Archive for Behar/Bechukotai

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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Behar-Bechukotai: Strangers Upon the Land

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”    (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:23)

What a gorgeous morning in the Hudson Valley!

It’s the kind of day which evokes a sense of glorious gratitude for the beauty of the earth and all its flora and fauna (maybe ticks not so much). Lucky for us, this feeling, of being privileged to live upon the land, is addressed in this first of this week’s double Torah portions. The portion Behar first teaches the laws of the Sabbatical [shmitta] and Jubilee [yovel] years; the former is a seven year cycle of debt forgiveness and letting the land rest, and the latter is a 50 year cycle of returning land to its ancestral owners and letting servants go free.

The verse above is a theological foundation for these practices: we are tenants rather than owners of the earth. The phrase translated as “strangers resident with Me” is perhaps even more subtle than that: ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi literally means “you are resident aliens and temporary residents with Me.” A ger in Biblical Hebrew is a non-citizen, a non-Israelite, living among the citizens of the land (the contemporary meaning is a convert to Judaism, more on that another time), whereas a toshav can be understood as a temporary settler, somebody passing through, not living somewhere permanently.

This is quite striking: even in the land of Israel the people are to understand themselves as passers-through, not owners but graced with the privilege of temporary residence on the earth. On the one hand, this is all about feeling intense gratitude for the earth and its glory, and on the other, it’s about the humility of knowing that we depend on the land and its blessings, and feel mastery only at our own peril. This has profound implications for environmental ethics but also for personal spirituality, because in a sense we don’t really own anything, just borrow it for a bit. The sense of attachment, of mastery or command over the material world is an illusion: we are ultimately attached to nothing except the Source of our being, as we are ultimately “residents with Me.”

Read this way, the verse teaches us to think of ourselves as rooted in relationships: with God, with the earth, with each other, with ourselves- rather than rooted in the experience of possession of material things. Relationships are truly within our power to create and make part of ourselves; material objects, even the land beneath our feet, is “ours” only the sense of being entrusted to us for a particular time and use before going on to somebody or something else. To put it another way: go to a cemetery, and read the headstones. The inscriptions often name relationships, like father, mother, brother, sister, son, friend, and so on. Sometimes the inscriptions name a role somebody played in society: doctor, soldier, rabbi, teacher, musician, whatever people do to serve and provide.

I’ve never seen a gravestone mention anything about property, cars or clothes, because in the face of death, people know that these things are impermanent and unimportant. Relationships are real and ongoing, in life and after death. Thus we do well to remember that we are all but strangers and passers-through upon the land, ultimately resident with the Source of our blessings, owning nothing but our love and care, given and received from the earth, the heavens and each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Behar/Bechukotai: Rewards Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai, which means we read the haftarah that goes
with Bechukotai, from the prophet Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah. Yirmiyahu
was not the most chipper chap running around ancient Israel; much of
his prophecy concerns the doom awaiting sinners, which thematically
corresponds to the section in Bechukotai called the “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” in which all sort of bad things are enumerated as the fate
of those who spurn the Divine Covenant.

These are problematic texts, to be sure; most of us over the age of
about 8 see that reward and punishment are not always so clear- at
least, not in this world. Yet to me, the the main theme of the
haftarah is not punishment, but faith. A beautiful and famous passage
describes a faithful life as ever-renewing:

“Cursed is he who trusts in man,
Who makes mere flesh his strength,
And turns his thoughts from the Lord.
He shall be like a bush in the desert,
Which does not sense the coming of good:
It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness,
In a barren land without inhabitant.
Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. ” (Yirmiyahu 17:5-8)

Now, on the one hand, this is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual
life: such a person is like tree planted by water, who can withstand
life’s vicissitudes and hard seasons. However, one might question the
first part of the metaphor- the person who trusts “in man, who makes
mere flesh his strength”- well, what’s so bad about trusting people?
Isn’t it good to be part of a web of relationships, which necessarily
involves a positive view of oneself and other people?

I think the first part of the passage above is clarified by comparing
it to another passage a few verses later:

“Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay,
So is one who amasses wealth by unjust means;
In the middle of his life it will leave him,
And in the end he will be proved a fool”

The prophet is saying something obvious (especially these days): if
you orient your life such that your happiness and security comes from
material gain to the exclusion of moral and spiritual connection,
you’re likely to end up unhappy, because external things- objects,
money, status- can be lost or taken. (Again, an obvious point these
days.)

Returning to the first passage, recall that the one who “trust in man”
is one who “makes mere flesh his strength”- that is, such a person
relies on temporary, external things, like physical strength, status
and materiality, and this is why he is like the tree in the desert-
there’s nothing to fall back on when the stock market crashes or the
body declines or whatever external circumstances change. The person
who “trusts in the Lord alone” is not a hermit, but one who knows that
one’s spiritual accomplishments- giving, loving, doing good, helping
others, acting in compassion- can only be practiced in community and
can never be taken away. Such a person lives more deeply because of
the spiritual dimension of their life- that depth is its own reward,
and is cultivated from within rather than given from above.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Behar/Bechukotai: Roots and Fruit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

Dear Friends: The following thought grew out of a eulogy I gave
yesterday for a long-time member of Temple Beth-El, whose life was
both interesting and inspiring. I have adapted the interpretation of
the verses below for our weekly study together, but those folks in
Poughkeepsie who think they’re hearing something familar are indeed
paying attention.

