Archive for 4. Numbers

Chukat: Speak Words of Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:7-8, JPS translation)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Chukat is long and varied, containing many interesting and dramatic narratives, including strife in the wilderness, the decree that Moshe will not enter the Land, and the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The beginning of chapter 20 relates the famous story of “striking the rock,” with the resultant terrible decree on Moshe, who was apparently supposed to speak to the rock when the people cry out for water, as in the verse above. Instead, he struck it with his staff, and is told that he will never enter the Land.

There is oodles and oodles of rabbinic commentary on what, exactly, Moshe did that was so bad, but we won’t get into that today. (You can check out commentaries on that topic here, here, and here.) Rather, I’m interested in a fascinating midrash related to what Moshe was ostensibly supposed to do when the people cried out for water, and there were only rocks around them. The late medieval commentator known as the Or HaChaim (from his famous book of that title) quotes an earlier text to which interprets “order the rock” [literally, “speak to the rock before their eyes”] as “study Torah by the rock,” or maybe even to teach Torah to the rock itself ! The text says that Moshe should have spoken just “a single paragraph” to the stone; given that rocks, unlike people, don’t have ears to hear or minds to understand, what could this possibly mean?

The verse itself is clear that Moshe was supposed to speak to the rock, not just whack it with a stick, but the image of studying Torah by- or with- the rock suggests that the better way to get water from a rock is a more meditative approach, rather than frantic action. This is not about a miracle of hydrology, it’s about what it takes to draw out from others something deep and nourishing: first, go to your innermost core, reminding yourself of your deepest ideals and sense of connection.

Then, speak words of Torah- that is, words which are grounded in our best selves, our most authentic ethical and spiritual traditions and paradigms. That’s how you draw out something sustaining when the community is “dry” of ideas, hopes, and vision. “Speaking Torah to the rock” can mean: Moshe, if you’re swinging sticks around when the people are scared, go back to your own source of innermost meaning- study some Torah so that you act from a place of spiritual intentionality, not negativity, resentment or anger towards the people.

Dealing with human beings- stubborn, stiff-necked and complaining, as all of us are, at least some of the time- often requires a reorientation of our attitude before we can be effective agents of hope and care. Even Moshe had to remember who he was- a teacher, a leader, a lover of Israel, grounded in sacred ideals- before he could give others what they needed. It’s no great failing to want to strike the rock; we fail only ourselves when in haste we forget to slow down and take in Torah and its vision of compassionate humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beha’alotcha: The Greater Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand. . . .’ “(Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1-2)

Good evening! For those who just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, I hope you had a wonderful and inspiring holiday. The weekly Torah reading rolls on (as it were) through the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, so called for its theme of counting and organizing the Israelites as they prepare to go on their journey.

Last week, the portion ended with a dramatic scene: 12 princes, one from each of the 12 tribes, brought gifts of gold and silver for the dedication of the Mishkan. This week, the portion opens up with the commandment for Aharon and his sons- the priests- to light and maintain the menorah, or lampstand, in the Mishkan, as part of their daily duties.

In the Torah text itself, there is no particular connection of the narrative of the dedication to the giving of additional laws pertaining to the service in the Mishkan, but our friend Rashi brings an older midrash which sees the commandment to light the menorah as a consolation to Aharon, the High Priest.

Rashi’s comment goes something like this:

“Why was the section [of the Torah] pertaining to the menorah connected to the section of the princes? [who each brought a gift for the Mishkan in the previous chapter.] When Aharon saw the princes doing the dedication [of the Mishkan], his spirits fell, because he was not with them in the dedication- not him and not his tribe. So the Holy One said to him: ‘by your life! yours is greater than theirs, because you will light and maintain the menorah! ‘ ”

Remember, the tribe of Levi was separated from the other tribes, set apart for religious service to the community. So Aharon didn’t get to bring a gift of gold or silver, but according to the midrash, he was consoled with the idea that  the merit of his deed was even greater. Other commentators suggest that the menorah was assembled, lighted, and cleaned every day; this was not a dramatic act of great ceremony, but a quiet act of inner dedication and humble service.

