Archive for Bamidbar

Bamidbar: Balancing the Camp

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

On the south: the standard of the division of Reuven, troop by troop. . .  Camping next to it: The tribe of Shimon . . . . And the tribe of Gad. (Bamidbar 2: 10-14, abridged.)

We’re starting a new month and a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” and which tells the story of the Israelites on their long journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. The book, and our weekly reading, begin with a census of the people (hence the English name “Numbers” and then describes how the 12 tribes would camp in a certain formation around the Tent of Meeting, 3 tribes on each side.

The famed rabbi and Torah commentator S. R. Hirsch notes in the first above that Reuven, the firstborn, was paired with Shimon and Gad, who were later on in the line of Yaakov’s descendants. It’s a common theme of traditional commentary that the tribes reflect the character of their ancestors; Hirsch notes that Reuven, the eldest, was not given the right of leadership, perhaps because he lacked the force of character to stop his brothers from harming Yosef (cf. Genesis 37). Reuven later shamed his father by sleeping with Yaakov’s concubine (ibid 35:22) which earned him rebuke even when Yaakov was on his deathbed. (49:3-4)

Shimon, on the other hand, was half of the pair (with his brother Levi) who deceived and slaughtered the men of Shechem in retaliation for abusing their sister Dinah (see this chapter); even years later, they were called cruel men of vengeance by their father. (49:5-7) Of Gad we know little, except that Yaakov predicted that his descendents would be a victorious military force.

Hirsch sees the placing of Reuven with Shimon and Gad as a way to balance out the tendencies of their ancestors: Reuven was merciful in intent but ineffective in action during the rupture between Yosef and his brothers, while Shimon was quick to strike bloody vengeance after their sister was taken without thought to the consequences. The mercy and mildness (to use Hirsch’s phrase) of Reuven has to be a counterweight to the strength and righteous fury of Shimon and the prowess of Gad. Without that balance, strength will be used for cruelty and good intentions will mean nothing in a world which often requires us to stand firm.

Of course, the Tent of Meeting is no longer something to be protected out there in the world; it is symbolic of that point of the holy we each bear internally. Our own souls need a balance of mercy and strength, kindness and outrage, for how else can we move forward in this world, and even more, move the world forward?

Shabbat Shalom


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Bamidbar: To Teach Torah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bamidbar / Shavuot 

“These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:1)


This weekend we have the unusual circumstance of the holiday of Shavuot  falling immediately after Shabbat and falling over the two days of the Memorial Day long weekend. The theme of the Torah portion is counting and organizing the Jewish people for their long journey to the Land of Israel; there is a census and each tribe is set in a certain place in the camp. After a general census by tribe, and a reporting of the numbers, the descendants of Aharon are named as priests, and the tribe of Levi is set apart for religious service, and some of their duties are enumerated. 

Our friend Rashi points out a glaring problem in the verse above: the sons named were not, in fact, the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, but only of Aaron, the High Priest. Rashi then goes on to make a point which indirectly links our Torah portion to the upcoming holiday, the remembrance of the giving of the Torah: 

“But only the sons of Aharon were mentioned! They are called descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This shows that whoever teaches another person’s child Torah, it’s just as if they were your own child.” 

On Shavuot, we recall the centrality of Torah, in all of its manifestations, to the life of the Jewish people, but here Rashi is saying something about the power of Torah for individuals. When we share the deepest principles of our life, we give birth to something real and important in the world. Who among us has not had a mentor, teacher or role model who has profoundly affected the course of our character development? We teach Torah by the way we live, as well as by sharing knowledge. I know in my own life, I would not be a deeply practicing Jew- and never mind a Conservative rabbi- were it not for the teachers of Torah who showed me the possibility of a joyful Jewish life. 

Torah is not a history book that recounts the past, nor is it esoteric knowledge reserved for a few. It’s a text which only matters when it becomes a conversation- a conversation between its students from across the ages as well as across a table today. That greater sense of Torah, rooted in the most basic questions of how we shall live and for what purpose, is what’s so precious and important to share. When we bring people into a Torah-rooted conversation about the very purpose of life itself, we change lives, and by changing lives, we change the world. That’s what Rashi means when he says that Aharon’s sons were like Moshe’s sons because he taught them Torah- it means that Moshe, through his example of a covenanted life, changed the lives of those around him. 

