Archive for November, 2015

Vayishlach: Why Do You Ask?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

And Yaakov asked and said, “Now tell me your name,” and he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:30)

Happy Thanksgiving!

The first story of this week’s Torah portion is Yaakov’s “God-wrestling” and name change. As he awaits the morning when he will finally have to confront the brother he despoiled decades earlier, he wrestles with a mysterious figure, who changes his name from Yaakov, the “heel” or deceiver, to “Yisrael,” the one who has struggled and prevailed. I’ve written about this story before- here and here– but as we consider the meaning of Yaakov’s name change, we should note that Yaakov also wants to know the name of the being who announced Yaakov’s new identity.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether Yaakov’s wrestling was meant to be understood as an external experience (he physically wrestled with some sort of embodied aspect of the Divine) with symbolic significance or whether the whole episode was a kind of dream or vision. Yaakov ends up limping afterwards, but this could be seen as an outer manifestation of his inner frailties. In any event, when Yaakov turns the tables and asks the being for a name, the angel or apparition responds with a question (how Jewish!): why do you ask?

This response is interpreted by some traditional commentaries as teaching that angels don’t have “fixed names,” as Rashi put it, but change their names according to each particular mission and circumstance. The commentaries assume this mysterious “man” with whom Yaakov wrestled was an angel or messenger from God, and therefore had no “name” as Yaakov would understand it- only a purpose. This is comparable to the story of the angel who announced the birth of Samson in Judges 13. When Samson’s father asked him for his name, he gave a similar answer: why do you ask, it is wondrous. (Meaning, I think, beyond intellectual comprehension.)

So what’s the point of Yaakov’s question and the question in lieu of an answer? It seems to me that Yaakov wants to intellectually grasp what is essentially a spiritual experience, that of shedding the dead weight of his moral past and embracing a renewed life in his homeland. The angel’s non-answer forces Yaakov’s question back onto Yaakov, as if he’s saying: “Yaakov, this isn’t about me, it’s about you and your brother and your family and your future.” Putting a question to Yaakov could be the very blessing referred to in the latter half of the verse: by turning the question around, the messenger subtly encourages Yaakov to fully inhabit this transformation of consciousness and conscience.

Yaakov’s desire to comprehend the nature of his experience is entirely understandable, but sometimes we have to do and to be before we can know. I say this as someone whose typical response to a new challenge is to find as many books as I can about whatever is in front of me! The apparition or angel or messenger had no “fixed name,” but only a purpose: to help Yaakov become the person he was destined to be. That required asking him hard questions and pinning him to the ground, as it were, with Yaakov’s own struggles. The angel needed no name, as its orientation was to serve others; it is precious indeed when we encounter such angels of wisdom to help us wrestle with our own life-changing questions.

Happy Thanksgiving and 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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Vayeitze: Pillars of Truth

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:11)

Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. (31:45)

Good morning!

One reason we read the Torah portions in a repeating yearly cycle is that we see new things as our perspective changes over time. I never really noticed it before, but this year it just lept out at me that the Torah portion Vayeitze begins and ends with Yaakov picking up stones from the ground, but in the twenty years the portion covers, the stones come to mean very different things.

In the first verse above, from the very beginning of the portion, Yaakov is on the run from his brother Esav and all alone in the wilderness, with only a stone for a pillow. He has a marvelous vision of a ladder to heaven, but his rock pillow seems to symbolize how alone and bereft he is, how literally uncomfortable it is to be running away from the consequences of one’s choices, and in this case, the father he deceived and the brother he despoiled. That discomfort may be the catalyst to Yaakov’s spiritual vision, but he didn’t know that at the time- he simply had nothing left but a rock for a pillow.

The second stone, twenty years later, is one that Yaakov sets up as a witness to pact he makes his father in law Lavan. After working for Lavan two decades, marrying his two daughters and greatly increasing his family’s wealth, Yaakov has another vision, one that tells him to get going home, back to the land of Israel and the family from whom he fled. Lavan chases after him, asking why he took his daughters and grandchildren without saying goodbye. Yaakov protests that after all his years of working for Lavan, he would have been sent away empty-handed, but eventually the two of them swear a pact by the stone pillar that Yaakov sets up: Yaakov will care for Lavan’s daughters, and the two men will live at peace, each one on his own side of the stone pillar.

It strikes me that the two stones in our story represent two stages of Yaakov’s life. The rock under his head represents the consequences of his deception, his moral confusion, his insecurity (physical and emotional), or as we might say, “hitting rock bottom” after deceiving his father to steal his brother’s birthright. The second stone, on the other hand, is one that Yaakov himself raises up and swears by. Note that in the beginning, Yaakov is alone because he deceived his father using his brother’s voice, but after twenty years, he is able to articulate his own vows and his state his own concerns quite clearly to his father in law when protesting Lavan’s pursuit. Perhaps this is why the second stone is set up as a pillar rather than laying passive as a pillow: because Yaakov has found his voice and spoken from conscience, he his now able to use the stone to represent the clarity of his moral vision and personal integrity rather than being a symbol of his alienation and vulnerability.

I’ve often thought that we are called the people Israel, after Yaakov, because he of all the patriarchs and matriarchs, he shows the greatest arc of spiritual and moral maturation over the course of his life. Like most of us, he has ethical and emotional lapses and failures, but over time, he wrestles with God and finds the blessing in his long journeys, even though there was heartbreak and failure along the way. It may have taken Yaakov twenty years, but he picked himself up off the ground and made worthy vows in the presence of God and the assembled camps. The two stones of Vayetze show us that we too can rise up and speak truth without fear, if our conscience is clear and our dreams lead us to become our better selves.

