Archive for May, 2015

Naso: The Limits of Hearing

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Manoach pleaded with the Lord. “Oh, my Lord!” he said, “please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born.” (Shoftim/ Judges 13:8)

Good evening! This week’s haftarah is the story of the birth of Shimshon (usually called Samson in English), who grows up to be a great, albeit greatly flawed, hero of ancient Israel. The connection with the Torah portion is probably the laws of the nazir, or nazirite, a kind of special religious status that people could choose for various lengths of time. (See more about that here and go here for a light-hearted but insightful theory of why this haftarah was chosen for this portion. )

Among the laws of the nazir are refraining from alcohol and letting the hair grow uncut; these are the instructions that an angel gives to Shimshon’s mother in the opening verses of the haftarah. Manoach’s unnamed wife then repeats these instructions to her husband, who offered up the prayer above- to be instructed on how to raise the child, even though his wife has just told him what the angel said!

Not only that, but when the angel returns, Manoach asks again what his instructions are, even though he’s heard them from his wife, and the angel patiently repeats what he had said earlier. Perhaps there’s a teeny bit of angelic snark when he adds “she must observe all that I commanded her,” (verse 14) thus implicitly reminding Manoach that he’s already given these instructions once before, but nevertheless, the angel repeats the commands for raising their child and doesn’t overtly rebuke Manoach for needing to hear things again.

I’ve usually read this story with the thought that Manoach is not the brightest light on the memorial board, given that he seems not to understand fairly straightforward narratives and instructions. This year, however, I read this story in light of my work at the hospital, where I often encounter smart people unable to grasp simple but shocking statements, usually because they are overwhelmed by the changes and new realities implied by what they are being told. In its most poignant form, I’ve seen families listen to a doctor explain what can or cannot be done for a loved one and then turn to each other in almost blank incomprehension after the doctor leaves. They are not stupid, but rather not ready to hear that their loved one is near the end or that their family will face difficult challenges of caregiving, to give just two common examples.

In Manoach’s case, perhaps he had a certain dream for his child, a dream wildly interrupted by the angel proclaiming that his son will be a nazir who will save Israel from the Philistines, or perhaps after years of infertility he had given up on his hope for children and can’t quite believe that his quiet life will be turned upside down by parenthood after all. The important point for us is to see in Manoach someone who is taking in only as much as he can, under circumstances which might otherwise completely overwhelm his natural resilience. We’ve all been there, and all of us will someday have a chance to be a patient angel to another person when they need help in slowly awakening to a new and disorienting reality. Manoach isn’t just the father of a great hero, he’s also everyone who has desperately wanted the world to slow down when it’s moving too fast. This calls for great mercy and compassion, which may be easy for angels but requires thought, love and dedication from the rest of us.

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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Behar-Bechukotai: What Do We Do With Rebuke?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

I am proud that this week’s commentary was first published as the Mekor Chaim weekly email by the Jewish Federations of North America. 

The Torah portion Bechukotai, often doubled up with the preceding portion, is not easy reading. A big portion of the text is called tochecha, or rebuke, which here means detailed descriptions of blessings and curses from Heaven that will ensue if the Torah is either followed or disregarded. For many contemporary Jews, linking sin with suffering is both an intellectual and moral impossibility: intellectually, we know that many good people suffer without cause, and morally, we cannot blame God for the choices of human beings which cause pain, grief and despair.

So perhaps it makes more sense to read these the tochecha as descriptive of the people’s spiritual or emotional experience rather than as a promise of Divine retribution. A people that makes itself worthy by acts of justice and compassion will feel itself blessed, but a society built on idolatry (worship of vain things), greed and oppression will tear itself apart and feel itself to be in a hostile cosmos. While at first glance the blessings and curses seem to be economic in nature- blessing comes from the land and the curses are when the land no longer produces- the text also makes clear that ultimate blessing is a sense of the Divine in our midst:

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:12)

Conversely, the rabbis imagine that the ultimate punishment is the loss of a spiritual center:

And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins,  and I will break your proud glory. . . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:18-19)

In this case, they interpret “proud glory” (or “pride of your power”) as referring to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was “broken” not once but twice in Jewish history. While it’s hard to imagine God breaking the Temple to make a moral point, the ancient sages believed that losing the Temple, the symbol of Jewish spirituality and vitality, was a greater calamity than bad harvests or military defeat. Without reading these words literally- as a promise of Heavenly retribution- we can read them with great empathy, as expressing the experience of those who lost the sense of the Divine Presence when Jerusalem was overthrown.

