery of previously unknown inner resources, while in the material world, success is usually quantifiable as projects finished and acknowledged by others.

Some of the greatest spiritual successes one will ever experience are entirely inward, and result only in the transformation of one soul; perhaps Reuven had such a moment when he resolved to go against his brothers to do the right thing. Seen from a religious perspective, it matters less that Reuven prevailed over Yehudah than that he prevailed over his own reticence and cowardice- and indeed, he does deserve praise for that. Doing a mitzvah should change the world- but it should also change the self, and this, too, is wondrous.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayishlach: Two Names

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

“Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:29)

“God said to him,’You whose name is Yaakov, You shall be called Yaakov no more,but Yisrael shall be your name.’ “

Good afternoon!

This week our ancestor Yaakov goes back home with many wives, children, servants and animals- a whole camp, which is divided in two before they meet up with Yaakov’s brother Esav, whom they fear has aggressive intent. Yaakov himself spends the night alone before this fateful meeting, and wrestles with the angel who changes his name from Yaakov– the deceiver- to Yisrael, the God-wrestler. (As Arthur Waskow puts it.) This name change is then confirmed in a theophany (revelation of the Presence) a few chapters later, as above.

The symbolism is clear: Yaakov, who deceived his brother and ran away, is finally mature enough to humble himself and confront the legacy of his actions; this inner change is marked by the outer change of his name. Yet the Torah continues to use both names – in fact, just a few verses later (35:14) the text says that it was “Yaakov” who set up the pillar to mark the spot where God changed his name!

So what’s the deal here? Is he Yaakov, or Yisrael? From a historical perspective, we might hypothesize that texts which use the different names reflect older traditions woven together- that’s called source criticism, related to the documentary hypothesis. On other hand, some traditional commentaries saw no contradiction, merely noting that “Yisrael” would be considered the primary name and “Yaakov” the secondary name from now on. (Cf. Torah Temimah on 35:10)

If the change of names is indeed symbolic of his growth and spiritual evolution, then we might even posit that it makes sense to carry both names as Yisrael/ Yaakov goes forward on his journey- because spiritual growth is not a linear process of sudden and permanent change. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and a life-long commitment to taking one’s personal inventory of strengths and weaknesses, passions and values, shortcomings and inner challenges. Yaakov can indeed become Yisrael- the God-wrestler- but he carries that part of him which is Yaakov, just as we all grow but carry our earlier selves along the way.

Perhaps the text is even hinting that Yisrael knows that part of himself is still Yaakov- and that this self-awareness is an outcome of his wrestling with conscience and memory. To me, this is a tremendously realistic and yet hopeful view of human nature: spiritual growth consists of knowing and accepting one’s flaws and yet refusing to be bound by them. Yaakov becomes Yisrael and is still Yaakov- not a paradox, but a reflection of the upward spiral of the journeying heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Hanukkah: Inner Freedom

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Yeshiva University philosopher and scholar, once pointed out that contrary to popular American interpretations, Hanukkah could not really be a holiday celebrating the political freedom of our pre-millennial ancestors from their Seleucid overlords, because that freedom wasn’t very long-lasting. Rome arrived in the land of Israel only about a hundred years later and the laws of Hanukkah as given in the Talmud come from a time when political independence was already a fading memory under Roman rule.

To use Soloveitchik’s analogy- it makes sense to celebrate the Fourth of July as long as America stands strong and free. Yet if – God forbid- the USA somehow fell or was taken over by another political entity, could we imagine that fireworks and the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth would mean the same thing as they do today?

So for Soloveitchik, Hanukkah could not celebrate political freedom, because the freedom obtained by the Maccabees was short-lived and irrelevant to the lives of most Jews in history. Therefore- according to this understanding- Hanukkah is not about yamim ha-hem– “their days”- but zman ha-zeh, “our time.” That is, the political and military achievements of the Maccabees are incidental to the reason we re-enact the core event of the story, which is lighting the Hanukkiah, representative of the Menorah [lampstand] of the ancient Temple. Re-creating the illumination of the ancient Temple- the place of the Shechinah, or Divine Presence- is not dependent on political circumstances. It is only dependent on our desire to make our homes places of the Sacred, dwelling-places of hope, faith, reverence and spiritual renewal.

