Archive for February, 2015

Terumah: A Clear Vision

I am pleased to note that this Torah commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America as part of its Mekor Chaim weekly email.

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:  Terumah

It [the lamp and its parts] shall be made, with all these furnishings, out of a talent of pure gold. See and then make the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain. (Shemot/ Exodus 25:39-40)

The Torah portion Terumah is all about the building of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary and its vessels and implements, constructed from the people’s donations of precious stones, gold, silver, bronze, fabrics, skins and wood. The instructions given to Moshe are very detailed, describing the tent-like outer walls and the instruments of worship such as the altar, table, basins, Ark and lampstand, or menorah.

The instructions for the seven-branched lampstand, beginning in 25:31, give us the basic shape many will think of as a symbol of the Jewish people and the State of Israel: seven branches, symmetrical, three branches with lamp cups on each side and one in the middle. On the other hand, the details are hard to construct with precision, at least from the verses in the Torah, and in fact there is a great deal of discussion among the ancient rabbis about the exact shape and form of the golden menorah.

This difficulty seems to be acknowledged in the verse above, wherein Moshe is told to make the menorah as he was shown on the mountain. According to some rabbinic interpretations, Moshe was shown a visual image of the menorah, perhaps even a pattern of fire from heaven, in order to correctly grasp the shape and design.

These midrashim, or ancient commentaries, which suggest that Moshe was given a vision of the menorah in addition to instructions, suggest that as the leader of the people, he had to “begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey famously taught. Note that we commonly use the word vision to mean not only a graphic representation but also a sense of purpose, a better future imagined for ourselves and our community, or a clear idea of what we’d like to become by doing something important and meaningful.

Thus, we might say that Moshe had to have a vision of the menorah in both senses of the word, because as a leader he had to have a vision for the Mishkan, the people, and the journey they were about to undertake. Moshe had to be able to see ahead to the people’s success in becoming a free people in their own land, and tell the people in clear terms how their vision as a community might become reality.

The menorah was, and is, a symbol of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation, guided by the light of God and our common purpose as a people. The image of Moshe seeing the pattern of the menorah– indeed, envisioning the entire Mishkan- in all its details is an image of leadership, for a true leader helps her community imagine greater things and a brighter future. A Jewish leader sees not just what to build, but why it’s important, and invites the entire people to unite together, towards building something holy and lasting, according to a powerful vision joined to a call to action. That was leadership in Moshe’s days, and no less in ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong. . . . . .   (Shemot/ Exodus 23:2)

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Mishpatim is mostly civil and criminal laws, along with instructions about how to apply those laws. Some of the laws and instructions are oriented toward ordinary citizens, while some, like the first verses of Chapter 23, seem to be for the regulation of judges and officials. The context of verse 2, quoted in part above, seems to be fairness in judging, forbidding the judge or official from taking the side of either rich (because of influence) or poor (because of sympathy) in a dispute. Rather, according to what seems to be plain meaning of the text, the law must be applied fairly, without regard to the social standing of either plaintiff or defendant.

So far, so good, and would that we lived in a society that truly applied its laws fairly, as is, I believe, our American ideal. On the other hand, there’s an interesting interpretation of the verse above that gets into the details of the ancient Jewish judiciary, which I think will in turn impart an important moral challenge. According to some interpretations, “don’t side with the mighty” really means “don’t side with the majority,” meaning in turn, that a judge on a panel of judges must speak up, even against the majority opinion. Sforno goes on to say that “don’t follow the majority to do wrong” means don’t be the tie-breaking vote in a capital punishment case, because if a criminal is condemned by a one-vote majority, it’s the same as being condemned by a single judge, which is not part of the ancient Jewish judicial system.

This strikes me as a profound recognition of the humbling and awesome power of life and death inherent in judicial, political and military systems, a power which cannot be held by a vote of just one, lest that one judge be misguided, biased, or influenced by external factors. Many contrasts with modern life might be made, but one in particular that comes to mind is the current use of computer algorithms to determine drone strikes in the war against terror groups. These “signature strikes” are often determined by computer analysis of certain behaviors, which indicate a possibility of terrorist affiliation. Note, however, with some of these drone strikes, we have no idea who we are killing, or if they have any terrorist links at all, or how many civilians are killed along with any possible enemies.

Counter-terrorism policy will be debated by experts, but I hope all Americans engage the moral questions inherent in the actions done in our name. The deliberation and clarity needed to condemn a criminal in the days of the ancient rabbis stands in stark contrast to a world in which computer programs mete out life and death in a flash, on the other side of the world, blowing up people whose names we may never know. “Do not follow the majority” became “do not let a bare majority decide to kill;” I wonder what the sages would say about letting software make life-or-death decisions without much human input at all? Arguments can be made pro or con, but the question cannot be avoided.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Yitro: What God Did For Us, What We Do For the World

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, God’s people, how the Holy One had brought Israel out from Egypt. (Shemot/ Exodus 18:1)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Yitro is most famous for the Ten Commandments, but is also well-known for the character of Yitro himself. He was Moshe’s father-in-law, and is often called the first management consultant (just Google it, you’ll get quite a few hits) for his advice to Moshe about setting up an appropriate leadership structure for the people such that Moshe didn’t have to do everything himself.

Yet the Torah’s reintroduction of Yitro, in the verse above, is a bit more complex than meets the eye. First, what exactly did Yitro hear about that God did for Moshe and Israel? We might say it’s simply that he heard about the Exodus from Egypt, as in the latter part of the verse, but many commentators view that as additional information, as in, “Yitro heard about God doing XYZ and he heard about the Exodus from Egypt.”

Second, when did Yitro actually show up? The reason this is a question at all is that Moshe is described a few verses later as teaching the “laws and Torah of God.” Of course, reading the text we have now, the laws and Torah weren’t given for another two chapters! (Cf. verse 16) So there’s a legitimate case to be made that Yitro showed up after the Torah was given, and that the events of chapters 18-20 are not presented in strict chronological order. In fact, going all the way back to the Talmud, one view links the verse above with the view that Yitro shows up after Sinai, and that what he heard that God did for Moshe was the giving of the Torah itself.

Another view holds that what Yitro heard about was Israel’s defeat of Amalek, at the end of the preceding chapter. A third view says that Yitro heard about the splitting of the Sea and Israel’s crossing into safety; all three of these views can be found excerpted from their Talmudic sources here.

All these divergent readings have in common the idea that what Yitro heard about was so compelling and urgent that he had to come and join Israel, even for a while, for spiritual and not merely family reasons. Yet they have very different views of what might attract someone to the Jewish people; you might even say that the first and third views are about what God has done for us, whereas the second opinion, that Yitro heard about the defeat of Amalek, is about what the Jewish people can do for themselves, albeit perhaps with heavenly inspiration.

This, in turn, speaks to different understandings of the very meaning of Jewish existence: are we a people because God gave us the Torah, or were we able to receive the Torah because as a people we began to determine our own history and destiny? Is the giving of the Torah the foundational of our existence, or is our existence as a people, and ability to defend ourselves against the Amalek of our day, what enables us to have a Torah at all? You may note that in the commentaries, this question is not resolved, for of course it is not resolvable: it is not either/ or, but both/ and.

The Torah of the Jewish people is inseparable from our history- the Exodus, the journey to Israel, the establishment there of a sovereign nation- but our history also reflects a sense of holy purpose in the world. Our history as a people is more than just survival; it is a mission to bring light, justice and mercy to the world. My hope is that the Jewish people will be so zealous for these qualities that all sorts of people will come and say, I have heard about what God has done for you, and what you have done for God’s world- and want to be part of it.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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