Archive for September, 2012

Ha’azinu: Torah like Rain

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu
 
May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass.  (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 32:2)

 
Good afternoon! 
 
I hope all who observed Yom Kippur this week had a good and introspective experience. 
The Days of Awe are observed together with many people, maybe hundreds or thousands, but at their best it’s a very individual experience as well, each one of us looking within to take stock and hold ourselves accountable to our higher ideals. 
 
This relates to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, which is Moshe’s penultimate discourse or sermon to the Israelites before he dies and they go on without him. The verse above is understood by the ancient rabbis to refer to Torah in general. The word translated as “discourse” can also mean “lesson” or “counsel,” so it’s easy to see why the rabbis would link the idea of Moshe’s “discourse” to the Torah that he has taught while serving as leader of the people. 
 
So why, they ask, is Torah compared to rain and dew? One text, quoted in the book Torah Temimah, says that Torah is like rain and dew because just as rain comes from one source, but waters each tree and plant which then produces fruit according to its individual natures, so too Torah is one, but each of us respond to it in a unique way. Torah “waters” each of us so that we may grow according to our individual capacity and talents. It is not meant to create robots or clones, but thinking, feeling, passionate people, each of whom will grow and act in Torah in in new and surprising ways. 
 
So too this season of the Days of Awe; we read the same prayers out of the same book, but have profoundly different experiences depending on challenges and setbacks and sins and triumphs of each individual life. Judaism can bring you to the edge of spiritual grown, but we all have to decide how to take the next step; nobody else can find your passion and bring forth your spirit. The rain waters grass and trees alike, but they grow differently; our teachings and  traditions need to be applied to the specific circumstances of each life, and only then will they bear fruit. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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Shabbat Shuvah: A Choice To Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech/ Shabbat Shuva

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen in your sin. . . .” (Hosea 14:2)

Good afternoon!

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah,” so named because of the call to “return” (shuvah) in the opening lines from Hosea above.

This call to “return” is understood in the sense of repentance or renewal after a moral or spiritual stumbling, and is obviously a main theme of the Days of Awe. Abraham Joshua Heschel understood the prophetic call to return as being rooted in the dynamic relationship between humankind and the Holy One; we are not subject to inexorable laws of judgment or a mechanistic set of reactions, but free to choose our spiritual and moral state. In his book called simply The Prophets, Heschel contrasts the prophetic call to “return,” assured of Divine love and grace, with the impersonal and over-determined experience of karma, or being locked into some fate or destiny that cannot be changed, only accepted. (Please note: I think Heschel didn’t really understand the Buddhist idea of karma in its own terms, but that’s a discussion for another time, and a minor disagreement.)

Yet in the year 2012 I think we’re less likely to believe in some mystical notion of fate, karma or destiny than in more rational versions of determinism: psychology (my childhood made me do it !), genetics (my DNA made me do it !), sociology (my peers made me do it !), neurobiology (my brain wiring made me do it !), or even one’s digestive system (my gut flora made me do it !) Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s clear that human beings are powerfully affected by these factors- but we also know that we are affected, and can thus choose to take actions that modulate those forces which turn us in unhelpful directions. That is: we can’t always choose with perfect serenity all our actions and reactions,  but we can choose to create spiritual and social structures for ourselves in which we’re more likely to be more in tune with our highest ideals.

“Returning”- to God, to Torah, to others, to our own best selves- is about retaining the dignity of knowing we have choices. The message of of this season is to remind us of those choices. We’re all carrying baggage from childhood/ genes/ peers/ history/ past traumas, and it’s also true that if we fall short, there is an endless grace awaiting our turn inward and upward. That’s the message of “Return, O Israel;” nobody is too far or too late.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

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Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashana: Not in Heaven

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

“It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ “ (D’varim 30:12)

Good afternoon!