With that said, let’s turn not to our Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai,
but the haftarah, or prophetic reading, which comes from the book of
Jeremiah, who was a prophet who lived sometime around the late 7th or
early 6th century BCE. In this part of the book of Jeremiah, the
prophet uses a variety of metaphors, symbols and images to contrast a
person who is faithful to God to one who has strayed from the religion
of Israel. Over and over again, the prophet tells of the blessings of
the loyal Israelite and the futility of the idol worshipper, whose
choice is not only mistaken theologically, but leads to spiritual
destitution.

One of the homiletic images Jeremiah employs is that of a tree planted
by streams of water, which is contrasted in earlier verses with a
dried-up bush in the desert:

Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Verse 7 may be familiar to those who recite the birkat hamazon, or
blessing after the meal, in which it is quoted. In its own context,
the meaning of the image is clear: the one who trusts, or has faith
in, the God of Israel will be sustained in hard times and better able
to “blossom” in good times than one who worships false gods, who
cannot help a person through times of suffering or achieve any sort of
real spiritual growth.

One reason I find this image powerful and evocative is because it
portrays a rich human life as one that both “takes in” and “brings
forth”- the image of roots is one of drawing from inner resources and
the image of yielding fruit, to me, suggests the acts of caring and
love which we are able to offer in the world. A healthy tree can’t
“yield fruit” if it doesn’t have roots- that is, a person cannot
consistently offer of him or herself without some spiritual resources
to draw upon when times get tough or inner strength gets depleted.

For the prophet, the inner resource was faith in God, but I don’t
think this meant only an intellectual faith- I think it also meant
living one’s life in faithful ways, even when – returning to our image
and updating it with a modern idiom- the “heat was on.” To put it
another way, the prophet’s image of the tree compels each of us to
ask: upon what source of spiritual strength or moral courage do we
draw upon when we feel “dried up” (o, in a modern idiom that retains
the same resonance, “burned out”) ?

Jeremiah suggests that each of us needs “roots”- that is, an inner
life of connection to the sacred and faith in spiritual principles- in
order to “yield fruit”- that is, live a life of deeds which offer
sustenance to others and bring sweetness to the world. Roots without
fruit are meaningless, and a tree which blooms and blossoms without
roots isn’t going to last very long- this is the reason that Judaism
teaches that learning is a life-long practice, with growth achieved
over the arc of a lifetime, with wisdom and deeds balancing and
reinforcing each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Behar/Bechukotai 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1- 27:34)

OVERVIEW

The Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and rules for a moral social structure. The Sabbath of the Land, called shmitta, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a “Jubilee” year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders. Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.

IN FOCUS

“If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him- sojourner or resident- and he will live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase-you shall revere your God, and your brother shall live with you. Do not give your silver for interest nor your food for increase.” (Leviticus 25:35-37)

PSHAT

In addition to the positive commandment of supporting those who fall into poverty or hard times, there is a prohibition on loaning money or capital on with interest. The basic intent of the Torah seems to be directed against “loan-sharks,” people who would take advantage of another’s economic troubles and profit from them. Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 15:3 both prohibit creditors from harassing or pressing poor debtors for payment, so it would make sense that this verse too is primarily a prohibition against profiting from someone else’s poverty.

DRASH

Last year, we discussed at length the first part of this passage, the positive commandment to support those who find themselves in trouble. Focussing on verse 36, we find that the rabbis understood this verse to be part of a general prohibition against charging simple interest as the condition for making a loan of either money or capital. There is an immense amount of halachic literature dealing with this subject- after all, financial regulations tend to be complex in any society- and over the course of history, certain legal loopholes evolved in response to the need for credit in an advanced economy.

Aside from the financial technicalities of defining permitted transactions, the words for “interest and increase” have themselves been the subject of some debate. We have rendered the Hebrew word neshech as “interest” and tarbit as “increase.” Rashi understood these two words to be synonymous, and “doubled up” so that a violator would be liable for two separate prohibitions. (!) On the other hand, the Torah itself uses one for money transactions and one for material capital, so maybe that’s the intended distinction.

In terms of basic definitions, tarbit comes from the word to increase or make larger, so it’s easy to understand that the lender’s wealth or share will “grow” with the additional payments he demands. Neshech, on the other hand, is a more obscure word; most commentators relate it to the word neshichah, “biting,” perhaps with the idea that interest takes a “bite” out of the borrower’s finances.

A novel way to understand the image of “biting” comes from the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Do not give your silver for interest. . . . this is the continuation of the previous verse, which tells us that “your brother shall live with you,” a reference to the need to give tzedakah. The word for interest used here is neshech, which is related to the word neshichah, which means “biting.” When you give tzedakah to a poor person, do not use the opportunity to “bite” him by reprimanding him and telling him to mend his ways. Instead, give the tzedakah cheerfully.

R. Moshe’s words as applicable today as they were in his day: all too often, the poor are regarded as morally unworthy, or in need of correction before assistance. Of course there is a need for training programs and job assistance and the like, but Judaism calls for preserving the dignity of the poor as much as possible. People who need assistance are in an unequal power relationship with the assister. Just as the Torah warns us not to take financial advantage of that inequality, neither are we to take moral advantage, putting ourselves in the position of judging someone else’s worthiness as a person. There’s a idiom which says “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but the Torah turns it around, saying: “don’t bite the one that you’re feeding.”

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