Archive for 4. Numbers

Pinchas: Pay Attention

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 29:1)

Good afternoon! I’ve heard it said that we read the Torah year after year not because the Torah changes, but because we change from one year to the next. Texts and ideas will speak to us in new ways as we navigate the course of our lives over time. Thus, a few years back, when writing about this week’s Torah portion, I interpreted the commandment of shofar in this week’s portion using the first part of the commentary from Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. (See below for links.)

This year, however, I found something interesting in the later section of the commentary. Briefly, the background of the discussion is the idea that the shofar sounds, especially the t’ruah, or short rapid notes, sound like crying. Sefer HaHinnuch points out that in different parts of the world, sobbing or crying may have various expressions according to the local culture (I’m paraphrasing) and thus at an early stage of Jewish history people would blow the various shofar sounds in accordance with what crying or wailing sounded like locally. A later sage then standardized the shofar sounds across the Jewish world, and thus the combination of sounds you hear in one synagogue is likely to be very close to what you’d hear in another.

Now, many people, myself included, have taught the idea that the shofar sounds are likened to crying in order to arouse our compassion and awareness, and in turn feel a greater call to be agents of healing in the year to come. This particular commentary, however, points out the particularity of suffering: there is no one way to cry, no single modality of emotional expression, no universal sign that another person feels broken and alone. Some cry aloud, others perhaps quietly, and yet others may cry internally, inaudible to others without focus and curiosity. Some cultures are loud, some are stiff-lipped, some are decorous and others value overt expression.

Thus the different shofar sounds- tekiah, shevarim, t’ruah– and the various combinations of the sounds are a reminder that compassion isn’t about applying rules, it’s about paying attention to the people around you. Every cry arises from a unique soul and a unique set of circumstances, and so being present to those cries requires remembering that the Divine is One, but humanity, made in the Divine Image, is infinite in its diversity.

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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Beha’alotcha: Miracle of Liberation

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to God,they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs . . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 9:10-11)

Good morning!

I have no reasonable excuse, not even a note from my mother, for my absence from drashing. It’s good to be back!

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotcha, which has the semi-famous commandment of Pesach sheni, or the “Second Passover,” which is an opportunity to bring the korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) on the 14th of the second month if you weren’t able to do so on the 14th of the first month, the usual date. According to the medieval textbook Sefer Hachinuch, the second Passover was observed by making the Passover sacrifice and eating matzah and bitter herbs, but one didn’t have to get rid of all the chametz and it didn’t last a week.

So it’s an interesting anomaly: there are lots of time-bound commandments related to the various holidays, but there’s no opportunity to hear the shofar a month after Rosh Hashana or sit in a sukkah a month after Sukkot if for some reason you weren’t able to do it the first time. Ditto lighting the Hannukah lights or hearing the book of Esther at Purim. You get your chance for the mitzvah, if you miss it, well, next year in Jerusalem, but this year you’re out of luck. So what’s so important about the Passover ritual that you get a second chance?

Sefer Hachinuch says that the events of Passover show that the One who rules the world must have created it: the plagues, manna, and splitting of the sea are all acts of overturning the laws of nature and therefore show there is One who created according to Divine will. At the time of the Exodus the whole world saw these miracles (according to Sefer Hachinuch) and it’s so fundamental to the Jewish religion that there is a Creator- and the world is Creation- that everyone must bring a Passover offering, even a month late, because we remember this truth through the contemplation of these extraordinary miracles. Sefer Hachinuch even says that if you converted to Judaism or became bar mitzvah (old enough for the commandments) after Passover, but before Pesach Sheni, you would bring the Second Passover offering.

Nowadays we don’t bring a korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) so there’s not much practical application of Pesach Sheni. However, let’s go back to the interpretation of the Sefer Hachinuch and add to it. We can certainly have different understandings of the miracle stories in the Torah- I personally tend to think they are metaphors or mystical teachings not to be taken literally. Thus what’s important to me is not whether the sea literally split in two, but that the Exodus represents an overturning of the usual way of the world, which is that Pharaohs rule and slaves are trapped.

God’s presence in the story changes the laws not only of physical nature, but also of human nature, in that the oppressed go free and the powerful are humbled. This, to me, is indeed a fundamental article of faith for Jews: there exists the possibility of liberation from what and who oppresses. The powerful can cause tremendous suffering, but that is not the only possibility: if the sea can be split, then so to can the enslaved be free, if we but remember who we are and why we are here.

