Archive for June, 2011

Chukat: Speak Words of Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:7-8, JPS translation)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Chukat is long and varied, containing many interesting and dramatic narratives, including strife in the wilderness, the decree that Moshe will not enter the Land, and the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The beginning of chapter 20 relates the famous story of “striking the rock,” with the resultant terrible decree on Moshe, who was apparently supposed to speak to the rock when the people cry out for water, as in the verse above. Instead, he struck it with his staff, and is told that he will never enter the Land.

There is oodles and oodles of rabbinic commentary on what, exactly, Moshe did that was so bad, but we won’t get into that today. (You can check out commentaries on that topic here, here, and here.) Rather, I’m interested in a fascinating midrash related to what Moshe was ostensibly supposed to do when the people cried out for water, and there were only rocks around them. The late medieval commentator known as the Or HaChaim (from his famous book of that title) quotes an earlier text to which interprets “order the rock” [literally, “speak to the rock before their eyes”] as “study Torah by the rock,” or maybe even to teach Torah to the rock itself ! The text says that Moshe should have spoken just “a single paragraph” to the stone; given that rocks, unlike people, don’t have ears to hear or minds to understand, what could this possibly mean?

The verse itself is clear that Moshe was supposed to speak to the rock, not just whack it with a stick, but the image of studying Torah by- or with- the rock suggests that the better way to get water from a rock is a more meditative approach, rather than frantic action. This is not about a miracle of hydrology, it’s about what it takes to draw out from others something deep and nourishing: first, go to your innermost core, reminding yourself of your deepest ideals and sense of connection.

Then, speak words of Torah- that is, words which are grounded in our best selves, our most authentic ethical and spiritual traditions and paradigms. That’s how you draw out something sustaining when the community is “dry” of ideas, hopes, and vision. “Speaking Torah to the rock” can mean: Moshe, if you’re swinging sticks around when the people are scared, go back to your own source of innermost meaning- study some Torah so that you act from a place of spiritual intentionality, not negativity, resentment or anger towards the people.

Dealing with human beings- stubborn, stiff-necked and complaining, as all of us are, at least some of the time- often requires a reorientation of our attitude before we can be effective agents of hope and care. Even Moshe had to remember who he was- a teacher, a leader, a lover of Israel, grounded in sacred ideals- before he could give others what they needed. It’s no great failing to want to strike the rock; we fail only ourselves when in haste we forget to slow down and take in Torah and its vision of compassionate humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Korach: Guarding the Sanctuary

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Good afternoon!

Most readers of this or other Torah commentaries know the basic story of Korach, the rebellious prince who raised up a gang to challenge Moshe and Aharon for the leadership of the Israelites. Well, that didn’t work out so well for him, but what is less well known is the set of laws that comes after the rebellion, laws which mostly spell out the responsibilities of the priests and Levites (the tribe dedicated to religious service) as well as their rights to a portion of the contributions coming into the ancient Sanctuary.

Both the priests and the larger group of Levites had a particular commandment to guard the Mishkan, both from the inside and the outside: (Cf. chapter 18: 1-4) As the Sefer HaChinuch explains, the commandment to guard the Mishkan meant that Levites acted like sentries around the outside, while Kohanim [priests] stayed alert at a few stations within its boundaries.

So far, so good: the tribe set apart for carrying, assembling, and serving in the the ancient Sanctuary had to also guard it, staying up all night on their rotating watches. Yet Sefer HaChinuch goes on to say that this was not a guarding against external enemies; after all, the entire Israelite nation was already encamped around the Mishkan, so what could one little tribe of Levites do if the larger military defenses were already breached?

Rather, the priests and Levites had to guard the Sanctuary because doing so increased the honor of the Mishkan and the reverence and awe they would feel in its presence. The analogy is given to a palace with sentries (think of Buckingham Palace with those guys in the big hats) versus, say, the Poughkeepsie City Hall. (Which is not such a bad place, it just suffers in comparison.) In other words, the priests and Levites were told to guard the “palace” (another word for the later Sanctuary in Jerusalem) not against some external threat, but the internal problem of apathy, boredom, routines, and cynicism. They were told to guard theMiskhan  to be reminded that the Miskhan was worth guarding!

