Archive for August, 2013

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Keep Moving

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: Nitzavim- Vayelech

[Moshe]  said to them, “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, because the Lord said to me:You shall not cross this Jordan.” Deuteronomy/ D’varim31:2)

Good morning! We’re going to make one more valiant effort to restart our weekly Torah commentary despite the looming plethora of holidays and other logistical challenges. (Short version: you can never, ever get too many references on home contractors.)
 
The scene set by this week’s Torah reading is quite poignant: Moshe announces that he is 120 years old, apparently too old to lead the people any longer, and gives the people powerful exhortation to choose what is right and good as they continue on into the Land without him. Our friend Rashi sees the verse above as stressing the last part- that God has forbidden Moshe to enter the Land. Thus for Rashi, Moshe’s statement that he can “no longer go or come” simply means that his journey is over by Heavenly decree. 
 
So far, so good. On the other hand, maybe Moshe is not describing his external constraints but his internal state of being. The Hasidic sage Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin reminds us* that growth and change are constant throughout a person’s life- we never stop learning from our mistakes, repenting of the ways we have fallen short, and seeking to rise to a higher level in the coming year. We may, as we grow, reflect on mistakes made years earlier, when we were not yet wise enough to really do t’shuvah for these shortcomings, or even recognize them as such.
 
Thus, when Moshe says “I can no longer go or come,” in this reading he’s saying: I have reached a place where I’m no longer moving and growing and changing spiritually, I have attained the highest level I can, and thus my life has reached its fulfillment and conclusion. For the rest of us, please note: that took Moshe 120 years. I have no such excuse! 
 
The point is not that when we get stuck, we should give up; the point is that Moshe kept struggling to reach higher and higher levels until the very end of his life and even then sought to use every bit of his energy to teach and encourage and transform his people. Every one of us is still “going out and coming in,” that is, going off the path of our ideals and principles and coming back into relationship with God, ourselves and others. That is the primary work of the Days of Awe just ahead. The good news is this: the gates of return are always open. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
* This passage is quoted by Norman Lamm in the magisterial work “The Religious Thought of Hasidism,” 363-4. Above is a creative paraphrase. 
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Shoftim: The Hardest Struggle

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Shoftim 
 
When you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord, your God is with you Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/ D’varim 20:1)
 
We’re back after a summer of. . well, not really so much vacation but diversion to other projects, which took longer than I expected. I think we’ll have a weekly commentary throughout the Days of Awe and as always I thank you for joining me in Torah study. 
 
This week’s portion, Shoftiim, means “judges” and has many laws pertaining to the judiciary, the king, and legal procedures.The end of the portion deals with the laws of warfare and the conduct of the military, but one commentator, known as Or HaChaim, uses an unusual vowel to take the discussion in a very different direction. D’varim 20 begins with the practice of excusing certain classes of soldiers from the battle, but the Or HaChaim notices that the Hebrew of our verse above suggests a definite article: lamilchama can be read as “to the war,” which suggests to him that the Torah is talking about something specific and immediate and important. 
 
According to the Or HaChaim, going out to “the war” means a battle not against any internal enemy but an internal struggle with the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is often called the “evil urge” but really means the egocentric or self-centered inclination present in every human being. Especially as we prepare for the Days of Awe, we remember that the greatest struggle is internal, to become the people we aspire to be, exemplars of holy compassion and forgiveness and generosity. 
 
This extraordinary reading of “the war” is connected to the end of the verse, which exhorts the Israelites not to be afraid, because the Holy One who took them out of Egypt is with them. Read in its simple meaning, the verse suggests divine intervention in military affairs, but read in reference to the internal struggle, the Torah reminds us that we need not be afraid of imprisonment within ourselves. The Holy One freed us from the place of bondage, and that means we can boldly confront our inner Pharaohs: fear, negativity, shame, addiction, resentment and despair. The yetzer hara uses these emotions and more to keep us stuck and shrinking from bringing light into the world, but spiritual growth is all about changing ourselves to change the world. When you go out to war- you aren’t going out at all. You’re going in, to the deepest place of soul-accounting, and raising yourself up as a mighty deed. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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