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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Pinchas: The Sons of Korach Did Not Die

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas 

But the sons of Korach did not die (Bamidbar/Numbers 26:11) 

Good afternoon! 

A brief thought about individual moral responsibility: near the beginning of this week’s reading, Moshe and Elazar his priestly nephew are told to make a census of the people, so the Torah recounts a geneology by clan. It’s mentioned that Datan and Aviram, Korach’s co-leaders in rebellion against Moshe, were descendants of Reuven, and further mentions that they were swallowed up by the earth along with 250 others. So far, so good, if somewhat grisly and unpleasant. 

Then we’re told that Korach’s sons did not die along with the others. (Cf. 16:32)

Wait, what? 

Since the verse implies but does not explicitly say that Korach’s household was taken down into the earth, Rashi seems to read it both ways. Basing himself on amidrash from the Talmud, Rashi says that at first, Korach’s sons were involved in Korach’s fight with Moshe, but then they had a sense or feeling of repentance, so they were put on a special high level of Gehinnom.

Gehinnom generally means the place of punishment or purification of the dead, so how can Rashi say they didn’t die but were in a high platform in hell? Doesn’t sound like such a great reward to me! 

Going back to the source in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 110a) we find that Rashi left out the last part of the midrash: yes, Korach’s sons went to Gehinnom but they dwelled in a spot where they could sing songs, presumably to God. A later commentary says that on the merit of their songs they were lifted from Gehinnom(then again, maybe by definition if you can sing you aren’t in Gehinnom), but even so, it’s an astounding interpretation. 

What do we learn from the peculiar image of Korach’s sons singing songs of praise on a high (and presumably not too unpleasant) level of Gehinnom? Well, first, note that Rashi says that it was enough that they had a “sense” or feeling of repentance. In the midst of a crisis, in which they had to choose between their father and the the leader of their people, they had a stirring of conscience, and that was enough to separate them from the mob. 

Second, note that having a conscience may not save you from an unpleasant fate- they did end up in Gehinnom, after all- but that you can retain that conscience, that moral spark at the core of your being, even in hell (or in a police state, or in the Gulag, or the any other totalizing and demoralizing environment). As long as you have even an inchoate feeling of moral responsibility, you are not “dead,” you have retained your humanity, and won a victory by force of spirit alone. There were Jews who practiced Judaism under pain of banishment and prison in the former Soviet Union, who refused to let an evil regime have dominion over their souls; they and countless other resisters of the mob show us what it means to sing songs even in a place that’s just a better level of Gehinnom

Korach’s sons were not immortal; “did not die” here is best understood as the death of the spirit, the death of one’s humanity. Because they refused to let the realm of violent power struggles define who they were, because they made a difficult choice to keep conscience alive, they lived as morally powerful people, even in Gehinnom. That choice will not always be as dramatic for us as it was for them, but the decision to live as a human or kill the best part of ourselves by joining the mob is a choice we face, in bigger or smaller ways, every day. 

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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Balak: A Better Way

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Balak
 
Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aharon the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:9)
 
Hello again! It’s good to be back with a Torah commentary, but today, I actually don’t have much commentary. The Torah sages who crafted our liturgy clearly have something to say about this week’s portion, but me, not so much.  
 
Let me explain. The Torah portion, Balak, is mostly not about the eponymous king of Moav, but about his hired sorcerer Bilaam, he of the famous talking donkey. Bilaam tries to curse Israel, doesn’t really succeed, and in the end predicts Israel’s victory. The portion ends, however, with a much darker story, that of the death sentence pronounced upon the Israelite followers of Baal-Peor, portrayed as one of the gods of the Moabites, whose women had tempted Israelite men into this particular form of idolatry. Pinchas, a priest and Moshe’s great-nephew, saw an Israelite man and a Moabite woman apparently flaunting their relationship right at the Tent of Meeting, and responded as above, by taking up his spear and impaling the both of them. 
 