What’s striking about the story Rashi brings is that Aharon, as High Priest, does all kinds of important rituals and is a great public leader among the Israelites. He even atones for the entire community on Yom Kippur, going into the Holy of Holies, where nobody else is permitted to enter! Given Aharon’s very prominent role in the life of Israel, the idea that simply lighting the lamps is of such importance reminds us that small acts which benefit others can be more important to the religious life of the community than even gifts of gold.

Think for a moment about a typical synagogue: there are countless small tasks that keep it going, from organizing the Torah readings to ordering the cakes and cookies to overseeing the budget and maintaining the building. Many of these tasks are true gifts of love performed by volunteers, often without recognition or public appreciation. What Rashi reminds us is that the merit of giving of oneself is great indeed, and should be honored greatly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Naso: Living Fully In The World

 Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  As his offering to the Lord he shall present: one male lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering; one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering. . . . “ (Bamidbar / Numbers 6:13:-14)

Good morning!

In this week’s portion, we learn the laws of the nazir– a person who had taken a vow of dedication to God who then had to leave his hair untrimmed, avoid any and all intoxicating beverages, and not go near the dead. (More here and here.) There’s lots of commentaries explaining how those three prohibitions go together to fulfill the purpose of the nazirite vow, but for now let’s just go with the common understanding that wine and other intoxicating beverages are symbolic of sensory pleasure, while leaving the hair uncut is a rejection of vanity and outward appearances.

So far, so good- the nazirite wanted to enter into an ascetic state for a temporary period, and refrained from celebrating the pleasures or appearance of the body for that time. I can easily understand why someone would want to do that: for reflection, for introspection, for discipline, for spiritual commitment and rejuvenation.

Notice, however, that when the term of the nazirite vow is over, before he cuts his hair, thenazir brings a sin offering. Some commentaries interpret this to imply that rejecting sensory pleasures and social norms (e.g., looking totally untrimmed and ungroomed set one apart) isn’t actually desirable, over the long run. There is a balance between body and soul, and one who chooses to remove him or herself from the world we live in may tip the scales too far in one direction- even if his goal is spiritual dedication and growth.

Seen this way (but this isn’t the only way to see it), the nazir’s vow of abstention from pleasure and withdrawal from normal society is not an unalloyed good- to which I would add the thought that a spirituality which can only be practiced in asceticism and solitude is not a viable spirituality for the long path of life. Sometimes going on retreat is absolutely necessary, to place bodily pleasure and social conventions in their proper perspective. For example, consider  how we refrain from bodily pleasure and adorning ourselves on Yom Kippur.

The example of the nazir reminds us that there are more important things in life than nice meals and a stylish appearance; I’d go so far as to say those things are fairly far down the list of things to which we might dedicate our lives. Yet life is a blessing, to be enjoyed when possible, and Judaism also reminds us to rejoice with wine and dress l’kavod Shabbat [in honor of the Sabbath] weekly.

Perhaps the nazir brings the sin-offering only because it’s hard to get the balance of life just right: in withdrawing from the world, just a bit, the nazir also denies the beauty and blessing of embodied existence. To be dedicated to God is a beautiful thing; to live fully in God’s beautiful world is also part of an integrated spirituality. The sin-offering of the nazir remind us not to trade one for the other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Matot-Masei: Unselfish Prayers

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot-Masei

The double portion of Matot and Masei concludes the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. Laws are given for annulment of vows, spoils of war, and division of lands. The history of the decades in the wilderness is reviewed and the portions conclude with laws for cities of refuge and more on the division of the land.

It’s hot in Poughkeepsie!

Probably not as hot as it was those 40 years in the desert, though, so who am I to complain? This week we finish the book of Bamidbar – literally, “in the wilderness”- with laws that only apply once the people arrive in the land of Israel. Among those laws are the cities of refuge, to which someone who accidentally killed another might flee, safe from avenging family members of the victim. The one who committed manslaughter was safe as long as he was in the city of refuge; if he went out of the city, and was met by a blood-avenger. . . .well, let’s just say he should have stayed home and caught up on reruns.

However, the term of the manslayer’s confinement is variable: in a seemingly odd detail, the Torah tells us that the accidental killer must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Cf. Bamidbar 35:25.) It makes sense that remaining in the city of refuge is not a permanent sentence- after all, it was an accident, and presumably some period away from home gives the victim’s family time to cool off and forgive. (As an aside: if one could forgo vengeance in the case of manslaughter, as the Torah seems to hope, isn’t it rather embarrassing to realize all the lesser things we struggle to forgive?)

