Archive for May, 2013

Shlach-Lecha: Don’t Turn Astray

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:39)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion starts off with a grand narrative and ends up on with the small fringes on our garments- but these are not unrelated, as we shall see. The grand narrative is that of the spies going up to the Land of Israel, ten of whom came back discouraged and disheartened, and brought the people down with them into despair. Two spies tried to give the people hope, but it was too late, and that generation was condemned to wander until their children were ready to enter the Land.

Fast forward to the end of the portion, and we have the mitzvah of tzitzit, or attaching fringes to the corners of garments. The reason we do so is given in the verse above: these fringes will remind us of the commandments and then we won’t go astray. (Not that any of y’all would do that, of course.)

Now, what’s interesting is that one commentator, Sefer HaHinnuch [a medieval textbook of the commandments] actually lists “not following our hearts and eyes” as a separate commandment by itself. (Others disagree.) That is, rather than just understanding “not going astray” as the reason for the tzitzit, this source understands the tzitzit to represent an intellectual responsibility not to think about or follow false ideas or immoral things, an obligation we have regardless of what we are wearing.

Of course, that’s a high bar to set: we spend our whole lives seeking to discern truth and the world is full of distractions and temptations. I don’t believe anybody can “not go astray”- that’s not possible. Rather, I think enumerating this as a separate mitzvah simply means that we should have a spiritual practice of paying attention to what’s grabbing our attention. To wit:: if we’re paying attention to shiny things, we’re paying less attention to love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Rashi makes a wonderful allusion to this when he says that “the heart and eyes are spies for the body: The eyes see, the heart covets and the body sins.” The word he uses for “spies, “ meraglim, is the same as the word for “spies” in the first part of the portion- this can’t be an accident. I think Rashi is implying that just as the spies went up to the Land but got distracted internally (by fear, anxiety, and despair) from the true course of their journey, so too when we go through this life we can get distracted internally by meaningless things which grab our attention and play upon our insecurities. The good news is that we can also go through life with more intentionality ; the tzitzit represent the idea that we can learn to focus on that which is important, rather than ephemeral. Such a reorientation of the eyes and heart is neither easy nor simple, but such is the task of becoming the person we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: for a very different interpretation of tzitzit, see this week’s commentary by R. Jonathan Sacks. It’s great.

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Beha’alotecha: Embracing Diversity

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 12:1)

Greetings from the lovely (but soggy) Hudson Valley!

This week’s Torah portion contains all kinds of interesting stories and laws, from the duties of the Levites to a narrative of truly epic kvetching in chapter 11. After the people almost tear themselves apart complaining and challenging Moshe and Aharon, the story shifts into a much smaller scope. Apparently there is some tension among the siblings who lead the Israelites; Miriam and Aharon speak against their younger brother Moshe, perhaps using his wife as a pretext for their resentment.

Traditional commentators are perplexed about what, exactly, the siblings are saying about Moshe and/ or his wife. While the literal meaning of “Cushite” is “Ethiopian,” some commentators understand it to mean “beautiful” and interpolate a midrash in which Miriam was speaking out on behalf of Moshe’s wife, criticizing Moshe from separating from her in order to be constantly available for prophecy. Some believe this wife was Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from Midian, but others think perhaps he married another woman at some point after the Exodus.

The conclusion of the story is stark: Miriam is punished by God with an outbreak of skin impurity, and banished from the camp for seven days. Moshe prayed for his sister’s healing, but something about what she did was so inappropriate that it caused her separation from the community. With that in mind, it’s hard to reinterpret the story as one of Miriam’s defense of her sister-in-law. While I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading which puts Miriam in a better light, I think the plain meaning of the text imputes a more serious misdeed than a misguided attempt to fix her brother’s marriage.

Perhaps the most salient reading of this text is not through the creativity of the ancient rabbis but its plainest meaning: e.g., that Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother because he married somebody they didn’t like and didn’t accept. In this view, “Cushite” means just that, an Ethiopian woman, or in other words, somebody whose external features and cultural background may have been different from that of the Israelites. One modern commentator (and former colleague), rejects this interpretation as unlikely given the ethnically mixed background of the group who left Egypt, but I don’t think we’re talking about the larger social condition of the Israelites. Instead, this story focuses on the elite leadership, which could very easily be more susceptible to the idea that others unlike themselves were unacceptable or unfit to join their family.

