Archive for December, 2015

Rabbi’s Statement on Islamophobia

Dear Friends:

And now, for something completely different. . . I am proud that the rabbis of Dutchess County are my friends and colleagues. Yesterday we released this statement to the media (see below) and it’ll be published in at least a few local and regional media outlets over the next week or so.

A Statement on Islamophobia by Rabbis in Dutchess County: 
It is the darkest time of the year, and many of us light lights.  We do so for religious reasons – light is a central theme in Hanukkah and Christmas – for practical purposes, so we do not stumble around in the dark. We kindle lights as a metaphorical ideal, because darkness is a symbol of ignorance and fear.  We can either choose to indulge in our worst human impulses, or choose to kindle a light and dispel the fears.

As rabbis and religious leaders in the mid-Hudson valley, we call upon all people in the region to resist the darkness of the soul, especially that which allow any group to become the target of demagogues and bigots. As Jews, we have had the experience of being new immigrants and of being a persecuted minority- as well as being barred from immigration because of baseless fears. Our history teaches us that no good can come of excluding, restricting, or monitoring a single religious or ethnic group. We urge this community and its leaders to continue to show solidarity and friendship towards our Muslim neighbors.

Rather than engage in cursing the darkness, we invite you to aspire to the better selves you have within you, and embrace the light that is the blessing of many diverse faiths in this season.

With prayers of peace for all people,

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz
Rabbi Kerry Chaplin
Rabbi Michael Fessler
Rabbi Paul Golomb
Rabbi Miriam Hyman
Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger
Rabbi Daniel Polish
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek
Rabbi Daniel Victor

See local media coverage with comments from Rabbis Berkowitz and Victor here and here.

Feel free to post and share, and thank you.

More Torah commentary soon!

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Miketz: Conscience and Memory

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, “I must make mention today of my offenses. (Bereshit 41:9)

Good afternoon!

This week there are three special days happening simultaneously, concurrently, and at the same time! (Props to the late and very great Jethro Burns for that joke, usually used when playing a melody that had more than one name.) Coming up tomorrow we have the Shabbat of Torah portion Miketz, Rosh Chodesh, and the Shabbat of Hanukkah. While there have been many connections made between Miketz and Hanukkah, this week I want to focus on one small comment made by a bit player that nevertheless leads to an important moral reminder.

You may recall that in last week’s reading, our handsome hero, Yosef, is tossed into the dungeon after his master’s wife falsely accuses him of sexual assault. In prison, he meets Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, whose dreams he correctly interprets. The baker meets a grisly end, but the cupbearer is released, only to forget Yosef’s request that he plead to Pharaoh on his behalf. In fact, the events of this portion are a full two years after the cupbearer’s encounter with Yosef in prison; he only remembers Yosef because Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that defy interpretation.

Because of Pharaoh’s dreams, the cupbearer wants to tell him about Yosef, but first he says, as above, “I must mention my offenses,” (literally, sins), before describing Yosef’s ability to correctly understand the symbolism of dreams. Yet it’s not clear what the cupbearer means here- what sins is he reluctantly mentioning? The commentators are divided: some say that the cupbearer is saying to Pharaoh, if I’m going to remind you that you threw me in prison, I’ll preface it by saying, it was indeed my sins that led to the punishment. This could be good manners- not implying that the king had made a mistake or was capricious- or good politics- who would dare criticize the man who can with a word imprison you or worse?

A softer reading along the same lines is that, just as we would not ordinarily mention another’s past sins after they have earned forgiveness, neither should we mention our own, but in this case, it was important and for Pharoah’s own good, since it would explain why he should listen to Yosef. A third reading is that that once the cupbearer is reminded of Yosef, he has a guilty conscience, since Yosef requested that he mention his plight to Pharaoh and the cupbearer didn’t do it. In this reading, the sin is forgetting Yosef, which he now implicitly confesses.

