Archive for November, 2013

Vayishlach: Balancing Solitude and Relationship

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

That same night he arose and. . . he crossed the ford of the Yavok.  Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.  .  . (Bereshit/ Genesis 32: 23-24)

Good afternoon!

My colleague Rabbi Baruch Halevi had an excellent Torah insight that I’d never really considered: as in the verse above, our ancestor Yaakov seems to have his most intense spiritual experiences at night. (See also Bereshit 28 and 46.) You should check out Rabbi Halevi’s interpretation (here) about facing the inner darkness but what intrigued me was how the Torah stresses that Yaakov was alone that night by the river. This is also explicit the first time he had visions of the night on his flight from Beer-sheva.  (see the link to chapter 28, above.)  Sometimes we gain great insight in solitude, in quiet hours and withdrawal from noise and business; the image of Yaakov alone at night certainly suggests a moment of crisis but also simply those times when looking inward is the only possible way forward.

On the other hand, contrast those two experiences of  Yaakov with the famous scene of his father praying together with his mother:

And Yitzhak prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Holy One accepted his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived. (Bereshit 25:21)

Rashi says that Yitzhak and Rivka prayed in opposite corners of the same room; other commentators suggest that Yitzhak knew that their problem was not only hers but was fully shared by both spouses, thus requiring shared prayer and introspection. There are times for the quiet of solitude, and also times to reveal our struggle and journey with others.

We might say that in the aloneness of the night, Yaakov is confronted with the most basic questions a human can ask: who am I and where am I going? Yitzhak, at his moment of seeking, asks an equally fundamental question: how are we going to move forward together? Perhaps the difference is this: the question is  not only who am I? but how can I be me except in relationship to others?

This is, of course, no conundrum at all. The full spiritual life is a balance of solitude and connection, introspection and dialogue, learning one’s inner truth and also a deep vulnerability to others. Sometimes we need to be Yaakov, alone in the night, and sometimes we need to be Yitzhak, seeking God together with his partner.  Both ways are holy!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayetze: When a Righteous Man Departs From the City

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetze

Yaakov left Beer-sheva, and set out for Haran. . . . (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:10)

Good afternoon! It’s been a tough week here in the Hudson Valley; we laid to rest not one but two noted survivors of the Shoah, both from Poland, both escapees from the ghetto as teens, and both Levi’im.

Before I reflect on the lives of Nachman Kamlot and Kuba Beck, let’s go back to our Torah portion for a moment. Last week Yaakov deceives his father and steals his brother’s birthright; Esav is furious (understandably) and their mother sends Yaakov away to avoid his brother’s wrath. This week we open our Torah portion with the verse above, which begs an obvious question: why does the text have to mention that Yaakov left Beer-sheva? Is it not obvious that he had to leave somewhere if we merely mention that he’s heading for Haran?

Our friend Rashi offers a beautiful homiletic interpretation, gleaned from an earlier text:

“But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its radiance has departed, its majesty has departed. . .

Note well what constitutes beauty, radiance and majesty (hod, ziv and hadar, in that order): it’s not physical beauty, or style or riches, but moral standing. The irony, of course, is that Yaakov is on the run precisely because he did something deceptive, but the rabbis see him as a tzadik, a righteous man, perhaps on the basis of his overall life and not only his deeds at that moment.

Extrapolating Rashi’s point from its immediate context, we see a larger Jewish idea: that communities are deeply affected by the best of their people, whose loss affects us in ways that are not always obvious or immediate. Beauty is a quality of the spirit, not only of the body; majesty is not in power or politics, but in living every day with honor, courage and kindness.

Here in Poughkeepsie, one of the men we just buried, Kuba Beck, spent the last decades of his life telling his story of rescue by Oskar Schindler to any person or group who would listen, so the dead would not be forgotten but also so that the world would know that there were decent men even among the German occupiers. He was committed to a world without hate or bigotry, precisely because he knew that collective judgments lead to evil; condemning all Germans meant condemning the man who saved his life at risk to his own. His gentle ways and love of his community, synagogue and people inspired all who met him.

We also buried Nachman Kamlot, our long-time Torah reader and a scholar of Jewish history, texts, language and literature. Nachman didn’t tell his story all over the country like Kuba did; rather, he simply lived out his commitment to Jewish life: both the Jewish life destroyed in his youth but also the Jewish life very much alive in Poughkeepsie. He taught Hebrew to younger students and Yiddish at Vassar College; he read Torah and led our daily minyan; he made jokes with Yiddish punchlines (some of which I understood) and merely by being present evoked a glorious Jewish world in prewar Europe.

Our high school students did persuade Nachman to tell his story to the camera and I was amazed to learn of his courage and resilience while evading the enemy for as long as he could. When asked what the students should take from his story of escape and survival and resettlement, he had a one-word answer: read. Read Jewish history and Jewish literature- know where you came from!

These men, with their dignity, piety and quiet heroism, were the beauty, the radiance and the majesty of our community. We grieve not only for their deaths but for the opportunity to hear again the names and stories from the Jewish world of their childhoods, so different from and yet so deeply connected to our own, and why our duty of remembrance is a a sacred task.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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