Archive for 3. Leviticus

Bechukotai: Healing The Deepest Hurts

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts (Jeremiah 17:1)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is the final portion of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. It’s also a very difficult text, having two themes which are hard for many contemporary Jews to interpret, the first being the material rewards or punishments due to Torah observance or lack thereof, and the second being the monetary valuation of people according to various ranked criteria, for the purpose of the payment of vows.

The haftarah, or prophetic text, is from the book of Jeremiah, and seems at first glance to reinforce the theme of faithfulness to God being rewarded and idolatry punished. The verse quoted above begins a long passage describing Divine anger to be visited upon the people of Judah who have worshipped idols and false gods; they will be overthrown and exiled from the land of their inheritance.

So far . . not so good. The metaphor of guilt inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved on a tablet with the cutting edge of a gemstone tool, seems to indicate that the offense of the people of Judah was as permanent as etching in stone. It’s a hard, cold, stark image, implying that some misdeeds permanently disfigure a human heart, leaving an irreparable spiritual flaw. Yet after several more verses in which the faithful person is praised and the idolator condemned and shamed, the haftarah concludes in a different voice, not the third person description of the sinner but a first person, and personal, prayer:

Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; for You are my glory.  (Jeremiah 17:14)

It’s important to remember that a Torah or haftarah reading was chosen by the ancient rabbis to begin and end on certain verses. It’s not an accident that a prophetic text with such an apparently harsh view of sin- engraved upon the heart, like letters in stone- ends with a prayer for healing. This is not an esoteric message: yes, some of our mistakes and misdeeds cut deeply into our own hearts and into the hearts of those we hurt, but we also believe in a God of healing, Whose power is made manifest in the transformation of the human spirit.

Bad things happen when people choose badly, but I believe the point of the haftarah is that we are not condemned to carry the burden of guilt forever. Sin may be as deep in our hearts as engraving in stone, but unlike stone, we can turn back to the One who heals. We believe in a God who heals with love and forgiveness those who truly seek to return, renew, and rebuild themselves, their families and their communities. Of course, a theology of Divine forgiveness has a strong moral corollary: if God can heal the pain engraved in our hearts, shall we not more freely forgive others who feel equally ashamed?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said it well: if you believe you can damage, believe you can fix!

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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Acharei Mot: The Torah of Everyday Kindness

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot

And you shall not profane the Name of your God . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 18:21)

Good afternoon!

Glad to be back after a short absence.

Acharei Mot is a difficult portion, with many laws in tension with contemporary sensibilities (though contemporary sensibilities are not necessarily a benchmark of moral aspirations) and other laws which seem rather anachronistic. To wit, the first part of the verse above refers to consecrating or sacrificing children to an ancient pagan deity- hardly a common concern in Poughkeepsie, I hope. On the other hand, the second part of the verse, quoted above, refers to a much more general ethical concept, “desecrating [or: profaning] God’s name,” usually referred to by the Hebrew phrase chillul Hashem. Technically, this commandment- not to do anything which dishonors God, Torah or Israel – derives from a verse a bit later in the Torah (Leviticus 22:32)- but the basic idea appears in several places.

Without going into all the details, for today it’s enough to note that chillul Hashem– profaning God’s name- occurs when people do things which would cause others to question or denigrate the Torah or God of Israel. An example discussed in the Talmud is that of a great Torah scholar not paying the butcher on time. For an ordinary person, a late bill might harm our reputation but doesn’t cause disrepute for Judaism or the Jewish people, but a great Torah scholar, though, is judged on a higher level. How he (or she) pays the grocer is indeed a demonstration that Torah learning which is not transformative in kindness and integrity may cause others to think badly of Judaism itself.

What brings this to mind is the first yahrzeit of my mentor and friend R. Allan Schranz, who died a year ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Schranz was a brilliant orator and wonderful teacher, who served very prominent pulpits in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but what l also remember about my visits with him were the bagel shop guys. Let me explain: before he got sick, I’d visit him several times a year at his synagogue in Midtown Manhattan, and he’d often take me to a bagel shop around the corner. Every time we went there, he was greeted warmly with “hi Rabbi,” from every person who worked there, who smiled when he entered and seemed happy to see him. It didn’t take many visits to figure out why: Rabbi Schranz took care to treat everybody he met with kindness, respect and dignity, from the bagel shop guys to the security guard at his synagogue to people he’d recognize on the street in his neighborhood.

