Archive for Vayikra

Vayikra: Witnessing and Justice

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

 
If a person sins, as he has heard the declaration of a curse, and he is a witness by seeing or knowing, yet he does not testify, he shall bear his transgression . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5.1)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
We’re starting a new book of the Torah this week, the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, so called as it has many, many rules for the priestly class (e.g., the Levites) and their offerings and sacrifices. Our opening portion also has some laws pertaining to various civil infractions; the opening verses of chapter 5 describe several scenarios of accidental, negligent or inadvertent transgression, such that a special sin-offering was required after the fact. 
 
The first verse of chapter 5, above, is hard to translate and there is much commentary on the matter, but the basic idea is that if somebody heard a public declaration- the “curse,” as above- that anybody who knew anything about such-and-such matter was to come forth and testify, if in that case one has relevant information and didn’t testify, it’s a sin and requires atonement in the priestly service. Most commentaries agree that this is about testimony by a third person who is neither plaintiff nor defendant, so it’s about coming forward to help with somebody else’s dispute rather than confessing one’s own crime or sin. 
 
Now, we might think that this is hardly a radical concept. In American law, there are various scenarios in which testimony can be compelled, perhaps even with the threat of contempt of court. What’s interesting to me, however, is that the duty to testify is not only a civic matter but a religious one. We have an affirmative obligation to be constructively involved in resolving conflicts and quarrels, despite the fact that such involvement may bring about discomfort, rebuke, and strained relationships. I remind readers that Judaism is not primarily concerned with rights- such as the right to be left alone or the right to stay silent- but obligations, in this case, the obligation to say what we know so that justice is done. 
 
To put it another way, when we speak the truth, despite the cost and thus help conflicts be resolved fairly, we are partners of the Holy One in bringing about peace and righteousness. Peace and justice are not just good ideas; they are the core of a Jewish spiritual consciousness. Peace and justice are inseparable; we may think we are “making peace” but withdrawing from the hard work of addressing conflicts, but over the long run, peace rests on justice, which requires the participation of every brave and willing soul. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Vayikra: Getting our Attention

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

“The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting . . . “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 1:1)

Good morning!

The very first words of the book of Vayikra (and the first Torah portion of the same name) are unusual: God usually “speaks” to Moshe (vayidaber) but here God first “calls” to him, and then speaks to him. (Another unusual feature of the first verse is the small aleph at the end of the first word- see here for more on both themes.)

Now, it’s not the first time that God “calls” to Moshe; commentators note that the same word appears in connection with the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and when Moshe goes back up Mt. Sinai after initial revelation (Ex. 24:16). You can find other interesting comparisons of who gets “called” (and why) here, but for today let’s note that both verbs- calling and speaking- connote communication, so perhaps the first is a matter of getting Moshe’s attention and the second is relaying specific content.

This is, of course, very common: we often call out to friends or family or complete strangers, to let them know we want their attention, and then begin to tell them something in its particulars: “hey you! move your car!” or even what I like to call the “Jewish intercom” of shouting across the halls to somebody in another office. Yet Moshe wasn’t navigating the streets or working in an office; he was already near the Tent of Meeting, which was filled with the Divine Presence. (See the end of the book of Exodus.)

In other words, humans are so distractible that even the greatest prophet, standing near the place where the Divine Presence was experienced by the camp of Israel, needed to be brought to attention before he could attune to the sacred (to paraphrase Michael Fishbane.) So if even Moshe- who knew the Holy One face to face (as it were)- had to be called, or perhaps focused, before he could hear or discern the voice from the Tent of Meeting, it reminds me how much more I have to focus myself before Torah study, prayer, mitzvot, acts of lovingkindness and the myriad other ways we experience that Presence in our day. To wit: while writing the two paragraphs above, I answered several other emails and instant messages which came in and then I came back to the task of writing a Torah commentary on the need to have more awareness of the sacred!

Moshe is us: we are all called to pay attention to the spiritual experience we might have in the very next moment. For us, there is no one Tent of Meeting at the center of the camp, so it’s up to each of us to find those places, people, moments, practices and texts which grab our attention, turn us away from the trivial and towards the things which most deeply ground us in a life that matters. As earthly beings, we will always feel pulled towards the next distraction (and there are millions more than in Moshe’s time) but as spiritual seekers we also have the possibility of hearing a quiet call, asking us to experience the Sacred and act accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayikra: Knowing to Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: VayikraShabbat HaHodesh

“When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding his fellow, or by finding something lost and lying about it; if he swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that one may do and sin thereby —  when one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got [through deceit] . . . . .” (Vayikra./ Leviticus 5:21-23)


Greetings on this beautiful afternoon! 

