Archive for 2. Exodus

Yitro: What God Did For Us, What We Do For the World

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, God’s people, how the Holy One had brought Israel out from Egypt. (Shemot/ Exodus 18:1)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Yitro is most famous for the Ten Commandments, but is also well-known for the character of Yitro himself. He was Moshe’s father-in-law, and is often called the first management consultant (just Google it, you’ll get quite a few hits) for his advice to Moshe about setting up an appropriate leadership structure for the people such that Moshe didn’t have to do everything himself.

Yet the Torah’s reintroduction of Yitro, in the verse above, is a bit more complex than meets the eye. First, what exactly did Yitro hear about that God did for Moshe and Israel? We might say it’s simply that he heard about the Exodus from Egypt, as in the latter part of the verse, but many commentators view that as additional information, as in, “Yitro heard about God doing XYZ and he heard about the Exodus from Egypt.”

Second, when did Yitro actually show up? The reason this is a question at all is that Moshe is described a few verses later as teaching the “laws and Torah of God.” Of course, reading the text we have now, the laws and Torah weren’t given for another two chapters! (Cf. verse 16) So there’s a legitimate case to be made that Yitro showed up after the Torah was given, and that the events of chapters 18-20 are not presented in strict chronological order. In fact, going all the way back to the Talmud, one view links the verse above with the view that Yitro shows up after Sinai, and that what he heard that God did for Moshe was the giving of the Torah itself.

Another view holds that what Yitro heard about was Israel’s defeat of Amalek, at the end of the preceding chapter. A third view says that Yitro heard about the splitting of the Sea and Israel’s crossing into safety; all three of these views can be found excerpted from their Talmudic sources here.

All these divergent readings have in common the idea that what Yitro heard about was so compelling and urgent that he had to come and join Israel, even for a while, for spiritual and not merely family reasons. Yet they have very different views of what might attract someone to the Jewish people; you might even say that the first and third views are about what God has done for us, whereas the second opinion, that Yitro heard about the defeat of Amalek, is about what the Jewish people can do for themselves, albeit perhaps with heavenly inspiration.

This, in turn, speaks to different understandings of the very meaning of Jewish existence: are we a people because God gave us the Torah, or were we able to receive the Torah because as a people we began to determine our own history and destiny? Is the giving of the Torah the foundational of our existence, or is our existence as a people, and ability to defend ourselves against the Amalek of our day, what enables us to have a Torah at all? You may note that in the commentaries, this question is not resolved, for of course it is not resolvable: it is not either/ or, but both/ and.

The Torah of the Jewish people is inseparable from our history- the Exodus, the journey to Israel, the establishment there of a sovereign nation- but our history also reflects a sense of holy purpose in the world. Our history as a people is more than just survival; it is a mission to bring light, justice and mercy to the world. My hope is that the Jewish people will be so zealous for these qualities that all sorts of people will come and say, I have heard about what God has done for you, and what you have done for God’s world- and want to be part of it.

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

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Bo: Remember This, Every Day

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. (Shemot/ Exodus 13:3)

Good morning!

This week the Torah brings the Exodus narrative to a point of high dramatic tension: the death of the firstborn is pronounced, the people are ready to go, and then there are pauses in the in the action for laws related to future remembrance of these events. Among those laws are the practices we associate with Pesach, including the prohibition on leavened bread, as in the verse above; one could reasonably say that Pesach is chiefly about remembering the Exodus story in its details and implications.

On the other hand, yetziat Mitzrayim, the “going out from Egypt,” is not just for one week in the spring. Our friend Rashi, basing himself on an earlier source, makes a nice little wordplay out of the verse above, reading “this day” as literally this day today, thus rendering the meaning of the verse: remember, today, that you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage. Rashi goes on to say that the verse thus teaches that we should remember the Exodus every day.

