Archive for Yitro

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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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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Yitro: All the People

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“on the third day, the Holy One will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. . .  (Shemot/ Exodus 19:11)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion is the dramatic and religious climax of the Exodus narrative: having been freed from Pharaoh’s grip, the Israelites come to Sinai, where they are initiated into a covenant of laws and principles as free people, newly responsible for their deeds. While Moshe continues to serve as an interlocutor between God and Israel, the Torah specifically notes that the theophany at Sinai happened in the presence of “all the people,” as in the verse above, and again in 20:15 :

“And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain . . . “

Our friend Rashi interprets “all the people saw”- as well as the phrase “before the eyes of all the people” in the verse above – as teaching that there was not a single blind person among the Israelites. Perhaps he’s just being very literal, or perhaps the blindness to which he refers is a metaphor for lack of spiritual perception. If the latter, then “all the people saw” is a concise way of saying that “all of the people understood the reality and significance of the events at Sinai,” which is a plausible and generous interpretation.

To me, however, the key idea in both verses is not about “seeing” (even in the idiomatic sense of “understanding” or “perceiving”), but “all,” as in all the people witnessed this great bursting forth of the Holy. I can’t imagine an authentic Judaism that does not, in a very real way, belong to all the people- or at least, all the people who choose to be part of the probing dialogue since Sinai about how to be a holy people in a hurting world. According to our sacred story, Torah was given at Sinai but it is received continually, by each individual in each generation.

It was not given to Moshe alone but to the entire people- you and me and the rest of us- to probe, explain, explore, elucidate, expound and practice. This, for me, is an indispensable principle of Judaism: it is not the property or privilege of a chosen elite but the common inheritance of our people, who, in turn, bear responsibility for making it live in their day. All the people saw and experienced the Presence at Sinai; all the people are called to respond, and all the people have the capacity to teach new understandings of Torah in every age.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Gratitude Follows Honoring

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah commentary honors Arthur and Hilda Berney, z’l, parents of Gail Berney, who this Shabbat will dedicate the library of Temple Beth-El in her parent’s memory. Our Torah discussion and Torah reading tomorrow are also sponsored by Gail in honor of her parents. 

Good afternoon!

As noted above, tomorrow morning at TBE we anticipate a great act of honoring one’s parents, and indeed, there could be no better week to honor parents than this one, because the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother is given in this week’s Torah portion, as part of the revelation at Sinai. (You remember: earthquake, fire, ten commandments and all that.)

We’re going to dig a little deeper into the sources tomorrow, but for now let’s note that the ancient rabbis didn’t think of honoring one’s parents as an emotional orientation but rather as a set of actions. In general, the Torah can only command actions, not feelings, and so to honor one’s parents is to care for them, including making sure they are fed, housed, clothed, and treated with dignity and respect. You can read more about these obligations here.  Of course, circumstances vary for each family, so these are general principles, not necessarily applicable in every situation.

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is much discussed in various Torah commentaries, but one interesting perspective comes from the Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. The Sefer HaHinnuch says that the reason for having a special commandment to honor parents- that is, to act in ways that are caring and generous and preserving of dignity- is to inculcate within ourselves a sense of gratitude for having brought us into being. Human beings tend to take things for granted, and yet it’s a basic spiritual value to be grateful- first to our parents, who brought us into the world, and ultimately to God, Who is the Source of all being.

Note well, however, that the commandment is not to feel grateful, it’s to do acts which bring well-being and dignity to one’s parents. As the saying goes, it’s much easier to act our way into right thinking than think our way into right acting- or, more colloquially, “fake it till you make it.” Acting in caring ways changes our attitude toward the recipient of the act- emotions often follow what we do. That is, as Rabbi Dessler put it, we think we give because we love, but actually, love follows the giving, because we invest ourselves in that which we give to. This is no less true for any relationship, whether with a family member or a stranger on the street: Judaism suggests that we decide to do, and that decision will bring us into the attributes of generosity, compassion, and love, which are in turn what it means to be fully human.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Respecting Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being . . . . Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Shemot/ Exodus 20:21-23)

Good morning! This week we read one of the grandest narratives in the entire Bible: the giving of the Torah in fire and thunder and the speaking of the Ten Commandments. After the dramatic revelation, the people fall away in awe, and a few more laws are given, including the law above to build an altar and make offerings. The altar cannot be made of stone shaped by  iron; Rashi explains that the altar bring peace but iron represents war, so the latter is not suitable for the former.

