Archive for Emor

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, 

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Emor: Immediate Needs

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

“None shall defile himself for any person among his people . . “ (Vayikra 21:1)


At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read a set of laws which keep the kohanim, or priests, in a state of ritual purity and away from the ritual impurity of death. Thus, the verse above teaches that a kohen will not touch a dead body, and the verses which follow offer some exceptions for immediate family members. Yet things are not so clear cut, and Rashi brings an close reading from an earlier text which illustrates an important ethical principle:

none shall defile himself for any person among his people. . .

[this means] while the dead one is among his people. It excludes one who has no one to bury him.

Let’s unpack what Rashi means: he’s reading the phrase “among his people” to mean that if there is a family member or somebody else (that is, there are people around)  to bury the body, then the priest should not come into contact with ritual impurity. Yet Rashi says the priest must bury the met mitzvah, literally the “corpse which is commanded,” that is, someone with no family or “people” to arrange the funeral. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, to attend to such a person, even for the priest.

OK, so far we’ve learned that the priest has to step in if nobody else is around, but I don’t think this is just about burials- though it’s also certainly true that it is a profound act to honor the dead by attending funerals and making sure that even those without family have dignified interments. Having said that, let’s take a step back and look at the general idea: even one with strict rules and boundaries and responsibilities, such as the priests of ancient Israel, had to step out of their customary role to attend to the immediate need of someone who had no one else.

Seen this way, the text applies not just at the end of life but throughout our journeys. How often is there someone in emotional, financial, spiritual or practical need right in front of us? Yet it’s all too easy to “not defile ourselves” with people’s challenges  and problems, retreating into our roles and jobs and schedules and errands and emails and myriad distractions, instead of attending to others when the need is urgent. Even the priest had to attend to the dead if themitzvah was unavoidable; should the rest of us do less for the living?

Shabbat Shalom,



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Emor: This Very Day

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Emor 

 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations  . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:21)

Dear Friends: 

So sorry for my absence these past few weeks- glad to be back! 

This week an entire chapter of the Torah portion Emor is devoted to the Jewish calendar: Shabbat, the agricultural holidays, the counting of the omer,  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated after a 7 week-period of counting; it is the festival of the first-fruits of summer, and also understood in later Judaism to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Note the verse above: after listing the various Temple rituals of Shavuot, the Torah tells us  that “on that same day” you will have a festive and sacred occasion. This phrase, “on that same day,” [b’etzem hayom] could mean “this very day,” or “that same day,” but the phrase is superfluous: we already know Shavuot is the fiftieth day of counting, so why tell us “that very day” is the same one as the holiday? 

It turns out one other holiday is celebrated b’etzem hayom

You shall not perform any work on that very day, for it is a day of atonement, for you to gain atonement before the Lord, your God.” (ibid 23:28)

Shavuot and Yom Kippur are linked by a short phrase which seems to indicate some immediacy or urgency to the experience of the day. One line of interpretation (found in Itturei Torah) compares these two holidays to other Jewish holidays like Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, each of which commemorates a past event. The two holidays celebrated on “that very day,” however, can be seen as experiences of the present: Shavuot is the holiday of accepting the Torah- not as a text, per se, but as a framework for living Judaism, while Yom Kippur is about accepting responsibility for the moral content of our lives and repairing relationships as necessary- always an immediate concern! 

Seen this way, the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot is something affirmed not just every year, but every time we choose or “do Jewish.” It’s not about what happened then but what happens now, for Torah is a living inheritance, something we have to encounter and make alive, b’etzem hayom, on this very day. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Emor: Spirituality in Community

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Emor has three main themes: first, laws which apply to the priests and which distinguish between the the priests and other Israelites; second, the holiday calendar; third, laws pertaining to human life and capital punishment.

Hello friends- this week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which contains many of the foundational laws of the Jewish holiday calendar, but also a little hint as to another foundational practice of Jewish prayer. Right after a set of laws laying out which animals are appropriate for offerings, and which are not, the Torah offers a general principle:

“You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God . . . ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:32-33)

The second clause of this verse- “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people”- is associated in the Talmud with the practice of reserving some prayers for times when we have gathered as a people. The key word is “in the midst,” or b’toch, which, through some associations with other verses, is understood to mean an assembly- a minyan of ten.  Rabbi Danny Nevins does a great job of explaining how b’toch is associated with a minyan of ten, but for now, let’s just take it at face value that to be “in the midst” does imply a spiritual value to prayer as a group.

The next obvious question is: why? Why does the Torah – or at least, the rabbinic tradition which interprets the Torah- value group prayer? We won’t exhaust this question today, but two thoughts bear repeating:

1) Judaism’s value of community prayer and liturgies does not mean that there is no room for spontaneous, individual,  private, secluded or contemplative prayer and meditation. On the contrary- these experiences are necessary aspects of a full spiritual life. I think it’s just the other way around: Judaism insists on the value of minyan precisely because without encouragement, we might not join with others nor engage with the liturgy of our ancestors, preferring instead the private contemplations and grateful prayers which can be made anywhere, anytime- without getting up early or driving to the synagogue or fumbling around with a prayerbook.

