Archive for 4. Numbers

Naso: The Limits of Hearing

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Manoach pleaded with the Lord. “Oh, my Lord!” he said, “please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born.” (Shoftim/ Judges 13:8)

Good evening! This week’s haftarah is the story of the birth of Shimshon (usually called Samson in English), who grows up to be a great, albeit greatly flawed, hero of ancient Israel. The connection with the Torah portion is probably the laws of the nazir, or nazirite, a kind of special religious status that people could choose for various lengths of time. (See more about that here and go here for a light-hearted but insightful theory of why this haftarah was chosen for this portion. )

Among the laws of the nazir are refraining from alcohol and letting the hair grow uncut; these are the instructions that an angel gives to Shimshon’s mother in the opening verses of the haftarah. Manoach’s unnamed wife then repeats these instructions to her husband, who offered up the prayer above- to be instructed on how to raise the child, even though his wife has just told him what the angel said!

Not only that, but when the angel returns, Manoach asks again what his instructions are, even though he’s heard them from his wife, and the angel patiently repeats what he had said earlier. Perhaps there’s a teeny bit of angelic snark when he adds “she must observe all that I commanded her,” (verse 14) thus implicitly reminding Manoach that he’s already given these instructions once before, but nevertheless, the angel repeats the commands for raising their child and doesn’t overtly rebuke Manoach for needing to hear things again.

I’ve usually read this story with the thought that Manoach is not the brightest light on the memorial board, given that he seems not to understand fairly straightforward narratives and instructions. This year, however, I read this story in light of my work at the hospital, where I often encounter smart people unable to grasp simple but shocking statements, usually because they are overwhelmed by the changes and new realities implied by what they are being told. In its most poignant form, I’ve seen families listen to a doctor explain what can or cannot be done for a loved one and then turn to each other in almost blank incomprehension after the doctor leaves. They are not stupid, but rather not ready to hear that their loved one is near the end or that their family will face difficult challenges of caregiving, to give just two common examples.

In Manoach’s case, perhaps he had a certain dream for his child, a dream wildly interrupted by the angel proclaiming that his son will be a nazir who will save Israel from the Philistines, or perhaps after years of infertility he had given up on his hope for children and can’t quite believe that his quiet life will be turned upside down by parenthood after all. The important point for us is to see in Manoach someone who is taking in only as much as he can, under circumstances which might otherwise completely overwhelm his natural resilience. We’ve all been there, and all of us will someday have a chance to be a patient angel to another person when they need help in slowly awakening to a new and disorienting reality. Manoach isn’t just the father of a great hero, he’s also everyone who has desperately wanted the world to slow down when it’s moving too fast. This calls for great mercy and compassion, which may be easy for angels but requires thought, love and dedication from the rest of us.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

Comments (2)

Matot: Vows and Consequences

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:Matot

Dear Friends:

Many of you know this, but for those who don’t, I’m beginning a transition from the congregational rabbinate to a new role as Director of Spiritual Care Services (e.g., chaplaincy) at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. I will be starting part-time at the hospital, directing a team of chaplains and interns, in August, and then join up full time after Sukkot. In the meantime I’ll do my best to offer some Torah commentary.

Despite the time crunch of two jobs and a busy family, the real challenge in writing a weekly commentary is finding teachings of hope and compassion in our tradition at a time when the world seems so cruel and dark. From kidnappings in Israel (of both Jew and Arab) to the war with Hamas to the apparently accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner in Ukraine, it’s hard to know the religious response to violence and conflict.

Yet as Ben Bag-Bag (yes, that’s really his name) said inPirkei Avot, referring to the Torah, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” This week’s Torah portion, Matot, has three primary topics: vows, in chapter 30; the war against the Midianites, in chapter 31; and preparations for the conquest of the Land, in chapter 32. (See link in second line above for translation of the parsha.) Let’s begin with vows and connect the first two themes of our portion.