That, in turn, fits with other verses and sources which also teach that remembering the Exodus is an every-day, not just every-year, spiritual practice. D’varim 16:3 famously says “you will remember the the day you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life,” which became the basis of a discussion in the Mishnah about remembering Egypt even in the days of the Messiah (go here and scroll down to paragraph 5). That paragraph became part of the traditional Passover Haggadah, from which some of you may remember it, and explains the importance of the third section of the Shema, recited daily.

So there are at least two verses which are the source of daily Exodus remembrance,reified in the Shema, obviously a huge part of Jewish practice. Yet we can still ask why, of all the particulars of Jewish history, the Exodus deserves continual remembrance. One traditional answer is that our liberation from slavery is the foundation of the covenant at Sinai: we owe God our loyalty because of what was done for us. Others might say that the Exodus is the ethical basis of Judaism: we should always remember that we were slaves, so that we might have compassion for others, and have faith that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

While in no way discounting those or other answers to the question, I understand the Exodus as personal, not only national or historical. Egypt, in the story, is the land ruled by Pharaoh, who is not just a character but an archetype, a symbol of the human capacity for cruelty, domination, selfishness, greed, and moral blindness.

As I’ve written many times before, Pharaoh and what he represents is not only an external enemy, but part of the human condition, an internal struggle we all face in liberating ourselves from fear, egocentricity, closed hearts and shuttered minds. That we have the potential to leave the “narrow place” of Egypt, to overthrow Pharaoh in all his forms and guises, is the faith without which Judaism makes no sense. We have to remember, today and every day, that Pharaoh doesn’t win in the end- not then and not in the future, not in our hearts and not in the world, if we can muster daily the courage of our ancestors to make the world better for our descendants.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

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Vaera: Rivers of Blood

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera 
Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 7:23)
This week we begin the plagues upon Egypt, along with the famous subtext of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. What caught my eye this week is Pharaoh’s reaction to the first plague, that of turning the river into blood. After the Egyptian magicians did something similar, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” or “hardened” [vayehezak, from the word for strength] and he paid no heed to Moshe and Aaron. Then the Torah adds another detail: the verse above, we see that he turned and went into his palace, and literally “didn’t put this on his heart either,” 
“Either?” What else did Pharaoh choose to ignore? Some commentators suggest that gam le’zot [e.g, “this too” or “this as well”] refers to the fact that there are two miracles described in Chapter 7, one of turning the rod into a snake and one of turning the river into blood. So “this too” or “this either” could mean that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against believing in these two miracles; he didn’t take heed to either one. 
That’s a very plausible and simple way to read the text, but in the light of recent events, it occurred to me that Pharaoh is choosing not to see two different things when the river is turned to blood. First, according to the simple reading of the text, he is turning away from Moshe’s demonstration of God’s power, and therefore turning away from Moshe’s message of liberation for the Hebrew slaves. Yet in a very real sense, the river was “turned to blood” long before Moshe and Aharon showed up: you may remember that at the very end of Exodus 1, Pharaoh orders all the male Hebrew babies thrown into the river, in order to break, reduce and demoralize the people. 
Remembering this, it seems to me that Pharaoh paying no attention to “this either” implies that the plague of turning water to blood has no effect on a man who is already morally cold to the blood he ordered spilled into that same water. To put it another way, there was already a river of blood and the hearts of the rulers were hardly broken, so why should a parlor trick matter? Pharaoh goes home and sets nothing on his heart, because his heart has already learned to ignore the suffering around him. 
Lest you think I am describing some uniquely morally deformed monarch, whose example is far removed from the ordinary citizen who may be reading this, let me remind you that at approximately the time that the world’s attention was focused on the horrific attacks on journalists and Jews in Paris, another militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, was murdering hundreds, if not thousands, in Nigeria. The Syrian civil war rages on, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and blood is spilled daily in Iraq, Congo, and Sudan, to name just a few of the ongoing conflicts in the world. There are rivers of blood being spilled, and it’s so easy to go home and set nothing on our hearts, because it’s so far away, and so complicated, and there’s not much we can do anyway. . . . . 
All of which might be true, but the day we stop caring is the day Pharaoh wins. 
“Let my people go” means envisioning a world without rivers of blood. That world seems far away, but the whole point of Exodus is to remind us that Pharaoh doesn’t get the last word. Freedom and justice and peace are possible, but only if we don’t turn away and go home. 