2) To me, verse 33 explains verse 32, but it’s hard to get in translation. In Hebrew, all the “you’s” are plural: “I the Holy One sanctified you [plural], and brought you [plural]  out of the Land of Egypt. . . ”

So another reason for communal spiritual practice is that we are rooted in a common history and a common destiny. It’s not so much an intellectual understanding of this common history that’s important, but the emotional experience of becoming deeply aware that one’s life is lived in the context of others, past and future. If spirituality can be understood- at least partially- as a broadened or deepened awareness of that which connects us to others and to God, then praying with others is a spiritual experience because it makes us aware that we are Jews, praying prayers which our ancestors prayed, being grateful at times and seasons that they were grateful (or sad, or repentant, etc.)

In other words- God is “made Holy”- that is, we have the opportunity for a deeper spiritual awareness- in communal prayer precisely because praying a liturgy with others helps push ego to the side, putting the self in the larger context of history, community, family and the turning of the generations.  If you’re praying with others, praying our people’s prayers, then by definition, at least at those moments- it’s not all about you, so to speak.

This is humility, which is the path to wisdom and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Emor: From Exile to Renewal

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

The Hudson Valley is blossoming all over, and along with the glories of the
springtime come the Torah readings at the end of the book of Vayikra, or
Leviticus- so named for the tribe of Levi, set apart for religious service in
the ancient Temple. Only one family out of the tribe of Levi were the actual
priests- those were the direct descendants of Aharon, Moshe’s brother and the
first Kohen Gadol, or High Priest.

Yet this week’s haftarah, from the 44th chapter of Yechezkel [Ezekiel], opens up
with a prophesy that not all the descendant of Aharon will serve in the ancient
Temple to be rebuilt after the exile to Babylon:

“But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of
My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me — they shall approach
Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me , , , They alone may enter My
Sanctuary and they alone shall approach My table , , , ” {Yechezkel/Ezekiel

Zadok was priest in the time of Shlomo [Solomon- see 2 Samuel 15 and 1 Kings 1],
and he and his descendants were regarded by the ancient rabbis as exceptionally
loyal, pious and praiseworthy. So when Yechezkel says that the restored
priesthood will be only the line of Zadok, he seems to be saying to the
community in exile that when they return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple,
those who serve in it will be even greater than the priests of previous

This reading is reinforced by the details that follow, which seem to apply rules
formerly only for the High Priest to all the priests, perhaps implying that
after the exile, even ordinary priests will be on a more elevated or exalted
spiritual level.

We’ll leave those details for another time; for today, it’s enough to note that
Yechezkel’s main message: that out of the tragedy of exile can come a renewal
which brings the people to an even higher level than before. Out of suffering or
brokenness can come healing which makes a person, family, or community even more
whole than before- this does not mean that suffering is good, but that a period
of brokenness, alienation, or pain doesn’t have to be permanent, nor a bar to
future growth and service.

There’s a famous saying in the Talmud that in the place where a ba’al tshuva
[one who has repented or returned] stands, even the completely righteous cannot
stand. I take this to mean that human beings have an extraordinary capacity for
spiritual renewal, and this capacity is known and appreciated greatly in one who
has experienced such a return and recentering. That, to me, is the central
message of our haftarah: you may be in exile now, but upon return to your roots,
you can serve with even greater reverence than before. It’s an great message of
hope, of possibility and grace, for all peoples, in the prophet’s age and in

Shabbat Shalom,


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Emor: Two Kinds of Joy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which has lots of
rules for the priests, but also reviews the Jewish calendar, from
Pesach in the spring to Shimini Atzeret in the fall. We learn that the
holidays are also holy days, in which we refrain from “melacha,” or
purposeful labor, as on Shabbat (with some important differences which
we’ll explore another time.) For today, I want to point out that two
of the holidays- Pesach in the spring and Sukkot in the fall- are a
week long, with a holy day at the beginning and a holy day at the end:

“On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not
work at your occupations. 8 Seven days you shall make offerings by
fire to the Lord. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you
shall not work at your occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:7-8)

“On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast
of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a
sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days
you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you
shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the
Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your
occupations.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:34-36)

We see from the verses above- the first regarding Pesach and the
second set referring to Sukkot- that there is a period between the
first and last holy days of the festival. This is called “Chol
HaMoed,” or literally, the “non-holy days of the season.” However, as
anybody who has eaten matzah or slept in a Sukkah for a week can
attest, the intermediate days of these two celebrations are not
exactly “regular” weekdays, but they’re not “Yom Tov,” or full
festival days, either.

