Archive for January, 2011

Mishpatim: The Curse of Cursing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people. (Shmot/Exodus 22:27)

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, gets its name from the Hebrew root related to judges and the judicial system; a mishpat is a just law, and a shofet is a judge. Hence, the portion is mostly laws pertaining to a fair and good society, dealing with everything from civil cases to criminal law to ritual to the judicial system itself. The law quoted above seems straightforward: one must not curse either God or a human judge or other civil authority.

Yet the ancient rabbis ask a basic question: what difference does it make if one curses the judge or local official? If one is a litigant, it won’t change the outcome of the court case, and if one is a citizen, cursing the mayor doesn’t mean you don’t have to obey the laws of the town. So the rabbis have various understandings of the moral basis of this prohibition: some say it’s to preserve the honor and feelings of the judge- who is, after all, a human being with human emotions. Some say the prohibition on cursing judges is given to preserve respect for the system as a whole, for if we didn’t have laws and people to interpret them, society would fall apart very quickly.

A third interpretation holds that the harm is not to the judge but to the one who curses, who becomes coarse and undignified through the expression of unchecked anger, while a fourth reading takes into account not so much the immediate hurt feelings of the judge or official but the long-term effect on society. According to this view, if litigants and citizens are always cursing and insulting judges or elected officials, people in positions of authority may decide it’s just too much trouble and pain to serve in such positions, and then worse people will take their places. This could happen even if a given official doesn’t hear a given insult, but merely hears of all the gossip and slander going around about others or public servants in general.

Clearly, these interpretations are not mutual exclusive, but they all point to a keen understanding of human nature: people tend to resent those with whom they disagree, and resentment can quickly turn into gossip, insult, slander, and humiliating speech. Please note: the ancient rabbis are not saying one should not disagree with elders or authorities; studying any page of Talmud quickly reveals a culture of vigorous debate and vociferous disagreement about important issues of the day. Rather, the rabbis are pointing the way towards an ethic of disagreement grounded in respect for the humanity of those who serve in positions of authority, as long as the system itself is legitimate and power is not abused.

A true story: last night I received a long and thoughtful email from a member of Temple Beth-El in which the writer respectfully but quite strongly disagreed with something I’d written. This email directly quoted my article, pointed out alternative understandings of the situation, and made suggestions for future action which would look quite different from what I’d proposed. I must confess that my immediate reaction to disagreement with my suggestions is often an immature negativity towards the speaker; but once that passed (in this case, within a minute or so), I was actually felt quite honored that someone had read my proposal closely enough to disagree with it so carefully and logically!

Times are hard, and anger is easy to come by. Radio, cable TV and the internet constantly propagate delegitimizing invective in all directions, and when budgets are shrinking and everybody must sacrifice, resentment is a natural human emotion. That’s where Torah steps in and says: stop and think about the effects of speech. Stop and think about the immediate and long-term effects of your actions, not only upon others but the effect on you, as a spiritual being. I believe human beings reach our full potential in community, and for community to thrive, each of us must commit to the spiritual disciple of thoughtful speech and channeling our anger.

That is the path of honoring the Divine Image in others and in ourselves, and lays the foundation for the just society that Torah asks us to imagine and build.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Respecting Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being . . . . Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Shemot/ Exodus 20:21-23)

Good morning! This week we read one of the grandest narratives in the entire Bible: the giving of the Torah in fire and thunder and the speaking of the Ten Commandments. After the dramatic revelation, the people fall away in awe, and a few more laws are given, including the law above to build an altar and make offerings. The altar cannot be made of stone shaped by  iron; Rashi explains that the altar bring peace but iron represents war, so the latter is not suitable for the former.

So far, so good, but what’s this about not ascending by steps? Once again, Rashi to the rescue: he says this means the altar must be built with a sloping ramp, so the priests going up to make the offerings will not have to make big steps up the stairs, which could reveal. . . well. . . you know, too much information, as it were. That would be disrespectful in a sacred place. Yet Rashi also points out that just a few chapters later, we get a law that says that the priests have to wear special linen garments for modesty, so there would, in fact, not be too much uncovered no matter what kind of steps the priests had to climb. (Cf. Shemot 28:42)

OK, now you’re asking, how did we get from the Ten Commandments to puzzles involving priestly underwear, and what does this have to with the revelation at Sinai which is the highlight of the parsha? Well, let’s go back to Rashi, who says that even though the priests would not reveal themselves immodestly- because of their special garments- big steps would be close enough to something that might suggest immodesty that it would be disrespectful to the stones of the altar. We all know that stones couldn’t care less who walks on them or how they are dressed, so Rashi points out the moral lesson, which is really about people: if the Torah is teaching us to be exceedingly careful not to show even a hint of disrespect to stones, who don’t react and can’t care, then how much more should we be careful with human beings, who are made in the Divine Image and who care very much about their honor.