Now it makes sense: our reverent deeds are not for the object of our respect, they are for the cultivation of a sensitive heart. The Mishkan was the place were our ancient ancestors felt the Sacred Presence, and where they went to celebrate, give thanks, and atone. Yet what really mattered was the openness of the individual to experiencing the Holy; that came from within, not from geography. Sacred places are important- they open us up and bind us together, but let’s not confuse the place with the experience it evokes. We can’t come into a synagogue, or stand on a mountain, or gaze at the stars, or be moved by the sight of the sea, and expect to have a “spiritual” experience without nurturing from within the possibility of such- or, to put it more bluntly, wherever you go, you bring yourself there.

On the other hand, the image of the Levites “guarding the palace”- so they would know it was a holy place- reminds us that we have a choice as we move through the world: to see only buildings and earth, or to open ourselves to the possibility that the palace is, in fact, right where we’re standing.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Close to Home

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

“At the end of 40 days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community. . . ”  (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:25-26)


This week’s Torah portion contains the famous stories of the spies, who were sent up to scout out the land. Most of the spies came back discouraged, but two, Joshua and Caleb, were full of hope and faith. Their optimism was not great enough to overcome the negativity of the other ten spies, who soon turned the people against Moshe and Aharon.

Disaster ensued: according to the story, God was so incensed by that generations’s  lack of faith and confidence that they were condemned to wander and die in the wilderness, never reaching the Land. We think of the Israelites taking 40 years to wander between Egyptand the Promised Land, but it certainly doesn’t take that long to walk on foot (even in a camp of hundreds of thousands). In fact, the real tragedy is that when they sent the spies from Paran, they were really, really close to their destination!

Harper’s Bible Dictionary has an entry for Paran which suggests that the place from which the spies were sent was along the northern border of the Sinai peninsula, just a bit south of what would become the the territory of Judah. The spies were close enough that going to scout out a wide swath of the Land took only forty days, there and back, which means that the whole camp was only a few days, maybe a week’s journey from the borders of the Land itself.

It seems to me that the Torah wants us to understand that what held the Israelites back was not the physical challenge of entering the land, but the spiritual challenge of changing their world-outlook, being ready to make the transition from slaves to free people, responsible for their nation’s fate. Walking a few hundred kilometers across the desert is easy compared to changing the mental habits of an entire community; they were so close physically, but so far internally.

I recently learned about the concept of the extinction burst, which is a fancy way of saying that the human mind resists mightily to changes in learned behavior, and will often put up a fight as soon as changing a habit or addiction becomes a real possibility.  That sounds like a plausible understanding of the story of the spies: unable to conceive of themselves as responsible for their own fate, the Israelites, against all physical evidence, said simply: we can’t do it. Negativity was the habit; change was the possibility; hope was the requirement.

It was true for them, and it’s so true for us today: the closer we get to real change, the more resistant people and communities become, even if the border is within sight. The Ba’al Shem Tovsaid as much in a parable of prayer: when you get to the place of maximum distraction, that’s when you know you are close to the Divine Presence, for it is like a king heavily guarded- when you meet the guards, you know you’re close to a breakthrough.

When you’re close to the place of promise- keep going!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beha’alotcha: The Greater Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand. . . .’ “(Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1-2)

Good evening! For those who just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, I hope you had a wonderful and inspiring holiday. The weekly Torah reading rolls on (as it were) through the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, so called for its theme of counting and organizing the Israelites as they prepare to go on their journey.

Last week, the portion ended with a dramatic scene: 12 princes, one from each of the 12 tribes, brought gifts of gold and silver for the dedication of the Mishkan. This week, the portion opens up with the commandment for Aharon and his sons- the priests- to light and maintain the menorah, or lampstand, in the Mishkan, as part of their daily duties.

In the Torah text itself, there is no particular connection of the narrative of the dedication to the giving of additional laws pertaining to the service in the Mishkan, but our friend Rashi brings an older midrash which sees the commandment to light the menorah as a consolation to Aharon, the High Priest.

