Archive for January, 2013

Beshallach: the Art of our Ancestors

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 14:10)

Good afternoon!

This week we read the climax of the Exodus story: the Israelites leave Egypt but are pursued by Pharaoh’s army, which drowns in the Sea of Reeds after it has been split to allow Israel safe passage on foot.

As the Egyptian Army approaches, the people see the pursuers, become frightened, and “cry out to God,” as in the verse above. While perusing the commentators, I noticed a comment by Rashi that practically leaped off the page, begging for further exploration. (I’m still amazed I never really noticed this before.) Explaining the phrase “cried out,” Rashi says “they grasped the art of their ancestors” [tafsu omanut avotam] and goes on to reference the idea that Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov each instituted or demonstrated various prayers or aspects of our liturgy.

I understand why Rashi might want  to link the people’s prayer to the prayers of the patriarchs; doing so reinforces the idea that the people were saved at least in part because of the merit of those ancestors and promises made to them. Yet the word omanut, which means art or craft, is a very interesting word to apply to “crying out,” especially since it is related to the word emunah, which means belief, which in turn is related to the common phrase amen, which means something like “I believe that.”

I can also understand calling liturgical prayer an “art,” in the sense that it involves intellect, skill and emotions- to master traditional Hebrew prayers takes some practice but also requires a personal, spiritual commitment, much like art requires both technical skill and emotional expression. Yet the “crying out” at the shore of the sea is precisely not a liturgical, fixed prayer, but a spontaneous expression. So perhaps Rashi is hinting that this, too, is a kind of skill or discipline passed along from generation to generation by our ancestors; even to know when and how to cry out requires spiritual openness and a sense that we are worthy of doing so.

I love the idea that prayer is the “art of our ancestors;” it conveys a sense not of obligation or fixed disciplines- though those too are aspects of Jewish prayer- but instead a sense of discovery, creativity, openness, vulnerability, honesty, and expression of our deepest truths. That kind of prayer can come out of “crying out,” but can also arise from gratitude, wonder, and love. We have been given a precious gift by our those who came before; the challenge is to make their art our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- Happy Tu B’Shvat to one and all!


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Bo: Words Emerge From Between Them

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt  . . speak to the whole community of Israel. . “ (Shemot/ Exodus 12:1-3)
Good afternoon! This week we have not only the story of the plagues upon Egypt but also the laws of Passover and telling the story in future generations. In the first verses of Chapter 12, Moshe and Aharon are commanded to speak to the Israelites and teach them the laws of the new moon, followed by the laws of the Pesachofferings. It’s hard to see it in translation, but the commandment to “speak,” above, at the beginning of verse 3, is written in Hebrew in the second-person plural: dabru,or as we might say it back in Maryland, “y’all speak.” 
As he is likely to do, our friend Rashi notices the plural commandment and implicitly asks two questions: first, wasn’t Moshealready commanded to speak by himself in earlier chapters?  (He seems to have gotten over his complaint of being an awkward speaker.) If so, what does it mean that the two brothers were commanded to speak- does it mean they spoke together, or to each other, or one after the other? 
Rashi brings a beautiful midrash to explain the commandment that they both “speak to the whole community:” 
“[they] would apportion the honor between them, saying to each other, ‘you teach me,’ and the words would emerge from between them, and it was as if they both spoke.” 
It cannot be coincidental that this midrash occurs in the context of the first communal laws of the Torah, for the very essence of the Jewish tradition is learning through dialogue.  To me, Torah is best learned not from a book but in community, for in learning together we teach each other. Each one of us has a unique perspective, which arises out of our interests, inclinations, education and experiences, and your perspective is something I cannot learn if I learn Torah all alone. The words of Torah can be spiritual practices, moral teachings, stories which illuminate our lives or history which roots us deeply, but applying Torah to our lives is a team sport, as it were. The image of the “words emerging from between them” is a powerful reminder that to be Jewish is to live with others, and there find our best humanity. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vaera: Master over Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

The Holy One said to Moses, “See! I have made you master over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your prophet.” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:1)

Good afternoon! Last week we introduced Moshe and learned that the Israelites were groaning under slavery in Egypt; this week the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh begins in earnest.