Such is the challenge before each of us- to become exemplars of a holy striving, to be teachers of Torah through all our ways. 

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy holiday to all, 


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Bamidbar: Bound Up with Justice

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Bamidbar begins the book of Numbers- so called for the opening commandment to take a census of the people. Moshe organizes the 12 tribes, with the Mishkan at the center of the camp. Then he assigns various duties to clans of Levites.

Hello one and all, it’s almost Mitzvah Day in Dutchess County and we’re excited for Sunday’s various activities!  Not only that, but do see the bottom of the page for a special announcement. . . .

Now- on to Torah study. This week we have a very clear link between our weekly readings and our daily prayer practice. The haftarah for Bamidbar comes from the book of Hosea and the theme of Israel in the wilderness links the Torah portion to the prophetic reading. Hosea is not an easy text; the first section is a long and complex set of images in which the prophet is told to take a wife, who is unfaithful. This is then compared to Israel, which is unfaithful to covenant.

In the end, however, there is reconciliation, both on the personal and national level. This reconciliation is portrayed as a new betrothal:

“And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to the Lord.”  (Hosea 2:21-22)

This passage, which is the uplifting end of our haftarah, is found in the weekday prayers right at the beginning of the service, connected to wrapping tefillin straps around the hand before the morning prayers.

This takes the image from Hosea – the people Israel as estranged bride- and turns it around: in every act of wrapping tefillin (around the finger, like a wedding band), one orients the heart towards the Sacred. Yet note the conditions of this “espousal”: justice, goodness, mercy. In other words, right at the beginning of morning prayers, we remind ourselves that the ticket into prayer is ethics: we have no right to wrap ourselves up in God- as it were- if we’re not acting with compassion and justice towards others. To be “bound up” with the Sacred is not an ethereal experience but a commitment to make manifest these values or ways of being.

Prayer may lift up our hearts towards The Holy One, yet our faithfulness must also be with those around us. The straps of the tefillin wrapped around our hands keep us “down to Earth,” while pointing us towards Heavenly deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: Now for that special announcement I told you about: the latest episode of the Rabbi’s Roundtable is now on cable TV, in many (but not all) states, and featuring yours truly. Go here for more information on how to find The Jewish Channel in your area.

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Bamidbar: Redemption and Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Shalom from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley, where there is
abundant woodland and wilderness- a perfect setting to write about
this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, or, literally, “in the
wilderness.” The book of Bamidbar [also the name of the first Torah
portion therein] opens up with the scene of the Israelites organizing
themselves for the long journey to the Land. Yet the focus on this
one-time event – organizing the people for their journey across the
wilderness- means that there are no explicit permanent mitzvot found
in this parsha, at least according to Sefer HaHinuch [a medieval
textbook of the commandments] and other commentaries.

However, our Conservative chumash [Torah commentary] does point out a
mitzvah connected to these verses:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘ I hereby take the Levites from
among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue
of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. For every
first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the
land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and
beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord’s.’ ” [Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:11-13]

The mitzvah connected to these verses is the redemption of the
first-born, or pidyon ha-ben. You should refer to Shmot/Exodus 13 and
Bamidbar 18 to see the verses which explain things more explicitly,
but the general idea is that the first-born male of every regular
Israelite family is consecrated to God, and needs to be redeemed back
from service by a short ceremony with a descendant of the ancient
priests and five silver coins [or equivalent.]

The Levites- the descendants of Levi, one of the twelve tribes- do not
need to be redeemed, because they were the tribe which had special
duties of service in the ancient Temple, including the Levite family
which served as Kohanim, or priests. To put it another way, the first
born were supposed to serve, but the Levites served in place of the
first-born, and the redemption ceremony acknowledged this idea.

In our day, a pidyon ha-ben takes place only if the first born male is
not a c-section or preceded by a miscarriage or abortion, so after all
these conditions are met, it’s relatively infrequent. Yet pidyon
ha-ben can be understood as not only a reminder of the deep history of
our people, but also as teaching a powerful theological idea: that we
do not “own” our possessions- not even our children- but care for that
which is ultimately God’s. [Cf. Sefer HaHinuch on this mitzvah.]