Wearing his trademark fuzzy black velvet kippot – which he tried many times to convince me to adopt, never succeeding- it would have been a chillul Hashem if anybody perceived the local rabbi, paragon of religious Judaism, as disrespectful or arrogant. The opposite was true: he performed a kiddush Hashem, “making God’s name holy,” in his everyday interactions: people saw that a religious Jew was thoughtful, gracious and ennobling of others, which in turn demonstrates that a foundation of Torah is kavod habriyot, human dignity. To show that our everyday actions are suffused with the humane values of Judaism is a mitzvah not just for scholars, but for anyone who wants to make the world more holy, one kind interaction at a time.

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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Tazria: Seeing Ourselves

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/ Shabbat HaHodesh

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 13:2)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion is difficult, concerned mostly with scaly skin eruptions and the ritual impurities of garments. However, as I and many others have written about (here and here, for example), it’s important to note that the Jewish tradition has always seen these skin afflictions as the outward manifestation of an inner condition, perhaps the sin of gossip, in one view, or more generally a kind of spiritual unreadiness to be in community after encountering the boundaries of life and death.

This metaphorical reading of the scabs and skin eruptions is important to keep in mind when we look at the verse above, which reminds us that one cannot “diagnose” these problems in oneself or another. The person with the eruption must be brought to the priest. Again, see links above for my comments in the past on this, but for today let’s just say that the Torah seems to be teaching us how hard it is to truly see ourselves, and how sometimes the job of spiritual leadership is to help us see ourselves more honestly- after all, we’re all blemished in some way or another! The Talmud, in Mishnah Negaim, explicitly uses the language of “seeing” to teach that we cannot “see” certain problems in ourselves, but must go to another to be truly “seen.”  Note as well that in Biblical times, this role was reserved for the priest, but today might be a spiritual leader, wise elder, trusted friend or specialized counselor- the priestly role can be assumed by anyone with humility, love and compassion.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra pointed out that in the verse above, the one who is to be brought to the priest is adam, a human, rather than an Israelite, citizen, or even just “man.” He reads this to teach that anybody, Israelite or not, must be brought to the priest if they have a scaly skin blemish. One would instantly ask why a non-Israelite would be brought to the priest for purification, since they have no obligation to be ritually pure for bringing sacrifices, so Ibn Ezra says all humans are brought to the priest lest an Israelite contracts impurity through them.

On the other hand, contra Ibn Ezra, perhaps the verse says adam, human, because it’s reminding us that it’s a universal truth that people need help “seeing” themselves; by definition, we don’t know when we’re self deceived. (See, for example, psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the fundamental attribution error). For all of us who are adam, humankind, it’s much easier to see the blemishes of others and hard to see our own; thus the Torah teaches that we must not rush to judge others but help them find those they can trust and do the same ourselves. The Mishnah quoted above wisely suggests that we can’t even see the blemishes in our own families, presumably because we’re too close and can’t be even slightly objective.

The good news, of course, is that our Torah portion isn’t about proclaiming others as blemished or plagued, but finding healing from that which afflicts us all. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody goes through cycles when we feel more or less distant from our better selves. The Torah says: see each other like priests, with a heart of love and service, to bring each other back into relationship with God and community. This is what it means to be adam, a human being.

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

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Shemini: Blessing the People

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Shabbat Parah

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:23)

Good morning! Sorry my commentaries have been sporadic lately; I thank you for reading when I’m able to write!

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, has three main themes: the conclusion of the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests, the tragic death of Aharon’s sons and subsequent rules for the priesthood, and the dietary laws at the end. While the first chapter of the portion feels rather technical with all sorts of. . .um, meaty details about the ancient offerings, there’s actually a story being told.

To wit: at the end of the previous week’s portion, in Vayikra chapter 8, Moshe is commanded to do some special rituals for Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, to dedicate them as priests, after which they are secluded in the Tent of Meeting for a week. After the end of that week, we begin this week’s portion- on the eighth day, from which our portion gets its name- with Moshe bringing out Aharon and his sons from the Tent, promising them that the Divine Presence will appear to them today (verse 9:6), after they do more animal offerings of the various types. They do that, and when Aharon is finished, he comes down from the Altar and blesses the people (9:22), then he and his brother go into the Tent of Meeting again, and they come out together and bless the people again. (9:23).

Then, and only then, does Moshe’s promise come true: the Divine Presence appears as a fire, consuming the offering on the altar. This foreshadows the next chapter, in which the heavenly fire takes the lives of Aharon’s apparently errant sons Nadav and Avihu.