Right at the beginning of our portion, Moshe is commanded to tell the people about keeping vows:

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is the thing Lord has commanded:  If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge . . . .

The rabbis notice the unusual phrasing “this is the thing,” [ze ha’davar] and offer an interpretation that “this is the thing” distinguishes how a sage annuls a a vow (another person’s vow, as a court procedure) from how a husband annuls a vow for a wife. (See Rashi on this versehere.) In other words, before we even get to the part which says that we must not break our vows, the rabbis inform us that there IS a way to be released from our vows! As my colleague Rabbi Gail Labovitzdemonstrates, the rabbis learn that the Torah permits the revocation of vows from a verse in which God repents of Divine anger against the people Israel, and if God needs to revoke vows, how much more the rest of us!

As Rabbi Labovitz points out, the rabbis have to find a way for people to annul their vows because people make rash, foolish, inappropriate and cruel vows. We act out of our anger, fear, hatred, anxiety or other emotions, and create situations with dire consequences. So the ancient sages created a safety valve in certain situations, to protect us from ourselves.

As I see it, among the vows which should be broken are vows of vengeance, and this is the subject of the next part of our Torah potion. At the beginning of chapter 31, God tells Moshe to “avenge the Israelites against the Midianites,” and let’s be clear, the verb used [nekamah]  means vengeance,  not justice, and the story that follows describes the wholesale slaughter of men and women alike. Apparently the desire for vengeance comes from the Midianites role in seducing Israelite men to idolatry (there’s some role for the Moabites there, too, but leave that aside for now.) inchapter 25.

Moshe is told to take vengeance for the Israelites, and then he will die. Regardless of what we believe about how a just God could possibly command bloody vengeance, it strikes me as a deep truth that vengeance leads to death for both parties. I’m not talking about a simplistic notion of a “cycle of violence,” though that may apply. Rather, Moshe will take vengeance, but it will not be a life-giving experience for him or the people Israel. Justice is focused, procedural, proportional, and grounded in personal or social values. Vengeance is an expression of rage, and brings with it collective punishment, indiscriminate violence, and the invitation to respond in kind. Vengeance cannot satisfy.

This is why the ancient rabbis allowed us to annul certain vows- because we make them rashly, and then feel compelled to follow through. In Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other areas of conflict and war, cries of vengeance go up after every terrible act, but this solves nothing. Would that those who call out for blood would annul their own vows and seek justice instead. Justice may require war, but its aims are wholly different than revenge. That’s a hard and subtle distinction, but one which needs to be shouted from the rooftops and brought to the politicians, for the sake of our very world.

Shabbat Shalom,



Leave a Comment

Korach: Seeing the Individual

Copyright 2014 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.

“As for me, I have grown old and gray — but my sons are still with you — and I have been your leader from my youth to this day.(1 Samuel 12:1-2)

Good morning! I apologize for the spotty postings over the past few months, but I hope to be a more regular commentator over the summer.

The lines in bold above are from this week’s haftarah, an excerpt from the book of Shmuel in which the prophet Shmuel accedes to the people’s wish to have a king like other nations and peoples. Shmuel willingly, albeit reluctantly, turns power over to a king, in sharp contrast to Korach, the eponymous antagonist of this week’s Torah portion. Korach, you may remember, is a Levite prince who leads a rebellion of chieftains against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.

Besides the contrast of Korach’s power-grab with Shmuel’s faithful obedience, another interesting connection is in the prophet’s own history: Korach was Shmuel’s ancestor. (See here for more on t hat.) Korach divided the Jewish people, but Shmuel united them under a king. In a way, you might say he did t’shuvah for his ignoble predecessor.

OK, so far, so good. Yet the story doesn’t stop with the prophet Shmuel; if you refer to the verses in bold above, you see that in giving the people a king, he refers to his sons, who will still be with the people after he has died. One medieval commentator interprets this as Shmuel meaning “my sons will be able to impress upon you my Torah teachings after I am gone.”

