Archive for November, 2012

Vayishlach: No Soul Left Behind

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. . . . . (Bereshit 32:25-26)

Good afternoon!

Boy it’s been one of those days. . . but not as eventful as the night before our ancestor Yaakov re-encountered his brother Esav, whom he had run away from 20 years earlier after stealing the blessing of the first born. In the famous prelude to their meeting, Yaakov sends gifts ahead to his brother, who is travelling with a small army, and remains alone by a river after dividing his household into two camps for protection. Yaakov meets a mysterious man- perhaps an angel? a dream? a representation of his conscience?- and they wrestle till dawn, eventually leaving Yaakov with a limp in his hip.

The story concludes with one of the few mitzvot, or commandments, of the book of Genesis:

That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle . . .(ibid, v 33.)

The part of an animal that is not eaten is called gid hanasheh, and is generally understood to be the sciatic nerve and the area around it, which can be removed when an animal is slaughtered according to the Jewish dietary laws.

OK, I can hear you asking, so not eating a certain part of an animal’s leg is connected to Yaakov’s injury during his wrestling. That’s fine, but what, exactly, are we being asked to remember, and why is this connected to a dietary practice?

Well, it turns out that many Torah commentators ask the same questions, and don’t, of course, all agree on the answers. Some say that it is a reminder to keep “wrestling” even if we feel injured or imperfect, and some say that is is a sign that despite the ways in which we might be limping along, there is a promise of Divine aid at the end of our struggles. One particularly poignant interpretation of this mitzvah comes from the medieval commentator Hizzekuni, who asks an obvious question: why did Yaakov’s family and servants leave him alone by the river that night? Surely they should have insisted that he come along with the rest of the camp lest he be found alone by his brother’s men!

Hizzekuni turns his question into his answer: we refrain from eating the gid hanesheh precisely to remind us that Yaakov should not have been left alone and potentially in danger. Granted, perhaps he needed to be alone to wrestle with the angel (or whatever that was) but Hizzekuni is interested in a teaching for the rest of us: do not leave another to feel abandoned, alone or afraid. Perhaps it was Yaakov’s destiny was solitude that night, but that hardly excuses the rest of us from walking away when others may need us most. Seen this way, an obscure mitzvah, that hardly fits with its narrative origins, becomes a powerful reminder of the most basic Jewish principle: you are, indeed, your brother’s (and father’s and sister’s and neighbor’s) keeper.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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Vayetze: Stop Running

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

“Yaakov left Beersheeva, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set . . . . .” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:10-11)

Good afternoon!

I hope everybody is finding something for which to be thankful this weekend. As for me, I am grateful to be staying far away from malls and shopping today!

Last week we left our our forefather Yaakov in a bit of a pickle. He had stolen his brother’s blessing from their father and as you can imagine, that brother, Esav, was not very happy, and in fact threatened to kill Yaakov, prompting their mother, Rivka, to send Yaakov back to her hometown for a while till things calmed down. Yaakov sets out for Haran, where Rivka’s brother lives, and has a tremendous spiritual experience in the middle of the desert, where he has stopped to sleep with a stone for a pillow.

Our friend Rashi notices something unusual about the verse above: first the verse says that Yaakov stopped to sleep for the night, and then it says that the sun had gone down. It’s a bit clearer in the Hebrew than in the JPS translation above, but you still get the idea: it might have made more chronological sense to say, “the sun went down, so Yaakov stopped for the night.”

Rashi, basing himself on earlier texts, teaches that this unusual ordering shows that the sun itself went down in an unusual way- not at its ordinary time but suddenly, so that Yaakov would have to stop for the night. This may be connected to the tradition that the particular place Yaakov stopped was Mount Moriah- the site of the binding of Yitzhak and the future Temple of Jerusalem- about which we’ll say more in the future. To me, the image of the sun suddenly setting, so that Yaakov was forced to stop his flight, suggests not an astronomical miracle but an internal realization that he could not outrun his own brokenness.

Judaism teaches a profound path of the deepest joy, but no life escapes its periods of darkness and the need for introspection. Yaakov took his brother’s birthright and their father’s blessing, either because he wasn’t thinking of the consequences or was willing to live with them, but it could hardly have been less than devastating to be forced from the family home at precisely the moment he’d set himself up as the family’s honored heir. I read Rashi’s comment as a metaphor for the darkness of spirit that must have come upon Yaakov when he realized the consequences of his actions; being forced to lie there for the night is a way of expressing the necessity for contemplation of one’s broken places precisely at the moment when we’re whipping ourselves into a frenzy in order to avoid them.

