Archive for October, 2015

Vayera: Hearing The Other

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion contains some famous and even foundational stories, including the visit of the angels to Avraham in his tent, the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and the Akedah, or binding of Yitzhak upon an altar. The latter two narratives are also the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, presumably chosen for their themes of remembrance and enactment of the covenant between God, Avraham, and Avraham’s descendants.

The story of Hagar and Yishmael is read on the first day of Rosh Hashana, and I’d say that along with the theme of remembering is the leitmotif of hearing. It’s a day devoted to hearing the shofar (remember, the commandment is to hear the shofar, not to blow it). In the Torah reading, the root word for hearing (which can also mean heeding or obeying) shows up connected to Sarah, Avraham, Hagar, and Yishmael himself, whose very name means “and God will hear,” referring to God’s hearing of Hagar’s travails back in chapter 16, the first time Hagar was expelled from the camp.

That last detail seems important to me when considering how the story of an Egyptian maidservant and her apparently unwanted son became the central narrative of a major Jewish holy day. If you go back to 16:11, the text clearly says that Yishmael is called “and God will hear ” because of God’s hearing of Hagar’s suffering. The name also foreshadows this week’s Torah reading, when God hears Yishmael in the wilderness, but his name arises out of hearing Hagar. It’s quite amazing that the crying of an Egyptian servant girl is a central image of Rosh Hashana, given all the ways she is “other” or lesser to the family of Avraham and Sarah: she is a woman, a servant, a concubine, an Egyptian. (You know, the folks who enslaved the Jews for hundreds of years? Right, those Egyptians.)

That, of course, is precisely the moral power of God’s calling to Hagar from the heavens: what matters is not Hagar’s lineage or status but her suffering. This is also the challenge of the text: can we overcome what social scientists call parochial altruism (that is, being generous and empathetic to people in our group) to hear the cries of those who are not like us, not in our group or party or clan or kin?

Please note, hearing the cries of the “other” (I use the word to denote a member of the “not us” group, not to imply that different humans are lesser or inherently estranged from us or anybody else) doesn’t necessarily imply only one obvious outcome. Yishmael is saved, but he and his mother are not immediately restored to Avraham’s camp. The first step in discerning the proper moral response is to truly listen to another’s suffering, without judgment or prediction, just as the God famously heard Yishmael’s cry “where he is,” that is, where he is now, not according to what he might become later.

In our day, there is so much strife, so many who feel so much pain; polarization begins when cries are unheard. The Black Lives Matter movement is shout to the heavens that some citizens feel unprotected by the law; before deciding on a policy response, can we please first hear the pain? On the other hand, I’ve recently I’ve had conversations with current and former law enforcement personnel who feel ashamed by a few bad actors and demonized by a large swath of society they’ve sworn to honorably protect. It is not moral relativism nor ethical laziness to say that there are real human beings on both sides who want to be seen as such, and not reduced to a media stereotype or political talking point.

To take another example,  the refugees desperate to leave the Syrian charnel house are drowning and freezing along the way; can we hear both their cries and the anxiety of those whose communities may be forever changed by large scale immigration? Both groups are “other” to somebody on the political spectrum, but to hear their pain is simply to acknowledge the humanity on both sides of this tragedy. It’s so easy to decide that somebody is not worth hearing, but this is not the way of the Torah, I believe.

There are countless other examples in an age rife with conflict, but for today, let’s simply acknowledge that it is very difficult to truly hear another’s pain, especially if that person comes from a group seen as threatening, strange, uncivilized, or morally deficient. Some of those things might even be true, but that’s not the point, which is this: if God hears the cries of those we’ve cast out, isn’t it our job too? Can we bear hearing cries which may also accuse? Can we enlarge our hearts to hear what we’d rather ignore? This requires great courage, and is a sacred act.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: These thoughts are an abridged paraphrase of my teaching on the first day of Rosh Hashana at Congregation Temple Beth-El in Kauneoga Lake, NY.

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

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Noach: Travel From the East

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. (Bereshit/ Genesis 11:2)

Good morning!

Our Torah portion this week contains two famous stories: the flood and the Tower, each in its own way a story of human nature and our capacity for self-deception and its inevitable consequences. The generation that built the Tower toward heaven was entirely the descendants of Noach and his family, so it’s not surprising that they spoke one language and had some sense of power in their commonality. The building of the Tower is perhaps best understood as an attempt to supplant or become like God; thus the Divine decree of different languages, which means having to learn to communicate with each other, is a humbling reminder of our imperfect knowledge and abilities.

The verse above sets the stage for the rest of the story by putting this mass of people in one place, Shinar, which Rashi thinks is merely a plain big enough to hold everybody. On the other hand, another early midrash notices that in the previous chapter, some number of the descendants of Noach were already living at or by the “mountains of the east,” (cf. 10:30). This midrash asks: how could they travel from the east to go to the east? That doesn’t make sense! Rather, according to this text, they didn’t travel “from the East”, m’kedem, but away from God, who is called kadmon, or Ancient/ First One.