“Redeeming” a child is a way of ritualizing the idea of stewardship,
that we are entrusted with precious things, yet have a responsibility
beyond our own personal preferences, desires and ambitions. If this is
true of even our children, how much more true is it over other things-
our possessions, our land, our planet !

Even though pidyon ha-ben is not an “everyday” mitzvah, and even
though we can, and should, raise questions about a mitzvah which seems
to privilege the birth of one sex over another, we can still learn
what I believe the mitzvah is trying to teach: that ownership,
“power-over,” is an illusion, and that other people “belong” to God,
in the sense that the very purpose of a human life is service to
sacred ideals. That’s true not only of the first-born, but every
human, as we are all made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the template of the
Holy One.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: Centered in the Wilderness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

With that- on to the book of Bamidbar, or “Numbers,” as it’s called in
English, so named because the opening scenes are a census of the
Israelite population. However, the Hebrew word “bamidbar” tells us
that this enumeration happened in the “wilderness” [midbar] of Sinai,
which conveys something different: the book of Bamidbar is a book of
transitions, from the bondage of Egypt to the settlement of Israel.
Transitions, almost by definition, create an “in-between” space while
a person or community gets where they are going, so to speak. (It’s
interesting that we have mostly spatial metaphors to describe
something emotional or spiritual.)

Thus, while the image of the “midbar,” or wilderness, is a physical
“in-between” space, denoting the unsettled (in both sense of the word)
place between Egypt and the Land of Promise, it’s also a metaphor,
symbolizing the emotional and spiritual transitions that the
Israelites must grow through. Along the way, they’ll try to organize
themselves, suffer great conflicts, lose hope, strive for faith,
complain constantly, and pull together against outside threats- it’s
quite a story of conflict and survival.

Perhaps the key point comes from the first verse of the book:

“God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting,
on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the
Exodus, saying . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:1)

What I find striking about this introduction to the book of the
“wilderness” is the contrasting images of the “Sinai wilderness” and
the “Tent of Meeting,” which was at the center of the camp, where the
Divine Presence was felt and instruction conveyed. The Israelites were
in the wilderness, but they retained a sacred center, a place where
spiritual truths could be heard, a holy place which became a common
reference point for the diverse tribes.

It’s interesting to me that even in contemporary English, we say
“staying centered” to mean retaining a core sense of purpose,
identity, spirituality or vision precisely when things get chaotic or
confusing. That’s the challenge facing communities in transition, but
the Torah itself gives us a working model: organize yourself such that
there is an “Ohel Moed,” a Tent of Meeting, that gives an individual
or community a sense of sacred purpose, and like our ancestors did,
eventually we’ll make it together to a place of great promise.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Bamidbar: Family, Peoplehood, and the Sacred Center

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Dear Friends:

It’s finally springtime in New England! The seasons turn every year,
as do the books of the Torah. Every year, we return to parshiot we
read the previous year- the texts have not changed, but perhaps we
have, and can see familar words with fresh eyes. This week, we begin
the book of Bamidbar- called “Numbers” in English, but more accurately
translated as “In the Wilderness.” Bamidbar begins with a counting of
the Israelites as they prepare to set out from Sinai to cross the
desert; there is a census, and an arranging of the camp into tribes
and families:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘ The Israelites shall
camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral
house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.’ ”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 2:1-2)

About five years ago, I wrote a drasha (see link below) in which I
interpreted this verse in terms of finding one’s personal place within
a broader Jewish context. Without consciously remembering what I had
written, this year I came upon this verse and saw something very
different. Instead of seeing the emphasis as “each [individual] person
with his standard,” [standard here meaning flag or sign] what felt
important to me in this verse is a model of Jewish identity with
multiple dimensions: peoplehood, family ties, and a spiritual
connection to the Divine Presence.