That’s a powerful literary moment, but between Moshe’s promise of the Divine Presence and the appearance of the fire from heaven is a great deal of technical detail about peace offerings and atonement offerings and burnt offerings and all the rest, so if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a bit when reading verse after verse of ritual particulars.

Yet the story behind the details embodies powerful Jewish teachings. Note well that Moshe promises Aharon that the Divine Presence will appear, but it does so only after Aharon “comes down” off the Altar and blesses the people- not once, but twice. It’s not the ritual itself that opens Aharon to evoke and perceive the Divine Presence, it’s coming out of the private and holy space to bless the people, which I take as a metaphor for religious leadership that is not as much concerned with personal mystical experience as it is concerned with service to others. Aharon doesn’t just commune with the Presence in the set-off space of the Altar, but “comes down” from his place of privilege to bless the people, share his experience with them and raise them up.

This point is reinforced by the image in verse 23 of Moshe and Aharon going into the Tent of Meeting- the place where the Holy was experienced- and then coming out again, to bless the people together, prophet and priest as equals in servant leadership (to use a current phrase but an ancient concept.) It’s not when they are in the Tent of Meeting, but have left it to be in community that Moshe’s promise of Divine Presence is fulfilled! To put it another way, Aharon is fit to be a priest when he understands that his job is to be a blessing for all the people, not just to be the master of ceremonies with rituals and offerings.

Personal religious experience is a wonderful thing, and I certainly hope we all have more of it. To me, however, a genuine spiritual experience changes us to the extent that we become vessels of blessing to the people around us; it’s nice to be holy when set apart, but the real challenge is to be holy in community. Even – maybe especially- the High Priest had to learn to come off his high place to be a blessing for others; surely that’s our challenge too.

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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Behar-Bechukotai: What Do We Do With Rebuke?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

I am proud that this week’s commentary was first published as the Mekor Chaim weekly email by the Jewish Federations of North America. 

The Torah portion Bechukotai, often doubled up with the preceding portion, is not easy reading. A big portion of the text is called tochecha, or rebuke, which here means detailed descriptions of blessings and curses from Heaven that will ensue if the Torah is either followed or disregarded. For many contemporary Jews, linking sin with suffering is both an intellectual and moral impossibility: intellectually, we know that many good people suffer without cause, and morally, we cannot blame God for the choices of human beings which cause pain, grief and despair.

So perhaps it makes more sense to read these the tochecha as descriptive of the people’s spiritual or emotional experience rather than as a promise of Divine retribution. A people that makes itself worthy by acts of justice and compassion will feel itself blessed, but a society built on idolatry (worship of vain things), greed and oppression will tear itself apart and feel itself to be in a hostile cosmos. While at first glance the blessings and curses seem to be economic in nature- blessing comes from the land and the curses are when the land no longer produces- the text also makes clear that ultimate blessing is a sense of the Divine in our midst:

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:12)

Conversely, the rabbis imagine that the ultimate punishment is the loss of a spiritual center:

And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins,  and I will break your proud glory. . . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:18-19)

In this case, they interpret “proud glory” (or “pride of your power”) as referring to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was “broken” not once but twice in Jewish history. While it’s hard to imagine God breaking the Temple to make a moral point, the ancient sages believed that losing the Temple, the symbol of Jewish spirituality and vitality, was a greater calamity than bad harvests or military defeat. Without reading these words literally- as a promise of Heavenly retribution- we can read them with great empathy, as expressing the experience of those who lost the sense of the Divine Presence when Jerusalem was overthrown.

So what do we do with these difficult texts? First we should to allow ourselves to be moved by the intense spiritual longing in the Torah and its commentaries: the feeling that the poetry conveys is that the ultimate blessing is nothing material but the Divine Presence itself, and when that is lost, hardly anything else matters. Second, we should allow the tochecha to challenge any moral complacency we have about ourselves or our community: are we really as individuals or a polity doing all we can to be loyal to the Torah’s values of justice and mercy, or are we letting these things slip from us without a care? Are we going to a society which makes and shares the blessing, or do we deserve the rebuke these verses offer?

These are hard questions, but nothing important was ever easy.

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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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim: Authentic Atonement

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:6)

Good morning!

This week we have a double portion, the first of which is rules for Yom Kippur and then lots of laws of sexual conduct, and the second of which is beautiful ethical principles and then lots more laws of sexual conduct.