The rabbis are stuck with the fact that Pinchas is, in the Torah text, praised by God for his actions (at the beginning of the next portion), so they tell us exactly how terrible and disgraceful the man and his Moabite lover really were, even imagining them engaged in physical relations right there in front of everybody in the holy place. There are all kinds of commentaries about how the zealotry of Pinchas was holy and righteous, how it lead to miracles and saved the people, how it was exactly the right response to terrible idolatry.
 
And yet. . . there’s the haftarah chosen for Balak, which reminds the people to remember how God saved them from Bilaam’s curse. This selection from the prophet Micah also enjoins the people to respond not with extraordinary ritual devotion, but instead to remake themselves morally, to express gratitude and fealty to God through becoming Godly in their qualities: 
 
“The Holy One has told you, O people, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God . . .” (Micah 6:8). 
 
Concluding the haftarah with this verse is also a response to the violent zealotry of Pinchas and his ilk in every generation. That’s why I don’t need to say much in response to Pinchas or anyone else who would presume to love God by hating people; the prophet Micah and the rabbis who chose his words simply say, there is a better way, and nothing more need be added. 
 
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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Korach: Two Kinds of Power

 

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 

Torah Portion: Korach 

 

Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader. (Samuel 12:1-2)

Good afternoon! 
 
It’s a late in the day drasha, so rather than detailed textual commentary I’ll offer a more general thought about the conjoined stories of our Torah portion and haftarah. Both stories are about power, politics, and authority, which are not always the same thing. In fact, in the Torah portion, the rebel Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon on the basis of a political claim: that all the people are equally holy and should therefore share in the leadership. Korach claims political or hereditary standing equal to Moshe and Aharon, but the text makes clear that his moral claim was weak indeed, as he and his comrades are portrayed as divisive, violent and self-serving,
 
The haftarah is also about power and authority: the people want a king to fight their battles, and finally accept Saul on the basis of his military victory over the Ammonites earlier in the chapter. Samuel, the prophet and political leader, had tried to set up his sons to succeed him, but they turned out to be ethically and spiritually unworthy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Samuel warns the people about the dangers of monarchy after personally experiencing the problematic nature of hereditary offices. Samuel also pleads for vindication from the people that he has never been corrupt, greedy or abusive, thus not too subtlety making a distinction between the spiritual standing of a prophet and the legal standing of a king. To put it another way, he says: you have asked for a king who can fight for you, but someone who can be aggressive and command armies will wield that power in ways that are not always for your benefit. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. 
 
When Moshe reminds Korach that he’s already a Levite, and set apart for a special role in serving God, I think he’s reminding us that there’s more than one way to be effective in the world; not all power is political. It’s easy to forget that in an election year, when all the news is conflict and posturing, but let’s remember that there are people changing the world who seek no high office, including spiritual leaders, teachers, researchers, organizers, and role models of great human depth and compassion. That kind of power is unlimited, shareable and cannot be acquired by force. There can only be one king, but we can have as many moral leaders as we have people willing to put themselves forward for the common good. 
 
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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Naso: Seeing Angels

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The angel of the Lord never appeared again to Manoach and his wife. — Manoach then realized that it had been an angel of the Lord. (Judges 13:21)

Good morning!

Last year at this time (on the Torah reading calendar) I wrote about one of the less heroic figures of the Bible, Manoach, the father of Shimson (A.K.A. Samson.) In the haftarah for the portion Naso, Manoach’s unnamed wife is visited by an angel, who announces that she will bear a son and instructs her to raise him as a nazirite. This provides the thematic link to the Torah portion, which relates the relevant laws: one who takes a nazirite vow refrains from alcohol, cutting one’s hair, or any contact with the dead. (I also wrote about the nazirite laws a few years back, see here.)

The structure of the story is somewhat amusing: the angel appears to Manoach’s wife, she tells Manoach everything the angel said, and then Manoach gets excited and asks God to send the angel again. The angel comes back, explains the instructions to Manoach directly, and in reply Manoach offers him dinner, which the divine being refuses, telling Manoach to making an offering to God instead. The angel ascends in the flames of the burnt offering, and that’s when Manoach finally realizes the true significance of his interlocutor.

Seen one way, it’s funny how Manoach comes across as a bit dense when it comes to identifying angels, but read another way, the verse above is rather sad: it is only after further interaction is impossible that Manoach realized the extraordinary nature of his guest. Note the order of our verse: it is only after we learn (and I think Manoach realizes this too) that he will never see the angel again that Manoach is fully conscious of his failure of insight and missed opportunity.

