Archive for March, 2012

Shabbat Hagadol: Ethics First

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: TzavShabbat Hagadol 


Every year, on the Shabbat before Pesach, we read a special haftarah, which from which this Shabbat may get its name: Shabbat Hagadol, or “The Great Sabbath.” (See alternative theories here and a summary of the haftarah here.)

There are many themes in this selection from the prophet Malachi, including a future day of redemption and the coming of the prophet Elijah, but what struck me this year were the opening verses:

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 3:4-5)

Before we even get to more obvious connections to Passover, like redemption, reconciliation of families, and justice brought to oppressors, this text reminds us of a basic Jewish principle: ethics precede spirituality. Before we can enter the Templeto bring its offerings- or our local “temples” to bring our prayers and religious acts- we have to be right in our relationships and dealings in community. To put it another way, before we can clean up our chametz, we have to clean up our act.

This calls to mind the famous haftarah from Yom Kippur:

” Is such the fast I desire,

A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush . . . . 
No, this is the fast I desire . . . .: 
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home . . . “
  (Isaiah 58:57, abridged)

Note that  Pesach and Yom Kippur, which are probably the two most complex religious events of the Jewish year, days in which  we go through elaborate texts, prayers, rituals, laws and customs, also have texts which remind us that religious acts do not advance us at all if we haven’t first done the inner work of ethical recommitment. How can we sit down on Seder night and remember the slavery inEgypt if we’re still acting in ways that oppress others today?

Please note, the prophets were not saying that religious acts are of no use; on the contrary, they saw the ancient Templeservice as a sign of covenant between God and the Jewish people. A renewed spirituality was their goal; ethical renewal was the price of admission. Amid all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, arranging, traveling, preparing that typically happens in the weeks before Passover, the prophet reminds us: religion without ethics is an empty shell. Preparing for the holiday means looking within, and asking at least a few questions our own roles in bringing freedom, compassion, and justice to a world that needs it now as much as our ancestors did then.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Vayikra: Knowing to Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: VayikraShabbat HaHodesh

“When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding his fellow, or by finding something lost and lying about it; if he swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that one may do and sin thereby —  when one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got [through deceit] . . . . .” (Vayikra./ Leviticus 5:21-23)

Greetings on this beautiful afternoon! 

Sorry about last week, we’ve been having education director candidates visiting TBE all month and it’s been a bit crazy around here. 

But we’re back with everybody’s favorite book of laws and rules in the Torah-Vayikra– which of course is largely concerned with priestly offerings and rituals. These can be quite confusing in their details, especially since none of us has ever seen most of these rituals ever practiced; they were suspended when the ancient Temple was destroyed almost 2000 years ago. 

Yet while not currently practiced (which, as a vegetarian of 31 years, I’m quite OK with), the laws of the priestly can be studied for their ethical and spiritual content, since humans still have the need to celebrate, repent, and atone. Above we have verses which deal with sins against others in matters of deceit, especially in the realm of money and property. What’s interesting about these verses is the implication that at some point after a person tells a lie or does something deceitful, there can be some sort of internal reorientation towards reconciliation and restitution. 

The translation doesn’t really help matters here: can it be that one would lie or steal and not know one’s guilt? Well, sure- people can deceive themselves as well as others, if not better. Our friend Rashi, on the other hand, doesn’t think this means that one didn’t know one was guilty all along, but rather that at some point there is a recognition of the possibility and need for t’shuvah, returning and reconciliation. Then, after one has had a change of heart, as it were, then one can make restitution according to the laws as cited in the verses above. 

Of course, the point of the verses above isn’t about restitution in tort law, it’s about how a human heart is not restricted by past mistakes. At any point, any one of us could realize that there’s something we for which we need to do t’shuvah-  not because we didn’t “know” via intellect of our imperfections, but because emotionally, we had not yet felt the desire to reawaken ourselves and reinvigorate our spiritual commitments. That’s the point of these verses: t’shuvah happens inside first, and can lead to actions which bring wholeness to ourselves, our relationships and communities. The ritual is the outward affirmation of an internal change that’s already begun to unfold. This idea- that a desire for change arises in the heart and properly channeled can change the world- is a core principle of Judaism, then as now. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Ki Tisa: Idolatry from Forgetting

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa 

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 32:1) 


I hope those who just celebrated Purim had a most happy one! Sorry about the lapse in parsha output last week; things got away from me but we’re back on track. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, is one of the dramatic highlights of the entire Torah: after laws concerning the vessels of the Mishkan and the commission of Betzalel to be its chief craftsman, everything goes kablooey. (This is the technical theological term.) 

As per the verse above, the people are worried about Moshe not returning from the mountain where he is receiving the laws of the Torah, and in their confusion and anxiety, they press Aharon to make a golden calf as their leader or idol- not a good idea. Moshe returns and the idolatry and its repercussions tear the people apart; the God almost rejects Israel after they build the idol. Moshe intercedes on their behalf, but the episode leaves him so weary and discouraged that he needs his own powerful spiritual reorientation. 

What could cause the people to build the golden calf a mere 40 days after Sinai- which, after all, was only a few months after the Exodus from Egypt, with its signs, wonders, plagues and the splitting of the sea? How is it possible that the people’s faith lasted only five weeks after such amazing experiences? 

The ancient rabbis offer a midrash which complicates matters even further: 

when the people saw that Moshe was so long in coming. . . don’t read this word as boshesh [late] but “bo shesh” [the sixth has come]. When Moshe ascended [to the mountain], he said to Israel: ‘At the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour, I shall return.’ At the end of forty days, Satan came and confused them, saying: ‘Where is Moshe? . . . the sixth hour has come and he has not returned!’ ” (Talmud Shabbat, 89a, quoted in Torah Temimah.

Let’s unpack this. The rabbis are suggesting that the anxiety and confusion which led the people to act in such a desperate way was not after days or weeks without their leader- but after “the sixth hour has come,” when Moshe has been delayed only an hour, maybe less. Granted, they’ve been 40 days without the faithful guide who brought them out of slavery, but still, after all the miracles of the previous few months, you’d think they would have enough trust to wait an hour before their anxiety overwhelmed them. 

The story of the golden calf is often understood as a parable of good versus evil, with villains among the people just waiting for the chance to turn them towards idolatry. Yet the rabbis seem to reject harsh judgment of the Israelites by giving us this midrash, with its image of idolatry arising not out of wickedness, or heresy, or spite, but out of confusion, anxiety, despair, and fragility, all of which are universal human experiences. This is the symbol of Satan, who is not some character “out there” but is that part of each heart and soul which trips us up and brings us short of the mark. The people may have seen miracles, but they had been slaves for years – who can blame them for wanting the security of clear leadership? That they turned towards idolatry after Moshe was delayed only an hour suggests that the rabbis understood how close we all are to turning away from our values when we feel threatened, frightened, or without hope. 

In these uncertain times, with the weak economy, when environmental and political issues loom large, as conflict between neighbors and nations seems just around the corner, we need to remember how easy it is to forget the important things. A society can turn towards idolatry- or demagoguery, or ethnic hatred, or violence, all forms of idolatry in themselves- quicker than we care to imagine. The lesson of the golden calf is not about Moshe being late one hour or one day; it’s about how easy it is to leave our best selves behind when negative emotions cloud our values and vision. The golden calf warns us: be calm, stay true, see clearly, for fear itself is a danger. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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