Archive for March, 2013

A Pesach Question

Dear Friends:

About a month ago, I was at the gym when the movie Gladiator was playing on one of the channels. I had seen it before, though I don’t remember exactly when, but this time I was struck by the historical reality of slaves in the Roman period. The film portrayed, accurately enough, that the slaves chosen for combat were valuable only in the entertainment value of their deaths. Their lives were worthless, but their deaths were celebrated by the Roman elite and even populace. The movie didn’t even show the full extent of the Roman revelry in death, nor the casualness with which slaves and others were killed by the most gruesome means.

This, of course, contrasts profoundly with Judaism and the Pesach story in particular. The Torah tells the most amazing and unusual story: a story in which slaves- not the elite, not the gentry, not the full citizens of a powerful empire, but slaves- were heard and saved by a God who cared for the powerless. The radical notion of the Torah- not always fully realized in every Biblical story, to be sure- is that every human being is made in the Divine Image, and therefore social status is irrelevant to spiritual worthiness or inherent dignity.

Yet it is not only the ancient Romans who would have found the idea of a God who values the poor and powerless to be absurd. A quick scan of magazines and newspapers at the local supermarkets reveals much concern for the wealthy, famous and beautiful,

and scant reporting on human trafficking in the United States, extreme poverty, even hunger, in the richest nation on earth, or the scandal of our indifference to grotesque violation of human rights across the globe, including allied nations and even sometimes by our own government.

So my question to you is: do we take the message of Passover seriously? Do we really believe that the God of Israel cares about the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the hungry?

If so- if Passover is to be more than brisket and family gatherings- how will the experience of reliving the redemption from Egypt be transformative rather than merely satiating?

Jews believe in a God who cares about life, even the lives that nobody else cares about.

Do we?

That’s another question for your Passover table.

With blessings for a provocative, yet warm and wonderful holiday,

Rabbi Neal

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Pesach Resources

Dear Friends:

It’s a rare two-post-without-fixing-a-mistake-day at!

I’ve put together some recommended Pesach resources for guidance, learning and inspiration; I’ve deleted some parts from the congregational email that are Poughkeepsie-specific but I can sell your chametz from afar if you like. (Not sure what it means to sell chametz? Click here, then email me.)

If you are in or near the Hudson Valley and do not have a place to go for seder, please be in touch. We have families who would love to host guests.

While making your Pesach preparations, it’s helpful to review the laws and practices in advance of cleaning and shopping. The Rabbinical Assembly (our Conservative rabbi’s group) has prepared a page of Pesach resources here, including a brief guide to the relevant laws and an explanation of the ideas of chametz and matzah. The blessing for burning chametz is in most haggadot but there’s a PDF here.

Now, one perennial question for many families is that of kitniyot– seeds and beans and the like- which are eaten by many Sefardim on Pesach but not most Ashkenazim. Last month the magazine of Conservative Judaism published an article arguing against the custom not to eat kitniyot. This raised some controversy- see here for the rebuttal and make up your own mind. If your family is Sefardic or you decided to embrace that tradition, you can find a Sefardic Pesach guide here.

Please note that the time to start thinking about how to deepen, enliven and enjoy your seder is now- not the day before the seder! Maybe you need to brush up on parts of the haggadah and review some of the melodies? Here are audio clips with the relevant texts right in front of you! As I’ve done before, I recommend downloading the Valley Beth Shalom haggadah for free- it’s got some wonderful discussion questions and conversation-starters and commentaries. The Shalom Hartman Institute is an amazing institution of Jewish learning- they have a whole page of Pesach articles, lectures and videos. (If you want to make a youtube video into an mp3 for portable learning, it’s very easy- just email me.)

Closer to Poughkeepsie, Yeshiva University has its annual collection of Pesach articles called Pesach-to-Go, but a Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia has put together the Mother of All Passover Collections at his Jewish Freeware site. There are seder readings, audio clips, recipes, many downloadable haggadot, song sheets- you really need to check this out and find something new to add to your Pesach table.

