Archive for October, 2011

Noach: History and Imperfection

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And Noach began, a man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 9:20)

Good afternoon!

We’re reading the Torah portion Noach this week. The basic outline of the story is well known: Noach was chosen to built the ark, to save his family and the animal kingdom, when a great flood came upon the earth to wipe out humankind’s wickedness. After the floodwaters recede, God makes a covenant with Noach and the entire earth;  never again will there be such a catastrophe. Noach leaves the Ark and plants a vineyard- only to immediately get himself in trouble in a drunken episode which splits apart his children and family. (Cf. chapter 9.)

The ancient rabbis pick up on the phrase “a man of the earth”- ish ha’adamah – and relate it back to the first human family; they make the connection between Adam in the Garden of Eden and Noach being a man of the adamah, or earth. However, this is rebuke, not a compliment: they imagine that hint of Adam in adamah as God’s way of telling Noach: didn’t you learn from the first human what trouble a vineyard can be? (E.g., in this telling, the fruit in the Garden was grapes of the vine, but the point is about wine, not grapes.)

Certainly the plain meaning of this midrash is a warning against the poor judgement of drunkenness, which is an ever-present danger in human affairs from the very start. Fair enough, but remember that Noach is the second Adam, as it were; in the mythic telling, all humankind descends from Noach and his sons, making him the symbolic father of humanity as was the first Adam in the Garden.

Seen this way, Noach’s inability to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor is a sign that the rabbis believe this is a chronic imperfection of humankind: we are loath to learn from others, from history, from the disciplines of philosophy and ethics. It’s just too easy to go with what seems right at the moment. Being human is a serious business, requiring thought and reflection, but that’s our challenge, not our destiny.

One must note, however, that despite their impulsiveness, both Adam and Noach were worthy of Divine covenant. We, too, who are understood to be their children, are imperfect, but nevertheless beloved; we will make mistakes, as they did, but are given the opportunity to be builders of the world and partners with its Creator.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bereshit: Creating With Goodness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. . . . .*

Dear Friends:

For everybody celebrating the holidays- I hope your Sukkot has been full of joy and your Simchat Torah will be equally wonderful!

Right after these next two festival days, we’re beginning the yearly Torah reading cycle with the first portion, Bereshit, which means “in the beginning of. . . .” and then continues with the familiar creation story. The ancient rabbis asked an interesting question about this word, which must, by virtue of its prominent placement, be significant: why does the first verse of the Torah begin with the second letter of the aleph-bet? That is, wouldn’t it make more sense to begin the Torah with the first letter, aleph ?

They answer: no, because the letter bet is connected with bracha, or “blessing,” but the letteraleph is connected with arrirah, or “cursed,” and it just wouldn’t do to begin the story of creation with a letter connected to a pessimistic and negative word like “cursed.”

Let’s be clear about something: the rabbis of the Talmud knew darn well that there are lovely and positive words that begin with aleph, and words describing unpleasant things that begin with bet. They could have picked other words to explain bereshit other than bracha– blessing- but they wanted to make a fundamental point: even though the world can feel like a cursed place, full of evil and suffering, the job of cultivating a religious perspective is to find the blessing in our worldly circumstances. Of course the world has suffering- but we believe that the possibility of goodness outweighs it. That’s what it means to have faith- not to believe certain propositions despite all evidence but to orient ourselves towards gratitude and wonder.

Not only that, but let’s remember: much suffering is the result of human choices which are not inherent in creation. We have the capacity, albeit underutilized, to make this world better for all life. That’s why the rabbis want us to associate the first word of the Torah with bracha– blessing- because it’s a fundamental aspect of Judaism not only to remember our blessings, but to work towards a world of shared blessing. The bet of bereshit means “blessing” only when we choose to see it and share it.

Moadim l’simcha (happy holidays) and Shabbat Shalom,


*(Bereshit/ Genesis 1:1)

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Sukkot: A Fleeting Moment

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Dear Friends: 

It’s definitely the harvest season in the Northeast- the leaves have started to change and many of the summer fruits are no longer available at the local farmer’s market. Yet we still go according to the seasonal rhythms of the land of Israel and make our sukkot, our open booths, to “dwell” in for seven days, as sign of our joy and gratitude for the blessings of nature and the wonders of Jewish history. 