Sorry about last week, we’ve been having education director candidates visiting TBE all month and it’s been a bit crazy around here. 

But we’re back with everybody’s favorite book of laws and rules in the Torah-Vayikra– which of course is largely concerned with priestly offerings and rituals. These can be quite confusing in their details, especially since none of us has ever seen most of these rituals ever practiced; they were suspended when the ancient Temple was destroyed almost 2000 years ago. 

Yet while not currently practiced (which, as a vegetarian of 31 years, I’m quite OK with), the laws of the priestly can be studied for their ethical and spiritual content, since humans still have the need to celebrate, repent, and atone. Above we have verses which deal with sins against others in matters of deceit, especially in the realm of money and property. What’s interesting about these verses is the implication that at some point after a person tells a lie or does something deceitful, there can be some sort of internal reorientation towards reconciliation and restitution. 

The translation doesn’t really help matters here: can it be that one would lie or steal and not know one’s guilt? Well, sure- people can deceive themselves as well as others, if not better. Our friend Rashi, on the other hand, doesn’t think this means that one didn’t know one was guilty all along, but rather that at some point there is a recognition of the possibility and need for t’shuvah, returning and reconciliation. Then, after one has had a change of heart, as it were, then one can make restitution according to the laws as cited in the verses above. 

Of course, the point of the verses above isn’t about restitution in tort law, it’s about how a human heart is not restricted by past mistakes. At any point, any one of us could realize that there’s something we for which we need to do t’shuvah-  not because we didn’t “know” via intellect of our imperfections, but because emotionally, we had not yet felt the desire to reawaken ourselves and reinvigorate our spiritual commitments. That’s the point of these verses: t’shuvah happens inside first, and can lead to actions which bring wholeness to ourselves, our relationships and communities. The ritual is the outward affirmation of an internal change that’s already begun to unfold. This idea- that a desire for change arises in the heart and properly channeled can change the world- is a core principle of Judaism, then as now. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

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Vayikra: Plain Flour

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

And if his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering for that of which he is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering; he shall not add oil to it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.. . . .” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5:11)


Good afternoon, it’s good to be back!

Before we get to this week’s Torah portion, I’m pleased to announce that all the archives of weekly commentaries I’ve written since 5759 (=1999) are now on my blog site, organized by parsha. (Thanks Ami!)

Now, onto some Torah learning. This week we begin the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, which is largely concerned with the laws of the priests and the priestly offerings. Sometimes the piles of rules seems rather arbitrary and technical, but the ancient (and not-so-ancient) rabbis tried to discern moral and spiritual principles behind even the smallest details.

Above we have one such detail: that when someone who sins accidentally or unintentionally brings an offering of atonement, if they don’t have enough money to bring an animal offering, they can bring a handful of flour- but the flour should not have oil mixed in with it, as it sometimes is with other offerings. (Cf. Vayikra 2:1)

Sefer Ha-Hinnuch posits two reasons for the ban on oil in the flour-offering of the penitent as described above. First, it points out that oil is a symbol of luxury and wealth in ancient times- that’s why anointing with oil was a symbol of priesthood and kingship. Yet this atonement offering should be one that evokes humility, contrition and introspection, and thus in this case, adding oil to it would be mixing messages, as it were. (Marshal McLuhan should have studied the Hinnuch!)

Secondly, the Sefer Ha-Hinnuch assumes that the verse above applies to a poor person, as it occurs in a section which explicitly states that the mitzvah is to bring a large animal- unless one didn’t have enough money for a large animal, then bring a small one, and if that’s still too great a burden, then just bring some flour. So, if the verse already assumes that the only person who would bring the flour offering is a poor person, it makes sense to forbid the use of oil or spices, lest the penitent feel pressured to spend beyond their means in adding to a  small offering.

I learn two larger points from this commentary on the flour-offering. First, how we perform a spiritual practice affects the result of that practice. The offering was meant to be one of repentance, so it should be offered in a humble and plain way. Similarly, if we want to have spiritual experiences which transform us in joy, or humility, or gratitude, or reverence, or any other aspect of religious growth, we have to enter our prayers, practices, rituals and celebrations with the right framework to get us there.

For example, if you want to have a joyful Shabbat- make your dress, table, house, songs and prayers celebratory and inspiring. If you want to be inclined towards great reverence and introspection on Yom Kippur, prepare yourself accordingly, inside and out. To put it another way- we need kavannah [intentionality or mindfulness] to do mitzvot, but it’s also true that doing the mitzvot brings us to kavannah.

