Archive for November, 2017

Vayeitze: Two Camps

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machana’im. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:2-3)

Good afternoon!

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Yaakov is a single man on the run from his brother, and by the end of the portion, he’s got two wives, two concubines, many children and much wealth as he heads back to the land of Israel. As he approaches the Land of Israel, he sees angels (literally “messengers”) of God, and names the place “machana’im,” or “double-camps,” a foreshadowing of the two camps into which he will divide his family as his brother Esav approaches a few verses later (but in the next Torah portion.)

The phrase machana’im, or two-camps, is not immediately clear from the context. Some commentators say the two camps were one for the angels and one for Yaakov and his family, but Rashi says there were two camps of angels. According to Rashi, one camp was for the angels who minister outside the Land of Israel, and one camp for the angels who minister in the Land. These latter had come to meet Yaakov, hence, two camps.

Now, that is a nice way of emphasizing the special relationship that Yaakov- and all his descendants, who are the Jewish people- have with the Land of Israel, but I also think it’s more than that. For Yaakov, the Land of Israel is where is family and destiny are, a family he’s been avoiding for twenty years since he stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. He was worked hard and lived by his wits since leaving home, but facing his brother and providing for his large family is a different set of challenges than the ones he’s had while living with his father-in-law.

In other words, what has helped him survive and succeed up until now may not be what he needs going forward- he now needs different angels, a different sensibility and sense of responsibility. This time, he cannot outwit his brother, but must humble himself and give respect to the one he deceived so many years before. Again, that’s in next week’s portion but the two-camps allusion is unmistakable.

There’s a business book with the title “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There:” the idea is that a set of skills or talents that help you rise to a certain station won’t be enough over the long term. This is even more true of the spiritual side of life: Yaakov’s angels outside the land may have gotten him much wealth, but only the angels of humility and repentance can lead him to offer that wealth to his brother as a peace-offering. The different camps of angels can be understood as different orientations or spiritual qualities which are needed at different stages of life. Yaakov was lucky enough to see the two camps, but guidance towards new ways of being is often right in front of us, if we too will choose to see it.

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


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Machar Hodesh: Blind Anger

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot/ Machar Hodesh

At that, Shaul threw his spear at him to strike him down; and Yehonatan realized that his father was determined to do away with David. (1 Samuel 20:33)

Good afternoon!

Well, this is unusual, but we’re going to mention King (well, not yet king) David two weeks in a row. That’s because this Shabbat we read the special haftarah called Machar Hodesh, meaning “tomorrow is the new moon,” which read when Shabbat is in fact the day before the new moon, or Rosh Hodesh. The haftarah begins its narrative on the day before the new moon, so there is a calendrical connection to the Shabbat rather than a thematic connection to the Torah portion.

I’ve written about Machar Hodesh a few times before (see here) but the brief recap is that Shaul is the king of Israel, Yehonatan is his son, David is a threat to Saul’s throne, and Yehonatan, David’s best friend, is caught in the middle. (So is Michal, Saul’s daughter, Yehonatan’s sister and David’s wife, but she’s not mentioned in the haftarah.) The haftarah tells the story of David escaping Saul’s jealous rage by leaving the court before the feast of the new moon, and Yehonatan’s attempt to ascertain whether it was safe for him to return and warn David if it wasn’t.

The verse above is taken from a scene at the feast at the palace after Shaul notices David’s absence and rages at his son for allowing David to leave, pointing out that David threatens Yehonatan’s future kingship as well. (Verse 31) Yet two verses later Shaul throws his spear at his very own son in anger! This make no sense: how can Shaul risk injuring, or even killing, his son if the reason he is angry is because he thinks Yehonatan is at risk of David usurping or killing him?

Now, we might say that Shaul didn’t strike his son with the pointed end of the spear, but only whacked him with the flat side, or threw it in the direction of Yehonatan but not right at him. Just a warning, perhaps? Well, maybe, but Shaul has already tried to kill David twice with the same spear, so it it seems that he’s using it dangerously. (See 18:11 and 19:10.)

This makes no sense, logically- why risk killing your son over his supposed inability to see his risk of being killed?. Maybe that’s the point: anger, rage, jealousy and other overwhelming emotions blind us to our true goals and often consume what we think we’re protecting. (See: Politics, American.) Lashing out in anger is by definition a reaction rather than a thoughtful action that arises out of one’s ideals, values or vision.

