Archive for April, 2013

Emor: Immediate Needs

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

“None shall defile himself for any person among his people . . “ (Vayikra 21:1)


At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read a set of laws which keep the kohanim, or priests, in a state of ritual purity and away from the ritual impurity of death. Thus, the verse above teaches that a kohen will not touch a dead body, and the verses which follow offer some exceptions for immediate family members. Yet things are not so clear cut, and Rashi brings an close reading from an earlier text which illustrates an important ethical principle:

none shall defile himself for any person among his people. . .

[this means] while the dead one is among his people. It excludes one who has no one to bury him.

Let’s unpack what Rashi means: he’s reading the phrase “among his people” to mean that if there is a family member or somebody else (that is, there are people around)  to bury the body, then the priest should not come into contact with ritual impurity. Yet Rashi says the priest must bury the met mitzvah, literally the “corpse which is commanded,” that is, someone with no family or “people” to arrange the funeral. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, to attend to such a person, even for the priest.

OK, so far we’ve learned that the priest has to step in if nobody else is around, but I don’t think this is just about burials- though it’s also certainly true that it is a profound act to honor the dead by attending funerals and making sure that even those without family have dignified interments. Having said that, let’s take a step back and look at the general idea: even one with strict rules and boundaries and responsibilities, such as the priests of ancient Israel, had to step out of their customary role to attend to the immediate need of someone who had no one else.

Seen this way, the text applies not just at the end of life but throughout our journeys. How often is there someone in emotional, financial, spiritual or practical need right in front of us? Yet it’s all too easy to “not defile ourselves” with people’s challenges  and problems, retreating into our roles and jobs and schedules and errands and emails and myriad distractions, instead of attending to others when the need is urgent. Even the priest had to attend to the dead if themitzvah was unavoidable; should the rest of us do less for the living?

Shabbat Shalom,



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Kedoshim: Love and Justice

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot- Kedoshim

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:18)

Greetings from the relatively calm Hudson Valley.

As I write this, the city of Boston is on lock-down as the police search for one of the suspects in Monday’s terrible Boston Marathon bombing. The images from the Bay State greatly sadden me, if for no other reason than I recognize some of the areas now filled with armed police. (I lived in the Boston area for several years before coming to Poughkeepsie.)  It’s almost impossible for me to understand how a soul can be twisted and deformed to the point of terrorism. Leaving a homemade bomb in the middle of families and bystanders is an act beyond moral comprehension or ability to imagine.

Violence and cruelty have always been part of the human experience, but they are not the whole of the human experience. Love is also definitive of humanity; one need only think of the utterly brave and selfless responders (both professionals and ordinary folks) who rushed towards the explosions in Boston and Texas, ready to give of themselves to save and comfort the injured and frightened. We read in this week’s Torah portion that an aspect of kedusha, or holiness, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Rabbi Joe Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis pointed out earlier this week, our “neighbor” may be the person nearby who all of a sudden needs our love and compassion, though we have never met before.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah, but its application requires effort and reflection. The Torah Temimah, an anthology of rabbinic references to Torah verses, notes two separate texts from the Talmud where “love your neighbor” is used to clarify that the execution of criminals is to be done in the swiftest way possible. In other words, love does not set aside the demands of justice, but guides us in the application of justice. This, to me, is quite profound: the Talmud recognize that even a criminal deserving of death is, in a very real sense, our neighbor, and not exempted from our moral obligations and sensibilities. We do not call for bloody retribution, but for justice, tempered not by mercy, as such, but by a concern for retaining our own humanity in the face of cruelty and murder.

If the Boston bomber is taken alive, let him be tried and punished fairly, precisely to show him, the world and ourselves we are never who our enemies say we are. Love- for the stranger, the neighbor and even the one deserving of severe punishment- will be our redemption, and is, I believe, stronger than any bomb or weapon. The love demanded by the Torah is neither foolish nor naive; it is, instead, our light and guidance in navigating a sometimes cruel and painful world.

With prayers for a Shabbat of healing and hope,




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Shemini: Shouting and Singing

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

David whirled with all his might before the Lord; David was girt with a linen ephod. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn. (2 Samuel 6:14-15)

Good afternoon! It’s good to be back on this beautiful day after a Pesach break.

Our Torah reading this week, Shemini, deals with the laws of priestly offerings and the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the priestly service. Two of his sons die while offering a “strange fire” upon the altar; this episode has elicited much commentary. This frightening intersection of holiness and mortal danger is echoed in the haftarah, which tells the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem: a man named Uzzah accidentally touches the Ark and is struck as were Aharon’s sons.

So that’s one connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah. Yet the haftarah goes on to tell not only of Uzzah’s death but also of the joyous parade into Jerusalem; as in the verse above and other verses, David and all the people were dancing, shouting, playing music and eating festive foods along the way. While this behavior seems to get David into a spot of trouble at home, the people rejoice with him.

Perhaps in choosing this text for the haftarah, the ancient rabbis meant us to see a balance between the detailed religious laws of our Torah portion- and the priestly rituals in general- and the spontaneous, emotional outpouring of David’s joy before the Ark. He was honoring God and symbol of the covenant, and danced and sang without regard to decorum or status or self-consciousness- this, too, has always been part of the spirituality of Judaism.

Sometimes we need a fixed practice to bring us into a contemplative or grateful or humble stance, but sometimes we need to shout and dance because that’s the only proper response to the gift of life itself. Sometimes we need a composed prayer because the words won’t otherwise come, but sometimes we need to express the content of our souls, whether it be joy or gratitude or lament or praise. If even a king can dance and shout before the Divine, how much more the rest of us!

Shabbat Shalom,


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