Archive for January, 2016

Yitro: An Altar of Earth is Enough

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Shmot/ Exodus 20:22)

Good morning!

Well, it’s one of those days when I thought I knew what I wanted to drash in the Torah portion, and then Sforno, a commentator from Renaissance Italy, came along and completely changed my direction. The most famous part of this week’s Torah portion is the revelation and “Ten Commandments” given at Sinai, but after the drama of that story, the people withdraw from the mountain and a few more commandments are given regarding building altars and worshipping.

One of those rules, quoted above, is a prohibition on building an altar of hewn or carved stone. The previous verse says that an altar of earth is fine for the sacrifices, but this verse clarifies: if you want to make a stone altar to God, don’t use tools to carve or shape the rocks. I’ve always understood this verse to teach the separation of iron tools, which are reminiscent of iron weapons of war, from the stones of a place of worship. To wit: you can’t build an altar of God, a place of peace, with tools of war (or symbols of tools of war.) The means must be appropriate to the ends: one can’t build a peaceful or holy community using weapons, be they words, policies, attitudes, theologies or anything else that can be used for cruelty or domination.

On the third hand, as it were, Sforno says this verse isn’t about the iron tools, it’s about the intentions of the builders. He connects this verse to the previous one, which says simply, “make an altar of earth,” to emphasize that we do not need to make elaborate, expensive spaces for prayer and worship. The prohibition on hewn or carved stones is about redirecting the people’s attention to the spiritual focus of their offerings rather than building an externally impressive altar.

Let me be clear: there is a value in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah (I wrote about it a few years back), or making the commandments beautiful, which is a great thing. It’s why we have a colorful prayer shawl or a silver kiddush cup or decorated candlesticks, for example. This verse isn’t saying that our ritual objects or prayer spaces should not be pleasant and attractive- they should. The verse is rather saying that connecting with the Holy is a function of the intentionality of the people, not the ornamentation of the prayer space. We should also compare this with the cultures of other ancient peoples, who built huge temples and ziggurats and pyramids for the glory of their gods, but who treated their slaves as less than nothing. In contrast, the God of Israel: my people who were slaves will be free. For them, an altar of earth is enough, and they will find great blessing there.

Sforno reminds us to put first things first: we can and should certainly make our mitzvot beautiful, but we should never make things glorious for reasons of ego or vanity. Simplicity and humility can also be beautiful; better an altar of earth than the greatest architecture on earth if the point of prayer is misplaced.

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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Bo: The Hours Go By

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt: “Braggart who let the hour go by.” (Yirmiyahu/ Jeremiah 46:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, which concludes the story of the plagues and sets up the actual Exodus from Egypt, including the laws and practices of the Pesach or Passover ceremony. (See here for summary). The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the theme of judgements against Egypt, but from a much later time period, when King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon was marching west to expand his empire. The prophet Yirmiyahu saw the Babylonian king as an instrument of Divine vengeance against Egypt, although in the end, the Babylonian invasion was hardly good for the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah, which suffered conquest and exile.

The verse quoted above is a taunting mockery of the Pharaoh of Jeremiah’s era, but it’s a bit hard to translate. It seems to imply that Pharaoh made a lot of noise, but when the hour of battle against the Babylonians came, he wasn’t able to live up to his boasts (Rashi), or perhaps Pharaoh brought destruction upon his people when the “hour passed by,” according to my reading of the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary.

Either reading works when connecting this verse to our Torah portion this week, and even more, to our own lives and challenges. Pharaoh, as I’ve written many times before, is the archetype of a human being alienated from their spiritual nature: narcissistic rather than generous, avenging rather than forgiving, an ego driven by power-over rather than a soul nourished by service. Pharaoh is every petty dictator or abusive boss or selfish manipulator, or even more precisely, those qualities in every person. He epitomizes what Martin Buber called the instrumental relationship of “I-it,” using people for his own ends rather than seeing others as equals, created by God with their own gifts and purposes. Because his ego is driven by power, rather than love, the challenge that Moshe presents- let my people go to serve God in the wilderness- must be shut down ruthlessly. How can Pharaoh let the people go for their own purposes when the very nature of power is to see people as mere instruments of our own will?

