Archive for August, 2015

Ki Tetzei: The Glory of Giving

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 24:20)

Good afternoon!

You know why I love studying Torah? Well, among many other reasons, I always see something new in the weekly portion that I never noticed before. In this case, it’s one little word, which leads to a comment by Rashi and then a twist on that by yours truly.

The verse above refers to leaving some of the produce of the field, vine or orchard for the poor to glean; this is often referred to as peah, or “corners,” referring to the corners of the field left unharvested. Verses pertaining to this form of sharing occur both in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy; you can see here and here for details. What struck me this week was the particular wording related to the olive trees: when you beat your olive [trees], lo t’fa’er acharecha. . . .

You may have heard the word tiferet, or glory, which Rashi connects to t’fa’er, which is usually translated here “go over,” as in, don’t go back and get whatever you missed. Rashi instead says that this means, “don’t take the glory” of the tree, implying that the fruit is the glory of the tree, which is subject to the mitzvah of leaving gleanings for the poor.

We could also read Rashi as saying, “don’t take the glory of the tree” to mean, don’t take away the glory of the possibility of giving in this situation. If you take every last olive off the tree, there is no letting the poor come to share; tiferet,glory, in this context is not something visually splendid but spiritually excellent. This is one more reminder that Judaism finds beauty and honor in humble acts. In this case, the glory is in walking away while the harvest is slightly unfinished, so that others may sustain themselves. Humility, generosity, self-restraint; these are what the Torah considers the truest measure of a beautiful, even glorious, deed.

Shabbat shalom,

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

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Re’eh: The Easy and the Hard

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh 

All that I command you, be careful to do it.  You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it. . . . .(D’varim/ Deuteronomy 13:1)

Good afternoon! Well, we seem to be in an every-other-week Torah commentary pattern around here. Alas, the spirit is willing but the time-management skills are weak.

At least we’re in for Re’eh, a very interesting Torah portion, which encompasses a tirade against idolatry, an impassioned plea to care for the poor, rules for kosher eating, and a review of the shaloshregalim, or pilgrimage holy days. The beginning of Chapter 13 (no, not that Chapter 13, though after buying an old house that needs work, I’m considering it) is a warning against following false prophets who might lead the people away from the laws or practices of the Torah, and most commentators see the opening verse above in that context. In this view, a commandment to do “all that I command you,” and “don’t add or subtract from it” is the beginning of the injunction against false prophets, who might claim to have a Divine mandate to change, abrogate, or add new laws to the Torah.

Obviously, the whole idea of adding to, or subtracting, from the Torah is the subject of much debate in the modern world; we see some laws of the Torah very differently than a premodern society, and have in some cases a different sense of the overarching moral sensibility of Judaism within which the specific laws are interpreted. On the other hand, our friend Rashi takes the first clause of our verse and lets it stand on its own, interpreting “All that I command you” as implying that you have to be careful to do both “the easy things and the hard things.”

What strikes me about Rashi’s comment is we don’t have to agree on the particulars of any practice, commandment or principle in order to recognize that all of us- you and me and the rest of humankind- have a tendency to avoid tasks that challenge our self-image, stretch us beyond a comfort zone, confront us with difficult truths, or demand something we don’t want to give. I would even say that we often confuse what’s hard and what’s easy in Judaism: after all, in the age of Tofurky and national supermarkets, it’s not that hard to keep kosher, but it’s never, ever been easy to guard one’s speechwhen talking of others.

I think every branch of Judaism, from the most liberal to the most stringent, would agree that some of the commandments and principles are harder than others, including:

Forgivness (requires letting go of moral certitude and owning our piece of the mess)

Humility    (requires foregoing privilege and being other-directed)

T’shuvah   (requires accepting our own imperfections and letting go of righteous blame)

Visiting the Sick  (requires confronting mortality and the inevitability of suffering when we encounter the fragility of the body)

Tefillah  (prayer, which requires acknowledging that we are not in control of almost anything except our own spiritual orientation)

These things are hard– harder than we like to imagine- hard to do right and hard to keep doing. Yet if we’re only doing the fun and easy parts of Judaism- or any spiritual path- we’re not really engaging the tradition at all, but just using it as the theme of a nice meal or colorful cultural tradition. I like to drink sangria in the Sukkah as much as anybody (to name one particularly pleasurable mitzvah), and to be fair, Judaism insists on a regular practice of holy joy on Shabbat and the festivals. Yet Judaism also teaches: push yourself to forgive more, give more, love more, connect more. The hard mitzvot never let us off easy, but then again, nothing great comes without effort.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

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