The essence of a sukkah is its finitude; it has temporary walls and an open roof of plants, stalks, boughs or leaves. Yet ultimately, all of our dwellings are temporary; this point is made clear in the haftarah, or prophetic reading, for the second day of the holiday. It’s the story of the early days of the ancient Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant and other holy vessels were brought into the new structure by King Solomon, This was done during the holiday of Sukkot, a supremely festive time in the Biblical calendar, and was part of the overall dedication and inauguration of the Temple, which itself marked a new phase of Jewish history. 

When the holy vessels were brought to the Temple, the Presence of the Sacred was sensed to fill the building and Solomon announces: 

” I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever.” (1 Kings 8:13- full text here.)

The irony, of course, is that we, Solomon’s heirs, know well that the ancient Temple, the “stately House,” was itself merely temporary, lasting a few hundred years, being destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. 

Clearly the obvious connection of the haftarah to the holiday is the mention of the festival itself; we’ve been celebrating at this time of year for a very long time, and that in itself is a humbling and amazing thing to contemplate. The sukkah is understood as a dwelling place of the Divine Presence, just as the ancient Temple was, but it comes and goes in a week, and we know from the start it won’t be there forever. It’s a cliche to say that joy can be found by being “in the moment,” but it’s true- nothing lasts forever, not the ancient Temple, not our houses or wealth or health or careers or anything else in which we might place a hope for ultimate security. 

The sukkah reminds us to be more fully aware of the particular moment: if it’s raining or hot or cold, we feel it, and give thanks nonetheless. That ability, to be mindful and grateful and fully present, is truly a more reliable path to spiritual awareness than even the grandest edifice, and all it requires is an open heart. 

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, 


P.S.- who would have thought that the Huffington Post would be a source for great Torah learning? Check out Sukkot commentaries from my alma mater, the Ziegler School, here and here

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Yom Kippur: New Garments

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph LoevingerTorah Portion: Yom Kippur

And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:23)

L’Shana Tovah!

I hope everybody who has been celebrating this past week had a Rosh Hashanah of great joy and learning. The holidays continue with Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, an ancient observance yet with a direct line of connection between the practices of our Biblical ancestors and contemporary Judaism.

The Torah tells us more about Yom Kippur than it does about any other holiday; the entirety of Leviticus 16 is a description of the priestly ritual of atonement. The Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, made offerings on his own behalf, on behalf of his family and the entire people Israel, and at one point during his service enters the innermost part of the ancient sanctuary in a purification ritual, symbolic of the atonement of the people themselves. At that point, as we learn in verse 23, above, he has changed out of his fancy golden garments and put on plain linen clothing, but after this awesome time  in the drama of the day, he takes off the plain clothing, bathes and puts on the majestic garments again.

The ritual is complicated and the Torah’s description of it is not entirely clear, which is why there is an entire book of the Talmud, Yoma, largely dedicated to explaining just this one day and its order of service. At the moment, though, let’s just consider the image of the High Priest changing into plain linen garments for the most spiritually charged moment of the day, when he went into the innermost holy place, on behalf of the people, and stood there in that spot where the Divine Presence was experienced as immanent. At that moment, standing before the Divine Presence, the High Priest wasn’t dressed like the spiritual leader of the people, but just as a humble servant. It was a moment when outer trappings didn’t matter; what mattered in that moment was reverence, focus, humility, integrity and awe.

Note also one small detail from verse 23, above: when the priest leaves that inner Holy of Holies, he takes off the linen garments and “leaves them there.” Our friend Rashi offers a teaching that he didn’t re-use those plain linen garments from one Yom Kippur to the next. This in turn suggests that the rabbis understood that experiences of humble yet transcendent spirituality are fleeting and entirely dependent on openness to the moment- you can’t pray this year’s Yom Kippur prayers with last year’s problems.

For us, “going to the inner sanctuary” on Yom Kippur is a personal process of turning inward and finding our moral center, our truest voice and humanity; again, this can’t happen if we depend solely on the liturgy, ritual, or pageantry to bring us there. We need, like the Kohen Gadol, to be simple, humble, aware and present in our desire to make amends and grow better in the coming year- we can’t recycle that awareness, but must, like the priest’s garments, make our experience new again every year.

Wishing you a joyous Yom Kippur of deep learning and fellowship,


PS- for a wonderful meditation on the meaning of faith at this time of year, see my friend and teacher Larry Troster’s most recent article on the Huffington Post. Highly recommended !

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