Yet commentators have no consensus regarding the seeming non sequitur of the death of the High Priest- what does he have to do with a mishap far from the capital ? Our friend Rashi brings two interpretations from earlier texts: first, the High Priest and the killer are sort of cosmic opposites. The HP blesses the people with life, but the killer causes death, and is thus unworthy of standing before the current High Priest and is only free when the next one takes office, presumably “resetting” the cycle of guilt and innocence.

Rashi’s second interpretation is more germane to our year 5770 theme of prayer and spirituality: the life of the HP and the freedom of the accidental killer are connected because the priest should have prayed that such a terrible thing should not have happened in his lifetime. Notice, please, that in the first interpretation, the killer was confined because he was unworthy of being in the presence of that particular High Priest; in the second, it’s the High Priest whose death atones in some way for a problem for which he bore some responsibility.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that the priest, way off in Jerusalem, is responsible for a bar fight in Beersheva, regardless of the intensity of his prayer. Rather, I think we can take from this midrash that the High Priest should have included the safety of all the citizens in his prayers; his failure to pray for the well-being of the people reflected a shortcoming in his spiritual leadership. Prayer, if it is genuine, is unselfish and broadens our vision; when we pray for others, we take into our hearts their pain and needs, and displace the incessant self-centeredness that gets in the way of compassion.

Accidents happen, and are not typically prevented by good davenning. What is prevented by prayer is indifference to suffering. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in the moment; it’s about becoming more deeply aware of our connectedness to others- because we area all, in the end, part of One-  so that their welfare is our own. So perhaps the death of the High Priest was an atonement for indifference, or perhaps it was imagined as such an occasion for mourning in Israelite society that people had no desire to see more pain and loss. In either case, for us, the question remains: how shall we make our prayers other-directed, inclusive, compassionate, and unselfish? Of course- when we change our prayers, we change ourselves.

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Pinchas: Additional Offerings

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the Torah portion Pinchas, we begin with an accounting of families and tribes, continue with the changes demanded by the daughters of Zelophechad, set the stage for Joshua to succeed Moshe, and end with many laws regarding many of the ancient offerings: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly holidays.

Greetings at the end of a beautiful week!

The end of this week’s Portion is a long list of special offerings- bulls, lambs, rams, wine and flour- made in the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, daily and on special occasions. The direct connection with our prayer service is in the musaf, or additional prayer, recited on Shabbat and the holidays. In the musaf prayer, we take the text describing the ancient offerings and recite it as if the words were the offerings themselves. Thus, on Shabbat, the core of the musaf prayer is the law of the Shabbat service in the Mishkan:

“On the sabbath day: two yearling lambs without blemish, together with two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in as a meal offering, and with the proper libation —  a burnt offering for every sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 28:9-10)

When discussing musaf prayers, many commentaries bring a text from the prophet Hosea:  “Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; saying: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips’ ” (Hosea 14:3)

This idea- that we offer words in place of agricultural sacrifices- allows us to have a direct historical and theological link to the ancient practices of our Biblical ancestors, and for many Jews, myself included, that sense of historical continuity is itself spiritually grounding and broadening. Other commentators say that the ancient offerings were expressions of gratitude for the blessings of the land, and while most of us may not have bulls and rams in our backyard, we are no less dependent on the blessings of the land than our ancestors were, and therefore no less obligated to cultivate an awareness of that interdependence with nature and express humble gratitude for it.

Yet musaf isn’t only about the past (our ancestor’s practice) and the present (our gratitude for our blessings.) It’s also about the future, since most traditional versions of the prayer include the hope that someday we will return to Jerusalem to once again make these offerings as before. Because of that, some prayerbooks omit, abridge or modify the musaf prayer; for example, the Conservative prayerbook Sim Shalom uses language of once again worshiping where our ancestors did, rather than how our ancestors did.

For me, the traditional language of restoring sacrificial offerings doesn’t pose a dire theological dilemma, because I understand the language of the prayerbook as poetic and evocative in its use of images. I don’t literally want to restore offerings of bulls and rams, but the image of doing so allows me to imagine that the pain and brokenness of two millennia in exile have been totally healed and our people fully renewed and made whole.