Well, that would be nice, but the problem is, Shmuel’s sons were corrupt and evil men, and everybody already knew that long before the events reported in this week’s text. In fact, if you go back to chapter 8, you find that it’s precisely because Shmuel’s sons do not “walk in his ways” that the people demand a king- his sons are not fit for leadership.

So why does Shmuel say, “I have grown old, but my sons are still with you?” We might  understand him as saying that his sons might someday be worthy men, or perhaps he’s saying they can teach in his name even if they are otherwise not of good character. (If we demanded only spiritually perfect teachers of Torah there wouldn’t be very many.) Then again, maybe he’s just in denial about how corrupt they really are, which is understandable for a parent.

Whatever the reason that Shmuel brings up his (no-goodnik) sons, bringing them into the story deepens our understanding that we cannot judge another by tribe, name or lineage. Korach was a Levite, a cousin to Moshe and Aharon, yet despised his birthright and perverted his role of leadership. Shmuel was descended from this demagogue- and was one of the greatest leaders and uniters of the Jewish people. Yet his own sons were corrupt and greedy men, who are remembered only for their avarice.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching to the effect that God created humankind from one man and one woman so that nobody could ever say, “my father is better than yours.” We learn that again this week, along with is corollary: children should never be judged by the parents, but we must instead see people as unique and responsible for their own character. Collective judgment is alien to the belief that we are all created in the Divine Image, and each of us is responsible for making that spark of Divinity manifest as best we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



Leave a Comment

Korach: The Possibility of Conscience

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

“Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who of God and who is holy, and will draw him close . . . .’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 16:5)

Greetings! The book of Numbers is full of stories of conflict and competition, and this week’s reading is perhaps the most intense instance of this ongoing theme. Korach, a fellow Levite, challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, threatening them with his sidekicks and a large gang of angry men. Moshe answers their challenge first by “falling on his face”- perhaps as a sign of humility, or frustration, or as an act of prayer- but then tells Korach and his gang to come back the next morning with their incense-pans, used in the religious offerings, so that God may choose one side or the other.

Our friend Rashi brings an earlier text to answer an obvious question: why the delay? Why not make an immediate and decisive demonstration that Korach was not chosen for leadership? The answer that Rashi brings is twofold: first there was a ruse, telling Korach that nighttime is for drinking and it certainly would not be appropriate to appear before the Holy One intoxicated! (Hence, “come morning. . .”) Then Rashi says Moshe’s real intention was to delay so that Korach and his gang might “go back” – that is, have a change of heart about the rebellion and anger they were directing at Moshe and Aharon.

This is a bit strange but also very beautiful. As I interpret it, the midrash imagines Moshe, who is earlier called the most humble man in Israel, portraying himself as a guy who likes to have a drink at night and therefore can’t appear before the Holy One, in order to create a delay and possibly head off the crisis without unnecessary conflict. In this reading, Moshe wants to put off a confrontation more than he wants to preserve his own dignity; he hopes that Korach will change his mind, rightly understanding that sometimes people need time to “cool off.”

Of course, once it becomes clear that Korach and his co-conspirators will not change their course of action, Moshe demands a clear and unambiguous ratification of his leadership- and gets it when the earth opens up and swallows the rebels whole. (I’ve always understood Korach’s fate to be a visual metaphor for the basic truth that those who like to stir up trouble often get “in over their heads,” so to speak.)

Yet at the beginning of the narrative, if we are to follow Rashi’s lead, Moshe is hopeful for a peaceful resolution, even though he’s been publicly insulted and accused of a power grab. To put it another way: Korach and his gang may have lost their faith in Moshe, but Moshe didn’t lose his faith in them, or the power of conscience to turn a human heart. That faith in the potential of conscience and t’shuvah is what allows Moshe to portray himself as drunk in the night- because for a peacemaker and true leader, making peace through peaceful means is more important than honor or status or personal dignity. In this case, Moshe’s hopes for reconciliation were not realized, but as for us- how often do we truly believe that those who hate us might change and repent? What a different world it might be if only we gave each other the chance to prove ourselves better people, as Moshe is understood to have done when faced with the greatest challenge in his long years of leadership.