Pharaoh is a villain, to be sure, but he is also a tragic figure. Ten times he had the opportunity to do the right thing, to change course, to see clearly the end result of his chosen course, but he let the hour go by. Of course, we have the famous conundrum that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but we can understand this as God giving Pharaoh the courage or fortitude to be able to choose the right path out of conscience, not mere fear of the plagues.

That, to me, is the core of the story: the tragedy of letting the hour of choice go by, until destruction or disarray is assured. How many of us have made the mistake of failing to choose when choice was possible, when there was yet a chance for better way at work, at home, with their health or wealth or relationships, but the hour passed by? What Douglas MacArthur said about failure in war is true about life more generally. To wit: that the history of moral and spiritual failure can almost be summed up in two words too late.

Yet for most of us, most of the time, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to seek forgiveness, or grant it; it’s not too late to reorient ourselves to love and justice, it’s not too late to fix what we’ve broken and take courageous stands where we must. For most of us, the hour has not passed by, and great things await those who seize the day and make it holy.

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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Vaera: A Prophet to Pharaoh

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

The Holy One said to Moses, “See! I have made you master over Pharaoh, and Aharon, your brother, will be your prophet.” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:1)

Good afternoon!

Three years ago, I wrote about the verse quoted above (see here) but I think I understand it differently now. To recap: Moshe is getting commissioned by God to confront Pharaoh and demand the liberation of Israelites. Moshe tries once, Pharaoh mocks him and increases the workload, and so Moshe goes back to God to say, OK, now what? (This is all in the chapter 5 of Exodus, the end of last week’s portion.)

In a long passage at the beginning of this week’s portion, God reassures Moshe of the Israelite’s liberation, gives him Aharon, his brother, as a spokesperson, and places him “as a master” to Pharaoh, as above. The word translated as “master” is elohim, which often means a name of God but also can mean master or lord more conventionally, i.e, a human superior officer, as it were. That’s the way many commentators understand it, and of course some scholars stress very strongly that Moshe was not literally a God to Pharaoh, as there is only one God.

The problem is that the Hebrew seems to be missing a word somewhere; translated literally it would be something like “see, I have placed you Lord to Pharaoh.” Does that mean as a lord, or as a God, or as the older Jewish Publication Society translation has it, “in God’s stead to Pharaoh?” You can see what I wrote earlier, but these days I think we have to understand the first part of the verse in the context of the last part: Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh, because Aharon will be a prophet for Moshe. Other commentators, noting that Aharon later becomes a priest and Moshe takes the prophetic role of relating God’s word, seem to read this as Moshe will be like a Lord (or lord) and Aharon will be like a prophet (not actually a prophet), but I think that’s unnecessary.

A prophet is someone who relates a vision of Divine workings in the world: perhaps calling people to account for their misdeeds, perhaps offering them great comfort in times of suffering, perhaps harshly calling out hypocrisy or oppression, perhaps calling for repentance and stressing Divine forgiveness. The key point is that a prophet speaks not his own words but God’s. Thus even if, at the beginning it’s Aharon who speaks the words, the essential idea is that human beings will stand in the place of God to the oppressor, to the tyrant, to the arrogant, to the hypocrite, to the forces of Empire and greed.

Moshe will be in God’s stead to Pharaoh because at all times we need strong voices of justice and liberation to speak in holy, God-grounded outrage when there is suffering and oppression. There have been many who stood “in God’s stead,” as it were: Moshe and Aharon, the 19th-century abolitionists, Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu. Throughout history there have been countless souls, some famous, many not, who spoke for people against corrupt power, who stood in God’s stead and spoke prophetic words against the Pharaoh of their day.

If we don’t, who will?

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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