I experience musaf as a powerful expression of faith and hope, a theological commitment not to ancient offerings but to overcoming cynicism and despair. Reading the headlines, it’s often impossible to believe that someday Jerusalem will be a place of perfect peace and utter joy for all her children, yet that’s what musaf asks us to imagine. There is no hope without imagination, yet with hope and faith, the world will be made new again.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Balak: Good Tents

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This week the Moabite king Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Bilaam’s mission, interrupted by an angel and a talking donkey, ends when his planned curse turns into a blessing for the camp of Israel.

Hello from the humid but not unpleasant Hudson Valley! This week we learn that curses can be turned into blessings: when Bilaam goes to a mountain to curse the Israelites below, he instead blesses and praises them:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water . . . . ”     (Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5-7)

Commentators have asked what the big deal is with nice tents and dwellings: Rashi quotes an earlier texts which says that Bilaam saw all the tents of the Israelites arranged for maximum privacy, which made the camp itself “good,” in the sense of morally and socially upright. Hirsch, on the other hand, thinks that the tents and dwellings are the houses of prayer and study which Israel establishes, and this interpretation, while anachronistic, fits with the liturgical use of the first line, above, at the beginning of the morning prayer service. That is- if the “tents” and “dwelling places” are really our synagogues and schools, then it makes perfect sense, when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, to say, hey, this is a good thing, I’m grateful to be here. (That is something that Mr. Not-So-Morning-Person writing this needs to remember!)

On the other hand, Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier sources, also gives us something to think about, because Rashi seems to say that the Bilaam blessed the camp of Israel because they were praiseworthy- that is, it wasn’t just that God opened Bilaam’s mouth in a certain way, but he was also moved by what he saw before him. In other words, if you want to be blessed, act in ways that bring blessing upon yourself ! This, too, is a powerful kavanna, or focus, before our morning spiritual disciplines, because it reframes the petitions we make, turning them into opportunities to think about the goodness and peace that we create (or don’t) as we go about the day.

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov. . . . . “How good are your tents, Jacob!,” can be a call to gratitude, if we follow Rashi, or a call to make ourselves worthy of blessing, if we follow Hirsch, but in either case, it’s also worth noting that these words, in the first few pages of our prayerbook, are spoken by one of the famous non-Israelites of the Torah. Perhaps those who turned this verse from scripture into prayer also wanted us to realizing something about the universality of spiritual experiences: being moved to utter a blessing upon seeing wondrous goodness is something for which anyone might hope. We pray a Jewish liturgy- that’s our heritage, our path, and our discipline- but prayer itself doesn’t belong to one religion or spiritual path. It is the “universal port” to connect to our Source- and perhaps that’s one of the most important lessons this brief verse teaches us bright and early in the morning.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- for an interesting exploration of the history of the “Mah tovu” prayer, go here, and for a guide to pronouncing it and a melody which fits the words, go here.

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Chukat: Waters of Strife

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Chukat

The portion Chukat begins with the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer, a red cow which is sacrificed in order to purify those who are ritually impure. Miriam dies, and there is strife and thirst. Aharon dies, and the people have a difficult path through hostile nations.

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’ Those are the Waters of Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12-13)

One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is the story of the “waters of Merivah,” found in Bamidbar 20:2-13. The people are thirsty and cry out for water, and God gives Moshe instructions to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Moshe instead strikes the rock (after making a snarky comment to the complainers), and is told that because he did not trust God enough in the sight of the people, he would not continue to lead the people into the Land. The place where this happened is called Merivah, from the word “quarrel,” as the Torah itself explains in the text above.

Let’s set aside the question of whether striking the rock was so bad that Moshe deserved to be punished- that’s a famous question and there’s lots of commentary on that. Since our theme this year is connections between the Torah and the prayerbook, instead let’s note a reference to these events at a most un-strife-ful time: the beginning of Shabbat. To wit: at the beginning of the service called Kabbalat Shabbat, we recite 7 psalms, beginning with Psalm 95, which begins with the invitation to sing together but also bids us to be different than those who grumbled at Merivah:

“Harden not your heart, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;
When your ancestors tried Me, proved Me, even though they saw My work . . . ” (Ps.95:8-9)

The story of Merivah, both in Bamidbar 20 and an earlier version in Shmot/Exodus 17, seems to represent resentment, anxiety, and lack of broader perspective on the part of the people who were speaking out against Moshe. Yet it also seems that Moshe didn’t act out of the deepest compassion- after all, the people were thirsty and fearful, and he appeared to respond with frustration rather than understanding of their needs.