Shabbat Shalom,



Leave a Comment

Shlach-Lecha: Don’t Turn Astray

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Bamidbar/ Numbers 15:39)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion starts off with a grand narrative and ends up on with the small fringes on our garments- but these are not unrelated, as we shall see. The grand narrative is that of the spies going up to the Land of Israel, ten of whom came back discouraged and disheartened, and brought the people down with them into despair. Two spies tried to give the people hope, but it was too late, and that generation was condemned to wander until their children were ready to enter the Land.

Fast forward to the end of the portion, and we have the mitzvah of tzitzit, or attaching fringes to the corners of garments. The reason we do so is given in the verse above: these fringes will remind us of the commandments and then we won’t go astray. (Not that any of y’all would do that, of course.)

Now, what’s interesting is that one commentator, Sefer HaHinnuch [a medieval textbook of the commandments] actually lists “not following our hearts and eyes” as a separate commandment by itself. (Others disagree.) That is, rather than just understanding “not going astray” as the reason for the tzitzit, this source understands the tzitzit to represent an intellectual responsibility not to think about or follow false ideas or immoral things, an obligation we have regardless of what we are wearing.

Of course, that’s a high bar to set: we spend our whole lives seeking to discern truth and the world is full of distractions and temptations. I don’t believe anybody can “not go astray”- that’s not possible. Rather, I think enumerating this as a separate mitzvah simply means that we should have a spiritual practice of paying attention to what’s grabbing our attention. To wit:: if we’re paying attention to shiny things, we’re paying less attention to love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Rashi makes a wonderful allusion to this when he says that “the heart and eyes are spies for the body: The eyes see, the heart covets and the body sins.” The word he uses for “spies, “ meraglim, is the same as the word for “spies” in the first part of the portion- this can’t be an accident. I think Rashi is implying that just as the spies went up to the Land but got distracted internally (by fear, anxiety, and despair) from the true course of their journey, so too when we go through this life we can get distracted internally by meaningless things which grab our attention and play upon our insecurities. The good news is that we can also go through life with more intentionality ; the tzitzit represent the idea that we can learn to focus on that which is important, rather than ephemeral. Such a reorientation of the eyes and heart is neither easy nor simple, but such is the task of becoming the person we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: for a very different interpretation of tzitzit, see this week’s commentary by R. Jonathan Sacks. It’s great.

Leave a Comment

Beha’alotecha: Embracing Diversity

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 12:1)

Greetings from the lovely (but soggy) Hudson Valley!

This week’s Torah portion contains all kinds of interesting stories and laws, from the duties of the Levites to a narrative of truly epic kvetching in chapter 11. After the people almost tear themselves apart complaining and challenging Moshe and Aharon, the story shifts into a much smaller scope. Apparently there is some tension among the siblings who lead the Israelites; Miriam and Aharon speak against their younger brother Moshe, perhaps using his wife as a pretext for their resentment.

Traditional commentators are perplexed about what, exactly, the siblings are saying about Moshe and/ or his wife. While the literal meaning of “Cushite” is “Ethiopian,” some commentators understand it to mean “beautiful” and interpolate a midrash in which Miriam was speaking out on behalf of Moshe’s wife, criticizing Moshe from separating from her in order to be constantly available for prophecy. Some believe this wife was Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from Midian, but others think perhaps he married another woman at some point after the Exodus.

The conclusion of the story is stark: Miriam is punished by God with an outbreak of skin impurity, and banished from the camp for seven days. Moshe prayed for his sister’s healing, but something about what she did was so inappropriate that it caused her separation from the community. With that in mind, it’s hard to reinterpret the story as one of Miriam’s defense of her sister-in-law. While I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading which puts Miriam in a better light, I think the plain meaning of the text imputes a more serious misdeed than a misguided attempt to fix her brother’s marriage.

