Archive for April, 2015

Shabbat Machar Hodesh: Love is Infinite

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Machar Hodesh

Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” he shouted. “I know that you side with the son of Jesse-to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! (1 Samuel 20:30)

Good afternoon!

This week we’re reading an unusual haftarah, called Machar Hodesh, which is only read when Sunday is Rosh Hodesh, or the first of the month, based on a mention in the text of the following day’s new moon. This happens on an irregular basis (as far as I know), which makes this haftarah an unusual liturgical text, since most Torah readings or special prayers happen on certain days or times of the year and shape our experience of the flow of time and turning of the seasons.

The text of the haftarah concerns the relationship between David, future king of Israel, and Jonathan, his best friend, brother-in-law and son of the current king, Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and seeks to kill him. Jonathan is caught in the middle, and tries, in this text, to save David’s life by finding out if Saul still wants him dead, in which case David will flee the royal court. Saul figures out that his son is covering for David’s absence at the feast of the new moon and flies into a rage, insulting and shaming Jonathan for seeming to choose his friend over his father. In the verse quoted above, Saul is so contemptuous that he doesn’t even refer to David by name, but calls him “son of Jesse” and even implies that Jonathan is unworthy of his status as crown prince.

To be clear, there is a strong political component to Saul’s anger: he worries that David will seize the kingship, and if Jonathan is helping David, then Jonathan may be undermining his own claim to the throne. On the other hand, it’s hard not to read the verse above and feel pity for Saul’s jealousy and insecurity; on a purely emotional level, Saul falls into the classic human error of assuming that people are with us or against us, loved ones or enemies.

Yet love is not like that at all: politically, perhaps Jonathan would have to choose to support either his father or his friend as king, but spiritually, he can love and support both. Love is not a zero-sum game: loving one person doesn’t mean loving another any less. It takes maturity and courage to accept that our family, friends, colleagues and dear ones are not our exclusive possessions. To the extend that we recognize and affirm that love is an infinite resource, there is more of it in the world, and for what other purpose were we created?

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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Pesach: Redemption and Justice

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: 8th Day of Pesach 
 
Good morning! 
 
I hope all those who have been observing Pesach have so far had a joyous holiday. The Torah readings for the final two days of Pesach are, on the 7th day, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and on the 8th day (observed by most Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Diaspora, but no in Israel), we review the laws of the holidays in their seasons. Thehaftarot, or readings from the prophetic books, are also interesting choices for these days: on the 7th day, we read a great victory poem of David’s that is similar in theme to the Song of the Sea in the Torah reading, and on the 8th day, we have a messianic text from the first part of Isaiah, describing the qualities of the “shoot of the stump of Jesse,” e.g, a legitimate king of the Davidic line (Jesse/ Yishai is the father of King David). Among those qualities are wisdom and justice: 
 
The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him:
A spirit of wisdom and insight,
A spirit of counsel and valor . . .
Thus he shall judge the poor with equity
And decide with justice for the lowly of the land.
He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth
And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips.
Justice shall be the girdle of his loins,
And faithfulness the girdle of his waist. (Isaiah 11:2-5, abridged)
 
You might imagine, after reading the story of the Exodus from slavery and the escape across the sea, that the messianic image of Israel’s future king would be that of a mighty warrior, who can protect his people with the sword from any future Pharaohs. These verses seem to suggest that the ultimate salvation of the people Israel is not with military victory but with leadership that seeks justice for the poor. This is not just opposition to Pharaoh, but becoming the ethical opposite of Pharaoh.He enslaved the “lowly of the land,” and was thus proven to have no wisdom at all, for any kingdom built on injustice will eventually be overthrown. 
 
Note also how this future king of Israel will strike at “the wicked:” with “the breath of his lips,” which seems to suggest a moral power, of speaking truth and proclaiming justice, rather than a purely retributive or judicial power. 
 