Going back to the beginning of the first portion, Achrei Mot, the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, is instructed to purify himself before doing the complex rituals of offering atonement sacrifices on behalf of the people. Not only that, but as in the verse above, before he can offer a sacrifice of atonement on behalf of the entire Israelite community, he has to do so for himself, and his household. Presumably, not only is the Kohen Gadol’s personal offering an example of repentance and humility for the rest of the Jewish people, but it’s also a matter of kavannah, or personal focus/ intention/ mindfulness. After all, how can he be completely spiritually present in offering atonement for the nation if he has not fully atoned for his personal mistakes and misdeeds?

The issue of leadership and collective atonement is actually in the news this week, so let’s look at current example. Perhaps just in time for Achrei Mot- Kedoshim, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he expressed a personal “deep repentance in my heart”along with prayer for the dead of WWII, followed by a collective regret:

on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II. (full text of speech here.)

Now, to be fair,  he did say later in the speech that his country’s actions “caused suffering” in Asia, and his people “felt remorse,” but still, one is struck by the lack of apology or explicit acknowledgement of Japan’s aggression and imperialism. His personal “deep repentance” is appropriate, but while a Prime Minister is not a priest, I and many other commentators (go forth and Google) felt that he missed an opportunity to be a true leader, to go against his parliamentary pressures and express a real apology on behalf of the nation he represents. That would have taken personal and political courage, but what else is leadership?

Yet debates about what a politician should or shouldn’t have said are endless, but ultimately the real question is: what about the example of the Kohen Gadol applies to us, who do not lead nations or occupy high office? First, let’s note the order in which the Torah presents the High Priest’s atonement offerings: first for himself, then for his family, then for his people. We cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do- if the people’s job was to think hard and humble themselves on Yom Kippur, then the job of the Kohen Gadol was to go first, to show the way in taking his own moral inventory.

Besides the imperative to do our own work before rebuking others, let’s note that according to the commentators, the atonement of the High Priest also involved confession, which in Judaism is always a verbal enumeration of specific ways we fall short. Just as in our Yom Kippur liturgy, confession is explicit- we recite long lists in synagogue but it’s meant to be personal, something we apply to our own unique actions. This is where the contrast with Mr. Abe’s political speech (and so many other wishy-washy vague “apologies”) becomes apparent- there is little confession, little grappling with hard, specific truths, without which atonement and confession become a matter of “mistakes were made,” which leaves both parties incompletely reconciled.

The language of sin, atonement, and confession is difficult- it seems so archaic and “judgmental.” Yet here’s the beautiful thing: it’s not meant to weigh us down, but to unshackle burdens of guilt and fear, to leave us free, to effect reconciliation and promote a forgiving love. The only path forward to that forgiving love is speaking hard truths, but nothing could be more worth it.

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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Emor: Offering the Best

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor 
 
And when a man offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord for an explicit vow or as a freewill offering, it must, to be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 22:21)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
I apologize for the late and sometimes sporadic posting of new commentaries but we’re going through a busy period and I hope  over the summer I’ll be able to post more consistently. 
 
Now, on to this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The portion contains laws regulating the lives of the priests, who must follow strict rules around eating, appearance and family life, as well as laws stating that the animals used in the offerings must be without blemish or disfigurement. The Sefer Ha-Chinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments, quickly dispenses with the idea that somehow it matters to God whether the animal has a blemish or not. Rather, we must understand that these commandments are solely about training the human mind and heart in the best way- it’s not really for God that we make (well, made) the offerings at all, but for the sake of orienting our consciousness towards the Sacred and true. 
 
More specifically, according to this interpretation, the reason we offer an animal without blemish is that we will reflect more on the general meaning of the offerings- an awareness of God and our place in Creation- if we offer something that is perfect according to its own kind. The Sefer Ha-Chinnuch says that we are “shaped by the force of our actions,” and so if we offer something valuable and beautiful, it will have a greater affect on our consciousness than if we offer something we didn’t really admire or want anyway. 
 
That’s all very nice, but how does this apply to us? We no longer relate to the Holy through the practice of agricultural offerings, and I’m glad for that. We do however offer something even more precious, which is our time, attention, focus, effort, and love. We offer our deeds of compassion and generosity, so the question becomes, will they be given with a full heart, or begrudgingly? We shape ourselves by what we do, so will we pray and meditate and learn with the best of ourselves, or as an afterthought? Of course, even our best efforts, most heartfelt prayers, most dedicated learning or most gentle acts of compassion are never truly “without blemish,” but that’s not a problem. When we give our best, we grow fastest, and learn deeper, and love truer, in relationship with the Holy One as with each other. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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