Finally, I’m proud to announce that some of my own writing and commentaries will be shared on The Daily Rabbi, an pluralistic online Jewish magazine. There are several great articles and commentaries on Pesach up right now and there will be more every day until the holiday- so check it out.

I hope you find these resources helpful and even more I hope your Pesach is one of happiness, family, friends and new appreciation for our freedom. I look forward to seeing each of you soon.

with blessings for a joyous holiday,


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Vayikra: Getting our Attention

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

“The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting . . . “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 1:1)

Good morning!

The very first words of the book of Vayikra (and the first Torah portion of the same name) are unusual: God usually “speaks” to Moshe (vayidaber) but here God first “calls” to him, and then speaks to him. (Another unusual feature of the first verse is the small aleph at the end of the first word- see here for more on both themes.)

Now, it’s not the first time that God “calls” to Moshe; commentators note that the same word appears in connection with the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and when Moshe goes back up Mt. Sinai after initial revelation (Ex. 24:16). You can find other interesting comparisons of who gets “called” (and why) here, but for today let’s note that both verbs- calling and speaking- connote communication, so perhaps the first is a matter of getting Moshe’s attention and the second is relaying specific content.

This is, of course, very common: we often call out to friends or family or complete strangers, to let them know we want their attention, and then begin to tell them something in its particulars: “hey you! move your car!” or even what I like to call the “Jewish intercom” of shouting across the halls to somebody in another office. Yet Moshe wasn’t navigating the streets or working in an office; he was already near the Tent of Meeting, which was filled with the Divine Presence. (See the end of the book of Exodus.)

In other words, humans are so distractible that even the greatest prophet, standing near the place where the Divine Presence was experienced by the camp of Israel, needed to be brought to attention before he could attune to the sacred (to paraphrase Michael Fishbane.) So if even Moshe- who knew the Holy One face to face (as it were)- had to be called, or perhaps focused, before he could hear or discern the voice from the Tent of Meeting, it reminds me how much more I have to focus myself before Torah study, prayer, mitzvot, acts of lovingkindness and the myriad other ways we experience that Presence in our day. To wit: while writing the two paragraphs above, I answered several other emails and instant messages which came in and then I came back to the task of writing a Torah commentary on the need to have more awareness of the sacred!

Moshe is us: we are all called to pay attention to the spiritual experience we might have in the very next moment. For us, there is no one Tent of Meeting at the center of the camp, so it’s up to each of us to find those places, people, moments, practices and texts which grab our attention, turn us away from the trivial and towards the things which most deeply ground us in a life that matters. As earthly beings, we will always feel pulled towards the next distraction (and there are millions more than in Moshe’s time) but as spiritual seekers we also have the possibility of hearing a quiet call, asking us to experience the Sacred and act accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayekhel-Pekudei: Equal Souls

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel-Pekudei / Shabbat HaHodesh 

“See, the Lord has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft . . . He and Oholiav son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work. . . as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs.” (Shemot/ Exodus 35:30-35, abridged.)

Good Morning!

It’s going to be a busy weekend in Torah reading: we have a double portion to conclude the book of Exodus, and we also read a special portion for Shabbat HaHodesh, which always falls before the new moon of the month of Nissan (and hence about two weeks or a little more before Pesach.)

The Torah readings conclude the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary; in these final chapters, two craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, oversee and carry out the actual fashioning of the many components of the sacred structure. These were made from wood, fabric, skins, precious metals and even jewels, and required skill and experience in fashioning. The Torah tells us that the two chief craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, have a special sort of inspired holy spirit to do their work as artisans.

So far, so good, but notice in the verses above that there’s one important difference between Betzalel and Oholiav: the former is of the tribe of Yehudah, while the latter is of the tribe of Dan. Now, we might dismiss this as a random fact of genealogy, or the Torah’s desire to show the men in their social and personal context of family history and tribal affiliation, but of course the ancient rabbis see more to it than that.

