Archive for May, 2012

Bamidbar: To Teach Torah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bamidbar / Shavuot 

“These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:1)


This weekend we have the unusual circumstance of the holiday of Shavuot  falling immediately after Shabbat and falling over the two days of the Memorial Day long weekend. The theme of the Torah portion is counting and organizing the Jewish people for their long journey to the Land of Israel; there is a census and each tribe is set in a certain place in the camp. After a general census by tribe, and a reporting of the numbers, the descendants of Aharon are named as priests, and the tribe of Levi is set apart for religious service, and some of their duties are enumerated. 

Our friend Rashi points out a glaring problem in the verse above: the sons named were not, in fact, the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, but only of Aaron, the High Priest. Rashi then goes on to make a point which indirectly links our Torah portion to the upcoming holiday, the remembrance of the giving of the Torah: 

“But only the sons of Aharon were mentioned! They are called descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This shows that whoever teaches another person’s child Torah, it’s just as if they were your own child.” 

On Shavuot, we recall the centrality of Torah, in all of its manifestations, to the life of the Jewish people, but here Rashi is saying something about the power of Torah for individuals. When we share the deepest principles of our life, we give birth to something real and important in the world. Who among us has not had a mentor, teacher or role model who has profoundly affected the course of our character development? We teach Torah by the way we live, as well as by sharing knowledge. I know in my own life, I would not be a deeply practicing Jew- and never mind a Conservative rabbi- were it not for the teachers of Torah who showed me the possibility of a joyful Jewish life. 

Torah is not a history book that recounts the past, nor is it esoteric knowledge reserved for a few. It’s a text which only matters when it becomes a conversation- a conversation between its students from across the ages as well as across a table today. That greater sense of Torah, rooted in the most basic questions of how we shall live and for what purpose, is what’s so precious and important to share. When we bring people into a Torah-rooted conversation about the very purpose of life itself, we change lives, and by changing lives, we change the world. That’s what Rashi means when he says that Aharon’s sons were like Moshe’s sons because he taught them Torah- it means that Moshe, through his example of a covenanted life, changed the lives of those around him. 

Such is the challenge before each of us- to become exemplars of a holy striving, to be teachers of Torah through all our ways. 

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy holiday to all, 


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Behar: A Radical Experiment

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:9-10)

Greeting from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley! It’s been a busy week, to Albany (see the post-script below) to NYC and back over the past few days but we’re still three hours ahead of last week’s commentary.

I almost never use the weekly commentaries to respond to current controversies* but recently a prominent Jewish pundit said something which deserves to be looked at in the light of Torah.  A few weeks ago, shortly after President Obama voiced moral support for same-sex marriage, a great advocate for the Jewish people, Dennis Prager, wrote that  marriage equality is  “the most radical social experiment in modern history”- and let’s be clear, he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

While others have pointed out the absurdity of Prager’s claim regarding “modern history,” I’d rather cast my glance even further back, to the Torah itself, which certainly could not envision marriage equality but contains much more radical social experiments, such as the Yovel  [Jubilee year], described in the verse above from this week’s Torah reading. Every fifty years, indentured servants were set free, debts were forgiven, and land was returned to the families who originally owned it- now, that is a radical social experiment in an ancient world quite comfortable with rigid economic castes and inescapable social hierarchies.

Of course, ancient Israel also had social classes- the priests and the kingship, to name two obvious examples- but the larger point is that the Torah begins to actualize the idea that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image. (Cf Bereshit/Genesis 1.) In this week’s parsha, the law of the Yovel points towards a larger ethical concept: that there should not be permanent classes of rich and poor, and to that end, human dignity may be sometimes more important than property rights.  Again, that’s a far more radical concept even in contemporary times than marriage equality could ever be.

I would even say that although the Torah itself could not envision monogamous, egalitarian same-sex relationships (see more on this here), the Yovel can be interpreted as a step towards a more inclusive concept of human society, one in which all participants are given a more fair chance at productive participation. There are certainly passionate  religious arguments for and against various forms of marriage equality, but it seems to me that a basic teaching of the Bible is that all people matter, a basic teaching which gets expanded over time throughout Jewish thought, and that this larger moral concern affects how we interpret specific verses or traditions.

Properly understood, Judaism, evolving over time and enlarging  its world of ethical concerns, is perhaps the most radical social experiment of them all, because it asks us to live as if we might meet the Divine in any and all people, if we seek to live with openness, justice and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


*an assertion to which some will doubtless respond: “what? never?” To which I say: “hardly ever!”

P.S.- Regarding that trip to Albany, you can see my invocation to the NY Senate here, in the first few minutes of the session. Senator Saland has some nice things to say afterwards.

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Emor: This Very Day

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Emor 

 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations  . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:21)

Dear Friends: 

So sorry for my absence these past few weeks- glad to be back! 

This week an entire chapter of the Torah portion Emor is devoted to the Jewish calendar: Shabbat, the agricultural holidays, the counting of the omer,  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated after a 7 week-period of counting; it is the festival of the first-fruits of summer, and also understood in later Judaism to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Note the verse above: after listing the various Temple rituals of Shavuot, the Torah tells us  that “on that same day” you will have a festive and sacred occasion. This phrase, “on that same day,” [b’etzem hayom] could mean “this very day,” or “that same day,” but the phrase is superfluous: we already know Shavuot is the fiftieth day of counting, so why tell us “that very day” is the same one as the holiday? 

It turns out one other holiday is celebrated b’etzem hayom

You shall not perform any work on that very day, for it is a day of atonement, for you to gain atonement before the Lord, your God.” (ibid 23:28)

Shavuot and Yom Kippur are linked by a short phrase which seems to indicate some immediacy or urgency to the experience of the day. One line of interpretation (found in Itturei Torah) compares these two holidays to other Jewish holidays like Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, each of which commemorates a past event. The two holidays celebrated on “that very day,” however, can be seen as experiences of the present: Shavuot is the holiday of accepting the Torah- not as a text, per se, but as a framework for living Judaism, while Yom Kippur is about accepting responsibility for the moral content of our lives and repairing relationships as necessary- always an immediate concern! 

Seen this way, the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot is something affirmed not just every year, but every time we choose or “do Jewish.” It’s not about what happened then but what happens now, for Torah is a living inheritance, something we have to encounter and make alive, b’etzem hayom, on this very day. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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