Archive for August, 2014

Re’eh: Poverty and Hope

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh
 
For there will never cease to be needy in your land. Because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand to your brother, the poor one and the destitute in your land. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 15:11) 
 
Good afternoon! 
 
The Torah portion Re’eh covers a lot of ground, from injunctions against idolatry to the laws of kosher animals to the laws of giving charity and taking care of the poor. Among the laws commanding us to care for the poor and needy is the one above, which points out that poverty is never going to be eliminated but must nonetheless be addressed. Poverty isn’t going to disappear anytime soon because, for one thing, human beings are radically imperfect, making poor decisions, gambling with their money, becoming addicts, plus sheer bad luck like droughts and economic instability. Another reason there will always be poverty is that people aren’t just imperfect, they are also sometimes terrible to each other, whether through political oppression, criminal acts or social injustice. 
 
Nevertheless, we can’t be overcome by despair and refuse to help those who need it. Despair is the antithesis of faith; faith does not mean a false hope of no suffering, but rather the refusal to give up on the meaning of our lives and deeds. Furthermore, it is action that renews our faith, not thinking through some intellectual theological problem- that’s why the verse says, “open your hand,” even with the knowledge that doing so will not be part of an ultimate solution to poverty even in the long run. 
 
We open our hands because it leads us to the truth that human kindness and connection and giving matter, right now, and doing those things changes us. Even if the rest of the world seems to stay the same- we are different. This may be why Rashi picked up on a subtle aspect of our verse above, the seemingly unnecessary word l’emor, “saying”, as in “because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand. . .” 
 
The verse makes perfect sense without the extra word: “because of this, I command you: open your hand,” but Rashi, quoting an earlier text, interpolates: 
 
Saying“- it is advice for your good that I am offering. 
 
What seems to be implied here is that by adding the word “saying,” the emphasis becomes: saying to you, for your sake. Rashi is using an unusual word to make a moral midrash, reminding us that a life of giving and loving-kindness is not only about our obligation to help the poor meet their needs, it is also the way we become the holy people we are meant to be. Of course we should help the poor for their sake, and of course charity or social justice work should not be a narcissistic exercise in feeling good about ourselves, but it’s also true that the only way to sustain a life of charity and activism is by having realistic hopes. I cannot eradicate poverty under current conditions, because I cannot change human nature. But I can help the poor of my city and the poor abroad by giving of myself and my resources, and in so doing, I change myself and bring light to the world. . 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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Ekev: Scattering our Idols

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain.    (Deuteronomy/D’varim 9:21)

Good afternoon!

Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, continues with Moshe recounting the history of Israel from the Exodus to their present moment on the edge of the Land. At Sinai, you may recall, the Israelite became anxious at Moshe’s absence and built the Golden Calf; upon his return from the mountain, Moshe burned the idol, ground it up, scattered it upon the waters, and made the Israelites drink of mixture. (Cf. Exodus 32:20 )

Let’s note two things here. First, while Moshe reminds the people of their ancestor’s great sin (the generation of the Exodus had died out and their children were preparing to inhabit the Land), he doesn’t remind them of the humiliation of having to drink the bitter potion of the ground-up idol, mentioned in the Exodus account. (Compared by some to the “ordeal of bitter waters,” or sota, found in the book of Numbers.) If we learn nothing else from this Torah portion, we learn to be careful in how we remind people of past events; it seems like the Torah portrays Moshe as thoughtful about his own reaction to the idolatry while letting the most difficult part go unremarked.

The second interesting thing about this verse is its seeming redundancy: why would Moshe need to burn, break, grind, and then scatter the idol- a four part process?

The ancient rabbis took Moshe’s actions as a positive requirement, saying that “this teaches that purging idolatry requires grinding and scattering to the wind or casting to the sea.” (Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah, quoted in theTorah Temimah) Yet this just begs the question again: if we had to destroy the idol, why wouldn’t just breaking it or melting it be enough?

Perhaps this long process- breaking, grinding, scattering- is really about the process of confronting our own deeds. If we think of idols not as physical things but as representations of our own mistakes, misdeeds, misdirected loyalties and missed blind spots, then the image of Moshe grinding and scattering the Calf is really about a long process of looking right at where we went wrong. The Israelites couldn’t just remove the Calf and say it everything was OK; they needed to take their false ideas about God and humankind and take some time to reflect on their mistakes. “Grinding and scattering” means: when you find an idol, which is probably within you, be thorough and fearless in uprooting it and making sure it can’t be used again.

Think, for example, how often fear, or hatred, or resentment, or anger, is merely transferred from one place to another unless we’ve done real work in uprooting these controlling emotions. The Christian theologian Dietrich Bohnoeffer coined the famous phrase “cheap grace,” by which he meant the forgiveness we quickly grant ourselves without doing a proper amount of soul-searching and atonement. That’s why the rabbis said an idol needs to be ground and scattered: because any internal transformation that’s quick and easy is no transformation at all, and we can do better.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Va’etchanan: Law and its Limits

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you . . . .(Deuteronomy/ D’varim 6:18)

Hello again, it’s a beautiful afternoon in the Hudson Valley and I’m delighted to find a few minutes to offer a Torah thought. I am in the middle of transitions and new challenges and can’t promise a commentary every week, but things should settle down after the Jewish holidays in the fall. Till then, well, I’ll do my best.

Now, onto this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, which continues Moshe’s review of the history of the Israelites since the Exodus some 40 years earlier, for the explicit purpose of reminding them of their obligation to the One Who redeemed them from slavery. To that end, Moshe also reviews the events at Sinai, and recapitulates the Ten Things That Were Said (e.g., aseret ha’dibrot, ten utterances, AKA ten commandments.)

Yet in the middle of all this exhortation to covenantal loyalty comes a verse which reminds them that the law is not the end, but the beginning of a moral life. “Do what is right and good,” from the verse quoted above, is understood to be a basic principle of Judaism: it’s not enough to obey the letter of a legall code or set of spiritual disciplines, but one must also fulfill the spirit of the law, which often requires going beyond a standard of strict adherence to formal standards.

A famous example of this comes from the Talmud [Bava Metzia 83a], wherein workers who broke a barrel of wine were hauled before the judge in order to hold them liable for the damage. Their shirts had been taken as collateral, but the judge, the sage known as Rav, ordered not only their shirts returned but their wages paid. Rav made explicit that his standard was not only the law that workers are liable for damage but the principle that we treat human beings with dignity and relieve their suffering, even if that requires us to go beyond the law. Yes, it would have been legal to take the worker’s shirts, but it would not have been right, nor humane, nor compassionate, nor consonant with larger Jewish ideals of justice and generosity.

Of course, one problem with “do what is right and good” is that it’s a lot easier to know if our actions comply with a specific law than it is to know if our actions are consonant with larger and more abstract moral principles. To which I say: nu? since when is it supposed to be easy to be a mensch? No, it’s not easy to stretch ourselves to go beyond the law (any law, be it Jewish, American, international); it requires active, imaginative empathy for others, humility about our own righteousness, and great generosity. None of those things are easy to discern or to do, but if we are to live in a world balanced with hesed, rather than a world limited to strict justice, it’s the only way.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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