Archive for 1. Genesis

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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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,

RNJL

 
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,

RNJL

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,

RNJL

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,

RNJL
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,

RNJL

*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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Vayigash: The Breakthrough of Conscience

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.(Bereshit/ Genesis 45:1)
Good morning! 
 
Two weeks ago I used the image of Yosef being thrown into the pit by his brothers to reflect on the recently released Senate report on American interrogation techniques used by the CIA. Some call these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” some call it “torture,” some defend the CIA as doing what it had to do to protect the country, and others, including the Senators who released the report, believe that harsh interrogation never worked. A quick Google search will reveal different arguments around the report, but for today’s purposes I want to reflect on the fact that the controversy seems to have gone away in a matter of weeks. I got some pushback from couple of friends and colleagues for writing that Torah commentary, but mostly, like the furor in the media for a few days after the report was released, the Internet has moved on to other things. 

Yet I can’t help but feel that this is no ordinary partisan political narishkeit. We learned that American interrogators broke people physically and mentally, froze them to death, shackled them on shattered limbs and drove them near mad from sleep deprivation and near-drowning- people who in many cases were not “terrorists,” but suspects, proven guilty of no wrong, and in at least 26 cases, guilty of nothing other than being misidentified. Yes, sometimes innocents suffer during war, but I was always taught to believe that America didn’t make it a policy to break the bones of prisoners and captives. 
 
Back to this week’s Torah portion. After being sold into slavery, Yosef rises up in Pharaoh’s court and becomes the Viceroy, with the power of life and death in his hands. His brothers come to seek food, but do not recognize him, and after an extended period of testing their priorities and loyalties, Yosef finally reveals himself after Yehudah’s heartfelt plea to spare the life of Binyamin, the youngest brother. Countless commentaries have been written on the emotional dynamics between Yosef and his brothers, but for today I’d like to imagine that Yosef breaks out in in tears because his conscience finally overwhelms his desire for vengeance. He could have had his brothers imprisoned or killed, and he seemed to enjoy testing them, playing a game of cat-and-mouse, trying to see if they would turn on the favored younger son Binyamin the way they turned on him. 
 
Yet at some point Yosef decides it’s enough, it’s not worth it, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to become what his brothers were when they treated him so cruelly. He has them in his power, but can no longer tolerate what he is becoming by the abuse of his power. 
 
What is so shocking to me about Senate report is that we’ve all just moved on- there is little outcry anymore, as far as I can tell. Maybe our world is such a cruel place that 26 innocent prisoners just can’t shock the conscience, or maybe the pundits and partisans have succeeded in covering up all the real issues in smoke and confusion, but three weeks later, I’m still hoping that somebody with great moral standing will be like Yosef, pricked into conscience, able to stand up and say, “no more games, this is not who we are, we shall not sink to the level of our enemies.” I’m still hoping that someone will say: the very test of our society is to use the power of life and death wisely; there can hardly be a more important concern.
 
The story of Yosef is the story of a man who had every opportunity to take cruel revenge but caught himself, so that he didn’t become that which he hated. That is his greatness, and his example. 
 
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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