Archive for February, 2012

Terumah: Planting for the Mishkan

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

“And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood . . . .” (Shemot/ Exodus 25:3-5)

Good morning!

This week we shift from the laws and principles governing society to the more specific instruction to build the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan was built with donation: precious metals, fabric, skins, and acacia wood. [Atzeh shittim in Hebrew.] Now, we learned back in Exodus 12 that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, so perhaps it’s not a mystery where the former slaves got those materials, but even our friend Rashi wonders where they got acacia wood in the middle of the Sinai desert.

Given the various miracles of water, manna, quail, etc, that the Torah reports from our ancestor’s time in the wilderness, you might think that the acacia wood, too, would be understood as a special provision from God. Yet Rashi instead brings from an earlier text a much more interesting interpretation:

“Rabbi Tanchuma explained: our forefather Yaakov saw through a Holy Inspiration that in the future Israel would build the Mishkan in the wilderness. So he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them, and told his children to take them along when they left Egypt.”

For the moment, let’s set aside the fact that the Torah text says acacia wood (perhaps this tree) and Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma as referring to cedar trees. [Arazim] The point, as I see it, is not so much about which tree was used to build the Mishkan, but rather that the Mishkan reflected the hopes and dreams of the ancestors of the generation that merited to build it. Contrary to the American myth of the self-reliant, self-made and utterly independent person, no generation builds anything without building on what has come before, and we are more dependent on the foresight of our ancestors than our pride would often care to admit.

In Rabbi Tanchuma’s midrash, Yaakov envisions that his descendants will need wood for their sacred structure and plans accordingly. One wonders if the generation of the Exodus appreciated what their forefather is portrayed as doing for them- and we might ask ourselves, in turn, if we are mindful of the dreams that our ancestors had for us, as individuals and in our communities. If somebody planted a tree- or built a synagogue, or funded an endowment, or left a legacy- so that we could build sacred things, should we not be both grateful and zealous to plant for future generations?

According to Rabbi Tanchuma, the Mishkan would not have been build if Yaakov hadn’t planted cedars in Egypt. It’s a remarkable portrait of hope and faith; the saplings that Yaakov brought to Egypt must have grown through the decades of oppression that the Israelites suffered, and perhaps became a source of spiritual strength for the generations before the Exodus. Who can imagine having the faith of Yaakov, who saw that the trees planted now will become the place of the Divine Presence a few hundred years hence? We draw upon the gifts of those who came before, and are thus reminded that for somebody in the not-too-distant future, we will be the ones who came before. What shall we leave them for building the place of God’s Presence as their times demand?

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for an ecological interpretation of the same midrash, see here.

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Mishpatim: Helping One’s Enemy

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”(Shmot/ Exodus 23:4-5)

Good afternoon!

Last week, we discussed the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, and concluded with the proposition that emotions follow actions. That is, in the case of honoring parents, for example, our emotions of gratitude for life often follow the specific actions that Judaism sets out as ways to fulfill the mitzvah. This week, we see an even clearer example of this idea, in the verses above.

The rabbis note that the phrase translated as “take it back to him” in the first verse involves the doubling of the verb “to return.” This is characteristic of Biblical Hebrew, and merely implies emphasis, but the ancient sages interpret the repetition to teach that even if one found an enemy’s animal far away, or even if it was injured, you still had to take it back to him.

Why go to such trouble to help somebody you don’t even like, or who may have done you real harm in the past? Because emotions follow actions- by helping your enemy, you may learn to feel compassion for him. Perhaps in the course of exerting oneself to reloading or returning the animal, one would find the grudge or negativity becoming irrelevant as the bonds of common humanity were reasserted.  Alternatively, doing something nice for somebody may cause the recipient’s heart to turn, opening up a window for reconciliation.

I mentioned Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler last week but let’s offer a bit more of his thought on the topic of giving and caring:

“If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to
whom he gives, he would realise that the only reason the other person
seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him; he has
not yet taken the trouble to show him friendly concern. If I give to
someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows
that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone with whom I come
into contact, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my
loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into
all of them.”                                                                       (from the collection Strive for Truth, vol I, p. 130.)

Rabbi Dessler proposes that we give first and the love comes after, because a piece of our own being has flowed towards the other. We return the donkey but perhaps gain a human connection, even where there was enmity. This is why actions grounded inhesed, loving-kindness, are mitzvot, commandments and not reliant on the right feelings to be there first. If we waited till we felt like helping our enemy, it might never happen, but if we help without waiting, perhaps we will find there are fewer foes in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Yitro: Gratitude Follows Honoring

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah commentary honors Arthur and Hilda Berney, z’l, parents of Gail Berney, who this Shabbat will dedicate the library of Temple Beth-El in her parent’s memory. Our Torah discussion and Torah reading tomorrow are also sponsored by Gail in honor of her parents. 