With this Hebrew pun, the rabbis remind us that the story of the Tower isn’t really about the Tower as an object, per se, but about the worldview of the people who built it. The tragedy of the Tower isn’t that people used their ingenuity to build something amazing, it’s that they thought that the only way to get a “name” for themselves was through the world of making, doing and owning, rather than through the virtues of caring, loving and justice. Among other things, faith means knowing our compassion and mercy are of infinite value even if they don’t make us immediately famous!

It seems that the generation of the Tower squandered their unity on a false premise; had they not “moved away from God,” as it were, they might have used that unity for a spiritual, humane purpose, and thus gotten themselves an even greater “name” than that of builders with brick and stone. We move “away from God” when we act out of our baser values, out of fear, insecurity or greed, and use our lives to build things which gratify the ego but don’t nourish the soul. Yet this cautionary tale ends on a hopeful note, the birth of Avram, who will symbolically journey back from east to west, from m’kedem back to Kadmon, the most Ancient Source of life itself.

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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Bereshit: Blindness and Light

Torah Portion: Bereshit

Good afternoon!

I wish I could say I’ve been on some study sabbatical or world-wide adventure recently, out of wi-fi range and thus unable to post Torah commentaries, but . . well, that wouldn’t be true. With mid-week holidays it’s been beyond me to get it all done and get a drasha written too, so here’s hoping we’re back for the new cycle of Torah readings starting this week.

This week’s Torah portion is the first of the new year, Bereshit, or “in the beginning,” including the creation story and the expulsion from Eden. The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the themes of both creation and light (remember, light is the first thing created in Genesis 1.) The prophet proclaims that, just as the world was created for a particular purpose, the people Israel was also created with the intention that Israel shall be a light for the nations:

I created you, and appointed you

A covenant people, a light of nations —

Opening blind eyes,

Rescuing prisoners from confinement,

From the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)

Now, there are various views (hardly a surprise) about who exactly is the prisoner in darkness, and what it means to be a “light of” (or “light to,” or “light for”) the nations, but the simplest meaning seems to be that the people Israel is meant to bring light, meaning hope or goodness or justice- to those who are suffering, either our own Israelite tribes who were in exile at the time of the prophet or perhaps the nations of the word at large.* Just as the creation of nature is purposeful and meaningful in the Torah portion, so is the creation of a covenant people (which is not to say there couldn’t be more than one nation with a purpose or mission.)

On the other hand, if Israel is created to serve God by bringing light. . . . well, there’s a problem:

Who is so blind as My servant,

So deaf as the messenger I send?

Who is so blind as the chosen one,

So blind as the servant of the Lord? (ibid verse 19)

The text goes on to offer hope to the people for a future redemption and ingathering of exiles (again, perhaps it is the exiles who are in metaphorical darkness and confinement), but I’m struck by the contrast between the earlier verse saying Israel is to be a light to the blind, and this verse, saying Israel itself is like one who is blind, which in context seems to mean blind to its own mission, teaching and hope.

The simplest reading of the prophet’s message is that, although Israel falls short in its mission and spiritual purpose, nevertheless, God will eventually bring light for, or perhaps by means of the people Israel, in the form of a redemption from exile and bringing justice among the nations. That’s a great message and one we certainly need today: although the Jewish people is radically imperfect, often focused on its own internecine conflicts and institutional competitions, nevertheless we can be the instrument of a healing purpose, a flawed vessel for light and hope.

So one message is: don’t give up on our community just because it seems to fall so short of its ideals. Yet another message speaks very personally: we all might aspire to be servants of a holy purpose, but “who is so blind as the servant of the Lord?” In other words: be holy, but be humble. We all have blind spots, truths we don’t want to hear (who is so deaf as the messenger I send?), hypocrisies that others see which we don’t acknowledge in ourselves and even outright self-delusions, something no person can fully avoid.

In the end, I think the haftarah imparts a tremendous challenge: pick yourself up and be a light to the world, despite your failings and imperfections. Embrace the holy ideals for which you were created- but don’t forget that working towards holy ends does not mean divine perfection for messy, frail, confused human beings. We must be exalted in our aims but humble in our self-conception. If we aren’t exalted in our aims- to bring light to the world!- we stumble along in the darkness of complacency and exile from our truest selves. If we aren’t humble in our self-conception, religion can be itself a tool to bring great darkness; we are light, and we are sometimes blind, and knowing both is our truest hope.  

Shabbat Shalom,


*See here for more on these different possibilities and here for my earlier thoughts on the connection between the portion and haftarah.

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

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