Archive for 2. Exodus

Ki Tissa: Show Me Your Presence

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

And he said: “Show me, now, Your glory!” The Holy One replied: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the Divine Name before you . . . . (Shemot/Exodus 33:18-19)

Good morning! Good to be back. So much going on in this week’s Torah portion, most famously the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets, but also Moshe’s plea, after the post-Calf reckoning, on behalf of the Israelites and himself. Moshe asks God not to destroy the Israelites, reasoning that it would be bad PR to destroy a people that God had just liberated from slavery.

As for himself, Moshe to see God’s “glory,” or kavod, which usually means something like direct or revealed presence. The response, quoted above, is interesting: God says, I will pass my goodness, tuvi, before you, not kavod, glory or immanent presence. Perhaps Moshe was caught up in the same need for some sort of defined external experience or perception of the Holy that caused the people to build the Calf, and God instead redirected him to experience the Holy in internal moral and spiritual qualities. In other words- you need not look for the Holy out there when you can experience the Holy in good and giving relationship.

If that were all these verse taught- dayenu, it would be enough! Yet as usual, our friend Rashi brings a deeper dimension to God’s reply to Moshe’s request. You can find the full translation here, but the basic idea is that God wanted to teach Moshe the order of prayer, which began with Moshe’s invocation of the merit of the ancestors but needed to include the qualities of Divine goodness and mercy, which God proclaimed while Moshe was hidden in the rock. (These are prominently quoted in our prayers on the Days of Awe.) Rashi says that Moshe thought that the “merit of the ancestors,” or zechut avot, was depleted or finished, and therefore there was no more hope, so God revealed Divine goodness and mercy, which doesn’t depend on the merit of our matriarchs and patriarchs.

On the one hand, this is a midrash, or interpretation, which explains the one of our central prayers: you may remember that the Amidah, or standing prayer, begins with calling out to God as the God of our ancestors Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov- and in my versions our matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah as well- and has a central section, during the week, asking for goodness and various forms of blessing. The idea is Moshe thought that the merit of our ancestors wasn’t enough, so God showed Moshe that there is Divine goodness which doesn’t depend on it. Therefore, our prayers begin with zechut avot, but don’t end there.

On a deeper level, I think Rashi’s comment speaks directly to our greater Jewish experience in the modern world. How many of us do Jewish because it was something our parents or grandparents did, as a way of honoring them and furthering their legacy? How much of contemporary Judaism is taught as a historical practice which obligates merely out of accumulated precedent? Moshe suspected, and in Rashi’s reading, God confirmed- that’s not enough. We also need the experience of the Holy in our own lives, not just in the memory of the lives of those who came before.

Many of us have ancestors who lived extraordinary Jewish lives of courage, devotion and sacrifice- but it may not be enough to sustain a life’s journey. Like Moshe, who suspected that the merit of the ancestors was exhausted, to truly revitalize ourselves and our communities we each have to find and feel the Divine Presence for ourselves, in our lives and our loves and our deeds and our doing, if we’re going to make it on the long journey forward.

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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Mishpatim: A Nation of Laws

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Mishpatim 
 
You shall not tolerate a sorceress . . . . . (Shemot/ Exodus 22:17)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, literally means “laws” and has many commandments related to civil, family and criminal law, along with a stunning story of communal revelation at the end. The idea of religious law- or any law for that matter- is sometimes disparaged and set against spirit, or morality, or freedom, but I think Judaism would say that it is a well-ordered and just society that allows for individual morality, spirituality and creativity to flourish. Without fair laws, we are subject to individual and group passions and prejudices, the defects of which hardly needs elucidating. 
 
For example, the verse above is translated a little too nicely by the Jewish Publication Society as quoted. It is literally, “a sorceress shall not live.” Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the Torah and the ancient leaders who held to it absolutely opposed anything connected to other deities, magical powers, or the occult, and it is hardly surprising that such practitioners were condemned. 
 
What is more surprising is our tradition’s insistence on due process for those it found most abhorrent. To wit, Rashi says that our verse teaches that witchcraft is a capital crime, but only if there is a proper beit din, or court proceeding. Now, in no way am I endorsing the death penalty for witchcraft (or anything else in America today) but I think we can learn from this our tradition’s moral commitment to avoid the injustice of the mob. Again, witches were one of the things the Torah hated most- but there is still no possibility in a Jewish view of justice for people to take the law in their own hands, since it is precisely a duly constituted court that can consider evidence and cool the passions of violent anger and hatred. 
 
At this point, I can guess that the objection would be: well, courts didn’t protect anybody during the Salem witch trials, or countless trials and inquisitions, did they? True enough, but the laws of evidence, testimony and conviction in Jewish jurisprudence would rule out most hearsay, rumor or rush to judgment. That’s the whole point: a nation of laws slows down the passions of the mob so that justice is not tainted by prejudice, fear, bigotry or politics. No system is perfect, but when I read in the Torah commentaries that even witches got their day in court, I am powerfully reminded that the Jewish ideal is to hold up reason in the place of fury. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that the verse above should be upheld literally, but only that its interpretation teaches us a powerful Jewish value: that those calling for blood and vengeance rarely have justice as their motive and never have justice as their result. Every person, created in God’s image, is entitled to the equal protection of a nation of laws, and it’s every person’s responsibility move society closer to that ideal. 
 