So far, so good, but what’s this about not ascending by steps? Once again, Rashi to the rescue: he says this means the altar must be built with a sloping ramp, so the priests going up to make the offerings will not have to make big steps up the stairs, which could reveal. . . well. . . you know, too much information, as it were. That would be disrespectful in a sacred place. Yet Rashi also points out that just a few chapters later, we get a law that says that the priests have to wear special linen garments for modesty, so there would, in fact, not be too much uncovered no matter what kind of steps the priests had to climb. (Cf. Shemot 28:42)

OK, now you’re asking, how did we get from the Ten Commandments to puzzles involving priestly underwear, and what does this have to with the revelation at Sinai which is the highlight of the parsha? Well, let’s go back to Rashi, who says that even though the priests would not reveal themselves immodestly- because of their special garments- big steps would be close enough to something that might suggest immodesty that it would be disrespectful to the stones of the altar. We all know that stones couldn’t care less who walks on them or how they are dressed, so Rashi points out the moral lesson, which is really about people: if the Torah is teaching us to be exceedingly careful not to show even a hint of disrespect to stones, who don’t react and can’t care, then how much more should we be careful with human beings, who are made in the Divine Image and who care very much about their honor.

Now I can understand why this the final verse of this Torah portion: because the sages may have wanted us to understand that the revelation at Sinai is not a bunch of technical rules guiding only behavior, but is a set of spiritual principles which we internalize in order to be transformed towards compassion, care, and love. The steps of the altar have a moral purpose: to help us achieve conscience in all things. This law governs stepping on stones, but moves us towards the deepest ethic of respect and generosity towards others. This, to me, is the goal of the whole Torah, then and now.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Giving Permission

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Yitro : Shmot/Exodus 18:1-20:23

In Yitro, Moshe begins his leadership of a people in transition and brings them to Sinai, where they have a tremendous revelation of Torah.

Shalom Friends!

Here’s hoping those mid-Atlantic-seaboard readers are not going to be unduly stressed by the snow- something that is, at least on the East Coast, temporary. (Snow melts, after all, especially in Maryland, if childhood memories are accurate.)

Well, snow falls from the heavens to the earth but our haftarah this week has an image going the other direction. As the Torah portion, Yitro, tells the story of the revelation at Sinai, the haftarah tells the story of the prophet Yeshayahu [Isaiah] who was commissioned amidst a vision of the heavenly Throne:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple.  Seraphs stood in attendance on the Holy One. . Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other:

‘Holy, holy, holy!
The Lord of Hosts!
God’s presence fills all the earth! ” (Yeshayahu 6:1-3)

Many readers will recognize this phrase from the morning and afternoon prayers: it is a key phrase of the kedushah part of the Amidah [standing prayer], and is also quoted earlier in the morning liturgy, before the Shma. In that earlier section, Yeshayahu’s vision of the angels calling to each other is richly imagined as choruses of expansive praise, during which they:
. . . . ” accept from each other the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and give each other permission to to praise their Creator, with open spirit, pure speech and sacred song.” [Translation mine.]

Now, why would we describe the angels as encouraging each other before calling out to God as “holy, holy, holy?” What’s the point of imagining angelic religious sociology in the middle of our davenning? [Yiddish for praying the liturgy.]