Now I can understand why this the final verse of this Torah portion: because the sages may have wanted us to understand that the revelation at Sinai is not a bunch of technical rules guiding only behavior, but is a set of spiritual principles which we internalize in order to be transformed towards compassion, care, and love. The steps of the altar have a moral purpose: to help us achieve conscience in all things. This law governs stepping on stones, but moves us towards the deepest ethic of respect and generosity towards others. This, to me, is the goal of the whole Torah, then and now.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Beshallach: Battle and Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

“Yehoshua did as Moshe told him and fought with Amalek, while Moshe, Aharon, and Hur went up to the top of the hill . . . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 17:10)

Good afternoon, one and all. It’s a long and rich parsha this week, beginning with the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, continuing with Moshe and Miriam leading the people in praise and dance on the other side, taking a detour into grumbling and conflict, and finishing on a somber note, with the nation of Amalek attacking the Israelites as they journey towards Sinai.

Yehoshua, Moshe’s second in command, leads the people in battle with Amalek, but Moshe himself, along with two others, ascends a hill above the battlefield to watch and pray. Our friend Rashi draws a halachic point from the verse quoted above; he says that the example of Moshe, Aharon and Hur going to the hill above the battlefield teaches that on a fast day, we have three people who lead the congregation in prayer, as the people were fasting that day.

Now, fasting during a battle doesn’t make much sense from the standpoint of physical strength and endurance, so we are meant to understand that there is an introspective and spiritual aspect to the battle with Amalek which is also important. The ancient rabbis see all the conflict and accusation in chapters 16 and 17 as setting the stage for Amalek to attack, either as a punishment or simply by dividing and weakening the people.

This does not, in any way, exonerate Amalek for their evil deed. Rather, the point of this midrash is that two things can be true at once:

1) Evil people do bad things and must be held responsible; Amalek must be fought.

2) Conflict and catastrophe are opportunities for reflection and introspection in order to atone for any part in making it possible for evil people to do terrible things. Fasting is one traditonal Jewish way of engaging in this reflection and atonement; hence Rashi making a connection between fasting and fighting with Amalek.

The past week has been a sad and difficult week in the United States; a sitting Congresswoman is fighting for her life after being shot, along with many others, in a senseless act of shocking brutality, which took the lives of young and old alike. President Obama, in his speech a few days later, used Biblical imagery to make essentially the same point that Rashi does: that justice and introspection are complementary responses to violence of word and deed. We must hold people accountable for their actions, and we must look within ourselves to ask how we, as individuals and as a community, may have contributed to allowing bad things to happen.

A third way of articulating this idea is something Heschel said in his book The Prophets: few are guilty, but all are responsible. That sense of responsibility, for self and others, is truly the foundation of a morally serious life.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Bo: Rising to Nobility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Shalom friends, we’re blessedly early with our drasha this week, let’s keep that trend up . . . . .

Speaking of trends, in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, Pharaoh’s standing in the “human king as Egyptian demigod” rankings continues to decline as the plagues take a terrible toll on his country, authority and self-confidence. Before the Israelites leave, however, they are told that they must have a ritual meal, not only while they are in Egypt, but every year following, in order to remember the great liberation. This, of course, eventually becomes our Pesach seder, or Passover meal, but in Biblical days, the central ritual was the Korban Pesach, an offering of a lamb or kid.

This offering had to be roasted and eaten in a very precise way; Sh’mot chapter 12 has all kinds of laws relating to this ritual, even specifying how the bones are treated during the meal:

“It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it.”  (Shmot/ Exodus 12:46)

Our Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, explains that one might break the bone of a meat meal to suck the marrow out, and one can easily imagine that hungry slaves would indeed get every bit out of the meat that they could. The medieval textbook Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that the commandment not to break the bone is about teaching the people honor and dignity- it is not the way of princes and nobles to chew on the bones like a dog, but that’s what poor or hungry people have to do.

Thus, while at the time of the first Pesach meal, the people were, in fact, poor and hungry slaves, they needed to claim their dignity and act as if they were nobles and free people. In so doing, they would come to internalize their own sense of honor and self-possession. The Exodus could not be only a physical process of moving from one place to another, nor even a purely political act of declaring that Pharaoh’s authority was overthrown. The Exodus also had to be a spiritual phenomenon within the Israelites themselves, in which they came to realize they were not inherently slaves, they had little to fear, and past suffering did not constrain future freedom.

That’s why they need to eat like nobility. Not only was it an overt act of defying Pharaoh, but more importantly, it enacted and illustrated the most importance remembrance: who they really were. They were not slaves, but children of Avraham and Sarah and inheritors of their sacred covenant. That’s our challenge, too: to remember who we really are- not slaves to our desires or anxieties and servants to no human power, but noble, spiritual beings, called to great works.

There’s no better way to remember, to claim truth, than to act. In AA, they often say “fake it till you make it,” but perhaps the Jewish way of expressing the same idea would be: do the mitzvah, and your soul will be lifted up.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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