So getting back to Psalm 95, above: as we go into Shabbat, perhaps the reference to Merivah reminds us that what we have, for the next 25 hours, is probably enough; Shabbat is a time to let go of the anxieties and fears and wanting “more” which pervade our working hours. Shabbat is a time to put away our resentments and impossible expectations- of God and each other- so that we can make sacred community in joy. We slow down so we can see more clearly what we have, and what we need, so there is not strife, but peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Korach: A Life of Service

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Korach

In this week’s portion, named for its protagonist, a gang of resentful Levites and tribal leaders start a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, who beg them to reconsider. The rebels are swept away in a miracle, and the parsha concludes with a set of laws for the priests and Levites.

Shalom from sunny Poughkeepsie!

“I hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to the Lord, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 18:6)

After the accusations, recriminations, conflicts, insults and power struggles- and no, I’m not talking about the California and Arkansas primaries, I’m talking about this week’s Torah portion- there is a set of laws in Bamidbar 18 which govern how gifts are given to the Kohanim and Levites. To review: the Levites, descendants of Levi- are set aside as a tribe of service, performing such duties as packing up and carrying the Mishkan and singing psalms in the ancient Temple. The Levites also serve the Kohanim, the priests, who are also Levites but are a special family within the tribe, descendants of Aharon.

To this day, in traditional synagogues, we honor those who are descended from either the Kohanim or Levi’im [Levites] by calling them to the Torah for the first and second aliyot or readings. The Kohanim also offer the “priestly blessing” to the congregation on various occasions, and the Levites re-enact their ancient role of service in washing the hands of the Kohanim before they come up to offer the blessing.

The liberal movements (Reform and Reconstructionist) have by and large done away with the ritual remembrance of Kohen and Levi, and various Conservative synagogues have different practices. On the one hand, it can rub against the grain of a modern, egalitarian ethos to honor members of a hereditary class- especially one which performed animal offerings which most modern Jews would not like to see restored. On the other hand, making new meanings out of our most ancient practices is what connects us as Jews to our shared history and common destiny.

So. . . what do we do with the Kohanim and the Levi’im? One way to understand the honor given to these families is to see the status of Kohen and Levi as representing or symbolizing particular spiritual concepts to which we can all aspire. To me, the idea of a Kohen, a priest, is about being one who feels fully empowered to enter into the presence of the Holy, and helps to bring others into that spiritual state. The Levites, on the other hand, represent the idea of selfless and humble service, giving to others with no need to gather glory.

Let me illustrate this with a story: here at Temple Beth-El, we have recently re-instituted the priestly blessing on holidays, and some months ago, I took two Kohanim and two Levi’im out into the hallway during services for the hand-washing and to go over the prayers. As it happened, the two Levi’im were older gentlemen, both refugees from Europe and both older than the Kohanim whose hands they washed by pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl. It felt wrong to me- should not the younger ones serve the older?

I was humbled and awed by the Levi’im recalling how their fathers took them to do this when they were boys- and humbled and awed that such men would gladly perform a simple task for others. I learned a lesson that day about the meaning of service, about the connection between generosity and humility, about the enduring truth that giving to others is an honor unto itself.

That, to me, is why we honor the Levites- because their ancestors served with joy and song, giving up a share in the Land in order to help the people be close to the Sacred Presence.

That, to me, is something worth remembering.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shlach-Lecha: Big Ideas, Small Reminders

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

This week the Israelites get very close to the Land- but are afraid of what they might find there, and are condemned to spend a generation in the wilderness. Laws of offerings are taught and the parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, or fringes.

Greetings one and all!

So much is going on in the world- sometimes people ask me if I’m going to address the crisis of the day in my d’var Torah, and the answer is, usually not. There are millions of words of political analysis out there, and this is a small sanctuary of Torah study (at least  most of the time.) To put it another way: if I write about the latest political crisis, then me and the New York Times and Fox News will all have covered it- but none of us will have written anything about the Torah portion.