To some, this passage may be a praise of the heavens but I think it’s all about what happens here on Earth- for aren’t we, the earthly community, the ones calling out “holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of God’s glory?” That is- the image of the angels is really about creating sacred communities among humans, who too often put each other down for being “too religious” rather than “giving permission” for each person to praise in their own pure song. To me, the image of the heavenly chorus is all about getting us to think about the real live people sitting in the seats of the sanctuary- how do we give or take away permission to pray deeply and authentically?

How do we- each of us in the synagogue- offer each other and accept from each other the spiritual orientation that Judaism calls “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven?” Are we humble enough to accept it from another, and are we generous enough to offer it?

These questions, to me, link the Torah portion- in which the Israelites receive Torah at Sinai- to our haftarah and our prayerbook, because ultimately Torah is only received among particular people in real communities. We can, if we wish, be like the angels in creating communities unafraid of spiritual vitality- communities in which we see the Divine Presence “filling the earth” precisely because we begin by seeing it in each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Yitro: Grow the Fire

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, named for Moshe’s father-in-law,
who helps Moshe with a few management problems. Then even bigger
things happen: Moshe is told to prepare the people for a great
revelation, which happens on Sinai, amid thunder and lighting and
smoke and the sound of the shofar.

Our haftarah this week also has images of smoke and fire: the prophet
Yeshayahu [Isaiah] is visited by seraphim- angelic beings- who take a
coal to his lips as a sign of his commission as a prophet:

” I cried,

‘Woe is me; I am lost!
For I am a man of unclean lips
And I live among a people
Of unclean lips;
Yet my own eyes have beheld
The King Lord of Hosts.’

Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he
had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my
lips and declared,

Now that this has touched your lips,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin be purged away.’ ” (Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 6:5-7)

A connection to the Torah, if not exactly this portion, is obvious:
when God first commissions Moshe, Moshe also objects, saying that his
lips and tongue are slow (cf. Exodus 4.) In both cases, the prophet
seems to be saying: why me? I’m unworthy and impure- surely there is
somebody better than me to speak this message!

So far, so good- the humility evoked in both Moshe and Yeshayahu is
both poignant and appropriate for one who has just had an overwhelming
“spiritual experience.” I’d even go so far as to say that it would be
disturbing if a prophet did not feel unworthy- after all, a great
leader knows the enormity of their task and surely knows their own
weaknesses and sin better than anybody else. The image of the coal
touching the lips of the prophet seems to imply that imperfection is
not a barrier to service. This too is a welcome message for all of us
radically imperfect people who nevertheless hope to bring something
good into the world.

S. R. Hirsch sees the image of the coal rather differently: he does
not see this image as about the prophet’s unworthiness, but about his
great capabilities. Hirsch compares the word for “coal,” in the verse
above, to words which mean “covered,” and thus brings the insight that
the coal or charcoal touched to the prophets lip’s was not burning hot
(as in the image of burning away Yeshayahu’s sins) but was cold on the
outside, with only a small glow of remnant heat in the center of the
coal. In this view, the angel touched the coal to Yeshayahu’s lips not
to purify him instantly, but to show him that there remained a spark
of holy fire which could be brought into blazing heat with the
prophet’s breath in the form of words. This, in turn, is a metaphor
for the prophet’s mission: to seek the embers of faith and devotion
under the exterior of a cynical people, and bring it forth into
something more beautiful and holy.

Not only that, but this turns around our notion of how a person is
“purged” of sin or guilt: not by angels from the outside, but through
bringing forth his own faith, from the inside, and engaging with
people and helping them to grow and change. What makes the prophet
worthy of his mission is not the encounter with the angel, as such,
but the subsequent actions of living out that encounter.

Personally, I love the image of the prophet having a cold coal touched
to his lips, with the angel saying: “feel that little bit of heat on
the inside? It’s your job to make it grow!” This is the image of the
prophet as partner, as a human being with a human task: to start with
a small flame and make it grow. That’s a task that each of us can take
on, and we don’t need a seraph to get started.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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