Archive for May, 2011

Bamidbar: The Presence of Absence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

“These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadav, the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar;  those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for priesthood. But Nadav and Avihu died. . . . . . ”  (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:2-4)

Good afternoon!

This week we begin the book of Bamidbar, which opens up with the Israelites in the desert (“Bamidbar” literally means “in the wilderness”) organizing themselves by tribe and clan, in order to travel from Sinai to the Promised Land. Moshe and Aharon choose men from each tribe to take a head count, and then arrange the tribes in the camp, with the Mishkan [sanctuary] in the center.

The Levites are not counted and arranged in the same way, because they have the responsibility of setting up and maintaining the Mishkan, but right before these duties are enumerated, we are reminded that among the general duties of the Levites is assisting the priests, who were the direct descendants of Aharon. This passage begins with the verse above, which mentions not only the living sons of Aharon, Eleazar and Itamar, but also the ones who died, Nadav and Avihu. (Cf. Vayikra 10.)

It strikes me, on this Shabbat before Memorial Day, that sometimes absence is as present as presence. The whole Torah portion is all about acknowledging the living: what tribe, where they camp, who can serve in the army, who has which religious duties. Yet smack dab in the middle of all this arranging, we are reminded of Nadav and Avihu, whose absence looms large when the line of the priesthood is named. Like the empty chair at the family feast, we can’t help but notice who is there, and who is missed, among Aharon’s sons, designated for religious leadership. As the sons are named, it is an inescapable truth: Aharon had 4 sons, all of whose names are equal, all of whom are equally alive in the consciousness of those who knew them and hoped for their future.

The palpable, felt presence of those gone is hardly an ancient phenomenon. The United States has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years, and families all across the country are feeling the presence of their loved ones who will not return. In the larger Jewish community, the Jewish War Veterans has asked that synagogues read the names of the the Jewish soldiers who have died in those wars, on this Shabbat before Memorial Day. We’ll do that here in Poughkeepsie, but if you’d like to see the list, you can find it here.

For those of us living in the United States, this Memorial Day can be more than just a time for sales and barbeque. Our country has been at war for a long time, and more than six thousand men and women have died, along with coalition forces and civilian casualties. The absence of those lost is keenly felt by our neighbors and fellow citizens, friends, family and comrades of those who died. Shall we not try to remember their names, even for just a few moments this Memorial Day, just as the Israelites remembered the names of the sons of Aharon?

A good and reflective Memorial Day and a Shabbat Shalom to all,

Rabbi Neal

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Bechukotai: Water from Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Bechukotai is difficult, with its overt promises of earthly reward for the righteous and corresponding terrible consequences for the wicked and disloyal. Most adult observers of the human condition realize that life is not so simple: the good often suffer, and nasty people sometimes live long and prosperous lives. (Whether those lives are fully lived is a separate question.)

Fortunately, we do not read Bechokotai alone: we read it with an accompanying haftarah [selection from the prophetic texts], which at first glance seems to reinforce the image of God as stern judge, convicting the guilty:

“I the Lord probe the heart,
Search the mind —
To repay every man according to his ways,
With the proper fruit of his deeds. . . . . .” (Jeremiah 17:10)

Yet in the same passage, the prophet offers a strikingly different image of Divinity:

“O Hope of Israel! O Lord!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men,
For they have forsaken the Lord,
The Fount of living waters.” (17:13)

The Hebrew is poetic in the original, so where the JPS translation, above, suggests that those who turn from God are “doomed men,” but more literally, the verse says something like “those who turn from you will be written in the land.” Perhaps this refers to burial, or perhaps simply contrasts a static, fixed inscription in the earth with the “fount of living waters,” which suggests a dynamic, sustaining, growing, flowing sense of the Holy. In other words, the Biblical texts do not only suggest that God is the judge- an anthropomorphic image- but also a well of water, the source of life itself, something to be drawn upon, something which rises up from within.

The contemporary Jewish theologian Art Green famously contrasted “vertical metaphors” for God- that is, a God Who is “up” or “out” or “above us”, coming “down to the mountain” – with the images in the Torah that suggest an indwelling Presence: wells, rivers, living water. This, in turn, suggests a spiritual experience that unfolds from the inside out, which makes the stern Judge of Bechokotai part of our own inner reality. If God is like water- welling up from deep places- then the consequences of sin, as such, are not externally imposed punishments, but a drying up of the soul, cut off from its deep sustenance.

This comes back to our haftarah, which offers another image of life-giving water:

“Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.” (17:7-8)

That’s the point, I think: digging a bit deeper, into the place of transcending the ego, the narrow self, is what allows us to bring forth the fruit- that is, to bring forth our deeds of compassion, patience, and justice. Biblical images of judgment evoke a deep sense of accountability, and are entirely appropriate at times, but the prophet’s image of God as the Living Water remind us that it’s what we bring forth in our actions which is the true test of faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


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B’har: Proclaim Liberty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

Good afternoon!

