Archive for December, 2012

Vayechi: Who is Worthy?

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

“Then Yisrael saw Yosef”s sons, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 48:8)

Good morning!

We’re concluding the Book of Bereshit, so it’s not surprising that the two main characters of the latter chapters die in this week’s Torah reading: first Yaakov, then, at the very end, Yosef, the second-in-command of all Egypt. However, the portion is mostly concerned with blessing: first Yaakov adopts Yosef’s sons as his own, blessing them, and then calls all of his sons to his deathbed to bless them and instruct them before he dies.

The scene at the beginning of chapter 48 reminds us of an earlier period of Yaakov’s own life: just as Yaakov’s father Yitzhak was nearly blind, and not quite sure which son he was blessing, so too now Yaakov is described (vs 10) as having eyes “heavy with age.” He seems unable to recognize his grandsons, asking, as in the verse above, who they are, as if perhaps he didn’t see them or isn’t sure if they are the grandsons he is offering to bless.

It’s possible that Ephraim and Menashe were dressed as Egyptian princes rather than Hebrew shepherds, or it’s possible that Yaakov was simply not able to see very well, but given that he’s just offered to bless them, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t know who they are.  So many commentators take the verse above, ending with the question, “who are these?” as referring not to Yosef’s sons, but to evil kings who will descend from them, a vision which gives Yaakov pause.

One midrash, picked up by our friend Rashi, implies that Yaakov’s eyes were clouded, as it were,  because the Divine Presence withdrew from him as he attempted to bless Ephraim and Menashe, because of these future kings like Achav and Jehu who would descend from them. This is also a problem: why would some future wicked king impede Yaakov’s blessing of his grandsons? After all, any stain on their future history is also a stain on his. I think this is why Rashi splits this midrash up into two pieces: first he brings the text  about the Divine Presence withdrawing from Yaakov in the first part of the verse, but when Yaakov asks” “who are these [young men]?” Rashi interpolates “who are these who are unworthy of blessing?”

Yet that question- who are these who are unworthy of blessing? – could be read more than one way: it could refer to the midrash about Ephraim and Menashe’s evil descendants, or it could be a rhetorical question: who are these young men that we might deem them unworthy of blessing for something that is not their fault? Or, even more pointedly- who am I  to say that they are unworthy of blessing since their descendants are also my own?

Read this way, Rashi’s comment turns Yaakov’s question around: it’s not about some future event seen by prophecy, but about his own humility in offering blessings to his grandsons just as they are. It’s not  about their worthiness, but his own. When Yaakov asks: who are these [young men]?, he might be asking: who am I to dare withhold my blessing when I so brazenly took one that did not belong to me? Seen this way, Yaakov’s question becomes one for all of us: how dare we withhold our blessings from others, even if they are, just like the rest of humanity, imperfect people who do imperfect things?

In the midrash, Yaakov knows that Ephraim and Menashe will have evil men among their descendants, yet nevertheless blesses them and brings them close. So too, we will all encounter others, in our families and congregations and communities, who may have some flaw in them- as do we all- but our job is nevertheless to love and bless and raise up those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Do Not Quarrel Along The Way

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash 

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

It’s been a tough week in the Northeast. (I assume throughout the country as well.) The local paper has had front-page coverage related to last week’s Newtown murders, as one of the victims had family here in Dutchess County, and of course the broadcast, print and internet media have covered every aspect of the tragedy.

It seems that every pundit, columnist, politician, member of the clergy, organizational spokesperson or other commentator has definite ideas about what should be done next, and of course I agree that we must discuss our nation’s policies, laws, and practices in order to reduce violence at all levels. Yet to me, much of the infinite commentary has a tone of too much certainty to it; the problem is exceedingly complex, and no one simple solution will address all aspects of violence in America. Not only that, but I suspect many of the pronouncements about What We Must Do avoid introspection about how each of us participates in a culture that often valorizes violence and offers inadequate help to many of our citizens.

The tendency to blame others is hardly new. In this week’s Torah portion, after Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back to their father Yaakov with the astounding news that Yosef is alive and second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. As the brothers set off for the land of Israel, Yosef warns them “not to be quarrelsome along the way.” (See the full verse up above.)

Our friend Rashi offers no less than three explanations of Yosef’s warning, but in the end seems to endorse a straightforward but psychologically acute interpretation: the brothers were ashamed of what they had done to Yosef many years earlier, and out of that shame would tend to blame each other for causing the hatred and division in the family. According to Rashi, each brother was likely to say: “because of you he was sold- you spoke evil of him and caused us to hate him.”

The truth, of course, is that all of the brothers were responsible for what happened to Yosef. Perhaps Yehudah deserves a bit more condemnation than the others for coming up with the plan to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and perhaps Reuven deserves a bit of praise for attempting to slow down the scheme so he can rescue Yosef later, but still- not one of them said, “this is wrong.” Not one of them said, “I will stop you from doing this.” Not one of them said, “think of the pain this will cause our father.” Those who acted, and those who failed to speak out, are both (perhaps not equally) responsible for the outcome.

Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the ancient prophets spoke to the moral state of the nation, with the belief that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” That, to me, encompasses the spirit in which we should reflect upon the Newtown murders- not seeking to find a scapegoat but looking within, as the prophets asked Israel to do, to find our own complicity, or at least passivity when social forces move towards the detriment of all.

Please note- I’m all in favor of more gun control, and I’m proud that the Jewish community, with the Conservative movement a key coalition partner, has endorse petitions like this, which I encourage you to sign. Yet perhaps the ancient prophets might also challenge us to look within and ask ourselves a different set of questions:

– do I support with my dollars entertainment which glorifies brutality and violence?

