Archive for April, 2011

Kedoshim: Rise Up

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portion: Kedoshim

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. . . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:32) 

Shalom again, after our Passover break!

This week we read the Torah portion Kedoshim by itself- usually it’s doubled up with its preceding portion, Acharei MotKedoshim has both ethical and ritual laws, including some of the most beautiful principles of Judaism, among which is the verse quoted above, which teaches us to respect, in word and deed, our elders. In our youth oriented media culture, that itself is an important ethical norm, but the ancient rabbis go deeper than manners in understanding this commandment. 

First, we note how the verse above, like many of the verses in this Torah portion, has the phrase “I am the Lord” [ani Adonai] appended to it. There are various interpretations of this phrase, and its variants, attached to different verses, but in this case, at least one ancient source understands this as God saying, as it were : “You shall rise before the aged and show deference do the old, and fear the Holy One, as I, the Holy One, have also done.”

 More explicitly, this midrash* imagines that God is saying: I mention Myself because I was the first to do the mitzvah of rising before an elder. This refers back to Avraham, who was visited by three angels in his tent as he was recovering from his circumcision. 

Now, on the one hand, this is a wildly inventive midrash, if for no other reason than our notion of mitzvah as “commandment” in the sense of having a “commander” is quite altered by imagining that the commander observes the same mitzvot that we do. Leaving those theological issues aside, however, we can still take this image another way: thinking of the Holy One “rising” before Avraham, as it were, also imagines that the most exalted One is also the most humble One. The philosophers posit God as the First Cause, or the Ground of Being, but for the ancient rabbis, God was the One who exemplified the path of humility, care, compassion and fierce commitment to justice. 

To put it another way: in a consumer culture, we value people by what they produce, we notice people by what they consume, and we’re always looking for the next big thing. Torah turns that on its head: we value people because of what they might teach, and revere those who came before. When the rabbis imagine God rising before Avraham, they imagine a world in which we, too, see all people as made in the Divine Image, and must act accordingly. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

*This text is from the Jerusalem Talmud, but I found it in the anthology called Torah Temimah. 
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Passover: The Festival of Learning

Dear Friends: 

Passover is almost upon us, and there’s too much to do: shopping, cooking, arranging, traveling. . .if we’re thinking about the meaning of the holiday at all, we’re probably thinking about the basic outline of the story: Moshe confronted Pharaoh, there were plagues, we got out, let’s eat! 

Yet the traditional Haggadah is a remarkably subtle document, full of interesting characters and narrative turns. One of my favorites comes right at the beginning, when we meet an ancient Jewish leader named Elazar ben Azariah: 

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: “I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: “It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;’ now `the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights!”

This little story is actually a quote from the Mishnah, or early Talmud, which occurs in the context of a discussion about saying the Shma at night.  So why include this in the Passover seder

First, the obvious teaching: that we are obligated to recall the Exodus at night year-round, and so especially so at the seder, when it is the centerpiece of our holiday. Not only that, but recalling the Exodus is so central to who we are as a people that even in the days of the Messiah, we’ll still remember the Exodus. Being grateful and not taking our freedom for granted isn’t something we do just one night a year, but is a constant spiritual discipline, central to what Judaism means in our lives. 

Yet I think the story above teaches us one more thing, which is that even if you are like Elazar ben Azaryah, the head of the Sanhedrin (high council), wise and learned and entrusted with great responsibility- you can, and must, always be open to new learning. Not only was Elazar open to learning from Ben Zoma, but he freely admitted it, and sets the example for us at our own sedarim: we can learn something new every year, from anybody who may be able to teach us a new insight, and this openness is a proud virtue. 

So have a seder tonight with wonderful discussions, new teachings, interesting commentaries, digressions and interpretations . . . . and rejoice that we are all teachers and students of Torah. 

Many blessings for a warm and healthy holiday, 

Rabbi Neal 

P.S.- for a little more about R. Elazar, go here and here

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Metzorah: The Cycle of Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘This shall be the ritual for the metzorah on the day of his purification. . . . ‘ “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:2)

It’s good to be back at my desk after a week away, but I do wish I had an easier Torah portion with which to re-start my commentaries. The portion Metzorah and the previous portion, Tazria (the two are usually read together), are difficult sections of the Torah because the laws and ideas of ritual impurity are so seemingly foreign to a modern sensibility. The ancient rabbis saw ritual impurity- tumah– as indicative of a moral flaw or failing, but the Torah itself doesn’t seem to condemn the ritually impure person. This impurity separates a person from the holy areas of the Israelite camp, or the entire camp itself, and comes about through contact with death, or bodily fluids, or outbreaks on the skin. Yet in the biblical period, these things seem to happen as part of the cycle of life and death, birth and bleeding, without connection to sin, as such.

Please note: I am not saying the ancient rabbis are wrong when they connect tumah with ethics. There are layers upon layers of interpretation, but for today, it’s enough to note that the laws of the metzorah describe a cycle of separation and reintegration, rooted in a holistic conception of body and soul and community, which strikes me as an important corrective to more ethereal conceptions of spirituality. The metzorah is a person who hastzara’at, or a scaly skin outbreak. He is not a “leper” as we understand the term- this is not about disease. If it were, the Torah would warn us that many who are so afflicted would die of their condition.

The Torah doesn’t say the metzorah may die. Instead, the Torah teaches us that the metzorah will go through a ritual of separation from the community and then reintegration back into it, just as other ritually impure individuals will. I understand tzara’at not as disease, but as symbolic of an intense, embodied experience which dislocates a person from ordinary life. I believe most of us have had such experiences: perhaps a close encounter with danger or death; or fear so deep we feel it in our bones; or a jarring realization that brings sweat to the skin; or perhaps even the feelings of awe and humility which seem to shrink us where we stand.

These experiences are deeply both body and soul- there is no separate “spiritual” experience which we don’t have as creatures of flesh and blood and skin and sweat. Sometimes that puts us ill at ease  in the ordinary give-and-take of daily errands and work and relationships, and what our Torah portion reminds us is that this is natural.

Sometimes what unfolds in our lives requires us to separate, to meditate, to reflect, to integrate ourselves so that we can fully rejoin the bustling world which can seem so strange at times. Sometimes we are part of the infinite web of life, and sometimes we feel apart from it- this feeling, expressed in our bodies, is how I understand the idea of the metzorah.

To put it another way: the metzorah is not the “other,” the yucky one, who is cast out. The metzorah is any and all of us, at different times in our lives, when we are out of sync with the our surroundings and need to brought back. That cycle is ultimately about return: to community, to self, to the Sacred center of our lives, which is always awaiting us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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