The verse quoted above is one of the most famous verses in the Torah, as well as the punch-line to one of the most famous stories in the Talmud. It comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which itself comes toward the end of the Book of D’varim [Deuteronomy]. D’varim, in turn depicts the end of Moshe’s life, and his increasingly dramatic exhortations to the Jewish people to follow Torah and keep the covenant after they go on to the Land of Israel without him. Moshe tells the people that the Torah is not far away, nor in the heavens, nor across the sea- but very close to us, so that we may do it.

Our friend Rashi explains “not in the heavens” in a way that seems a bit obvious at first:

“not in the heavens”- for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend [to heaven] to learn it.

It took me a few minutes of pondering Rashi’s seemingly tautological commentary to realize that he’s not talking about geography, as it were, at all, but rather teaching a point of spiritual psychology. It’s not about ascending to the heavens in a physical way, nor even the notion that we’d have to die or go on some spiritual quest to learn Torah; the plain meaning of the verse makes it clear that those aren’t necessary. Rather, what I think Rashi means is that as individuals (and presumably on a communal level too) we don’t have to reach heights of spiritual or religious purity or achievement in order to live fulfilling lives in Torah. You don’t have to “ascend”- that is, be saintly or scholarly or a model of piety- in order to apply Torah to your life in a practical and fruitful way.

If can I borrow the terminology of last year’s social protests, Torah is not for the 1% – the saintly and pious- but for the 99%. It’s for people who make mistakes, who get confused, who fall short, who don’t feel organized or learned or worthy enough to practice Judaism in their lives. At the heart of Torah is the idea of t’shuvah, or return: when we inevitably fall short, or fall apart, or get undone, we can always return. We return to Torah, to community, to our own souls; nobody is perfect, but everybody can return to a place of wholeness.

This is, of course, a central message of the Days of Awe, rapidly approaching. All that a life of Torah requires is a simple decision to start from where we are in that moment and go forward to do the next mitzvah, whether one of prayer, compassion, justice or learning. These days, to learn Torah doesn’t require much more than a cell phone or internet connection (though a synagogue connection is a much deeper form of spiritual broadband!) so there’s no excuse that it’s too far, too complicated, or too hard.

The path to God we call Torah is waiting for us, closer than we realize.

Shabbat Shalom and a blessed New Year,

RNJL

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Ki Tavo: Rejoicing Together

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

“Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 26:11)

Good morning!

Sorry for not sending out Torah commentaries the past two weeks; the end of the summer kind of caught up with me and the time slipped away. But we’re back and ready to learn! This week’s Torah portion begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, or first-fruits. The basic idea is that during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, a basket of produce was brought to the Temple and given to a priest, who sets it by the altar while the pilgrim recites a short paragraph recalling the history of Israel from the days of Jacob, through the slavery in Egypt, to the present day giving of thanks in Jerusalem.

What’s interesting about this mitzvah is the ordering of the ritual: first one brought the basket, then the recitation of history, which linked one’s own life to that of the Jewish people, and then the rejoicing and sharing, as in the verse above, with the stranger and the Levite. First is the universal experience of gratitude: God gave us this blessing of the land. Then the linking of an individual life with the history and destiny of the people Israel; my life, my blessing, my good fortune, is part of something larger than myself. I am not a solitary actor alone in the world, but part of a community; if I have blessing, it is because I am embedded in the lives of those that came before and those who are not yet born.

How does the ritual of the first fruits conclude? By actualizing this realization of connection in sharing with others; rejoicing with the Levite (who has no share in the land) and the stranger (who not only has no share in the land, but is not yet fully part of the fabric of society) is how we show that we truly understand that the blessings of our lives are not for our own pleasure and ego-gratification but are given for the purpose of expanding our very sense of self. To be Jewish (or perhaps religious in any tradition) is to live knowing that we are interdependent, unable to be fully human all on our own. If we are part of a people whose essence is that we were once slaves but are now free, then we make that insight real by living generously, com passionately, with zeal for both justice and mercy. Knowing our history is humbling; living our lives in relationship is glorious; knowing that we are some future generation’s ancestors sets our perspective towards the things that really matter. Giving to others lifts our spiritual horizons, away from the needs of the self; it is the very act of living.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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