In the arc of the story of Shimshon, Manoach is a comic foil to his much more insightful and worthy wife, who is, after all, the actual subject of the angel’s instructions. Yet in his obtuseness, he is all of us, at one time or another. Who among us has not regretted misapprehending the unique gifts of a friend, teacher, loved one or new acquaintance? Who among us has not said, “this was an angel” about someone who who was, perhaps only briefly, part of one’s life? Some of my deepest regrets are that I only understood someone’s depth and gifts after the opportunity to learn and love had passed.

We are not typically visited by divine messengers with explicit instructions for unusual circumstances, but every day we do have the chance to be more open to the extraordinary qualities of our friends, loved ones and neighbors. For Manoach, realization came too late, as it often does, but this very moment we can choose to see with new eyes the holy souls all around us, and be grateful for the chances to connect that are not yet lost.

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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Chukat: Detours On The Way

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Reading: Chukat 
 
“They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 21:4)
 
Good morning! 
 
Sorry I’ve missed some weeks recently- we’ve moved offices and I just fell behind, that’s all. 
 
There is so much to choose from in our Torah portion, which begins with the famous (and mysterious) Red Heifer and continues with two chapters of strife, conflict, war, and grief as the Israelites travel through the wilderness. Today we’ll look at the verse above, which occurs shortly after the death of Aharon, Moshe’s brother, and immediately after a few terse lines describing a battle with the king of Arad. (21:1-3)
 
The few words of this verse don’t capture the full weight of the narrative: the Torah seems to be saying that the Israelites went from Mount Hor, near the kingdom of Edom, in what we would now call southwest Jordan, almost all the way back to Egypt, to the Sea of Reeds where they crossed when escaping Pharaoh. We know Mount Hor is near Edom- in the Torah’s reckoning- because just a few verses earlier, the place where Aharon died is called “Mount Hor, on the border of Edom.” (See 20:23
 
Archaeologists and historians have differing theories about the exact location of various places mentioned in the Bible, but for our purposes, you don’t need to know precisely where they went to get the sense that after the death of Aharon and a horrific battle with Arad, the Israelites were in retreat, emotionally if not geographically. The text says they were heading back west in order to “skirt” or “circle” the land of Edom, perhaps to avoid danger or because they weren’t allowed through, but one can only imagine the tremendous disappointment and discouragement they must have felt to be so close to the Land of Israel and yet moving further away.
 
The Torah describes this discouragement as vatik’tzer nefesh ha’am, literally “the spirit of the people was shortened.” Rashi imagines the people saying “we have to turn back just like our ancestors did 38 years ago!,” which would have been an unbearable burden. Yet as readers, we know the people were very close- just a few weeks, probably, from their camp across the Jordan River from which Moshe would deliver his final speeches (what we call the book of D’varim or Deuteronomy) before they entered the Land. 
 
This is the problem of hope: when our “spirits are shortened,” we are unable to see how far we’ve come but can only see the roadblocks and difficulties ahead. This is when bitterness sets in, and indeed, the Torah tells us that after their detour back to the Sea of Reeds, the people complained against God and Moshe about the manna, of all things. Change is hard, and take time, and is never without its challenges. Even this very day, today, as the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality – a goal that some have been working towards for a generation or more, there are those who react with bitterness and complaint and vow to resist. There will be detours, setbacks, roadblocks and challenges- it is to be expected with any big change. Even today, this week, as the nation has, with astounding speed after the Charleston massacre, begun to reckon with the racist legacy of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of resistance to integration, there is already a backlash to the backlash. There will be backlashes, arguments, political struggle and resistance- this, too, is to be expected, so let us never lose sight of our goal of reconciliation and equality for all. 
 
The Israelites were “short of spirit” even when their wandering was near its completion; all of us sometimes get negative, kvetchy and blaming when the journey seems long and never-ending. The challenge, then, is to remember that “shortness of spirit” is an opportunity for broadening one’s vision, making the spirit big and free and open and taking in the widest perspective possible. If our spirits can be made short, they can be made big, too- but only if we choose faith, hope and patience. These are not easy virtues, but who said a journey to the Promised Land would be 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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