Archive for January, 2012

Bo: Stuck in the Dark

Copyright 2012  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

“Moshe held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. “ (Shmot/Exodus 10:22-23)

Good afternoon!

This week the pace quickens in the Exodus narrative: the final plagues bring destruction and darkness, but Pharaoh will not yield. The penultimate plague, darkness, is described as palpable and immobilizing. It is clear from the text, and amplified in the commentaries, that “darkness” doesn’t mean an absence of ordinary light, but something experienced as an inner state as well as an outward reality.

Our friend Rashi explains the plague of darkness with a midrash which imagines that the two descriptions of the darkness are actually sequential. That is, according to Rashi, “people could not see one another” and “for three days no one could get up from where he was” are two different things. In this midrash, there were first three days of darkness in which the Egyptians could not see one another, and then another three days of more intense darkness in which they were stuck in place.

The Conservative Torah commentary Etz Hayim suggests that “the person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, incapable of rising from where he is currently,” and while I certainly think that’s true, I think Rashi’s comment is a bit more nuanced. I think Rashi is portraying a nation in moral crisis: after all, the phenomenon of “not seeing one another” has already been true for years. The Egyptians turned away from the oppression of the Israelites, choosing not to see the horror in their midst. The plague of darkness becomes a metaphor for the internal reality of living in a society that is dependent on the oppression of others: we do not see what we don’t want to acknowledge, and then become frozen in place, unable to speak truth to power or push back against a ruler or system whose tyranny will ultimately consume both oppressed and oppressor.

Think of how hard it has been throughout history for good people to effect change, and how easy it is for corruption to take hold when decent people simply look away. Conversely, when change happens, it’s often because people become literally unstuck from their ordinary places: think of Martin Luther King leading assemblies across bridges in the South, or Gandhi and his Salt March, or those who left their homes to camp out in Tahrir Square. These movements made change happen because they forced the world to see and confront injustice. The tragedy of Exodus, repeated over and over in human history, is that Egypt became a society in which human beings were seen not as neighbors but as mere problems to be solved; the enduring truth that Exodus teaches is that such a society eventually crumbles from within.

I think this is why darkness is the final plague before death; the image of darkness evokes a moral and spiritual reality that leads to death. Yet “the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Light was not lost even in this time of darkness; it’s up to each of us to bring that light, understood as the power of justice and compassion, to places that are darkened by fear and despair.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vaera: Willful Blindness

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

 “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me.’ ”  (Shmot./ Exodus 8:16)

Good afternoon! 

Sorry about last week’s Torah commentary- or, more accurately, lack thereof. We do our best but even the well-oiled machinery of rabbineal-list seizes up every now and again. 

This week we’re reading the story of the plagues against Egypt– you know, blood, frogs, lice, these are a few of my favorite things- and Pharaoh’s inability to let the people go or even fully realize what is happening around him. The verse above is the prelude to the fourth plague, the swarms of swarming flies (as translated in JPS) which leave no Egyptian house untouched. What strikes me as interesting is the commandment to meet Pharaoh at the water, presumably as he is emerging from a bath in the river. 

Note that the first two plagues, blood and frogs, affect the river, and the third, the infestation of lice, moves onto the land. Scholars have noted that the plagues encompass every aspect of the natural world- water, land, sky- as if to show the Egyptians the futility of worshiping localized gods of some subset of the cosmos. It’s also interesting that Pharaoh goes back into the water so soon after the river was blood and then teeming with frogs, as if he’s convinced himself that the river is safe now that the danger has moved elsewhere. 

Yet the river is not safe- not because it’s teeming with frogs but because Pharaoh can’t hide from the moral message of Moshe and Aharon. He wishes to believe that the problem is solved as soon as the symptom goes away- but this never works, and indicates to us that Pharaoh is acutely human, hardly a great leader and much less a god on earth. Self-deception, seeing what we want to see, is an inevitable aspect of the human condition; we face great challenges, as individuals and collectively, but we don’t always want to truly see the evidence of those challenges right before our eyes. Like Pharaoh, we go back to the water- that is, our old habits of heart and mind- as the course of least resistance. It’s just so easy to pretend that the world hasn’t changed and so hard to admit that new realities demand a new way of being. 

This little detail, tucked into the larger story, reminds me that Pharaoh is best understood not only as a great and evil villain, but also as a tragic figure, one who simply could not understand the world changing around him until it was too late. Great leaders help the world move forward by confronting and naming hard truths. Few of us rule empires, but any spiritually and morally conscious person can strive to grow in our perceptions and understandings, refusing to retreat into a comfort zone which requires no sacrifice, empathy or ethical reflection. Pharaoh going back into the water is such a profound image of a man unwilling to see and unable to change; seeking truth wherever it is found, and reckoning fearlessly with its implications, is the basis of any true spiritual practice. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Vayechi: The Blessing of T’shuvah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

“. . . when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrat; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrat.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 48:7) 

Good morning! 

In this final Torah portion of the book of Bereshit, there’s lots of death and remembrance of death. (Feeling cheery now?) 

Yaakov prepares for death by blessing his grandsons and then his sons at his deathbed, but also makes Yosef swear to bury him in the land of Canaan, where his father Yitzhak and his grandfather Avraham are buried, at the Cave of the Machepelah. These two preparations for death- blessing his grandsons and sons, and letting his family know his wishes for burial- are intertwined in the parshah. In the middle of explaining that he is adopting Yosef’s children as his own for purposes of inheritance, Yaakov mentions that Yosef’s mother, Rachel, died in Canaan but was not in fact buried in the ancestral burial cave with the other patriarchs and matriarchs. She died in childbirth (back in Bereshit 35) and is buried not too far from where she passed. 

Some commentators seem to think that perhaps Yaakov felt guilty about this. After all, at the very time he’s asking Yosef to carry his body across the Sinai peninsula and up to the land of Israel, he has to confess that he didn’t even take Yosef’s mother a few hundred yards to a settled town for burial- he just set up a marker by the side of the road. 

It seems to me that the Torah is portraying Yaakov as wanting to bless his children with both fine words and also as the example of one who does t’shuvah – repentance or return– right until the end. After all, if Yaakov is feeling guilt or shame about the way he handled Rachel’s death, then confessing that failing is one important way to achieve the reconciliation necessary for his final blessing of his sons. He is confident on his deathbed that Yosef will keep his promise, because he himself has drawn Yosef closer to him with his implied request for forgiveness. It could not have been easy to admit to Yosef that he had not properly honored Yosef’s mother, who was Yaakov’s first love and favored wife- but perhaps it was necessary, so that after a life of hard wandering, Yaakov could die in peace. 

In this reading, Yaakov shows his powerful son, the Prime Minister of Egypt, that it’s human to make mistakes, and even more human to humbly confess them. In these final weeks of Yaakov’s life, he gives his sons blessings, encouragement, rebuke and advice, according to their circumstances; but perhaps the greatest gift was his honesty and humility, which continues to be an example and inheritance for his descendants in present times. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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