There is a tractate of the Talmud, called Moed Katan, largely devoted
to the question of distinguishing these intermediate days from either
regular work-week days or “Sabbath” days of refraining from work. In
general, the idea is to make the holidays- all week- as joyful as one
can by not doing during the festival what one could do before or
after, if there was no significant loss involved. This includes happy
occasions like weddings, which the Mishnah specifically mentions as
something we do not do during Chol HaMoed, because of the great joy
involved. (Cf. Mishna Moed Katan 1:7)

Now, granted, there usually isn’t a great demand for weddings or bar
mitzvah celebrations during Passover, but since Sukkot is called “the
Season of Our Joy,” you’d figure that it would be a great time for a
wedding, right? A Sukkot wedding might have interesting catering
possibilities, but the ancient rabbis prohibited weddings during Chol
HaMoed because they wanted us to focus on the joy of the festival- or
the joy of the family occasion- exclusively. Someone who celebrated a
wedding during Sukkot or Passover would be emotionally oriented
towards the life-cycle event, and would not really give due honor to
the festival.

This is why in many traditional synagogues you will rarely, if ever,
see a bar or bat mitzvah during the major festivals (Pesach, Shavuot,
and Sukkot). The rabbis taught us not to “mix joy with joy,” that is,
to let the holiday be the holiday and the simcha [happy occasion] be
the simcha. I do realize that some synagogues do schedule bar or bat
mitzvah celebrations during holidays, but I think it takes away from
each event to mix them together, so I try to discourage it.

Besides the practical concerns, one might note that the major
festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) each have a historical theme
(leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, and sojourning in the wilderness,
respectively) as well as an agricultural theme: they are the spring,
“first fruits of summer,” and fall harvest festivals. Seen this way,
we are reminded that celebrating the major holidays is about
connecting our personal lives as individuals with the life of our
people and the seasons of our homeland. A wedding or bar mitzvah, on
the other hand, is much more personal- it’s a time for reflecting on
the joys and history of one particular family and the special
individuals who comprise it.

Thus, “not mixing joy with joy” can be seen as part of the balancing
between communal and personal spirituality which is part of a mature
Judaism. Sometimes we need to connect with the history of our people,
and sometimes we want to celebrate the ups and downs of our personal
lives in a Jewish way, and these complement each other. For a week in
the spring, and a week in the fall, we have special mitzvot with which
we live out our sacred history, a history so rich, with traditions so
compelling, that they invite our full attention.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Emor: Leaving the Corners, Building Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we read parshat Emor, in which we find discussion
of the priestly service, the holy days, and what Moshe did with a
difficult legal case in the camp. Stuck right in the middle of the
discussion of the holy days is the mitzvah of peah, or “corners,” in
which we are told to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, so
that they could come and collect sustenance without having to beg for
charity. Rashi, quoting earlier sages, asks: so, nu, why do we have
this mitzvah of caring for the poor in between the commandments for
observing Pesach and Shavuot [the holy day of “first fruits”] ? It
would make sense to first describe the spring holiday and its ritual
observances, and then the summer holiday with its special rituals, and
then the fall holidays, and put this non-timebound mitzvah somewhere
else in the text. (Cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 23:4-22)

From a purely practical standpoint, it makes a certain amount of sense
to put the mitzvah of peah before Shavuot, which is the holiday of the
early summer harvest: before beginning the harvest, one should make
sure not to reap the entire field, so that some can be left for the
poor. However, Rashi brings a more theological interpretation: the
mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields for the poor is listed
along with the holy days to teach that one who leaves the “corners”
and “gleanings” of the fields is considered as if he or she had built
the Temple and made offerings within it.

Rashi’s startling midrash [interpretation] creates an internal
coherence to the text which allows it to live and be relevant in
post-Temple Judaism: since many rituals are no longer possible without
a central Temple and priesthood, we might think that living in
covenantal relationship to the Holy One is also no longer possible.
Rashi’s commentary reframes the problem by pointing out that the ways
in which we can, in fact, live covenantally are “considered” (by the
Holy One, presumably) just as valid and beautiful as were the
practices of our Biblical ancestors.

So far, so good, but I also see in Rashi’s creative equation (leaving
the corners for the poor = building the Temple and making offerings
within it) more than just a theory of evolving Jewish practice. Why is
leaving some of the harvest for the poor like building the Temple and
making offerings within it? Because for our ancestors, the Temple was
the center of the entire nation by virtue of being the place where the
people felt the Divine Presence, and for us, concrete acts of humble
generosity and loving-kindness are what “builds” a sacred community
and helps us experience the Divine in the midst of that community.

I say “humble” generosity because the mitzvah of leaving the corners
of the field was done precisely so those who needed help didn’t have
to beg; those who had, gave what they could, in such a way that human
dignity was promoted as a communal value. For our communities, the
simple acts of attending to each other’s spiritual, emotional and
physical needs is what “builds the Temple,” as it were, laying the
foundation for all who participate to feel love and thus be drawn
closer to God and each other. When that happens, our holidays are made
even more joyous, and each day becomes holy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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