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

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Shemot: Total Commitment

Torah Portion: Shemot
The Lord said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales! (Shemot/ Exodus 4:6)
Greetings from the frosty yet ever beautiful Hudson Valley! 
Sorry about not drashing last week but glad to be back. 
This week we begin the book of Exodus, which begins with sufferings of the Israelites and continues with the story of Moshe’s birth, adoption into Pharaoh’s household, spiritual awakening and flight to Midian. While caring for his father-in-law’s flocks, Moshe is called by God at the burning bush, but seems skeptical that the Israelites will believe him- not only that he was commissioned by God but also that redemption is at hand. So at the beginning of Chapter 4, God gives Moshe two signs: first, his rod turns into a snake, and second, that his hand is afflicted with tzara’at, the scaly skin blemish much discussed later in the Torah. (There’s one more sign for the Israelites, turning the water of the Nile into blood, but that is promised for later and not demonstrated in this part of the story.) 
It’s understandable that Moshe would doubt that the Israelites would believe him when he reports God’s promise at the burning bush, and it’s also fitting within the narrative that the sign to convince them would be the staff turning into a snake and back. Within the theology of the Torah, the symbolism of the staff becoming a snake suggests God’s dominion over nature- especially those aspects of nature associated with Egypt’s gods, as the Torah imagines them- which will be more fully demonstrated in the story of the plagues. So if Moshe wanted to show the Israelites that the God of Avraham was going to redeem them, a miracle like that of the staff would be just the thing. 
So why, then, does God enact the second sign on Moshe himself? Surely another miracle involving some aspect of nature would be just as effective in convincing the Israelites without perhaps discouraging or overwhelming Moshe, who seems rather reluctant to take this role even without sudden impurity on his body. 
Another sort of miracle might be just as good at convincing the Israelites, but maybe it was Moshe who needed to be shown, not only that the commission was real but that the privilege of leadership would be not leave him unscathed. Later in the Torah, there will be detailed rules for the separation and purification of the metzorah – the one who has an eruption of tzara’at- which perhaps suggests that Moshe is being indirectly told that to  shepherd the people and confront Pharaoh will leave him too feeling separated and alone, afflicted spiritually with the moral burdens of leadership. Maybe the impurity on Moshe’s hand is a symbolic representation of the impossibility of leadership while “keeping your hands clean,” understood as not having to make any difficult compromises or troubling decisions. 
We know that Moshe will eventually become repeatedly discouraged with the task of shepherding Israel; even a prophet of his stature must learn that doing the right thing may not always earn one popularity or acclaim. So perhaps at this very first stage of his mission, God seems to be telling Moshe: are you prepared for the sacrifices and struggles of fighting for justice and leading a fractious people? Are you prepared to feel separate and alone when you articulate a vision of a world according to a higher law and deeper hope? Are you prepared to feel outcast, like a metzorah,  when you call out the people’s mistakes and misdeeds? In today’s parlance, are you all in
That’s the question: to take on a holy mission is to risk everything comfortable. Are we- you and me- all in
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim: Known By Our Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim 

