Archive for September, 2011

Rosh Hashana: Hope and Growth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Readings: Rosh Hashana and Ha’azinu on Shabbat.

Happy New Year!

If you’ve attended synagogue services on Rosh Hashana, you may remember a phrase from the liturgy: hayom harat olam, “today is the birthday of the world,” an idea which arises in the time of the ancient sages. In the tractate Rosh Hashana, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined that the creation of the world was completed (with humankind) inTishrei and added that many other significant events happened in this season too, including:

– the births and deaths of our forefathers Avraham and Yaakov

– the matriarchs Sarah, Rachel and the prophetess Hannah learned that they would give birth

– Yosef was let out of prison inEgypt

– the Israelite slaves inEgyptthrew off the yoke of Pharaoh

Now, there is some back-and-forth between the the various sages, and another opinion was offered that some of these great events happened in Nissan, in the spring. Yet it strikes me that none of the events above are dramatic in themselves, like the giving of the Torah at Sinai or the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. After all, even Avraham was just another baby when born in Ur Kasdim , and when Yosef was let out of prison he had not yet had a chance to attain the power and prominence that would allow him to save his family.

Similarly, to say that Sarah, Rachel and Hannah learned of the possibility of giving birth is to draw attention to the fact that it would be some time before their sons were born. Note also that the Talmud says explicitly that although the time of servitude in Egyptended this month, it was of course not until the spring- Passover- when the Israelites actually physically left that bitter place. It seems that Pharaoh’s psychological power over the people was overthrown in Tishrei, but the Exodus itself took time, and wasn’t completed for months.

I think the sages link these events because they speak of blessings which unfold over time, with effort and patience and determination, and this is something important to remember as we anticipate the year ahead. We might indeed have tremendous insight and powerful prayer and deep learning in this holiday season, but these wonderful things are like seeds planted, which grow over seasons. I might have the most amazing spiritual experience in the coming days, but it probably won’t change my life overnight, and to expect an overwhelming and instantaneous miracle is to set myself up for disappointment and loss of hope.

In the text above, the rabbis teach that what happens on Rosh Hashana is the beginning of new chapters, perhaps even new things which will change history, if we will only stay the course. Judaism teaches both hope and faith- a faith which is not believing in unproven things but a quality of living which prioritizes doing the right thing for the right reasons, even if it’s hard and the desired result is far off in time.

That’s faith- to take what we’ve learned and felt and grow with it. That’s the kind of faith that I hope we find together this holiday season- may it be the start of great things which unfold in the lives of each of us, and the world around us.

A good and sweet New Year to all,


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Nitzavim- Vayelech: Write for Yourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech 

“And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. . . ” 

Good afternoon! 

In both baseball and Torah portions, we’re in the final weeks of the season, heading into the home stretch. This week, in the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech, we encounter the very last mitzvah of the Torah, derived from the verse above, that each person should write for themselves, or have written for them, a Torah scroll. We won’t go into the details of this mitzvah now, but you can click here and here for further study. For today, let’s just note that the context of the verse itself seems to be God telling Moshe that he should write down the words that God is teaching him, as it were, so that Moshe can in turn give it to the people and they can be held accountable. 

Going farther than the specific context of Deuteronomy, the ancient rabbis noted the “write for yourselves” is in the plural, and interpreted this to mean that each of us is to write the Torah for ourselves. One medieval commentary, the Sefer HaChinnuch, thinks that the point of this mitzvah is the ease of Torah study if we each has our own scroll (presumably, this comes from the days before printed books.) On the other hand, a Talmudic sage, Rabbah, says that even if your parents left you a Torah scroll, you still have to write one for yourself- that is, it’s not just about having one, it’s about making it yourself. 

This latter interpretation strikes me as teaching something important: it’s not enough to simply inherit your parent’s Torah- and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. It’s not enough to simply practice an inherited Judaism; “writing for ourselves” suggests making Judaism our own, making it live through the specific prism of our own lives, not just preserving an inheritance but also taking ownership of our religious experience. To be clear: this doesn’t mean we automatically reject the previous generations’ Judaism, it means that we build on it, embracing the confidence that each generation is responsible for doing Torah in this world according to its abilities and needs. 

That, to me, is a timeless message: we may inherit ancient texts, but we bring them to life in this day, not for the sake of the scroll of the Torah but for the creative soul of the Torah. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Ki Tavo: Learn Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo 

The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover. . . .  The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay.   (Devarim/ Deuteronomy


I’m back!

Friends, I apologize for the long break in providing a weekly commentary. I meant to only take a few weeks off in late July and early August, but one thing turned into another, and I never caught up from time off and unexpected situations at the synagogue.

Enough kvetching, let’s look at this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which begins with a famous commandment to bring our first-fruits to the ancient Temple, in gratitude for our blessings, but ends with a terrible series of curses put upon the people if they do not follow God and Torah. One commentary I read earlier this week suggests that this section of curses is related inversely to the commandment found earlier to love God (cf. Devarim 6.) That is, if we don’t love God, we should at least fear God- and according this theory, the horrors of the curses, including disaster, starvation, disease and even cannibalism, are meant to shock us into realization of the consequences of choosing the wrong path.

It’s possible that this was the plain meaning of these verses in historical context, but exploring of the Bible reveals that the link between suffering and sin is not always so clear. The book of Job makes this most plain, but reading the historical works of the Bible, like Judges, Samuel, and Kings, one realizes that the Biblical authors were perfectly well aware that lots of suffering happens because humans are imperfect beings living in a dangerous world. People start fights and wars, get sick and die, are filled with passion and rage, and it isn’t always the plan of God that these things happen.

In our age, we are even more oriented towards an understanding that bad things can happen for entirely natural reasons; the unfolding of nature and natural laws doesn’t necessarily reflect the particulars of Divine Will. People suffer, whether they have sinned or not, and the best we can do is be prepared for life’s unpredictable unfolding.

That, to me, is the meaning of these terrible curses- disaster, drought and death- that appear in Ki Tavo.  We are never really prepared for suffering, yet it it should be obvious that at any minute, our lives could be utterly disrupted by conditions beyond our control. The Northeast was battered by a hurricane just a few weeks ago; and entire towns were flooded and damaged- who ever thinks that their home might be swept away?

In anticipation of the Days of Awe, the Torah throws something humbling at us: the awareness that our comforts and security are temporary at best. There is no external circumstance which is utterly reliable: our bodies fail, our buildings fall down, our fields are flooded or burned depending on the weather. What we can choose is our communal response to suffering: if we have choose the path of commitment to God and each other, perhaps the experience can be mitigated, just enough. We go forth into the world humbled by the knowledge that we are not God, but called upon to do holy work nevertheless. That’s why the Torah throws such a shocker at us: it asks us to imagine our worst nightmares, precisely so that we call forth a deeper humanity, a greater depth of compassion and spirituality, to be our foundation in times of trouble and our glory in times of peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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