Thus we end the week of Pesach not only with a vision of hope, but also by reclaiming Israel’s moral purpose. We don’t recall the Exodus only to give thanks for our freedom- though that’s very important!- but also to remember what freedom is for. We read the words of Isaiah to be reminded that wisdom and justice are inseparable- there can be no peace for the land without justice for the poor and oppressed. Freedom means freedom from Pharaoh, but not freedom from responsibility. If the envisioned messiah is coming to judge the poor with equity and bring justice for the lowly of the land, then certainly our work over Pesach is to reclaim our hope in a redeemed world. Even more so, we recommit to redeem the world ourselves, countering Pharaoh with mercy, courage, vision and moral passion. 
 
Shabbat shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Let My People Go: Freedom, Slavery, Work and Worship

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: I am pleased that the Pesach thoughts below were published as part of the Spring edition of the The Orchard, a collection of divrei Torah, published by the Jewish Federations of North America.

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Most children or adults who’ve had even a little bit of Jewish education remember that that Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “let my people go!” We tend to think of the Exodus story as a struggle between freedom and oppression, between the liberator Moses and the despotic Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn becomes emblematic of all the tyrants, dictators, slaveholders, demagogues and corrupt authorities who have abused others from the dawn of history until today. It’s such a familiar story that we take it for granted, but it’s really quite astounding that the basic idea of our most familiar Jewish story is about God on the side of the poor and powerless, the broken and afraid.

This is hardly typical of either ancient or modern texts: think of the ancient myths that valorize heroes, kings, majestic beauties and extraordinary people with godlike powers. It’s not just an premodern problem: think of all the books and magazines you might see in a drugstore or supermarket, and think of who they put on the cover to get your attention. Very few popular magazine covers show us the image of the poorest of the poor, servants and slaves, the suffering and scarred, in order to proclaim the message: these are the people to whom attention must be paid!

If telling the Exodus story at Passover did nothing more than focus our conscience on those who are most often forgotten, dayenu, it would be enough. Yet that’s not the only message of the Exodus and Passover, as seen in the Torah itself. The beginning of Exodus 5 has Moses pleading with Pharaoh not only to let the people go, but to let the people go in order that they may worship God in the desert wilderness. In response, Pharaoh issues new orders to his slave masters, telling them to increase the workload of the Israelites, since wanting to go worship God is an obvious sign of their laziness and sloth. (Cf. 5:8)

The psychologist and theologian Richard Beck points to this as illustrating another polarity in the Exodus story: not only is there the contrast between slavery and freedom, but also, in the mind of Pharaoh, between work andworship. If Pharaoh is symbolic of all those who abuse others, making people into mere instruments of economic or political or military value, then the countervailing force is not only freedom, but worship, which I understand as not just ritual and prayer but as the development of a powerful spiritual consciousness. Knowing that there is a Source of hope greater than our current conditions can lead to courage, perspective, dignity and purpose. The last thing Pharaoh – or any abusive authority- wants is for the people to realize that there is a power higher than Pharaoh!

Of course, Pharaoh can see none of this: to him, spiritual consciousness is just frivolity, nothing that his servants need. In this day and age, when we are constantly pulled towards distraction by our devices and media blaring out from screens all around us, this contrast between work and worship takes on a whole new urgency. It’s not laziness to pray, meditate, study sacred texts and develop our deeper consciousness; in fact, it’s probably a necessary precondition to the really hard work, which is redeeming those still caught in oppression and despair.

The point of Passover isn’t just a nice meal with a good story. The point is to remind us who we really serve. The rituals, narratives, songs and foods of the Seder take us out of our ordinary routines into the realm of “worshiping God in the wilderness,” or seeing the world in a new way, refusing to be scared of Pharaoh anymore. Leaving Egypt- the “narrow place” of restricted vision- means imagining a world wherein the poor are important and the king is not, where meeting the Divine is our greatest goal rather than turning out more bricks and widgets. “Let my people go” ultimately means “let all people go;” Passover is a recommitment to that vision of a redeemed world, which we can only bring about by thinking new thoughts, seeing the world and ourselves differently than before. We see the world as it really is by telling the oldest and best story we have, as we have always done.

A happy and healthy Pesach to all,

RNJL

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

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