Finally, note that the ritual we’re discussing involves bringing a handful of flour, which our commentary assumes that even the poorest penitent could afford. In other words, the most ancient form of Judaism had at its very heart- the Temple offerings- an ethic of radical inclusion, at least in terms of socioeconomic status. The Temple- the place of the Divine Presence- was a place for rich and poor equally. The rich person’s big offering didn’t earn them any more atonement that the poor man’s flour offering; it only mattered that each brought something real and significant in their own sight.

So, nu, we ask again: if  it’s only a little oil on the flour, what difference does it make?

We might answer: if the unadorned simplicity of the flour helped our ancestors achieve humility in their spirituality and inclusion in their institutions, and if we can learn from that, then a little verse about a little oil in the flour makes a big difference, indeed.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shemini: Separating Sacred from Ordinary

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Shemini, in which Aharon’s sons die a tragic deaths, laws are given for the comportment of the priests, and the idea of kashrut- sacred eating- is spelled out in detail.

Dear Friends:

We’re back after the Pesach break and reading to do some drashing around here!

In this week’s Torah portion, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, die when bringing a “strange fire” to the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Afterwards, Moshe tells his brother that the priests must not drink any wine or other alcohol when entering the Tent of Meeting, for they must “distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” [Vayikra/ Leviticus 10:10]

This idea, of separating or distinguishing between holy and ordinary [ ul’havdil ben hakodesh u’vein hachol] finds its way into our prayers at the end of Shabbat, during the Havdalah prayer, marking the close of Shabbat and the beginning of the work week:

“Blessed are You, The Infinite One, Ruling Principle of the Universe, Who separates the holy from the mundane, light from darkness, Israel from the other peoples, the seventh day of rest from the six days of work. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who separates the holy from the mundane.”

This concluding blessing of Havdalah is not without controversy; the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow has critiqued this set of “separations” as setting up value hierarchies in which the “other peoples” are seen as “less than” the Jewish people. To me, locating the first part of the blessing- separation of holy from ordinary- in its original Biblical context is key to a more universal interpretation. In Shemini, Moshe tells his brother not to enter the Sanctuary when drunk, presumably because there are times and places where one must be absolutely clear in consciousness and intentionality. Rejoicing with wine is fine, under certain circumstances, but not for a priest about to make offerings in the Mishkan.

The Mishkan– a portable Sanctuary- was holy not because it was on intrinsically holy ground (it was portable!) but because it was set up with great care and reverence by the Levites, in the center of the camp. Similarly, Shabbat is a chosen “cathedral in time” (to quote Heschel), which is holy not because one minute is ontologically different than the next, but because we’ve chosen to create space in our lives for spiritual experience. The Jewish people are not better, nor worse, than any other; but we choose to share history and destiny with a community in time and space because that allows particular spiritual language and values to be expressed that would be lost were human cultures all mixed and undifferentiated.

Seen this way, kedushah- holiness- is a not an intrinsic quality, but related to our ability to choose and cultivate certain kinds of awareness or consciousness. Shabbat isn’t better, as such, than the work-week; without the six days of work, we’d be cold and hungry! Rather, Shabbat is a set-apart time for awareness of our place within creation, and a pulling back from busyness to make space for contemplation.

Thus, making distinctions or separations between kodesh and chol , or between Shabbat and the work-week, isn’t about hierarchies at all; it’s about the simple fact that we can’t be highly aware of everything all at once, and need times of focus and intention. We call those things holy which are worthy objects of special attention; it’s a choice to find kedushah in a fantastically distracted world, a choice to cultivate the consciousness of self and God that is foundational to Jewish practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayikra: Raise Up What You Already Have

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Vayikra

Vayikra, or Leviticus, is the third book of the Torah, and is largely but not exclusively concerned with the laws of the ancient priesthood. This week’s portion teaches about various korbanot, or offerings, including offerings brought for sin and atonement.

Dear Friends: Sorry for my inability to make it to your in-box last week, but I’m glad to be back with a short thought connecting this week’s Torah portion with the upcoming Pesach holiday, and then, in the email which follows, you’ll find an annotated guide to great internet Pesach resources.

Let’s start with the opening verses of our Torah portion:

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. . . .’ ” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

Our friend Rashi explains this verse in great detail, and notes that that the verse seems a bit redundant- if a person is presenting an offering of “cattle” [behemah], then why tell us he should choose it from the herd or flock? Isn’t it enough to simply say, presents an animal? No, explains our French friend, because behemah is a general term for animals and you might then think that a wild animal is also acceptable for an offering. Thus the Torah limits the category by saying, “herd or flock” so you know it means the animals that are close at hand, with no special or exotic requirements.