Perhaps that’s why Miriam drew such strong rebuke from Heaven (we’ll address another time why Aharon didn’t merit the same rebuke): rejecting Jews based on appearances or family background indicates a profound misunderstanding of what defines us as Jews. We are emphatically not a race, nor an ethnic group, but rather a people defined by our religious culture and commitments (understood broadly) and a shared global destiny. We are a people with a mission, not only because of a common history but more importantly because of a shared commitment to live a joyful, ethical Judaism (though there’s more than one way to do that) which binds us in obligations of caring and responsibility.

“That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish” is the punchline of jokes, but it’s a phrase without meaning in a world where Jews by choice and Jews by parentage are of every skin color, cultural background, native language and citizenry. Diversity is our strength and blessing, and embracing every Jew and their family within our communities is a sacred task.

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Nasso: Gifts and Hope

Copyright 2013  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nasso

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle . .  the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord . . . .(Bamidbar/ Numbers 7:1-3)

Good morning! I hope everybody who just celebrated Shavuot had a lovely holiday with good Torah learning and the appropriate dairy treats. Ironically, we turn immediately to the Torah portion Nasso, which includes among its various laws the rules of the Nazir, who chose a more ascetic life. . . but we’ll deal with that another day. Today I’m more interested in a little detail at the beginning of Chapter 7, which is one of more unusual chapters of the Torah, in that it repeats the same story 12 times. Each of the tribes of Israel sends a nobleman to offer gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and as it turns out, each set of gifts was exactly the same, listed identically in the text.

That’s interesting, but even more interesting is a rabbinic understanding of who these 12 princes were, and for that, we need to go back to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. You might remember that the Egyptians set the Israelites a certain quota of bricks, and held the captains of the people responsible when the people didn’t produce the required amounts:

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. “Why,” they were asked, “did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?” (Exodus 5:14)

This interpretation, cited in early works of midrash, involves a bit of Hebrew wordplay, the details of which are less important than the narrative idea: that these men, who suffered greatly at the hands of their oppressors, and who were caught between the Egyptians and the Israelites in a morally impossible position, could nevertheless bring notable gifts to the Mishkan. Granted, there is some controversy as to why they brought their gifts last rather than first – that is, back in Exodus when they were first collecting materials for the Mishkan–  but to me, what stands out in this reading is faith in human resilience. After the princes were beaten by the Egyptians, they turned bitterly to Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but here they are, standing together with them to create a Sanctuary in the midst of the people.

There are those who suffer, and withdraw from the world, and there are those who suffer, and learn from that suffering to live life at even higher levels of compassion and generosity. To put it more plainly, what the ancient rabbis seem to be saying is this: the princes of the people had been beaten and morally tormented, and nevertheless had gifts to offer. That is a message of profound hope to all those who have experienced pain, injustice or darkness: do not think that you are broken and shamed, for you too have gifts to offer, gifts which bring the Presence of the Holy One into this world, gifts which are the equal of that which anyone else might offer. Do not despair- you have gifts to offer, and the world needs you.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: Balancing the Camp

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

On the south: the standard of the division of Reuven, troop by troop. . .  Camping next to it: The tribe of Shimon . . . . And the tribe of Gad. (Bamidbar 2: 10-14, abridged.)

We’re starting a new month and a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” and which tells the story of the Israelites on their long journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. The book, and our weekly reading, begin with a census of the people (hence the English name “Numbers” and then describes how the 12 tribes would camp in a certain formation around the Tent of Meeting, 3 tribes on each side.