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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Toldot: Holy Love

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Yaakov. . .(Bereshit/ Genesis 25:28)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is the story of the twin sons of Yitzhak and Rivka and their rivalry. Esav, the older of the twins, is strong and “outdoorsy” as a child, while Yaakov, the younger, “dwells in the tents,” according to the text. The children have very different personalities and character traits, which is correlates to (or is perhaps caused by) a very different relationship with each parent, as described in the verse above.

Commentaries abound regarding why Yitzhak loved Esav and Rivka loved Yaakov, and how that affected their actions toward each other (thou shalt go forth and Google if interested). For today let’s just focus on a more narrow question framed by the assumption of the classical Torah scholars: given that (according to the prevailing traditional view) Esav was not a nice or worthy son, why mention that Yitzhak loved him? Please note, I am not endorsing the view that Esav was a bad guy, but noting that the ancient rabbis thought so. This makes sense given their prior commitment to the covenantal worthiness of Yaakov; they need some moral justification for Yaakov’s dishonest actions in stealing the birthright and status of the first-born.

So, given that they thought Esav was an evil, or at least unworthy son, why mention that Yitzhak loved him? Some commentators believe that Yitzhak loved him because Esav brought him the food he liked, which wouldn’t be much to Yitzhak’s credit, while others say, no, of course Yitzhak loved Yaakov the righteous son more but the verse mentions Esav to teach that he was able to love his less worthy son on some level as well. This seems to be a faint praise of Yitzhak, but the third interpretation is the worst of all: some commentators say that Yitzhak simply didn’t know that Esav was a bad guy, or because of his affection chose willful ignorance.

This last interpretation assumes that if Yitzhak knew Esav was off doing terrible things (again, a probably unwarranted interpretation, but that’s what the rabbis thought), he would not have loved Esav as much as he did.

I think that’s completely wrong as a matter of both psychology and theology.

We all know the relationship between parents and children can be complicated, but most parents love their children with a boundless, unconditional love. Why would Yitzhak love Esav any less for his putatively unworthy actions? Is familial or love truly dependent on the moral perfection of our children, siblings, parents and dear ones?  The rabbis themselves teach that any love dependent on some external factor is not really love- see here, for example.

To me, the entire point of the metaphor of God as a parent, as in Psalm 103 or countless other places, is to stress Divine love as accepting, forgiving, and unbreakable, the way most parents love most children, at least most of the time. Thus, radically accepting, unconditional love is sacred;. it’s the the kind of love that arises from our deepest Source.

Maybe Yitzhak loved Esav not because of the meat he brought him, or out of blindness to his flaws, or out of some abnormal psychological need, but because of the simple fact that he was his son. Maybe Yitzhak’s love for Esav was like the love of the Divine for humankind: not in spite of each other’s flaws, but just because love is what we are meant to do as spiritual beings. Maybe Yitzhak’s love for Esav was not a mistake, but holy, precisely because it disregarded reasons not to love. Would that we all loved that way!

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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Chayei Sarah: One Human Family

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This is the line of Yishmael, Avraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Avraham. . . .(Bereshit/ Genesis 25:12)

Good morning! Last week we discussed how the Torah emphasizes the moral necessity of attending to the suffering of the maidservant Hagar and her son. Yishmael is the first born of Avraham, but not the son of his wife Sarah, so he and his mother are expelled, but not forgotten. In this week’s parsha, which is mostly concerned about finding a wife for Yitzhak (who will continue Avraham’s line from Sarah) we have a genealogy for Yishmael and his descendants, starting with the verse above.

You’ll notice that the verse above is very specific about who Yishmael is and who his parents were; the verse emphasizes that Hagar was his mother, and she was an Egyptian maidservant. Well, we knew that from last week, so why be so particular about Yishmael’s lineage now?

Among the various rabbinic commentaries, there are two answers at odds with each other, one of which I like better than the other. First, we have a fellow named Samuel ben Meir, otherwise known as Rashbam, who compares the verse above, which says that Yishmael is Hagar’s son as well as Avraham’s, to verse 19, in which Yitzhak is specifically listed as Avraham’s son without mention of his mother. Rashbam thinks this is to disconnect Yishmael from the line of Avraham and emphasize that we should think of Yishmael as the son of Hagar, the Egyptian servant girl, not the son of his father.

Another medieval commentator, David Kimchi, AKA Radak, thinks the exact opposite: that the Torah goes out of its way to remind us that  Yishmael is Avraham’s beloved first born, and that despite his mother being a lowly servant girl, Yishmael was blessed by God as a son of Avraham and given much success.

Now, to be clear, neither of these views is espousing what we’d call a meritocratic perspective on Yishmael’s blessings. Both views see lineage as important, but Radak’s is a more open and hopeful interpretation, which we can build on even further. We might say: of course Yishmael is not limited in his blessings by being Hagar’s son. There is certainly a strain of Jewish thinking, not limited to the ancients, which places great weight on lineage, class and inherited privilege, but there is another which sees all human beings as made in the image of God and in a fundamental way equal to each other.

I’m probably pushing the text a bit too far, but that’s what I see in Radak’s reading. Mentioning Avraham, Yishmael and Hagar in the same verse draws our attention to their common humanity, a lesson sorely needed in this time of great ethnic, religious and political division. Yes, Judaism sees the line of the covenant coming through Yitzhak, and yes, Islam sees it coming through Yishmael, but according to Radak, the sons of Avraham make one larger family. Would that we all saw each other as family across the divisions and conflicts of humankind!

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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