Our friend Rashi, quoting an earlier rabbinic text, points out that Yehudah- the tribe of Betzalel- is the “greatest” of the tribes (presumably because line of King David comes from Yehudah), while Dan is one of the smaller or “lower” tribes, having descended from Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Yet as Rashi points out, the Holy One made the descendant of Yehudah and the descendant of Dan equal in the work of the Mishkan; he even brings a verse from Job to prove it:  “a rich one was not regarded more than the poor.” (Job 34:19)

Now we can understand Rashi’s comment is not about genealogy but about the inclusive nature of spiritual community. If all people are inherently b’tzelem Elohim [literally “in the Divine Image” but refers to our spiritual capacity] then of course it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, from a family of machers or a family of nudniks, high status or regular Joe. What matters is your dedication to the work of the community: spirituality, loving-kindness and actions for justice.

In the case of Betzalel and Oholiav, their special task was to make the physical structure of worship, but there are many ways to create sacred space and sacred community. The challenge for synagogues and other spiritual communities is to empower every seeker to contribute their unique gifts, and the job of every seeker is to discern how she is appointed to offer something unique and precious. It might be a gift of resources, time, compassion, skill or love, but only you can give it.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tissa: Just Wait

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa/ Shabbat Parah 
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’ “ (Shemot/ Exodus 32:1)
Good afternoon! The story of the Golden Calf is so strange: only a few weeks before, the people had seen the amazing revelation at Sinai, and just a short time before that, they had experience the miracles of the Exodus. Why on earth would they build an idol while waiting for Moshe? 
Many Torah commentators ask just that question, and one answer is: the Israelites were confused about where Moshe was and why he was late. If you go back to the end of chapter 24, we find that Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets and the law; before he goes up, he tells the elders to wait for him, putting Aharon and Hur in charge. Chapter 24:18 says that Moshe went up for “forty days and forty nights;” this is taught again in Deuteronomy 9:9, with the added detail that he was fasting the whole time. (!)
Now we can get to the misunderstanding that the ancient rabbis say caused the building of the Golden Calf: according to Rashi and others, Moshe told the people that he’d be back in 40 days, and they assumed that the day he left was day one of the counting. Yet from the verses above, which say he was gone “40 days and nights,” the rabbis learn that Moshe meant complete days, including the night, so the day he left was not the first day of the counting. (We discussed another midrash last year related to Moshe’s delay.)
Well, fine, that explains why they thought he was delayed- because they expected him on the wrong day- but it doesn’t explain why they would build an idol in response to his absence. Perhaps we should have more compassion on the Israelites; yes, they had just experienced Sinai but they were still only a few months away from being uprooted from the life (albeit a miserable one) they had known for centuries. In just a few months time they had experienced the plagues, the Exodus, the crossing of the sea, the manna, the miracles of water and the giving of the law- so much in so short a time might leave anybody shaken and confused and needing time to process and fully integrate their experiences. 
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a delay in Moshe’s reappearance caused such a drastic reaction; could we really expect the Israelites to understand that they would be fine in the wilderness without him? With so much change associated with one man, it’s not hard to believe that the slightest indication of his absence would provoke huge anxiety; we must remember that the Golden Calf was probably a substitute for Moshe, whom the people may have understood as a divine being, rather than an idol of another god. They may have been worried that he abandoned them or died on the mountain, and panicked at the thought of being leaderless in the wilderness. 
What do we learn from this reading of the story? First: how many terrible problems have arisen from misunderstandings! It’s funny to think, but according to this understanding, if the people had only asked “hey, Moshe, are you coming back on the 40th day or after 40 days?” the great sin of that generation might not have happened! 
We also learn that sometimes at the moments of greatest anxiety the best course of action is simply to wait, to become mindful and calm ourselves. If the Israelites had simply waited one more day (or according to other understandings, as per last year’s discussion, even just one more hour), it would have all been fine. That, to me, is the challenge of this story: a reminder that impatience can be our undoing. I have made so many mistakes because I acted too quickly, without reflection, without judgment, without discernment, without faith in others or myself. It is not surprising that the anxious Israelites would rush to make an idol to replace Moshe. Perhaps with patience, pausing and openness, we might avoid similar mistakes. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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