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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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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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building from the Heart

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: Vayakhel-Pekudei
 
Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity brought the offering of the Lord for the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 35:21)
 
Good afternoon! This week we are concluding the Book of Exodus with the details of actually assembling and accounting for all the pieces of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan and its vessels included gold, silver, bronze, fine fabrics, and precious stones, but the Torah emphasizes over and over that it’s not enough to have beautiful things- the Mishkan was made by those with wide hearts and generous spirit. To put it another way, if you want to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for the Holy, you can’t just have a nice physical structure, but you need the hearts and love of those who contribute and assemble there. 
 
This week’s Torah portion tells us that all the people gave, and they gave willingly and generously, even giving their jewelry and personal adornments. (Cf. verse 22, right after the verse above.) To me, these verses are key to understanding the idea of the Mishkan: it is a place, a thing in the world, but what makes it holy is the love and humility and selflessness that goes into building it. To make a place of experiencing the Sacred, the people literally had to take off their jewels and gold- the markers of status and rank- in order to join with others to meet the Holy.
 
So the Mishkan, in this reading, is less about all the details (as important as they were for later commentary) and more about the experience of the people who gave of themselves, and found an openness to the Holy as a result. This principle is no less true today: all great spiritual paths speak of losing yourself (in the sense of outer markers of the ego) in order to find a deeper, truer, realer self in relationship with others and with the Holy. 
 
To make this point even more explicit, I would call your attention to the awarding of this year’s Templeton Prize- a kind of Nobel prize for moral or spiritual excellence- to Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Archecommunities, which bring together people of differing intellectual abilities to live together in community. This is truly holy work, and explained beautifully in a series of short videos which can be found on this page, in which Vanier explains his philosophy of love, service, and becoming fully human. These short videos are beautiful and compelling, and illustrate the idea that what evokes the Divine in this world is not things but people, people who give with open hearts, and are forever changed. 
 
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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Ki Tissa: Moments of Decision

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
 
Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!” (1 Kings 18:38-39)
 
Good morning! 
 
I hope them’s that celebrated Purim this week had a happy and healthy holiday. 

We’re back to our weekly Torah reading and reaching one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Torah: the episode of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s subsequent encounter with the Divine Presence while stationed in the rock on the mountain. (You can see a summary of these events here.) In the haftarah, or prophetic reading, there is also an powerful theophany* narrative, this time orchestrated by the prophet Eliyahu (aka Elijah), in which the people are asked to choose between worship of the God of Israel and worship of the deity Ba’al. To demonstrate to the people that Ba’al is an empty idol, Eliyahu sets up a contest in which the God of Israel brings fire from heaven to burn his offering, while the offering of Ba’al is untouched despite the great efforts of Ba’al prophets. 
 
At that moment- when the people see the fire from heaven- they “fall on their faces and say, the Lord alone is God,” or, as you might have heard before, Adonai, hu ha’Elohim. That phrase becomes part of at least two important Jewish liturgical moments: the end of Yom Kippur, and the end of life, as part of the deathbed vidui, or confession. (You can see variations on this text here. Not every version includes this phrase, but most I’ve seen do.)
 
Now, what links these three things- a dramatic story of faith renewed on Mount Carmel, the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and the final moments of life itself? Perhaps this phrase- Adonai, hu ha’Elohim, or literally Adonai is the God or Deity- is meant to evoke the urgency of making spiritual choices. The story in Kings has Eliyahu urging the people to choose the God of Israel rather than a foreign god, and that text itself is linked thematically to the Torah portion, in which the people choose idolatry mere weeks after leaving Egypt. 
 
In our lives, we rarely have those kinds of fire-from-heaven moments, but we do have to make choices and commitments. (As Bob Dylan famously said, you gotta serve somebody.) At the end of Yom Kippur, after 25 hours of fasting and a day-long marathon of prayer and confession, this phrase suggests: you’re ready to make a real choice for the coming year. You can choose empty things, or Godly things. You can choose your higher nature, aligned with your Source, or you can choose business as usual. 
 
That choice becomes even starker at the deathbed. The dying one has so little time to choose anything but the most real and essential things, and for the families and loved ones, death is a stark reminder that the hours of our lives are finite, and may someday be reviewed with either regret or satisfaction. Adonai, hu ha’Elohim means; don’t make anything but God- the most real of all realities, the deepest Source, the truest truth- your god, or that which you serve. 
 
