Archive for October, 2012

Noach: A World Before Us

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth.. . . “  (Bereshit/ Genesis 7:10)

Well, it’s late on Friday afternoon and it seems that the waters of the flood are being unleashed on Poughkeepsie today, but hopefully things will clear up within a shorter time than 40 days.

Most readers will know the basic outline of the Flood story: Noach is picked to build a vessel in which to preserve the biodiversity of the earth when humankind is punished for its corruption. Now, there are all kinds of logical and theological problems with the narrative, so it’s perhaps helpful to understand this as a psychological parable, posing a pressing question: when will humankind take seriously the consequences of its choices, and who will speak up in a world gone mad?

The ancient rabbis portray the generation of the Flood as corrupt and violent, seeking to cheat each other out of even trivial amounts, each person wanting only more for themselves and incapable of putting the common good over personal gain. On the other hand, they also see the building of the Ark as a public service announcement, a warning to that wicked generation that disaster awaits without a collective moral renewal. Along those lines, there’s a subtle midrash, found in the Talmud but quoted in the Torah Temimah, that calls attention to the unexplained seven-day period between Noach entering the Ark and the beginning of the Flood. (See verse above.)

The ancient rabbis offered several explanations for that week-long waiting period, but one that caught my eye imagines that the Holy One offered the inhabitants of the world a taste of the World to Come, so they’d know what they were missing. (Presumably, the wicked generation of the Flood lost their share in the World to Come in their stubborn refusal to repent or take heed of the warning Noach was acting out in building the Ark.) To me, this midrash captures the timeless tragedy of the story: even experiencing something close to paradise, we are often unable to truly appreciate or preserve what makes a decent life possible. We think the good times will go on forever, not realizing that our own actions, as individuals and collectively, undermine our goals and dreams.

Thinking globally, we might note that the planetary upheaval of the Flood is hardly the realm of myth in an age of climate change and environmental crisis. We live the good life, almost the paradise of heaven, but there may soon come a reckoning, and we can’t say we weren’t warned. On a smaller scale, we note that communities, companies, organizations, families and individuals typically resist changes until it’s too late. It might be the state of our relationships, finances, health or spirit, but the principle is the same: it’s all too human to put off till tomorrow the change that needs to happen today.

Yet the story of Noach, while a warning, is ultimately hopeful. The story ends with renewal and the powerful image of all humankind being descended not from the corrupt generation but the righteous exception. We don’t have to fall into the trap of self-deception like Noach’s peers; we have instead the story to guide us, to awaken us, to prick our bubbles and pull us towards the gift of introspection and the possibility of growing and learning. The Flood story asks the question: who shall speak up in a world gone mad? and provides its own answer: each one of us can be the saving force of our times.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bereshit: Sin Couches at the Door

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bereshit
“Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, but you can be its master. (Bereshit/ Genesis 4:7)
Good afternoon! 
Well, here we are again, starting over with another yearly round of Torah readings. We’re back at the beginning, starting with the story of the first humans, Adam, Chava, and their children Kayin and Hevel. [AKA Cain and Abel.] Without going too deeply into the conflict between the two brothers, it’s interesting to note that the Torah portrays God as warning Kayin that his negative emotions (because his brother’s offering was accepted and his was not) will get him into trouble, as we read in the verse above. 
There are many interpretation of “sin couches at the door,” but the image is that of an animal ready to pounce or a trap all set to be sprung. The basic idea is that nobody is free of the yetzer hara, or egocentric inclination, and if we’re not careful, we’ll be caught up in temptation and distraction before we know it. The image of “sin at the door” almost implies that our inner drives control us and seize us when we are not ready, as if they are something external, but the whole point of the warning is that consciousness of our urges is the first step towards mastering them. 
That is, once we know that we’re fallible, we can take steps to address our individual, particular moral challenges. Think of it this way: if I know I can’t resist chocolate, or alcohol, or gossip, the first thing I have to do is remove myself from contexts where the presence of such things will overcome my willpower. I heard once that the image of the door is to teach that just as each house has its own door, leading to a unique interior, each one of us, and each society and community,  has a unique “sin” or area of spiritual challenge which we must beware and seek to overcome. 
As I understand this verse, the Torah shows a positive and not pessimistic view of human nature. We are all capable of mistakes, but all capable of learning. We are liable to being led astray by interior forces which are hard to understand, but we are also made in the Divine Image, which is understood to mean the capacity for choice, compassion, and goodness. 
Sin may lie in wait at the door, but forewarned is forearmed. It’s up to each of us to open the doors of our hearts and souls, take inventory of our strengths and weaknesses,  our broken places and extraordinary gifts, in order to navigate a life in which we do, indeed, become the keeper of our brothers, sisters, and as much of the world as we can. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Sukkot: Peace and War

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat of Sukkot 
“On that day, when Gog sets foot on the soil of Israel — declares the Lord GOD — My raging anger shall flare up . . . “(Ezekiel 38:18)
Good afternoon! After days of rain, it’s finally sunny for Sukkot in the Hudson Valley! Unfortunately, the special haftarah [reading from the prophets] for the Shabbat of Sukkot is not so sunny in its tone and imagery. The text is from Ezekiel 38 and 39, and is a violent and awful prophesy of an apocalyptic battle between God and the forces of “Gog of the land of Magog,” an evil nation that will suffer a terrible vengeance at the End of Days. 
Prof. Michael Fishbane, who wrote the introductions to the haftarot found in the Etz HayimTorah commentary used in many Conservative synagogues, points out that this is not the first mention during Sukkot of battles during messianic times. The prophetic reading for the first day comes from Zechariah, and mentions not only a war of the Lord but also a great reconciliation afterwards, when all nations shall come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot together. (See verse 16 here.) Fishbane also notes that the rabbis assumed that the war of Gog was the same war mentioned in Zechariah; hence, tomorrow’s text is an extension of the earlier one, in the understanding of the ancient rabbis who chose them.                                                                                                                                     
Yet the apocalyptic images of our prophetic texts hardly seems to fit the celebratory and joyous mood of the holiday. Some say that part of our joy comes from a renewed faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, but perhaps these stark texts portraying future upheavals and violence are also somber reminders of the fragility of our peace. Like a sukkah, peace can fall apart in a moment; like a sukkah, peace is temporary and fleeting. We must be mindful of peace when we have it, but not be afraid to confront evil when we must. 
All of the Abrahamic faiths- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- have ideas of an apocalyptic battle at the end of days. There are those who desire the end times, and seek to understand their enemies in theological terms. Gog, to them, is not a symbol but somebody on this earth who must be fought in the present moment- there is no waiting for Divine intervention. 
I reject this. I  believe it’s the job of religious moderates to stand against such reasoning and instead assume that the wars of the Lord are indeed only God’s to fight. Our job is not to rush the end times, but make this time as sweet and peaceful as we can. Our job is to make the whole world a sukkah of peace, now, and let the Holy One handle the end of days. 
moadim l’simcha,*
*happy holidays 

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