Archive for November, 2014

Vayetzei: Humility of Knowledge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Leah had weak eyes . . . (Bereshit/ Genesis 29:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is really the beginning of the story of the Jewish people: Yaakov flees to his uncle Lavan, marries two of his cousins (Rakhel and Leah), has lots of children with his wives and their maidservants (!), and by the end of the portion is headed back to the Land of Israel. Among the most famous stories in Vayetzei is Lavan’s trickery in getting Yaakov to marry his older daughter, Leah, before her younger sister, Rakhel, whom Yaakov loved and desired.

Rakhel is described as beautiful, but we only learn that einai Leah rakot, “Leah’s eyes were weak,” [alternatively “soft,” or “tender”]. A famous midrash quoted by Rashi explains that Leah’s eyes were weak or soft because she had been crying, assuming along with other folks that if Yaakov were going to marry her younger sister Rahkel, then she’d have to marry his older brother Esav, who was not thought of as a particularly admirable character by the ancient rabbis.

On the one hand, the midrash has a certain logic to it- two sisters for two brothers, and the Torah itself mentions that the elder should be married before the younger- but on the other hand, what a great example of the human tendency to create great imaginary dramas before all the facts are in. Taking this interpretation at face value, Leah was crying over something that not only didn’t happen, but might not have been planned by anybody!

We so often think we know what others are thinking, and sometimes react to something that is purely an assumption or projection. We so often make up our minds that disaster looms ahead- and it might, but it might not, or might not be as bad as we think, or we might be much stronger that we assume. What is so poignant about the image of Leah crying over her marriage to Esav is that the text gives us so little reason to assume this was her fate; I wish she had at least asked her father about his plans before crying her eyes out!

An aspect of the virtue of humility is knowing what we don’t know- and knowing that there is much that we don’t know can leave us much more open to what is, rather than what we want, fear, assume, project or imagine. If there is much I don’t know, then there is much to learn, and many questions to ask, and the possibilities are endless.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: The meaning of Mitzvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

I’m pleased to note that this d’var Torah will be sent out by the Jewish Federation of North America as their weekly Mekor Chaim Torah portion email.

I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs- inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:4-5)

The Torah portion Toldot is best known for the interactions between Yaakov and his brother Esav, but it’s also the story of their father Yitzhak, who in turn reenacts some of the narrative of his father, Avraham. Yitzhak, like Avraham, has to leave where he’s living because of famine, but instead of going down to Egypt, he visits the land of Philistines, again like his father did on a different occasion. In fact, Yitzhak hears a Divine voice telling him in no uncertain terms not to go to Egypt, but instead to stay in the land of Israel, which he will someday inherit because of the merit of his father Avraham.

The verse quoted above lists all the ways that Avraham was committed to the service of God, but note the wording:  Avraham didn’t just “obey” God, but kept God’s “charge,” “commandments,” “laws,” and “teachings.” The medieval scholar Rashi, assuming that the Torah doesn’t use words superfluously, understands each of these four things as a separate category. For example, following the usual definition in rabbinic thought, Rashi understands “My laws,” chukotai,  as referring to practices without an obvious rational basis, such as the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in a garment. (How Avraham could have observed a law given in the Torah many years later is a discussion for another time.)

Yet it’s Rashi’s definition of mitzvotai, “My commandments,” which is most surprising. Everybody knows that mitzvah means “commandment,” which in turn means something distinctly Jewish like lighting Shabbat candles or blowing the shofar. That’s not at all how Rashi defines mitzvah in this passage. He says mitzvah means “things that, even if they weren’t written down, would have been appropriate to command, like [the prohibition of] stealing and bloodshed.”

In other words, mitzvah doesn’t just mean commandments with specific Jewish content, but also broad and universal moral principles, ones which rational people can figure out for themselves. Well, you might ask, if those broad moral principles, like not stealing, cheating or hurting others, are so obvious, why do they need to be part of Judaism at all?

To me, we include universal moral principles in our mitzvot, commandments, for two reasons. The first is that our behavior is judged by others; to live a good life is akiddush Hashem, literally “making holy the Name,” but understood as something which increases respect for the Torah and God of Israel. The second reason is thatmitzvot are opportunities for spiritual awareness; we take ordinary actions and raise them to Heaven when we remember that something as simple as paying our workers on time or respecting another’s property is a mitzvah, a holy act.

To put it another way, everybody on earth is expected to be a good person; Judaism teaches that being a good person is inseparable from living a holy life. Holding on to our goodness in a world of cynicism is no easy thing. Perhaps that’s why observing a universal moral code is part of Avraham’s greatness and merit; he was willing to live a God-centered life in all his deeds, both ethical and ritual, and thus became the spiritual father of three great religions.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chayei Sarah: Varieties of Courage