Rashi’s comment goes something like this:

“Why was the section [of the Torah] pertaining to the menorah connected to the section of the princes? [who each brought a gift for the Mishkan in the previous chapter.] When Aharon saw the princes doing the dedication [of the Mishkan], his spirits fell, because he was not with them in the dedication- not him and not his tribe. So the Holy One said to him: ‘by your life! yours is greater than theirs, because you will light and maintain the menorah! ‘ ”

Remember, the tribe of Levi was separated from the other tribes, set apart for religious service to the community. So Aharon didn’t get to bring a gift of gold or silver, but according to the midrash, he was consoled with the idea that  the merit of his deed was even greater. Other commentators suggest that the menorah was assembled, lighted, and cleaned every day; this was not a dramatic act of great ceremony, but a quiet act of inner dedication and humble service.

What’s striking about the story Rashi brings is that Aharon, as High Priest, does all kinds of important rituals and is a great public leader among the Israelites. He even atones for the entire community on Yom Kippur, going into the Holy of Holies, where nobody else is permitted to enter! Given Aharon’s very prominent role in the life of Israel, the idea that simply lighting the lamps is of such importance reminds us that small acts which benefit others can be more important to the religious life of the community than even gifts of gold.

Think for a moment about a typical synagogue: there are countless small tasks that keep it going, from organizing the Torah readings to ordering the cakes and cookies to overseeing the budget and maintaining the building. Many of these tasks are true gifts of love performed by volunteers, often without recognition or public appreciation. What Rashi reminds us is that the merit of giving of oneself is great indeed, and should be honored greatly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Naso: Living Fully In The World

 Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  As his offering to the Lord he shall present: one male lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering; one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering. . . . “ (Bamidbar / Numbers 6:13:-14)

Good morning!

In this week’s portion, we learn the laws of the nazir– a person who had taken a vow of dedication to God who then had to leave his hair untrimmed, avoid any and all intoxicating beverages, and not go near the dead. (More here and here.) There’s lots of commentaries explaining how those three prohibitions go together to fulfill the purpose of the nazirite vow, but for now let’s just go with the common understanding that wine and other intoxicating beverages are symbolic of sensory pleasure, while leaving the hair uncut is a rejection of vanity and outward appearances.

So far, so good- the nazirite wanted to enter into an ascetic state for a temporary period, and refrained from celebrating the pleasures or appearance of the body for that time. I can easily understand why someone would want to do that: for reflection, for introspection, for discipline, for spiritual commitment and rejuvenation.

Notice, however, that when the term of the nazirite vow is over, before he cuts his hair, thenazir brings a sin offering. Some commentaries interpret this to imply that rejecting sensory pleasures and social norms (e.g., looking totally untrimmed and ungroomed set one apart) isn’t actually desirable, over the long run. There is a balance between body and soul, and one who chooses to remove him or herself from the world we live in may tip the scales too far in one direction- even if his goal is spiritual dedication and growth.

Seen this way (but this isn’t the only way to see it), the nazir’s vow of abstention from pleasure and withdrawal from normal society is not an unalloyed good- to which I would add the thought that a spirituality which can only be practiced in asceticism and solitude is not a viable spirituality for the long path of life. Sometimes going on retreat is absolutely necessary, to place bodily pleasure and social conventions in their proper perspective. For example, consider  how we refrain from bodily pleasure and adorning ourselves on Yom Kippur.

The example of the nazir reminds us that there are more important things in life than nice meals and a stylish appearance; I’d go so far as to say those things are fairly far down the list of things to which we might dedicate our lives. Yet life is a blessing, to be enjoyed when possible, and Judaism also reminds us to rejoice with wine and dress l’kavod Shabbat [in honor of the Sabbath] weekly.

Perhaps the nazir brings the sin-offering only because it’s hard to get the balance of life just right: in withdrawing from the world, just a bit, the nazir also denies the beauty and blessing of embodied existence. To be dedicated to God is a beautiful thing; to live fully in God’s beautiful world is also part of an integrated spirituality. The sin-offering of the nazir remind us not to trade one for the other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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