One of the most famous verses of the whole Torah is found in this week’s portion:

. . you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:10)

The fiftieth year is the Yovelor Jubilee year, in which those who were pressed into debt-servitude were released and sent home, and land sold under economic pressure was returned to the families to which it was assigned.

Commentators have noted that release (or famously, “liberty”) was proclaimed to all the dwellers in the land, but of course, not all of them were bond-servants. One interpretation, from the book Pnai Yehoshua (quoted in the collection Itturei Torah), offers a powerful interpretation: liberty is proclaimed to all because a society in which some are in bondage is a society in which none are truly free.

True freedom is not “getting to do whatever I want.” True freedom is becoming my highest and best self, in relation to God, others, and the natural world, which cannot happen if the cost of my comforts is somebody else’s physical and emotional well-being.

Here in North America, we get lots of cool things pretty cheap- electronics fromChina, clothing from India and Pakistan, food from South America. We are free, as it were, to do more fun stuff because less of our money goes to paying those who make what we enjoy- but are we free from the moral consequences of a system where across the globe, many (myself most definitely included) have too much and many more have too little? Are we free to enjoy fully the fruits of our labors, knowing that somebody else’s labor was given under brutal and demeaning conditions?

Don’t take my word for is. Just search on any internet news site using the terms “Apple China factory labor” or “Pakistan textile child workers,” or other combinations of similar terms. Yes, one can make the argument that terrible jobs are better than no jobs at all- but a better argument would be that if Westerners were willing to work with employers to create better and fairer working conditions, the jobs wouldn’t be so terrible.

Freedom is not a zero-sum game. I don’t have less if someone else has more. We cannot be free-  free to make better, more honest choices-  if we don’t know the truth about how our goods are produced. Proclaiming freedom to all the inhabitants of the globe means taking a fearless inventory of our social and economic ethics, so that a life of dignity is truly the inheritance of all humankind.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Emor: Eye for an Eye

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor 

If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. . . .  If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. (Shmot/Exodus 24:17-20)

As for bin Laden, what was meted out to him was vengeance. Vengeance pure and simple, sweet and sound. Vengeance cathartic, uplifting, necessary and right.

Got a problem with that?  (Wall Street Journal editorial, May 3, 2011)

At first glance, it seems like the Torah portion Emor is the fitting coda for a week filled with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, along with details of the operation and debates about the politics, tactics, repercussions, and larger strategic concerns. OBL, as he’s known on the internet, bore responsibility for thousands of deaths, and so it seems that the principle of “an eye for an eye” provides ample justification for his violent death and burial at sea. 

Yet Judaism has never endorsed a literal reading of the verses above; from the earliest days of rabbinic Torah interpretation, we have always read these verses to teach not revenge, but proportional compensation. It is impossible to damage someone’s eye or tooth or limb in exactly the way the victim was injured, but it is not impossible (difficult, but not impossible) to figure out a fair monetary compensation for the victim’s pain, missed wages, doctor bills, etc. (See more here and here.)

In fact, I’d say, contra the WJS, that Judaism does, indeed, have a problem with revenge, understood as an extrajudicial harming of another party for reasons of emotional satisfaction, carried out by a victim or the victim’s family or associates. Look at how the Bible begins: with the murder of one brother by another, over a perceived slight- hardly an auspicious beginning for humankind, and not one that the Torah seems to endorse. 

Please note: I am not comparing OBL’s crimes to a “mere slight.” I am pointing out that the emotional and ethical dynamics of violence are a deep concern of the Torah from its opening pages. Having said that, it’s also true that the Torah does seem to endorse capital punishment, but the ancient rabbis, in their insistence on proper legal procedures, sharply curtailed its use, precisely to slow down the passions that lead to vengeance.

It’s a complicated topic, but I would suggest that revenge is not an appropriate way to justify the action taken against bin Laden. It may be satisfying, but an ethical civilization does not kill because it feels good, nor do we rejoice in revenge, even for a man who boasts of his crimes. (Cf. Proverbs 24:17, among others.) 
What makes more ethical sense to me is identifying OBL as rodef, or pursuer- that is, one who is actively intending future harm, and who thus may be legitimately killed or harmed according to Jewish law. (See here if you haven’t already.) Now, we can argue back and forth as to whether he was intending immediate harm, and we won’t settle that debate- too much is unknown or properly kept secret. That’s not the point, which is to distinguish between revenge, which has little place in a society of dispassionate laws, and the law of the pursuer, with its active concern for the protection of innocents in the future.
To be clear: I am not mourning the terrorist. I do, however, believe that celebrating the death of a human being, with parties and high-fives, is not the Jewish way; we who spill out drops of wine for the suffering of Pharaoh and his people might instead regard any violent death as tragic. Tragic not because violence is always wrong, but tragic because a violent act means that a human being- in this case, the arch-terrorist- betrayed his own humanity and the possibility of a better way. I blame no one but bin Laden for his death, and I do not mourn him, but I will not rejoice. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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