So what do we do with these difficult texts? First we should to allow ourselves to be moved by the intense spiritual longing in the Torah and its commentaries: the feeling that the poetry conveys is that the ultimate blessing is nothing material but the Divine Presence itself, and when that is lost, hardly anything else matters. Second, we should allow the tochecha to challenge any moral complacency we have about ourselves or our community: are we really as individuals or a polity doing all we can to be loyal to the Torah’s values of justice and mercy, or are we letting these things slip from us without a care? Are we going to a society which makes and shares the blessing, or do we deserve the rebuke these verses offer?

These are hard questions, but nothing important was ever easy.

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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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim: Authentic Atonement

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:6)

Good morning!

This week we have a double portion, the first of which is rules for Yom Kippur and then lots of laws of sexual conduct, and the second of which is beautiful ethical principles and then lots more laws of sexual conduct.

Going back to the beginning of the first portion, Achrei Mot, the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, is instructed to purify himself before doing the complex rituals of offering atonement sacrifices on behalf of the people. Not only that, but as in the verse above, before he can offer a sacrifice of atonement on behalf of the entire Israelite community, he has to do so for himself, and his household. Presumably, not only is the Kohen Gadol’s personal offering an example of repentance and humility for the rest of the Jewish people, but it’s also a matter of kavannah, or personal focus/ intention/ mindfulness. After all, how can he be completely spiritually present in offering atonement for the nation if he has not fully atoned for his personal mistakes and misdeeds?

The issue of leadership and collective atonement is actually in the news this week, so let’s look at current example. Perhaps just in time for Achrei Mot- Kedoshim, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he expressed a personal “deep repentance in my heart”along with prayer for the dead of WWII, followed by a collective regret:

on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II. (full text of speech here.)

Now, to be fair,  he did say later in the speech that his country’s actions “caused suffering” in Asia, and his people “felt remorse,” but still, one is struck by the lack of apology or explicit acknowledgement of Japan’s aggression and imperialism. His personal “deep repentance” is appropriate, but while a Prime Minister is not a priest, I and many other commentators (go forth and Google) felt that he missed an opportunity to be a true leader, to go against his parliamentary pressures and express a real apology on behalf of the nation he represents. That would have taken personal and political courage, but what else is leadership?

Yet debates about what a politician should or shouldn’t have said are endless, but ultimately the real question is: what about the example of the Kohen Gadol applies to us, who do not lead nations or occupy high office? First, let’s note the order in which the Torah presents the High Priest’s atonement offerings: first for himself, then for his family, then for his people. We cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do- if the people’s job was to think hard and humble themselves on Yom Kippur, then the job of the Kohen Gadol was to go first, to show the way in taking his own moral inventory.

Besides the imperative to do our own work before rebuking others, let’s note that according to the commentators, the atonement of the High Priest also involved confession, which in Judaism is always a verbal enumeration of specific ways we fall short. Just as in our Yom Kippur liturgy, confession is explicit- we recite long lists in synagogue but it’s meant to be personal, something we apply to our own unique actions. This is where the contrast with Mr. Abe’s political speech (and so many other wishy-washy vague “apologies”) becomes apparent- there is little confession, little grappling with hard, specific truths, without which atonement and confession become a matter of “mistakes were made,” which leaves both parties incompletely reconciled.

The language of sin, atonement, and confession is difficult- it seems so archaic and “judgmental.” Yet here’s the beautiful thing: it’s not meant to weigh us down, but to unshackle burdens of guilt and fear, to leave us free, to effect reconciliation and promote a forgiving love. The only path forward to that forgiving love is speaking hard truths, but nothing could be more worth it.

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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