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah 
Now Adonijah son of Haggith went about boasting, “I will be king!” He provided himself with chariots and horses, and an escort of fifty outrunners.  His father had never scolded him: “Why did you do that?” (1 Kings 1:5-6)
Good morning! 
The inspiration for this week’s Torah discussion is perhaps the most famous usage of the word “chickens**t” in my lifetime. For those who haven’t been following, Jeffery Goldberg, a well-known journalist who often writes about Middle East affairs,reported that some unnamed official in the Obama administration referred to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “chickens**t” for various putative reasons. In response, many supporters of the PM expressed outrage at the crudeness of the expression and what it implied about national relations with Israel. (Googling this imbroglio yields tens of thousands of hits.) 
One popular expression of this anger at the unnamed official was an image floating around the internet showing Netanyahuand Obama in their youths- Bibi in his commando uniform and the President laying back, smoking a cigarette. (You can see that here.) Now, please note, we’re not going to get into whether one side in this political debate is more chicken than the other. Rather, I’m interested in the notions of courage behind the accusations from both sides, and in particular, that image, linked above, of the commando versus the civilian, clearly implying that one who was courageous in battle certainly couldn’t be a “chickens**t” in politics. 
Now we’re ready to go back to the text. There are two haftarot that deal with the final days of King David- this week’s and thehaftarah for Vayechi, at the end of the book of Genesis. Both of these haftarot are chosen to contrast the scene of a Patriarch at the end of his days with that of King David on his deathbed. This week we read of Avraham’s tremendous concern for his legacy and persistence in finding a proper wife for his son, while in a month or so, we’ll read about Yaakov blessing each of his sons with a unique blessing before he dies. 
Contrast those images with the mighty David close to death; this week we read, as in the verse above, of a struggle between his sons and their associated court factions due to the fact that David never named his heir. In the following chapter (the haftarahfor Vayechi) David’s charge to his son Solomon includes a general exhortation to obey Divine commands but also gives very specific instructions for revenge and murder. Let me make this plain: David may have been the most valiant warrior of his generation, but he did not have the moral clarity or courage to confront the unworthy son who acted as king while his father was still alive. Even more poignantly, it seems that David could not let go of resentments, hatreds, and bitterness on his deathbed; it take tremendous strength to face one’s mortality and let go of unsettled scores, but that’s a kind of courage David apparently didn’t have. 
My point here is that there are simply different kinds of courage, perhaps without correlation in any particular life. David had battlefield courage, but it seems he had very little ability to change his own behaviors or confront his children with their misdeeds (or his own failings as a father.) The ancient rabbis said that the real “mighty one” is the one who can conquer his own inclinations (Pirkei Avot 4:1), which I understand to mean a fearless moral inventory, introspection with unblinking honesty in order to master the self before going out to battle with the world. David won most of his battles on the field, but few of his battles with his own worst impulses. On the other hand, I’ve known people who would make lousy soldiers, but who confronted their own lives, and deaths, with tremendous dignity, forgiveness, acceptance and peace. I’ve known people who risked their careers, honor, status and wealth by speaking truth to power, and I’ve known people who never sought to change the world, but who examined their own failings with extraordinary effort. All these things are heroic; the world needs us all to be fearless in our own way. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayera: Fearless Welcome

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera
But when she came up to the man of God on the mountain, she clasped his feet.Gehazi stepped forward to push her away; but the man of God said, “Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress.” (2 Kings 4:27)
Good morning! 
Sorry it’s been a while since I got myself organized enough to get to the keyboard. I could list all the reasons, but that’d be kvetching, and who needs that? 
Onward and upward. 
This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which is a series of dramatic narratives concerningAvraham and his family, concluding with the famous binding of Yitzhak on the altar. However, as rich as those stories are, this week something in the haftarah caught my eye. The text from the prophetic books has several obvious links to the Torah portion, especially the theme of miraculous childbirth. In the Torah portion, of course, it’s Sarah who bearsYitzhak, but in the haftarah, the prophet Elisha announces the birth of a child to a woman from Shunam, a small town in the north of Israel. 
This woman- known only as the Shunammite woman- is both wealthy and hospitable, going so far as to build a small guest room for Elisha, who apparently visits with some frequency. In gratitude, he offers to do her a kindness; she doesn’t ask for anything, but Elisha’s servant Gehazi points out that she has no son, so Elisha announces that at that season in the following year, she will have a child. 
So far, so good, and again, the connections to the story of Sarah and Avraham are clear. Then tragedy strikes: some years later, the child dies while visiting his father in the fields, and the Shunammite goes to find Elisha. When she draws near, she falls at Elisha’s feet, butGehazi pushes her away (see verse quoted at the top.) Elisha to Shunem and revives the child, but for today, let’s notice the two contrasting reactions to the approach of an obviously distraught, grieving mother, who has just ridden hard and fast to find a healer. 
Gehazi’s impulse is to push the woman away, perhaps to protect his master, Elisha, from her emotions, her pain, her grasping or sweat or tears or cries. Elisha is not afraid of any of those things, and in fact seems to be especially solicitous of her precisely because she was in distress. 
To me, the reactions of Gehazi and Elisha to the appearance of the Shunammite woman represent two tendencies within religious communities: the first is to police and protect the boundaries of the community, defending it against anything threatening,  unruly, uncomfortable or unpredictable, while the second option, embodied by Elisha, is to embrace and include human beings in all their messy imperfections, because in doing so, we enrich and fulfill our own humanity. To be fair, all groups have boundaries of some sort, but many individuals and communities succeed in welcoming those who are seeking healing, feeling broken, unsure of their faith, and in search of balm for the vicissitudes of life. 
The greatness of Elisha, it seems to me, is not that he raised the dead boy- he’s clear that’s God’s doing, not his own- but that a distraught and bitter friend threw herself at his feet, demanding redress for her suffering, and he didn’t recoil in the slightest. The real inspiration of this haftarah is not in the miracles, which are not our doing, but the character of the prophet, who can be our model for a true spirituality of welcome, acceptance and kindness, teaching us to reach out and embrace those who may have nothing to give but the opportunity to love. 
Seen this way, the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is not divine miracles but human compassion: as Avraham welcomed the strangers to his tent at the beginning of the portion, so too the Shunammite woman went out of her way to welcome Elisha into her home, and just as the angels heard Yishmael crying where he was in the wilderness, Elisha meets the Shunammite women in her pain, reaching to her and lifting her up. Perhaps that too is a miracle, but a miracle of the spirit, one which any one of us could enact this very day.  
Shabbat Shalom, 

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