Archive for February, 2013

Tetzaveh/ Shabbat Zachor: Remembrance of the Present

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor

Good morning!

It’s just a day before Purim, which means tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, or the “Shabbat of Remembering,” which means there will be a special concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah.  These texts, always read on the Shabbat before Purim, tell of Israel’s war wit Amalek, the lawless people who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. We are told in the Torah reading to always “remember” [zachor] to wipe out the memory of Amalek, hence the name Shabbat Zachor. Hundreds of years later, the first King of Israel, Shaul, was given the command to wipe out the Amalekites- man, woman, child and animals- but spares the Amalekite king as well as much of their riches.

This act- sparing the king and some of the animals- costs Saul his kingship, and sets up a connection with Purim (Agag, the Amalekite king, is the ancestor of Haman.) One might say that the texts of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the historical challenges of Jewish security; some believe that Jews must always remember there could always be an Amalek, or a Haman, just waiting to strike. The texts of Shabbat Zachor, and the Megillat Esther, or scroll of Esther, could be seen as teaching the historical imperative of Jewish self-defense. After all, at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews rise up against those who would have attacked them and kill tens of thousands of their enemies in a preemptive strike.

Yet many readers are deeply troubled by Samuel’s order to Shaul to wipe out the Amalekites, including the children and even the animals. Such brutal warfare, punishing the innocent for the sins of their ancestors, seems out of place in a religious system that insists on justice and due process. (See, for example, Abraham’s famous argument with God over the innocent of Sodom.) Such questions become even more urgent in an age of genocide directed against Jews (and Armenians, and Tibetans, and Rwandans- the list goes on.) How can we possibly hold as a sacred text one which condones the massacre of an entire people, along with animals and property?

Perhaps one way to redeem the texts of Shabbat Zachor is by seeing them not as texts about them, but about us. Yes, Jews (and civilized people generally) must be vigilant about those who would harm us, and yes, sometimes innocent people die in defensive wars. It’s also true that if we are troubled by what the texts says happened in the past, we must remember that such acts happen now, in our day, and not only by countries or groups we might consider lawless or aggressive. Let’s remember that the United States is engaged in warfare on several continents, and unknown numbers of innocent men, women, and children have died in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries as well. Drone strikes are sometimes targeted on the basis of activities deemed suspicious from the air, but in some cases bombs dropped on villages and houses kill civilians, including children, as well. (Please see the websites of the NYU Law School drone project  and ProPublica’s comprehensive collection of known information about this semi-secret war for more information. Just hit the links. You’ll probably be amazed.)

I am neither endorsing nor condemning the Administration’s war actions in various countries; I am merely pointing out that we, too, currently take the lives of children when we as a country believe it to be necessary. Our moral revulsion at the violence in Biblical times should be tempered by introspection about the moral state of our own times; at the very least, reflection on how to fight Amalek should require that every citizen become knowledgable about what is being done in our names. On Purim, we rejoice in Jewish victory, but we also reflect on the ethical dilemmas of being a free people in a brutal world. The texts of Shabbat  Zachor call us to remember not only the past, but the present as well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Terumah: What People Give

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Terumah 
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. . . (Shemot/ Exodus 25:2)
Dear Friends: 
Sorry about my absence from the internet last week but glad to be back with you today. 
The Torah portion Terumah begins the third act of the book of Exodus: the building of theMishkan, the portable Sanctuary, experienced as the place of the Divine Presence. At the beginning of the portion, Moshe is told to tell all the people to bring the gifts or voluntary offerings needed to build the Mishkan: precious metals, jewel stones, wood, fabric, skins, etc. The portions that follow go into great detail about every aspect of the building and maintenance of the structure, but for today let’s just reflect for a moment on the idea that all the people were to give, but they were to give as they were moved to do so. The word terumah, in this case, means an “offering” like other obligatory offerings (see more on that here) but the verse is very specific that each person was to offer what they had and what they wished. 
A perennial question arises out of this story: where did the people get the materials with which to build such a fancy Sanctuary? On the one hand, we might say that it was ordained from above that the people would take from the Egyptians and find in the wilderness what they needed to build the Mishkan-maybe it was all part of a Divine plan. That explains how it such precise instructions could be given to a bunch of former slaves in the desert, but it lessens, at least for me, the sense that the Mishkan was built out of the people’s love and reverence and desire to make a spiritual center for themselves. 
So perhaps we might say, instead, that the instructions for the MIshkan were given according to the people’s resources- that is, God told them to build a Mishkan based on what they had at that moment, so they could give freely out of love and free choice. This, in turn, suggests that what makes the Mishkan the holy center of the people is that it was build by all of them; some gave much and some gave little but the Divine Presence was made manifest when the gifts of each person were accepted and honored. 
Think of how our synagogues and Jewish communities would be if we decided we weren’t finished building community until each person’s gifts –  of mind, heart, spirit, money and time- were accepted and honored in joy. How could the Presence of the Sacred not be felt among such a community? 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Yitro: All the People

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“on the third day, the Holy One will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. . .  (Shemot/ Exodus 19:11)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion is the dramatic and religious climax of the Exodus narrative: having been freed from Pharaoh’s grip, the Israelites come to Sinai, where they are initiated into a covenant of laws and principles as free people, newly responsible for their deeds. While Moshe continues to serve as an interlocutor between God and Israel, the Torah specifically notes that the theophany at Sinai happened in the presence of “all the people,” as in the verse above, and again in 20:15 :

“And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain . . . “

Our friend Rashi interprets “all the people saw”- as well as the phrase “before the eyes of all the people” in the verse above – as teaching that there was not a single blind person among the Israelites. Perhaps he’s just being very literal, or perhaps the blindness to which he refers is a metaphor for lack of spiritual perception. If the latter, then “all the people saw” is a concise way of saying that “all of the people understood the reality and significance of the events at Sinai,” which is a plausible and generous interpretation.

To me, however, the key idea in both verses is not about “seeing” (even in the idiomatic sense of “understanding” or “perceiving”), but “all,” as in all the people witnessed this great bursting forth of the Holy. I can’t imagine an authentic Judaism that does not, in a very real way, belong to all the people- or at least, all the people who choose to be part of the probing dialogue since Sinai about how to be a holy people in a hurting world. According to our sacred story, Torah was given at Sinai but it is received continually, by each individual in each generation.

It was not given to Moshe alone but to the entire people- you and me and the rest of us- to probe, explain, explore, elucidate, expound and practice. This, for me, is an indispensable principle of Judaism: it is not the property or privilege of a chosen elite but the common inheritance of our people, who, in turn, bear responsibility for making it live in their day. All the people saw and experienced the Presence at Sinai; all the people are called to respond, and all the people have the capacity to teach new understandings of Torah in every age.

Shabbat Shalom,


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