Of course, confronting and inhabiting the inevitability of “night”- that is, being brought to the place of soul-accounting and admission that life has become unmanageable- also brought Yaakov a profound religious experience, complete with a vision of a ladder reaching to the heavens and angels going up and down. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have such a revelation, but the it’s universal experience that we sometimes need  to stop our frenetic motion in order to open ourselves up morally, emotionally and spiritually. This might take the form of meditation, contemplation, Torah study, prayer, spiritual direction or just sitting quietly with our own souls, but like Yaakov, sometimes you just have to stop running to sense the Divine Presence and discern a new direction.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Toldot: Tragic Blindness

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

“He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him. . . . . ” (Bereshit / Genesis 27:23)

Dear Friends:

It’s good to be back after a week away! This week, in the portion Toldot, we read of the deception of Yitzhak by his son, Yaakov, who, at the behest of their mother, disguised himself as his hirsute and strong brother Esav in order to obtain the blessing of the first-born. When we read the story it’s hard not to wonder at Yitzhak’s apparent inability to distinguish between his sons; even though his eyes were dim with age, and even though he suspected something was amiss because the voice didn’t sound like Esav, he nevertheless either believes that Yaakov is really Esav or he chooses to ignore his own disquiet and suspicions.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” which basically means that we can miss seeing things right in front of our eyes if we’re focused on something else. A famous example was a test wherein participants were asked to focus on the number of passes in a basketball game, and missed a guy in a gorilla suit walking out on the court. (See here.) Returning to our Torah portion, one wonders if Yitzhak couldn’t see what was right in front of his (admittedly dim) eyes because he was so engrossed in articulating and transmitting a spiritual patrimony that he wasn’t able to perceive which son was actually in front of him. This would not fit the technical definition of inattentional blindness in the psychological literature, but I’m using this idea more broadly and loosely, to capture a sense of our chronic inability as human beings to see things that we don’t want or are too distracted to see.

I imagine that every reader of this Torah commentary knows that renewed hostilities have broken out in Gaza over the past few days. Here, too, we find those who don’t, or can’t, see something important when their focus is elsewhere. Those who will reflexively condemn Israel for its attacks on Hamas don’t see the hundreds and hundreds of rockets that have fallen on Israel’s south in recent weeks and months. Conversely, those who see only Israel’s pain and need of security often don’t acknowledge the suffering of those Palestinians who had little say in the commencement of hostilities.

When we see only our own (and certainly, from Israel’s perspective, legitimate) grievances and claims, it’s hard to fully see the world in its awesome complexity, and even harder to see things from the perspective of others. We must see clearly that Israel needs support and defense, but that is not the only thing we might see. Our vision must be wide enough and our prayers expansive enough to encompass all those who suffer and fear during these dark and uncertain days. To do so is not to agree on particular policies or eventual outcomes, but rather to be more fully human, more as one who sees the world in need of both strict justice and bountiful mercy. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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Vayera: Ethics of S’dom

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

And his wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereshit/ Genesis 19:26)

Good morning!

This week we continue the story of Avraham and his family- Yitzhak is born and Yishmael is banished, but in the middle of all that Avraham’s nephew Lot gets into trouble in the wicked city of S’dom. What is the cause of his trouble? He welcomes guests- in this case, they happen to be the angels who visited his uncle Avraham at the beginning of the portion- and the rabbis understand this to be contrary to S’dom’s pervasive ethics of selfishness and contempt for the poor and needy. Thus, a mob shows up at his door, demanding that he turn the men over, but instead the visitors help him escape from the doomed city. Warning Lot and his family not to look back, the angels urge him to flee quickly; his wife does look back, and is turned into the famous pillar of salt, as in the verse above.

It’s important to remember that the real crime of the residents of S’dom was not sexual abuse as such. Although the mob comes to Lot’s door demanding the men so that “we might know them,” based on the ancient rabbi’s understanding of S’dom,  the threat of sexual abuse was the means by which the mob enforced the city’s ethic of contempt for the poor and weak. (Hat tip to Gershom Gorenberg for pointing this out in his columns on S’dom and politics.) Not only that, but the ethic of withholding assistance to the weak was one that the city was proud of, and its new residents adopted, as illustrated byRashi’s comment on why Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt:

“She sinned with salt, and she was punished with salt. He said to her, ‘Give a little salt to these guests.’ She replied,’Also this evil custom you wish to introduce into this place?’ ” 

Note that, in this interpretation, Lot’s wife didn’t regard it as merely inconvenient to give salt to the guests, but as evil or bad [Hebrew minhag ha’ra ]. In our world, there are indeed people who believe it is wrong to help the poor and weak, but nothing could be further from Judaism or any other mainstream spiritual/religious teaching or philosophy. The sin of S’dom was not only that they disdained the poor, but that they enforced a radical selfishness as the prevailing cultural ethic, and drew other people into their orbit of self-absorption. Our Torah portion this week begins with Avraham running after wayfarers to invite them into his tent; the contrast with S’dom could not be clearer, nor the ethical implications for those who consider themselves the children of Avraham. The moral and spiritual descendants of Avraham actively seek out opportunities to help the lost, lonely, weak, needy and poor; we are charged to be antidote to the ethics of S’dom in a world which needs us more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S. It goes without saying that at a time when so many have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, it’s a great time to give to organizations on the ground helping and healing. UJA Federation of NY has a special fund for this purpose, as do many other worthy organizations. Give generously and wisely.

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