With that. . we’re on the portion Shlach-Lecha, which is mostly about the spies sent up to the Land of Israel but concludes with the laws of tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of the garment. This passage is recited daily as the third paragraph of the Shma:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘ Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 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. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.  I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.’ ”  (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

You might reasonably ask: if the Shma is about Divine Unity, the One Foundation of the cosmos. . . uh, what do little tassels on the garments have to do with that? Talk about moving from the sublime to the ridiculous!

To which I might respond: yes, but Judaism usually takes big ideas and distills them into particular actions. For example, we take the idea that spiritual growth must be given weekly precedent over economic activity- and we practice Shabbat. We take the idea of moving from constriction to freedom, from bondage to true spiritual service, and we make a Pesach seder. We take the idea that God is One- and therefore each moment is an opportunity to make manifest the sacred values of Divine compassion and justice, and we turn that into tzitzit, fringes, which are a visual reminder of the ever-present challenge to “set God before me always.” (Ps. 16:8)

We can’t always live at the highest spiritual levels: although God is One, we are embodied human beings, who get busy, get caught up in things, have our ups and downs, and need to work every day on integrating our ideals with our actions. Tzitzit bring the Shma down to earth, as it were- by including this paragraph in the Shma, the ancient rabbis acknowledged that we will sometimes get distracted from the big spiritual teachings. We sometimes need reminders, because the big spiritual ideas live in ordinary busy people. That’s as it should be: who could reach the level of Shma if we had to get it right the first time?

Tzizit remind us to get back on the spiritual path when we stray; they also remind us that the Torah was not given to angels- but to us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beha’alotcha: Torah In Front

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

Beha’alotcha has the Israelites preparing to leave Sinai. There are instructions for how to break camp, carry the Mishkan, and travel in formation, but as soon as the Israelites go into the wilderness, complaining and rebellion begin. At the conclusion of the portion, Moshe has a sibling conflict with Aharon and Miriam, for which Miriam is punished.

Greetings! I’ve been at the Rabbinical Assembly conference in New York, where there was much light (and some heat), appropriate for the week of Torah portion Beha’alotcha, which begins with the commandment to Aharon to light a lamp in the Mishkan or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan also contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was usually carried along with the other implements of the Mishkan by various families of Levites. (Cf. Bamidbar ch. 4)

Ok, so far, so good, but in our Torah portion this week, we read that Moshe made a prayer that the Ark of the Covenant would go in front of the camp:

“They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; and the Lord’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

‘ Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You! ‘ ” (Bamidbar / Numbers 10:33-35)

Those familiar with the morning synagogue service will recognize this verse- at least the half quoted above- as a congregational prayer, usually sung, said right as the Ark is opened and before the Torah is taken out. This connects the story of the Biblical Ark, or aron, which contained the tablets of law given to Moshe, with the story of Torah and the very scrolls in front of us. In this understanding, the Torah scroll is like the tablets given to Moshe, containing words handed down through generations.

The problem is: didn’t we just learn, earlier in chapter 10 (verses 12-21) that the Ark is carried by Levites after the tribes of Yehudah and Ruven? How can Moshe pray that it goes first to scatter enemies? How come it’s traveling in front in these verses but in the middle in verses 12-21?

Various commentators struggle with this contradiction, and explain that there were two Arks (one for the first, broken tablets, and another for the second set)  or this was a one-time exception. Modern Bible scholars assume that these two traditions reflect different historical sources of the text, yet the Torah as we have it includes both images- Ark in front, and Ark in the middle of the camp- for our contemplation.

The brilliance of taking this verse and putting it into our Torah service is that it connects the idea of journey with the routine religious act of taking out the Torah for its weekly readings. We may not be shlepping through the wilderness, but we are- as individuals and as a community- on a journey, one from spiritual constriction (= Egypt) to spiritual liberation and full responsibility for ourselves (= land of Israel.) The Torah “goes in front” when we seek in Torah discourse the challenge to take the next step along our way; the Torah is “in the midst of the camp” when we recognize that Torah (broadly conceived) is what holds us together and gives us common purpose and destiny.

When we open the Ark- in Beacon, Biloxi, or Bozeman- we sing the words of our ancestors on their journey because we hope that the Torah’s message of love and justice will break apart- scatter- the hardness of the heart and enable us to go on our journeys with faith and courage. “Advance, O Lord”- and let us go forward together.

Shabbat Shalom,


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