Archive for April, 2012

Shemini/ Machar Hodesh: The True Victory

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Shemini / Machar Hodesh 

Good afternoon! 

My apologies for no commentary last week- the short week got the best of me. No commentary next week, either, as I’ll be off to California for a memorial service. 

This week, however, we will depart from the ordinary Torah reading (portionShemini) to look at the haftarah, or reading from the prophetic texts, which occurs when Shabbat is the day before Rosh Hodeshor the new moon. When that happens, we read a passage from the book of Samuel which tells of the developing conflict between Saul, the first king of a united kingdom of Israel, and his younger rival David, who has exceeded him in charisma and military renown. Caught in the middle is Jonathan, the king’s son and David’s best friend. 

The connection with the day before Rosh Hodesh occurs in the first line of ourhaftarah

“Jonathan said to him, ‘Tomorrow will be the new moon; and you will be missed when your seat remains vacant . . . ‘ ” (I Samuel 20:18). 

Jonathan knows that Saul is jealous of David to the point of wanting to harm him, and is telling David that he must go and hide while Jonathan ascertains whether it will be safe to join the king at the feast of the new moon. Jonathan tries to reason with his father, and fails; Saul and David have a deadly falling-out. Not only that, but Jonathan earns the enmity and scorn of his father, and ends up losing the kingship to David and dying in the ensuing civil war. 

One might see Jonathan as a failed and tragic figure, but Hirsch sees him as a great hero, not because of his accomplishments on the battlefield- substantial as they were- but because of his integrity and nobility of character. Though it cost him the throne, he protested his father’s treatment of David and helped David escape Saul’s wrath; who among us is really prepared to do that for a friend? 

Thus, according to Hirsch, Jonathan was not defeated at all in the task of being a “pure human being.” He did not succeed in his practical aims- reconciling his father and friend- but he succeeded in navigating treacherous shoals of power, privilege, family, and friendship while retaining his integrity, humanity, heart and soul. His story evokes a reevaluation of what it means to live a worthy life; too often we praise others only for worldly success and pay no mind to the spiritual costs. 

Every day, I see Jonathans in our community: humble people who serve others selflessly, who are more interested in what they can give than what they can get, who do what’s right regardless of personal cost. It is Jonathan, and not David, who is the moral center of this haftarah; to read his story is to look within and ask ourselves whether we too might act so nobly when tested to the core. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Pesach: Beauty in Simplicity

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. . . “ (Shmot/ Exodus 12:39)

Dear Friends:

Earlier today, the New York Board of Rabbis shared some thoughts from Rabbi Marc Angel regarding the symbolic foods of Passover: matzah, maror, and the shankbone or reminder of the ancient Pesach offering. You can find his interpretations here, but let me quote from his explanation of matzah:

“Matzah is a basic, no-frills item. It is flour and water, without leavening. It stands for our basic selves, unpretentious, not inflated with vanity or pride. . .
Because of its sheer simplicity and honesty, Matzah symbolizes freedom. When we really know who we are, we gain a fine sense of our own freedom. We can be strong unto ourselves; we can rise above the fray; we can stop playing games of who has more, who has better, who has control. When we are free within, we have the confidence to live our own lives, not the counterfeit lives that others would impose on us.”

It occurs to me that Rabbi Angel’s explanation of matzah is taken one step further by applying the idea of hiddur mitzvah, or “beautifying the commandment.” I’ve written about this idea before (see here, where you’ll also find links to further explorations of the concept), but the basic idea is rather simple: when we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, we should try to do it in an appealing and pleasing way. Thus we make kiddush in a nice glass or silver cup, or perhaps have embroidered covers on our matzah at the Seder table, or wear a colorful tallit of nice fabric rather than a plain or rough cloth.

So far, so good. The interesting thing about matzah, though, is that you can’t really make it more “beautiful” or adorned without making it not matzah. If you add anything other than flour and water to the – eggs, sugar, fruit juice, chocolate- it’s suitable as a unleavened treat (depending on your custom) but not appropriate to use as matzah at the Seder, when we eat only regular matzah to remember the liberation from Egypt.

However, there are people (myself included) who do buy a special kind of matzah, called shmurah matzah, as a “hiddur” or extra beautifying of the commandment. This matzah is usually round, hand-made, often with special flour that’s guarded against moisture, and it’s not, in fact, more “beautiful” in a conventional visual sense than the perfectly square, perfectly consistent machine-made matzah you get from a box. Hand-made matzah is often bumpy, sometimes burned, sometimes odd roundish shapes, sometimes tougher to eat- and yet for me, precisely because it is closer to that “essence” of matzah, a remembrance of what our ancestors would have made from leftover dough as they streamed out into the desert, it is, to me, an adornment of the commandment. Not in a visual or sensual way, but as an expression of that simplicity and honesty that Rabbi Angel teaches is the core idea of matzah.

In other words, sometimes to make something more beautiful and sacred, we have to strip it down to its essence, to its most basic form and concept. This then becomes an object lesson not for our food but for our lives: in order to become glorious, not physically but spiritually, we have to work on discarding our distractions, moving aside anything extraneous or contrary to our essential being and deepest self. Matzah is a radically simple thing; even the machine-made squares are remarkably similar to what matzah has always been for thousands of years. When we encounter it during our Feast of Freedom, it calls us back to ourselves, as individuals and as a people. When we celebrate and give thanks over the most simple food, it teaches us to focus on what’s essential in life, and be grateful. That’s ultimately not about our bread, but about our souls.

With warmest wishes for a healthy and happy Pesach,


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