Thinking about the instructions given in the verse above, it strikes
me that we are “Israelites,” members of a world-wide people who share
both a destiny and covenant of spiritual ideals. We are also each
members of an “ancestral house,” that is, a particular family, and
sometimes our Judaism is entirely bound up in memories of parents and
grandparents, family celebrations and rituals. These memories of loved
ones- our “ancestral house”- are also a source of deep Jewish
connection: when I make kiddush using my grandfather’s kiddush cup, I
am both fufilling the spiritual purpose of Shabbat and connecting with
my grandfather’s memory; the deep family connection adds its own
richness and beauty to the act of entering into “Shabbat time.”

Our verse concludes that no matter how we “camp”- that is, where we
situate ourselves among the Jewish people- we must be oriented to the
Divine Presence, represented in our verse by the Tent of Meeting,
where this Presence dwelled among the people. Judaism is not only
about peoplehood, or family, or a personal journey, but also about the
experience of the Sacred, and constantly reorienting ourselves towards
a holy life.

In the years since I wrote my earlier d’var Torah, I’ve officiated at
hundreds of funerals, lost my parents, given thanks for the birth of a
niece and nephew, become engaged, seen my country at war, and felt the
pain of a world-wide renewal of violence against the Jewish people.
I’ve had occasion to think about not only my personal spiritual
journey as a Jew, but also about where I fit into a web of covenantal
relationships with my ancestors, my descendants, my people, and the
God of Israel. We all have the task of finding our “standard,” our
personal place within Judaism, but our Jewish is inextricably linked
to other people, both past and present, across time and space, and
with the Divine Presence as our orientation along the way.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- As usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

The commentary which I wrote several years ago, referenced above, is
found here, along with a summary of the parsha:

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Bamidbar: Counting on Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Greetings from (finally) sunny Swampscott!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah: Bamidbar (literally
“in the wilderness), but commonly called “Numbers” because it
opens up with a census of the Israelites, including the number of
men eligible to bear arms. Different families of the tribe of Levy
(set apart for religious service) were given duties to set up and
carry the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary) and its components.
Finally, all 12 tribes are arranged in a fixed order as the Israelites
travel and make camp along their journey.
Our teacher Rashi has a beautiful and profound commentary
explaining why God commanded Moshe to take a census of the

“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When
they left Egypt, He counted them [cf. Exodus 12:37]; when [many]
fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to
know the number of the survivors [cf. Exodus 32:28]; when He
came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He
counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected,
and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.”

This commentary links several episodes earlier in the narrative
of the Torah: the Exodus, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the
building of the Mishkan- all times when Rashi says God counted
the people out of love and concern. (We might point out a tension
between God’s love and the strict punishment after the Golden
Calf, but let’s leave that for another time.) This image of God
“counting” the people evokes a parent accounting for her
children, or a teacher making sure every student is included in
the activities- it’s an image which is meant to teach a conception
of the Divine as pure, focused, very practical love.

Not only that- but compare the instances of “counting” which
Rashi brings. The Exodus was a moment of extraordinary
transformation of the people, but they also had to be led into it
with great effort. The building of the Golden Calf was a time
when the people’s fears, narrowness, and lack of vision brought
out their worst behavior, and caused great conflict within the
community- it was the low point of the Exodus process. God
“counted” the survivors of the conflict- I’d like to interpret this as
God taking account that even the worst sin of the people didn’t
cause what that which was good to be completely extinguished,
which is a great lesson in itself.

Conversely, the building of the Mishkan, when all the people
brought donations and precious things, was an example of great
communal generosity, spirituality, and covenantal commitment,
and this triumph brought God’s immanent Presence into the
center of the camp.

In all those instances- moments of great anxiety during change,
moments when the people were their worst, and moments when
they were at their best- Rashi says God counted them, took
notice of them, stayed in relationship with them, out of love. In
other words, a Divine love is constant through change, knows
that we are more than our stupidest behaviors, and affirms our
greatest triumphs as well as our worst lapses of judgement.

That’s a Divine love.

Human love is much less predictable!

Still, this image- of “counting” the people, keeping true to them,
being with people when they’re at their best and worst and
everything in between- is our challenge to strive for, if indeed we
strive to act out of the Divine spark within.

Shabbat Shalom,


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