Good afternoon!

As noted above, tomorrow morning at TBE we anticipate a great act of honoring one’s parents, and indeed, there could be no better week to honor parents than this one, because the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother is given in this week’s Torah portion, as part of the revelation at Sinai. (You remember: earthquake, fire, ten commandments and all that.)

We’re going to dig a little deeper into the sources tomorrow, but for now let’s note that the ancient rabbis didn’t think of honoring one’s parents as an emotional orientation but rather as a set of actions. In general, the Torah can only command actions, not feelings, and so to honor one’s parents is to care for them, including making sure they are fed, housed, clothed, and treated with dignity and respect. You can read more about these obligations here.  Of course, circumstances vary for each family, so these are general principles, not necessarily applicable in every situation.

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is much discussed in various Torah commentaries, but one interesting perspective comes from the Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. The Sefer HaHinnuch says that the reason for having a special commandment to honor parents- that is, to act in ways that are caring and generous and preserving of dignity- is to inculcate within ourselves a sense of gratitude for having brought us into being. Human beings tend to take things for granted, and yet it’s a basic spiritual value to be grateful- first to our parents, who brought us into the world, and ultimately to God, Who is the Source of all being.

Note well, however, that the commandment is not to feel grateful, it’s to do acts which bring well-being and dignity to one’s parents. As the saying goes, it’s much easier to act our way into right thinking than think our way into right acting- or, more colloquially, “fake it till you make it.” Acting in caring ways changes our attitude toward the recipient of the act- emotions often follow what we do. That is, as Rabbi Dessler put it, we think we give because we love, but actually, love follows the giving, because we invest ourselves in that which we give to. This is no less true for any relationship, whether with a family member or a stranger on the street: Judaism suggests that we decide to do, and that decision will bring us into the attributes of generosity, compassion, and love, which are in turn what it means to be fully human.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beshallach: All the Brothers

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach 

Dear Friends: 

This week the story of the exodus from Egypt reaches its climax, with the miracle at the sea and the great song in response. As the Israelites leave bondage in great haste, the Torah notes a small detail: 

“And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 13:19) 

I’ve written about this passage before, but not for a long time, so it’s time to revisit this verse, especially in light of a comment by Rashi that I didn’t consider prior to this year’s Torah reading cycle. First, please note, Moshe was probably not understood to be carrying a coffin, but an ossuary, a small box. Second, Moshe’s retrieval of the bones is the fulfillment of an oath made back in Bereshit 50: when Yosef was dying, he made his brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when the God redeemed them. 

Now onto something Rashi noticed and I didn’t: there is a slight difference between the report of that promise in this week’s Torah portion and where it is originally found in Bereshit 50. That’s the small phrase at the end of the verse quoted above: “with you.” The reason this little difference makes a difference is that Rashi assumes that the brothers weren’t going to be the ones to carry Yosef’s bones out of Egypt- their descendants would. According to Rashi, Yosef made them swear that they’d make their children swear to give Yosef a proper burial- and thus, “with you” (plural) means “your descendants will carry my bones out of Egypt along with all of your bones.” 

This completely changes our understanding of the verse. Rather than praising only Moshe for a singular act of filial piety, Rashi seems to believe that while Moshe carried Yosef’s bones, all the Israelites were involved in the rescue of the bones of their ancestors, bringing them out of Egypt towards repatriation in the Land of Israel. Not only does this understanding ascribe greater merit to the people as a whole, it also gives us an image of what it means to move forward on our journey: we cannot take just a piece of our history with us, but rather inevitably bring all of it. 

The image of the Israelites carrying the bones of the ancestors with them on their Exodus suggests to me that even when someone is going through a great transformation, they carry with them a legacy: of ancestors good and not-so-good, of deeds both loving and banal, of community and language and customs and hurts and strengths and all the rest of what makes us human. We can’t only carry Yosef with us- the proud and insightful leader- but we also carry Shimon, the zealot, and Reuven, whose failures of leadership and morality earned him rebuke from his father’s deathbed, and all the rest of the brothers and tribes. 

To be a people is to acknowledge that we are bound together with others across history and into a common destiny; to be thus bound, one to another, requires moral courage, because as much as we’d sometimes like to, we can’t leave any Jew outside the bounds of our community. That’s why all the bones of all the brothers came up from Egypt- because to be a people means to leave nobody behind. In our synagogues, schools, charitable institutions and defense organizations, we must try as best we can to be radically inclusive, to bring everybody in, to find a place for anybody who wants one. That, too, is a legacy of the Exodus; Yosef’s plea still calls us to action. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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