“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Shmot/ Exodus 30:12)
Good afternoon! 
It’s been a challenge to get a regular Torah commentary out every week with all the changes here in the Hudson Valley- all good ones!- so I appreciate your patience and understanding. This week, in addition to the regular Torah reading, we have a special reading from the Torah which describes a half-shekel tax paid by each Israelite. We read this passage before the new moon of Adar (or, this year, second Adar, as it’s a leap year), which thus comes about 6 weeks before Passover. Historically, the half-shekel was collected in the spring for the upkeep of the ancient Temple; the occasion of the yearly reading is called Shabbat Shekalim. 
On a practical level, the half-shekel tax was used for both communal religious needs and also as a means of counting the people; most commentaries understand the linkage between census and collection of the half-shekel as teaching that the Israelites themselves were not counted directly, but rather the coins collected were numbered in their stead. Our friend Rashi brings an ancient teaching that the “evil eye” is attracted to numbered things, so in order to avoid a plague or calamity of some sort, better to count the money rather than number the people. (We can also note in passing that the atonement mentioned above may refer to atoning for the Golden Calf, after which there was a plague, but let’s leave more on that for another day.) 
Perhaps the notion of the “evil eye” is mere superstition, but then, it’s interesting that this conception of reified negativity is framed in terms ofseeing. What would it mean to count the Israelites directly? It might mean seeing each person not as an individual but as mere “human resources” (I have never liked the moral implications of that term) for military or economic production. You might think it’s even more dehumanizing to count the coins instead, but maybe numbering the half-shekels is a way of forcing the officials to realize that each person has something to contribute, each person is equal in the eyes of God, each person is known not by size of donation but by a willingness to help build a holy community. 
Maybe the “evil eye” in taking the census means seeing others as just numbers, in which case, it’s hardly a superstition but an all-too-common contemporary problem. We are not numbers, nor statistics, nor mere economic units; we are all, each in our own way, contributors towards a society in which equality and dignity should be holy values. Counting coins instead of people reminds us that the people themselves are more than just units in a ledger; nurturing and valuing the contributions of each individual should be the goal of a holy community. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Terumah: Build It and Use It!

Copyright 2014  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah 
Then set up the Mishkan according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain. . . (Shmot/Exodus 26:30)
“After you finish it [the Mishkan] then set it up.” {Rashi}
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is mostly a set of instructions and descriptions for building the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary where offerings were made and the Divine Presence dwelt. The Mishkan is boards, sockets, gold implements, fabric, leather and many other fine materials, all assembled into a portable structure designed to be taken apart and carried from location to location. 
Right in the middle of the instructions for the outer structure- the planks and sockets and such- is the verse above, reminding Moshe to set up the Mishkan as he was shown on the mountain. This raises many questions about when, exactly, Moshe was shown the illustrations or images which would give him a clearer idea of the design and assembly of the Mishkan, but Rashi has the answer, above, to an even simpler question:  why tell Moshe to “set up” or “put up” the Mishkan if there have been verses and verses about how to build it? Isn’t it obvious that the whole point of building it is to put it up and use it? 

Well, as we can see from Rashi’s comment above, he thinks our verse does teach a distinction between building and setting up the Mishkan, and from a purely formal view, of course he’s right. One could assemble all the pieces of any large project and then fail to put them all together, which might still be a technical fulfillment of a command to build the various pieces. Yes this is  sort of silly- of course Moshe knew that the point was not to build a bunch of pieces but a unified structure. 
So what’s the point of Rashi’s comment? Perhaps simply to remind us, the readers, that leaving final steps untaken is a ubiquitous aspect of human life. How many of us have achieved great insights through study or reflection- and then failed to take practical steps to implement them? How many of us have made glorious plans which never reach fruition? Yet I ask these questions not for condemnation but rather to evoke compassion, for the simple reason that “putting all the pieces together” of any new thing can be a great source of anxiety.
 After all, once Moshe finished the Mishkan he and the Israelites would have to embrace a whole new way of encountering the Divine Presence, and what could require more courage and openness than experiencing the Sacred in the very midst of the people? Change is hard; it is only human to avoid it. It’s poignant to think that even Moshe needed encouragement to take these changes as to their conclusion. 
“After you finish it, then set it up”- Rashi’s comment isn’t really about the Mishkanas a set of planks and boards, but about the Mishkan as a new way of being in and experiencing the world.  We have to build, and we have to make what we’ve built into a creative reality.  That was true for Moshe, and it’s true for us. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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