The famed rabbi and Torah commentator S. R. Hirsch notes in the first above that Reuven, the firstborn, was paired with Shimon and Gad, who were later on in the line of Yaakov’s descendants. It’s a common theme of traditional commentary that the tribes reflect the character of their ancestors; Hirsch notes that Reuven, the eldest, was not given the right of leadership, perhaps because he lacked the force of character to stop his brothers from harming Yosef (cf. Genesis 37). Reuven later shamed his father by sleeping with Yaakov’s concubine (ibid 35:22) which earned him rebuke even when Yaakov was on his deathbed. (49:3-4)

Shimon, on the other hand, was half of the pair (with his brother Levi) who deceived and slaughtered the men of Shechem in retaliation for abusing their sister Dinah (see this chapter); even years later, they were called cruel men of vengeance by their father. (49:5-7) Of Gad we know little, except that Yaakov predicted that his descendents would be a victorious military force.

Hirsch sees the placing of Reuven with Shimon and Gad as a way to balance out the tendencies of their ancestors: Reuven was merciful in intent but ineffective in action during the rupture between Yosef and his brothers, while Shimon was quick to strike bloody vengeance after their sister was taken without thought to the consequences. The mercy and mildness (to use Hirsch’s phrase) of Reuven has to be a counterweight to the strength and righteous fury of Shimon and the prowess of Gad. Without that balance, strength will be used for cruelty and good intentions will mean nothing in a world which often requires us to stand firm.

Of course, the Tent of Meeting is no longer something to be protected out there in the world; it is symbolic of that point of the holy we each bear internally. Our own souls need a balance of mercy and strength, kindness and outrage, for how else can we move forward in this world, and even more, move the world forward?

Shabbat Shalom


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Behar-Bechukotai: Strangers Upon the Land

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”    (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:23)

What a gorgeous morning in the Hudson Valley!

It’s the kind of day which evokes a sense of glorious gratitude for the beauty of the earth and all its flora and fauna (maybe ticks not so much). Lucky for us, this feeling, of being privileged to live upon the land, is addressed in this first of this week’s double Torah portions. The portion Behar first teaches the laws of the Sabbatical [shmitta] and Jubilee [yovel] years; the former is a seven year cycle of debt forgiveness and letting the land rest, and the latter is a 50 year cycle of returning land to its ancestral owners and letting servants go free.

The verse above is a theological foundation for these practices: we are tenants rather than owners of the earth. The phrase translated as “strangers resident with Me” is perhaps even more subtle than that: ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi literally means “you are resident aliens and temporary residents with Me.” A ger in Biblical Hebrew is a non-citizen, a non-Israelite, living among the citizens of the land (the contemporary meaning is a convert to Judaism, more on that another time), whereas a toshav can be understood as a temporary settler, somebody passing through, not living somewhere permanently.

This is quite striking: even in the land of Israel the people are to understand themselves as passers-through, not owners but graced with the privilege of temporary residence on the earth. On the one hand, this is all about feeling intense gratitude for the earth and its glory, and on the other, it’s about the humility of knowing that we depend on the land and its blessings, and feel mastery only at our own peril. This has profound implications for environmental ethics but also for personal spirituality, because in a sense we don’t really own anything, just borrow it for a bit. The sense of attachment, of mastery or command over the material world is an illusion: we are ultimately attached to nothing except the Source of our being, as we are ultimately “residents with Me.”

Read this way, the verse teaches us to think of ourselves as rooted in relationships: with God, with the earth, with each other, with ourselves- rather than rooted in the experience of possession of material things. Relationships are truly within our power to create and make part of ourselves; material objects, even the land beneath our feet, is “ours” only the sense of being entrusted to us for a particular time and use before going on to somebody or something else. To put it another way: go to a cemetery, and read the headstones. The inscriptions often name relationships, like father, mother, brother, sister, son, friend, and so on. Sometimes the inscriptions name a role somebody played in society: doctor, soldier, rabbi, teacher, musician, whatever people do to serve and provide.

I’ve never seen a gravestone mention anything about property, cars or clothes, because in the face of death, people know that these things are impermanent and unimportant. Relationships are real and ongoing, in life and after death. Thus we do well to remember that we are all but strangers and passers-through upon the land, ultimately resident with the Source of our blessings, owning nothing but our love and care, given and received from the earth, the heavens and each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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