Perhaps the most salient reading of this text is not through the creativity of the ancient rabbis but its plainest meaning: e.g., that Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother because he married somebody they didn’t like and didn’t accept. In this view, “Cushite” means just that, an Ethiopian woman, or in other words, somebody whose external features and cultural background may have been different from that of the Israelites. One modern commentator (and former colleague), rejects this interpretation as unlikely given the ethnically mixed background of the group who left Egypt, but I don’t think we’re talking about the larger social condition of the Israelites. Instead, this story focuses on the elite leadership, which could very easily be more susceptible to the idea that others unlike themselves were unacceptable or unfit to join their family.

Perhaps that’s why Miriam drew such strong rebuke from Heaven (we’ll address another time why Aharon didn’t merit the same rebuke): rejecting Jews based on appearances or family background indicates a profound misunderstanding of what defines us as Jews. We are emphatically not a race, nor an ethnic group, but rather a people defined by our religious culture and commitments (understood broadly) and a shared global destiny. We are a people with a mission, not only because of a common history but more importantly because of a shared commitment to live a joyful, ethical Judaism (though there’s more than one way to do that) which binds us in obligations of caring and responsibility.

“That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish” is the punchline of jokes, but it’s a phrase without meaning in a world where Jews by choice and Jews by parentage are of every skin color, cultural background, native language and citizenry. Diversity is our strength and blessing, and embracing every Jew and their family within our communities is a sacred task.

Leave a Comment

Nasso: Gifts and Hope

Copyright 2013  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nasso

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle . .  the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord . . . .(Bamidbar/ Numbers 7:1-3)

Good morning! I hope everybody who just celebrated Shavuot had a lovely holiday with good Torah learning and the appropriate dairy treats. Ironically, we turn immediately to the Torah portion Nasso, which includes among its various laws the rules of the Nazir, who chose a more ascetic life. . . but we’ll deal with that another day. Today I’m more interested in a little detail at the beginning of Chapter 7, which is one of more unusual chapters of the Torah, in that it repeats the same story 12 times. Each of the tribes of Israel sends a nobleman to offer gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and as it turns out, each set of gifts was exactly the same, listed identically in the text.

That’s interesting, but even more interesting is a rabbinic understanding of who these 12 princes were, and for that, we need to go back to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. You might remember that the Egyptians set the Israelites a certain quota of bricks, and held the captains of the people responsible when the people didn’t produce the required amounts:

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. “Why,” they were asked, “did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?” (Exodus 5:14)

This interpretation, cited in early works of midrash, involves a bit of Hebrew wordplay, the details of which are less important than the narrative idea: that these men, who suffered greatly at the hands of their oppressors, and who were caught between the Egyptians and the Israelites in a morally impossible position, could nevertheless bring notable gifts to the Mishkan. Granted, there is some controversy as to why they brought their gifts last rather than first – that is, back in Exodus when they were first collecting materials for the Mishkan–  but to me, what stands out in this reading is faith in human resilience. After the princes were beaten by the Egyptians, they turned bitterly to Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but here they are, standing together with them to create a Sanctuary in the midst of the people.

There are those who suffer, and withdraw from the world, and there are those who suffer, and learn from that suffering to live life at even higher levels of compassion and generosity. To put it more plainly, what the ancient rabbis seem to be saying is this: the princes of the people had been beaten and morally tormented, and nevertheless had gifts to offer. That is a message of profound hope to all those who have experienced pain, injustice or darkness: do not think that you are broken and shamed, for you too have gifts to offer, gifts which bring the Presence of the Holy One into this world, gifts which are the equal of that which anyone else might offer. Do not despair- you have gifts to offer, and the world needs you.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

« Newer Posts · Older Posts »