Archive for August, 2012

Re’eh: The Poor Cry Out

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh 
 
“Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 15:9) 
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, has a whole variety of different laws, including instructions about avoiding idolatry, making the proper offerings, charity, dietary practices and the holy days. The verse above comes from a section that mentions the shmittah, or sabbatical year: every seven years the land lies fallow and debts are forgiven. The Torah anticipates that some might refuse to lend to the needy in the fifth or sixth year, figuring that the debt would be canceled before it is repaid, so there is a law specifically mandating that loans be made to the poor even as the sabbatical year approaches. 
 
However, our friend Rashi finds a possible contradiction between this verse and another. Reading the clause that warns “he will cry out to the Lord against you,” (if you don’t make a loan to the needy), Rashi asks if this could possibly be a positive commandment: that is, “he will cry out” could theoretically mean that the poor must cry out before they are to be helped. However, he points out that there’s another verse a few chapters later which also deals with the poor “crying out:”
 
“You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you. . .” (D’varim 24:15)
 
In the verse above, dealing with paying a worker daily, the image of the poor man crying out is clearly a warning: don’t withhold the money, or else the poor man will cry out against you.
 
Rashi takes this second verse to clarify the first: it’s not that the poor are supposed to cry out, but if we don’t give, they will, and letting poverty get to that level of desperation is the sin of those who could have helped. In other words- we’re supposed to give loans or aid before there is a “crying out.” Now, obviously, nobody can give enough charity to support all the poor of the world, but it’s equally true that we are each responsible for helping as best we can as early and as often as we are able. All to often, we wait until the “crying out,” which might be a disaster or crisis or images of utter deprivation, but the mitzvah is to help before that. Perhaps in our day this mitzvah is best fulfilled by supporting those charitable organizations which help people with counseling, education, shelter and food, but in any event, the point is clear: don’t wait to give. 
 
The Torah teaches that each of us responsible for creating a compassionate community; the challenge is to respond to the crying out before those cries reach the heavens. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Ekev: Just One Mitzvah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

 Good morning! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, continues the theme of Moshe reminding people of their history since leaving Egypt and warning them not to be tempted to worship other gods or be lured by other peoples into forgetting the covenant. The latter part of our Torah portion is also the second paragraph of the Shema, beginning with a general commandment to serve the Holy One out of love:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and serve the Holy One with all your heart and soul . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 11:13)
 
The conditional phrase translated above as “if then you obey. . . ” is a doubled verb in the Hebrew: shamoa t’shmeu, which you may recognize as the same root as shema, or “hear” in the sense of “heed” or “hearken.” The doubling of a Hebrew verb indicates emphasis: “if you will heed, I mean really heed, the commandments . . . ” 
 
However, the ancient rabbis always looked for an opportunity to explore the unusual grammar of the Bible in order to make deeper meanings, and in this case, they saw the double verb root of shema (hear/ heed/ obey) as a hint that if you “heed” one mitzvah, you will be given the opportunity from Heaven to “heed” many mitzvot. (From theTorah Temimah, quoting an earlier source.) This rings true to me as a psychological insight: it’s hard to get started in religious or spiritual practices, but once you do, it becomes a cycle that builds on itself. One mitzvah, whether a ritual or an ethical action, expands our sense of spiritual possibility, our idea of what it means to stretch the soul towards the Sacred and towards each other. Such a shift in consciousness can often lead to naturally growing and stretching ourselves even more. 
 
According to Heschel, a mitzvah is a connection between God and humankind, a point in time where the earthly and heavenly meet; if so, the idea that one mitzvah leads to many mitzvot is really a way of talking about a relationship that deepens over time. If you will listen- really listen- to yourself, to our tradition, to the meaning and feeling in just one mitzvah, then anything becomes possible, and you may yet be surprised at how the journey unfolds. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

Leave a Comment

Va’etchanan: Happy With One’s Lot

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Va’etchanan
 
Greetings! 
 
This week’s Torah portion has some important texts and laws, including the S’hma and a review of the Ten Commandments. What’s often interesting about texts reviewed or restated in D’varim/ Deuteronomy is subtle changes in wording or emphasis from earlier verses and books of the Torah. In this case, the 10th commandment, “do not covet”, one word leaps out as different from the first iteration of the Ten Commandments back in Exodus: 
 
Sh’mot/ Exodus:: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (20:14)
 
D’varim: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (5:18)
 
Note that the first version begins with property and goes to people and animals, and the second version begins with “wife” and goes on to list house, field, servants and then animals. The more interesting difference is the second verb in the second version: tit’aveh means crave or have a hunger for something. In Exodus, only one verb is used: tachmod, meaning  to covet or want something. 
 
Maimonides, as quoted in Sefer HaHinnuch, distinguishes between “coveting” and “craving” this way: the first is taking something or pressuring somebody to sell something that they don’t want to sell. Thus, for Maimonides, “coveting” is an action to acquire, with money or not, the property of another. “Craving” or “hungering” after something is a purely internal experience, just wanting something that you don’t have. 
 
One classic explanation is that we need to watch our thoughts lest they turn into actions; Sefer HaHinnuch goes so far as to say that “craving” will lead to “coveting” which will lead to robbery ! On the other hand, there are plenty of mitzvot which forbid us to do something without an additional mitzvah not to think about it. Thus, I’m not sure that preventing robbery is the primary goal of this commandment. Rather, it seems to me that the point of distinguishing “coveting” and “craving” is to push us to train our thoughts towards satisfaction rather than acquisition.
 
I don’t know about anybody else, but I find it very easy to become focused on what I want, rather than what I have; I’m probably the guy all the advertising geniuses want to target most. YetHinnuch also points out that to a certain extent, our thoughts of what we desire are under our control, and we can, if we choose, be less distracted by the material things which glitter around us. As Pirke Avot asks: 
 
Who is the one who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion. (4:1)
 
Shabbat is itself an exercise in resisting the acquisitive urge; a day without commerce reminds us of the difference between wants and needs. That, to me, is the point of warning against “craving” the property of others; not so we won’t turn into robbers, but rather because we should learn to be happy because of who we are, who we are with, and to whom we give, and not merely because of what we own. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

Leave a Comment