Archive for March, 2011

Shmini: Aharon’s Example

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmini

“He said to Aaron, ‘Take yourself a calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, [both] unblemished, and sacrifice them before God.  . . .’ ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:2)

This week’s Torah portion is Shmini, so named because it begins on the eighth day of the inauguration ceremony for Aharon and his sons as they became the priests who served in theMishkan, or portable Sanctuary.  On this eighth day, when their service begins, the first order of business is for Aharon, the High Priest, to take a calf to make an offering for himself before the Israelites make their own offerings.

OK, so far, so good. Our friend Rashi comments  that the language of “take for yourself a calf”   [kach l’cha egel ] means that Aharon should take this calf for his own edification, to let him know that theegel, or calf, that he offers now, at the beginning of his service in the Mishkan, is a sign that he is forgiven for his participation in the building of the golden calf [also egel.]

In other words, “take for yourself a calf” means: understand that your past mistakes do not prevent you from acts of great service and devotion right now. Right at the heart of the priestly service was a gigantic example of the idea that forgiveness and reconciliation are the Divine Attributes, made manifest in Aharon’s very being and standing close to the sacred center of the ancient Jewish nation.

Perhaps, then, it’s especially appropriate that Aharon was the High Priest, for he not only performed all the rituals of atonement and celebration, he lived out the fundamental spiritual values of falling short and rising up, making mistakes and experiencing forgiveness. To put it another way- the Mishkan was not only inaugurated with priestly rituals, but with love and t’shuvah, [returning/ repenting] which are the moral core of Judaism itself.
Shabbat Shalom,

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Purim: Reading and Reliving

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends:

Tomorrow night is Purim, with its costumes, noisemakers, feasting and merriment, at the heart of which is the reading of the megillah, or scroll containing the book of Esther. We learn in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud, that one must read the book of Esther from a scroll, and in fact, one is not permitted to declaim it from memory, even if one had memorized the whole thing. (Mishnah Megillah 2:1- see text here.)

Now, that’s interesting, especially when one considers that just a month from now, we’ll sit down at a Passover table to tell the story of the Exodus, but we are not commanded to read a text, per se- just to tell the story and explain the central symbols of the holiday. The Passover text- the haggadah– is a tool, not the central idea. Yet on Purim, a lesser holiday, we have to tell the story by reading it out loud, from the written form, just as written.

Of course, the story of Mordecai and Esther is not more important in Jewish history than the story of the Exodus, but we should note that the story of Purim itself is told through texts- letters, laws, scrolls- from the decrees of Achashverosh and Haman, to the counter-decree which saved the Jews, to the command of Mordecai to remember the story itself, which was propagated far and wide by means of written communication:

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar . . . . .”(Es. 9:20-21, old JPS translation.)

Now we can see a similarity between Purim and Passover: on Passover, at theseder, we re-create the experience of slavery by eating matzah and maror, and then celebrating our freedom with the feast, wine, and grateful prayers. On Purim, we re-create the experience of the Jews in Persia by hearing the story declaimed from a scroll, a text, just as if we are there, receiving the words of Mordecai, enjoining us to observe the day and remember the events which lead to it.

Hearing the megillah, we’re like the Jews who have just been saved, grateful to be alive, determined to replace evil with good, hearing the news proclaimed as if from the royal court itself. We don’t just tell the story, but live it. Just as Mordecai commanded the Jews of his day to give gifts to the poor and gifts to neighbors and friends, we give gifts to the poor and send gifts of food (see herefor details.) As they celebrated and gave thanks, we celebrate and give thanks.

Reading from the megillah isn’t about recounting ancient history, it’s about being in the events, right now- because its greater themes, of life and death, gratitude and celebration, generosity and courage, are not history, but the core of life itself, today.

Happy Purim to one and all,


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Vayikra: Plain Flour

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

And if his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering for that of which he is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering; he shall not add oil to it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.. . . .” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5:11)

Good afternoon, it’s good to be back!

Before we get to this week’s Torah portion, I’m pleased to announce that all the archives of weekly commentaries I’ve written since 5759 (=1999) are now on my blog site, organized by parsha. (Thanks Ami!)

Now, onto some Torah learning. This week we begin the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, which is largely concerned with the laws of the priests and the priestly offerings. Sometimes the piles of rules seems rather arbitrary and technical, but the ancient (and not-so-ancient) rabbis tried to discern moral and spiritual principles behind even the smallest details.

Above we have one such detail: that when someone who sins accidentally or unintentionally brings an offering of atonement, if they don’t have enough money to bring an animal offering, they can bring a handful of flour- but the flour should not have oil mixed in with it, as it sometimes is with other offerings. (Cf. Vayikra 2:1)

Sefer Ha-Hinnuch posits two reasons for the ban on oil in the flour-offering of the penitent as described above. First, it points out that oil is a symbol of luxury and wealth in ancient times- that’s why anointing with oil was a symbol of priesthood and kingship. Yet this atonement offering should be one that evokes humility, contrition and introspection, and thus in this case, adding oil to it would be mixing messages, as it were. (Marshal McLuhan should have studied the Hinnuch!)

Secondly, the Sefer Ha-Hinnuch assumes that the verse above applies to a poor person, as it occurs in a section which explicitly states that the mitzvah is to bring a large animal- unless one didn’t have enough money for a large animal, then bring a small one, and if that’s still too great a burden, then just bring some flour. So, if the verse already assumes that the only person who would bring the flour offering is a poor person, it makes sense to forbid the use of oil or spices, lest the penitent feel pressured to spend beyond their means in adding to a  small offering.

I learn two larger points from this commentary on the flour-offering. First, how we perform a spiritual practice affects the result of that practice. The offering was meant to be one of repentance, so it should be offered in a humble and plain way. Similarly, if we want to have spiritual experiences which transform us in joy, or humility, or gratitude, or reverence, or any other aspect of religious growth, we have to enter our prayers, practices, rituals and celebrations with the right framework to get us there.

For example, if you want to have a joyful Shabbat- make your dress, table, house, songs and prayers celebratory and inspiring. If you want to be inclined towards great reverence and introspection on Yom Kippur, prepare yourself accordingly, inside and out. To put it another way- we need kavannah [intentionality or mindfulness] to do mitzvot, but it’s also true that doing the mitzvot brings us to kavannah.

Finally, note that the ritual we’re discussing involves bringing a handful of flour, which our commentary assumes that even the poorest penitent could afford. In other words, the most ancient form of Judaism had at its very heart- the Temple offerings- an ethic of radical inclusion, at least in terms of socioeconomic status. The Temple- the place of the Divine Presence- was a place for rich and poor equally. The rich person’s big offering didn’t earn them any more atonement that the poor man’s flour offering; it only mattered that each brought something real and significant in their own sight.

So, nu, we ask again: if  it’s only a little oil on the flour, what difference does it make?

We might answer: if the unadorned simplicity of the flour helped our ancestors achieve humility in their spirituality and inclusion in their institutions, and if we can learn from that, then a little verse about a little oil in the flour makes a big difference, indeed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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