Archive for 1. Genesis

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)

Greetings!

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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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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