– have I supported politicians and leaders who have made reducing violence a priority?

– am I willing to share in the financial burden of offering greater support services to those with mental illness?

– do I turn away from the violence in my own city or towns because it’s limited to certain neighborhoods or communities?

– am I willing to live in a society where the media is encouraged not to focus on killers and murderers, thus denying them the fame and putative “glory” that some of them seek?

– have I listened to people who may come to different conclusions about the proper balance of freedom and security in our society? do I understand why others hold radically different views?

– do I stand against violence in other countries in which my own society plays a part?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may think that one or more of these questions has no bearing on the current debate. These questions are not my point. Rather, like Yosef encouraging his brothers not to blame each other out of their shame and pain, I think part of a spiritually mature response to a terrible act is for each of us to look within, seeking to take personal responsibility for our society before casting all the blame in one direction or another. That is harder, and less satisfying than identifying villains, but it is the surer way forward, and I believe indispensable to our healing. Let us keep in our hearts and prayers the victims not only Newtown, but across our land and across the world, and each of us seek to do our part in changing what we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Miketz: Waiting in Hope

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Dear Friends:

There is so much sadness in the world. As I write this details are still coming out from Newtown, Connecticut- a mere 53 miles from Poughkeepsie- where a madman killed children and adults alike in the elementary school. After every shooting, every murderous act, we ask why- but it seems that not much changes.

So how do we find hope in a world which can seem so cruel?

This is not a new problem. In fact, I’d say it’s the problem that Hanukkah comes to address, and it’s not coincidental that our Torah portion, Miketz, usually falls during the holiday of lights. The Torah portion is the middle section of the story of Yosef and his brothers; in the beginning of the portion, Yosef is in Pharaoh’s prison, but by the end, he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, and his long-estranged brothers are seeking food from his treasury.

Twice Yosef goes down into a pit of darkness- once when his brothers turn against him and once when Potiphar’s wife accuses him- and twice Yosef rises up, but what really constrains Yosef is not external walls but the pain of his heart, the loneliness and alienation and longing for family that stays with him even after he has reached the heights of power. In this week’s portion, Yosef attains a great station, but the reconciliation that his heart seeks is not yet ready. We read the Torah portion this week and our heart breaks a bit, because we know that healing is almost at hand, but we must wait, as Yosef must, for love to burst forth.

Similarly, Hanukkah asks us to take a leap of faith- not by believing something without evidence, but by living in such a way that our lives bring light into darkness even if we can’t see the world change before our eyes. The Maccabees had no assurance of success when they started their struggle against the foreign power; we have no assurance of success when we struggle to transform our society and our world from its current state of conflict and violence into a place of peace, security and justice. Let me be clearer: we have no assurance of success in the short run, not in our lifetimes or perhaps that of our children. Yet the “leap of action” (to quote Heschel) that Judaism asks us to take is to do the right and good anyway, because we believe that the redemption of the world is not only possible but our particular task.

It’s hard to wait for a better world that seems just out of reach, but remember Yosef and his brothers: he kept hoping that they would become worthy of brotherhood, and yet was shocked to tears when his brother Yehudah showed an extraordinary largeness of heart towards their youngest brother Binyamin. Things can take a long time and change quickly; do not despair. Yosef never stopped wanting brotherhood from his brothers, and ultimately there was reconciliation. The Maccabees never stopped dreaming of a Judaism restored, and their story has kept hope alive for two thousand years and more. We light Hanukkah candles because we refuse to let darkness define human destiny. We will hope but we will also act, and with us and others of good faith and courage, we will eventually achieve shalom.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,


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Vayeshev: Moved Away

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

“The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Yosef followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.. . . “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:17)

Good morning!

The focus of Bereshit turns from Yaakov to his son Yosef, a vain young man, especially beloved by his father as the son of his most-loved wife Rachel. This in turn causes resentment between Yosef and his older brothers, who conspire to throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. The short narrative describing how Yosef went from his father’s house to being at his brother’s mercy involves meeting a mysterious man who directs him to Dotan, where the brothers had gone after pasturing their flocks at Shechem.

Most commentators assume that this mysterious man is a specially-appointed angel, but they disagree as to what he was trying to communicate to Yosef. Many scholars note the wording of “they have gone from here,” which in Hebrew is not “here” so much as “this”- zeh. Some say “this” means “they have gone from brotherhood”- that is, they aren’t brotherly towards you anymore- while some say “this” means “they have gone from the Holy One,” meaning, the Godly attributes of mercy and compassion.

In either case, one might point out: if it was necessary to send Yosef to Egypt so that he could eventually save his family, what difference does it make if he knows that his brothers hate him? Perhaps the mysterious man knows that Yosef will go anyway, failing to heed the deeper meaning of his words, but he wants Yosef to know that what will happen is not entirely his fault. Yosef was arrogant and annoying, but the brothers also made a choice to “go out from brotherhood,” as it were.

Perhaps our mystery man wants Yosef to choose to go to his brothers even if they aren’t acting very brotherly towards each other; after all, every relationship involves risk and the possibility of pain. Seen this way, it is to Yosef’s credit that he chooses to go to Dotan even after being warned of what he might find- in doing so not only was he honoring his father’s wishes but also seeking relationship in his own clumsy way. Of course, the real miracle is not the angel who warned Yosef that the brothers had removed themselves from brotherhood and mercy, but that after many years, they found their way back.

Shabbat Shalom,


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