In other words, Rashi wants to stress that the ancient offerings were not an esoteric or exotic system but rather a matter of taking what was close at hand and raising it up. This, in turn, is very much my own conception of normative Judaism: while we certainly have some unique spiritual practices, like tallit and tefillin, for the most part Judaism challenges us to take what we have at hand- our eating, speaking, spending, working, dressing, giving- and raise it up to the level of mitzvah, or sacred act. Judaism has lots of practices, but in the end, it comes down to a pretty simple (but not easy) idea: love God and love others in all that you do.

This, in turn, brings us to Pesach, which has its rules and customs and laws and texts and practices, but is, in the end, a simple (but not easy) idea: that which we call God enables our liberation from servitude, and therefore we are conscious, grateful, and responsible for our freedom. The seder expresses this idea using the materials at hand: words, music, food, text, sounds, smells- it’s all commentary on the basic idea of liberation and joy.

Matzah may seem exotic, but it’s the simplest thing: flour and water, baked quickly. It is both the symbol and the actual experience of liberation because it represents simplicity- it IS simplicity. That is, if you can experience tremendous gratitude and joy at a meal of matzah (maybe even matzah with bitter herbs), then your joy depends on no external factor and you are liberated to choose your path of service.

Returning to our Torah portion, Moshe tells the people: “serve God- but don’t make this too complicated- just offer up what you already have.” That’s a message I think we need to take to heart the week before Pesach, when the core ideas of the day can get overtaken by commercialization, logistics, cooking, shopping, family dynamics, competitiveness, and preparations. If Pesach is about joy and liberation, it also means that we can resist becoming enslaved by religious, emotional and spiritual anxiety brought on by the holiday itself! Pesach is really so simple: put away the chametz, tell the story, eat the matzah and maror (which is just another way of telling the story), sing our joyful praises- the rest is all commentary (go and study.)

To be clear: I love the holiday in all its potential complexity. The email that follows this one is all about preparing the home, heart and brain for the Yom Tov- I just want us to do it in simplicity and joy, without fear, resisting commercialization, authentic to the story of the Jewish people and our own individual stories as Jews.

That, to me, is always a great and wonderful miracle!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Vayikra: No Barrier to Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

It’s a nice spring day, it’s a few weeks before Pesach, and we’re turning to the
book of Vayikra, A.K.A. Leviticus, for our cycle of Torah readings. Vayikra is
called Leviticus, of course, because the tribe of Levi is the tribe designated
for religious service in the Mishkan, or Sanctuary, the ritual details of which
take up much of this book of the Torah.

The haftarah for the opening portion of Vayikra is from Yeshayahu [Isaiah}- or,
more accurately, “Second Isaiah,” from the latter half of the book of the same
name. These prophecies were spoken to the exile community in Babylon, in the
reign of Cyrus, who eventually allowed the exiles to return. Yeshayahu
encouraged the people to believe that God would redeem them and “take them back”
with a restored national and spiritual life in the land of Israel.

The relationship to the Torah portion has to do with the image of sacrifices and
offerings; the prophet says that even though the people haven’t been bringing
the offerings (they could not do so in exile, without a central Temple), God
would nevertheless renew the relationship spiritually:

” Even as I pour water on thirsty soil,
And rain upon dry ground,
So will I pour My spirit on your offspring,
My blessing upon your posterity.” (Yesh. 44:3)

The text goes on to decry the foolishness of idolatry and the love of God for
Israel, such that no matter what their sins in the past, they would be forgiven
and the covenant would be renewed:

“I wipe away your sins like a cloud,
Your transgressions like mist —
Come back to Me, for I redeem you ! ” (44:22)

In Biblical Israel, the offerings in the central Temple were the way our
ancestors drew close to God; without such a physical ritual, we turn instead to
a relationship grounded in love and forgiveness. Please note: the text is fully
aware that terrible things happen in history, and its explanation that the
tragedy of exile is due to the sins of the people is not one that I find
satisfactory.

However, although Yeshayahu spoke at a particular moment in time, the problem of
exile- that is, estrangement or alienation from our truest spiritual center- is
a timeless one. Notice in verse 22, above, how sin and transgression- that is,
the thing that keep us far from a sense of alignment with the Sacred – are
compared to mist and cloud. That is, they are temporary, illusory things- a
cloud may block the light, obscuring vision, but it blocks no effort to move
through it.

Whatever is keeping us from coming home- to spiritual community, to Torah, to
covenant relationships in our lives, to our own souls- is no more a barrier than
a mist or cloud. Yeshayahu taught: the love at the center of the cosmos- that we
call God- is real and permanent and enduring; what keeps us from that love is
temporal, ethereal, cleared from view with only a simple desire to draw close.
That knowledge is what gave our ancestors hope, as it does to this day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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