So what’s the lesson in all this? I think all three understandings of the cupbearer’s words have something to teach us about derech eretz, literally “the way of the earth” but meaning something like “the behavior to which that all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.” It’s not derech eretz to unnecessarily bring up mistakes that have been, or should be, forgiven. Don’t think of yourself or others as forever identified with a past misdeed; as Yosef himself shows, we all grow and mature over time.

On the other hand, if we understand the cupbearer’s sin as forgetting Yosef, I think we would agree that his conscience should bother him- as it should bother any one of us who have failed to extend proper gratitude to one who has shown us kindness, grace, insight, compassion, generosity, or forgiveness. Please note: nowhere does the Torah say that the cupbearer promised Yosef that he would plead his case. He did not break a promise, but simply failed to do the right thing when he had the chance. The cupbearers’ sin was not dishonesty, but ingratitude, which brings us back to derech eretz, or the lack thereof.

Perhaps the cupbearer is just a literary device to bring Yosef into Pharaoh’s court, but the few verses in which he appears show us a deeply human figure, one who, like all of us, forgets to do the right thing at the right time, forgets to help those who have helped him and doesn’t always know the right thing to say. Yet his conscience, his humanity, gets the better of him, and he remembers what he should never have forgotten. That challenges all of us to do the same.

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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Vayeshev: The Drunken Nazir

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

And I raised up prophets from among your sons

And nazirites from among your young men.

Is that not so, O people of Israel?

— says the Lord.

But you made the nazirites drink wine

And ordered the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:11-12)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion introduces Yosef and sends him down to Egypt, where he ends up in Pharoah’s dungeon, but what caught my eye this week was a line from our haftarah, which is taken from the book of Amos. The prophet Amos rebuked both Israel and its neighbors for their various sins and offenses, while still holding out the possibility of repentance. Among Israel’s sins was the corruption of religion and those who held to sincere spiritual convictions, such as the nazirites and prophets mentioned above.

A nazirite, you may recall, was somebody who took a vow not to have an wine or other intoxicant, not to cut their hair, and not to come into contact with the dead; this vow could be for various lengths of time. Rashi says that the word nazir refers to separation, and proposes that the nazirites referred to by Amos were men who separated themselves from a corrupt society in order to devote themselves to Torah study. (Yes, it’s an anachronism. Hold that thought for a moment.) So you might think that the problem with making nazirites drink wine was the breaking of their vow, but Rashi says the motive was to prevent them from teaching Torah, since one who is drunk is forbidden to instruct.

Another scholar, Ibn Ezra, says something a bit different, which is that the people forced the nazirites to become ritually impure, and then they drank wine. The comment is bit cryptic, but my sense of it is that first the nazirites became ritually impure, and then perhaps they went ahead and drank the wine, as if it didn’t matter any more. This might be like someone trying to avoid junk food who says, well, I ate the cake, might as well have the Cherry Garcia too- once one boundary is down, the others don’t matter.

Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra use midrash, or creative narrative interpretation, to illustrate how the best of us can easily go astray from our own ideals. Rashi thinks the nazirites were prevented from teaching the people not by force but by the attraction of a good party! “One who is drunk is forbidden to instruct”- one who doesn’t care enough about their teaching to be clear headed while doing it probably doesn’t deserve to instruct, at least not in spiritual or moral matters.

According to the commentators, these nazirites might have been nazirites in the classic Biblical definition (according to Ibn Ezra) or merely scholars with good intentions but insufficient discipline, as Rashi suggests. The prophet is rebuking the people for corrupting the nazirites and ignoring the prophets, but on the other hand, the commentators seem to suggest that the nazirites and prophets went along without too much struggle.So on a deeper level, the nazirites and prophets mentioned by Amos are anybody who gets distracted from their calling, anybody who forgets their purpose, anybody who gets easily discouraged along a difficult chosen path. They are not only characters in an ancient drama, but all of us, who so easily fall into the comfortable and fun, rather than that which is challenging and thus transformative. The good news, of course, is that the nazirites and prophets among us- along with the poets, artists, scholars, activists, gadflies, protesters, preachers and teachers- can always pick themselves up and return to their sacred task of calling us to a better way.

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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