Wishing you and yours a Hanukkah of light and love,

Rabbi Neal

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Vayetze: Be Fully Present

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Dear Friends:

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Vayetzei, in which Ya’akov runs away from his brother and goes back to his mother’s hometown, Haran, to seek out his uncle Lavan and find a bride. As you probably remember- Yaakov falls in love with Rachel, and serves his uncle seven years in order to marry her, but is tricked into marrying Leah, her older sister. Uncle Lavan then promises Ya’akov he can marry Rachel too:

“Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 29:27)

Well, that sounds like a complicated family situation- being married to two cousins at once with a deceitful uncle for a father-in-law- but let’s leave Ya’akov’s personal life aside for the moment and instead focus on the verse above, in which Lavan says that Ya’akov must wait until the “bridal week” of festivities for Leah’s wedding is over before he can then marry Rachel. At least one commentator says that this the Biblical source of the rabbinic principle of ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha, [don’t mix one joy with another], which usually means we don’t (typically) schedule a simcha, a happy occasion, like a wedding or bat mitzvah, on another happy occasion, like a major Jewish festival. (Note: sometimes there are special circumstances; this is a general principle, with exceptions to be determined locally.)

At first consideration, this might seem counter-intuitive: why not add joy to joy, and have a wedding on Sukkot, for example? You’d have two happy and fun occasions and the themes from one might make the other even more meaningful. Yes, but. . . . . . ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha teaches us to be fully present in the unique joy of each occasion. To put it back into our Torah portion: how could Ya’akov, and Lavan, and the other family and townsfolk, really focus on rejoicing over Leah if they were also rejoicing over Rachel’s bridal week, and vice versa?

Each of our major Biblical holidays- Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot (leaving aside Yom Kippur, for obvious reasons)- has a set of spiritual and ethical concepts, as well as specific mitzvot or spiritual practices, such as building a Sukkah, blowing the Shofar, etc. Each year, Judaism challenges us to experience the unique teachings of each holiday, and move ourselves into the kavannah, or intentionality/focus/consciousness of the season.

Just as important- at each simcha or happy event, our task is to focus on the family: honoring the bat mitzvah by attentively hearing her read and teach Torah; gladdening the bride and groom; giving support and congratulations to the parents and grandparents. If we’re focused on having a meaningful holiday experience- we’re not focused on the life-event, and vice versa, and never mind the gazillions of practical tasks for a wedding or bar mitzvah that would distract from the holy day.

So that’s the traditional application of ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha, but I also think it can be broadened to mean: create opportunities in your life to be fully present on the experience at hand, which may not be possible doing two, or three, or many tasks at once. You can’t multi-task spirituality; it takes focus, simplicity, attention, clarity.

It’s not just about Leah and Rachel; it’s about all of us, choosing to be fully present in both our spiritual practices and in our relationships with friends and family, which may sometimes mean creating unique times for our joys, in order to experience them fully.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Forgiveness and Rebirth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Good morning! Toldot begins with the announcement that it’s about Yitzhak, but it’s really about Yitzhak’s sons, Yaakov and Esav. who first show up as twins, rivals in the womb- with matters rapidly going downhill from there. Yaakov, the younger twin, persuades his brother to sell him the birthright of the elder, and then steals his father’s blessing, by disguising himself as his older brother. Naturally, Esav is enraged by this deceit, and swears to kill him after their father dies. (Cf. Bereshit 27:41)

Their mother, Rivka, gets Yaakov out of town, and Esav settles down with another wife from his parent’s hometown:

“Esav realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Yitzhak. So Esav went to Yishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Yishmael son of Avraham, sister of Nebaioth. ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:8-9)

Hmm- Esav wanted to please his father by marrying a nice Ishmaelite girl, (hence, a cousin) but there’s a problem. If you jump ahead to chapter 36, the Torah tells us that the daughter of Yishmael who married Esav is not Mahalath, but Basemat (See also here.)

So it’s possible that there are two different genealogical traditions, but the ancient rabbis had a more creative explanation for this apparent change of names. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (quoted in the book Torah Temimah), the name Mahalat (or Machlat, depending on how you transliterate) is related to the word mechilah, which means to forgive a sin or remit a debt. So according to this interpretation, Esav married a woman named “forgiveness” to show that a bridegroom is forgiven all his sins- and this is just a few verses after he has sworn in his rage to kill his brother!

To me, the rabbis are reminding us that even Esav- whom they don’t like very much at all- is not a sinner, per se, but rather someone who falls short and rises up, just like the rest of us. There are moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to unburden ourselves of the past: certainly marriage or other transformative events present such an opportunity, but it’s not limited to a few instances over a lifetime. We are certainly not defined by our most foolish oaths; notice that just after Esav swore revenge on his brother, he’s also portrayed as one who cared about honoring his parents. We are all- like Esav- mixtures of anger and sweetness, hurt and care. This is why Judaism teaches that mechilah, forgiveness, is a primary virtue, one which emulates the Divine Attributes, and which is to be given to self and others, whenever it is sought.

Shabbat Shalom,


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