Last week Moshe was commissioned at the burning bush to go back to Egypt, but he hesitates, not sure if he has the right or standing to speak to the king or represent the Israelites. So God both commands and reassures him, thus reorienting Moshe from the belief that he had to be accepted by humans in order to speak words of prophetic justice. The narrative is seemingly interrupted by a genealogy of the heads of the clans- we’ll discuss that another time- but when it picks up again in chapter 7, God says, as in the verse above, that Moshe will be an Elohim to Pharaoh, and Aharon will be the speaker or prophet.

As you probably know, Elohim usually means “God” in the Hebrew Bible, but it can also mean human judges or authorities. (Cf. Psalm 82, for example.) So while the Jewish Publication Society, for example, translates this phrase as “placed you in the role of God to Pharaoh,” many other translators and commentators assume the more secular meaning of lord or master. The only problem is: that also raises questions, since a major theme of the story is Pharaoh refusal to recognize any authority other than himself! As king he not only initially ignores Moshe’s requests, he mocks them.

So in what sense is Moshe a “master” or “lord” over Pharaoh? As I read it, the verse is not about political but moral authority. Pharaoh may be king, but he is hardly master even over his own thoughts and impulses, whereas Moshe stands on the side of justice and prophetic ethics, giving him a steadfastness and clarity that the arrogant Pharaoh can never have. Moshe is “master” over Pharaoh because the good and right will, we believe, eventually win out over the corrupt and violent aspect of human nature. To put it another way: Pharaoh is concerned with the well-being of Pharaoh, but Moshe’s quest is grounded in a concern for the welfare of the people and the justice of God- and which do you think gives you greater mastery over self and gathers more power over the course of a long struggle?

Moshe becomes master to Pharaoh not only because he seeks freedom for his people, but because he is grounded in a wider sense of history and purpose than Pharaoh, the archetype of power-seeking and ego in human history, could even imagine. That’s the kind of vision and deep sense of connection to God, self and others that carries us through the inevitable conflicts and transitions of life; only by seeing something beyond ourselves can we find deep purpose, courage and mastery over self, which is the most important mastery of all.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shemot: The Renewal of Hope

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling . . .  (Shemot/Exodus 2:13)

Happy 2013!

For those also attuned to the calendar of Torah readings, we’re also starting something new this week, with the beginning of the book ofShemot, the story of Moshe leading the people to freedom and Mt Sinai. As many of you probably remember, Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s household and only became aware of the suffering of his people as a young man: the Torah says that he went out and saw an Egyptian captain beating a Hebrew, so Moshe killed the Egyptian, but “on the second day,” he saw two Hebrews fighting and tried to break up the conflict. (Cf. Shemot chapter 2:11-15)

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, in his book on Moshe, points out that the language of “on the second day,” connects the two incidents. He brings earlier commentaries to posit that perhaps the men were fighting over the proper response to Moshe’s daring act of rebellion against their Egyptian masters. One man understood Moshe’s act the previous day as the beginning of of the end of slavery, and a call to cast off their oppressor. The other man thought that Moshe was a fool who would get them all killed, because there was no hope of circumstances ever changing against the will of a great earthly power.

Now, this reading of our text relies on several interpretive leaps, but there is logic to it: by naming the day upon which the two Hebrews fought “the second day” or “the day after,” the Torah clearly links the two incidents, so it’s not such a stretch to say that the conflict itself may have been related to Moshe’s earlier action. Seen this way, the image of the two Hebrews fighting is a reminder that there are two approaches we can take to the problem of living lives of hope and action: we can believe that what is will always be, or we can choose to hope, and with hope, begin to change what must be changed.

There will always be a tension between pragmatic accommodation to the world as it is and an idealism which sees what might yet be. That’s the fight between factions in Egypt, but it’s also the struggle in every community and indeed within most individuals to balance our hopes and dreams against a sober view of the odds. Yet please note: the story ends with the Israelites marching out of Egypt, triumphant and free. The Israelites who scoffed at Moshe were wrong, which leads to the present day question: who among us who persists in cynicism is equally wrong? What might we achieve if we took the side of Moshe and really believed that justice can be made real and those who are low can be raised up?

Shabbat Shalom,


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