It is not likely that fire will pour down from heaven today in my vicinity (but if it did, it would sure help clear ice off the driveway.) It is inevitable, however, that I, along with everyone reading this, is given a choice about how to orient our precious, holy, and finite time and energy, which is another way of saying life itself. Judaism reminds us to choose wisely, before time runs out for choosing. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
*a ten-dollar word that means palpable revelation of God’s Presence.)
 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Terumah: A Clear Vision

I am pleased to note that this Torah commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America as part of its Mekor Chaim weekly email.

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:  Terumah

It [the lamp and its parts] shall be made, with all these furnishings, out of a talent of pure gold. See and then make the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain. (Shemot/ Exodus 25:39-40)

The Torah portion Terumah is all about the building of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary and its vessels and implements, constructed from the people’s donations of precious stones, gold, silver, bronze, fabrics, skins and wood. The instructions given to Moshe are very detailed, describing the tent-like outer walls and the instruments of worship such as the altar, table, basins, Ark and lampstand, or menorah.

The instructions for the seven-branched lampstand, beginning in 25:31, give us the basic shape many will think of as a symbol of the Jewish people and the State of Israel: seven branches, symmetrical, three branches with lamp cups on each side and one in the middle. On the other hand, the details are hard to construct with precision, at least from the verses in the Torah, and in fact there is a great deal of discussion among the ancient rabbis about the exact shape and form of the golden menorah.

This difficulty seems to be acknowledged in the verse above, wherein Moshe is told to make the menorah as he was shown on the mountain. According to some rabbinic interpretations, Moshe was shown a visual image of the menorah, perhaps even a pattern of fire from heaven, in order to correctly grasp the shape and design.

These midrashim, or ancient commentaries, which suggest that Moshe was given a vision of the menorah in addition to instructions, suggest that as the leader of the people, he had to “begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey famously taught. Note that we commonly use the word vision to mean not only a graphic representation but also a sense of purpose, a better future imagined for ourselves and our community, or a clear idea of what we’d like to become by doing something important and meaningful.

Thus, we might say that Moshe had to have a vision of the menorah in both senses of the word, because as a leader he had to have a vision for the Mishkan, the people, and the journey they were about to undertake. Moshe had to be able to see ahead to the people’s success in becoming a free people in their own land, and tell the people in clear terms how their vision as a community might become reality.

The menorah was, and is, a symbol of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation, guided by the light of God and our common purpose as a people. The image of Moshe seeing the pattern of the menorah– indeed, envisioning the entire Mishkan- in all its details is an image of leadership, for a true leader helps her community imagine greater things and a brighter future. A Jewish leader sees not just what to build, but why it’s important, and invites the entire people to unite together, towards building something holy and lasting, according to a powerful vision joined to a call to action. That was leadership in Moshe’s days, and no less in ours.

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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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong. . . . . .   (Shemot/ Exodus 23:2)

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Mishpatim is mostly civil and criminal laws, along with instructions about how to apply those laws. Some of the laws and instructions are oriented toward ordinary citizens, while some, like the first verses of Chapter 23, seem to be for the regulation of judges and officials. The context of verse 2, quoted in part above, seems to be fairness in judging, forbidding the judge or official from taking the side of either rich (because of influence) or poor (because of sympathy) in a dispute. Rather, according to what seems to be plain meaning of the text, the law must be applied fairly, without regard to the social standing of either plaintiff or defendant.

So far, so good, and would that we lived in a society that truly applied its laws fairly, as is, I believe, our American ideal. On the other hand, there’s an interesting interpretation of the verse above that gets into the details of the ancient Jewish judiciary, which I think will in turn impart an important moral challenge. According to some interpretations, “don’t side with the mighty” really means “don’t side with the majority,” meaning in turn, that a judge on a panel of judges must speak up, even against the majority opinion. Sforno goes on to say that “don’t follow the majority to do wrong” means don’t be the tie-breaking vote in a capital punishment case, because if a criminal is condemned by a one-vote majority, it’s the same as being condemned by a single judge, which is not part of the ancient Jewish judicial system.

This strikes me as a profound recognition of the humbling and awesome power of life and death inherent in judicial, political and military systems, a power which cannot be held by a vote of just one, lest that one judge be misguided, biased, or influenced by external factors. Many contrasts with modern life might be made, but one in particular that comes to mind is the current use of computer algorithms to determine drone strikes in the war against terror groups. These “signature strikes” are often determined by computer analysis of certain behaviors, which indicate a possibility of terrorist affiliation. Note, however, with some of these drone strikes, we have no idea who we are killing, or if they have any terrorist links at all, or how many civilians are killed along with any possible enemies.

Counter-terrorism policy will be debated by experts, but I hope all Americans engage the moral questions inherent in the actions done in our name. The deliberation and clarity needed to condemn a criminal in the days of the ancient rabbis stands in stark contrast to a world in which computer programs mete out life and death in a flash, on the other side of the world, blowing up people whose names we may never know. “Do not follow the majority” became “do not let a bare majority decide to kill;” I wonder what the sages would say about letting software make life-or-death decisions without much human input at all? Arguments can be made pro or con, but the question cannot be avoided.

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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