Rage destroys; it cannot fix. This is why Shaul is such a tragic but utterly human character: like most of us, the greatest challenge was not defeating an external enemy but mastering himself. The rabbis ask: who is mighty? They answer: The one who conquers his own inclinations. This is as true for kings as it is for you and me.

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: Comfort and Conscience

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. (1 Kings 1:1)


I have been on commentary hiatus too long and I hope to be back more consistently. The portion Chayei Sarah is a good one for jumping back into the waters, as the narrative is rich with opportunities for reflection and application. The Torah portion is mostly the story of Avraham sending his servant to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzhak, in order to secure a more proper heir and thus a legacy. These themes continue in the haftarah, which begins as King David is an old man, shivering in his bed. King David, like Avraham, has to secure his heir and legacy before he dies.

We’ll leave a full compare-and-contrast of the two stories for another year and just focus on the first verse of the haftarah, quoted above. This verse seems simple enough but elicits some interesting commentary. One view from the medieval scholars is straightforward: the verse mentions blankets being insufficient because blankets can’t warm by themselves, they can only ward off the cold air. So if the king is not generating his own warmth, the blankets aren’t enough. Rashi, on the other hand, quotes an older midrash from the Talmud to draw a moral lesson about conscience and its consequences:

Rashi: he never felt warm– Our Rabbis said, “All who scorn clothing do not benefit from them in the end (Berakhot 62b 30-31)”- because he ripped of the corner of Saul’s coat [he could not become warm through clothes]. And in the Midrash Aggadah [it says]: Rav Shmuel the son of Nakhmani said, “When David saw the angel standing in Jerusalem with his sword in hand, his blood went cold from fear (See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 43)”. (Translation from Sefaria.)

Rashi brings two different commentaries here, but they work together. In the second comment, Rashi seems to be saying that when a person sees death, or perhaps mortal danger, the blood runs cold from fear. The implication, as I understand it, is that David knows that his time is short and is cold from the fear or vision of impending death. Now, one could say that David was a brave warrior, who fought the giant with only a slingshot, and thus death should not scare him. Yet as a warrior he could have confidence in his own abilities and convince himself that he could defeat his enemy, but not even a king can defeat time and mortality.

What about Rashi’s first comment? This hearkens back to the struggle between David and Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul pursued David and his men, but when Saul went into a cave in which David was hiding, David sneaked up on him and cut off the corner of his garment as a way of proving to Saul that he could have killed him- but didn’t, and thus was not truly an enemy. (See here for full text.) Rashi quotes the Talmud to the effect that because David treated “clothing”- that is, Saul’s robe- with contempt, in the end “clothing”- that is, the bedclothes- could not avail him.

Well, OK, but David only cut the corner of Saul’s robe in order not to hurt him- surely it was better to cut the robe than to cut a person! So some rabbis say it was Saul’s tzitzit or ritual fringes that David cut, and thus he despoiled a holy garment, which in turn leads to his inability to enjoy warm garments in old age. In this reading, David’s sin was taking something holy- the fringes on the corner of Saul’s robe- and treating them with disrespect in order to make a rhetorical or political point in his dispute with Saul.

That’s a powerful image for this day and age, when so many of our shared values and symbols are mere objects in our partisan battles.  Another way we can understand Rashi’s two comments is contrasting the satisfaction of material goods versus the inherent good of a unburdened conscience. Think about it this way: David achieved power, fame, glory, riches and status, but at the end of his days, it was not material wealth- the blankets- that could comfort him. In fact, they left him cold, perhaps because he knew, on a deep level, that his riches were achieved at least partially by defeating and dethroning Saul, his mentor and father-in-law, in the first of David’s many wars. Thus Rashi’s two comments work together: David was cold from his vision of impending death and unable to derive “warmth,” or comfort, from his riches because he understood the moral cost of obtaining them.

Framed this way, I think Rashi’s comments show David’s chill as a cautionary tale, especially because the chapters that follow will show David’s family torn apart (not for the first time) by a struggle over those very same riches and power that bring David no warmth on his deathbed.

For us, the question becomes: how shall I live now such that I can someday die with peace of mind, sustained and warmed by love? What conflicts or hardness of heart can I now repair so I can live with myself until the end of my days? This is difficult, no doubt, but is there anything more important?


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

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