Archive for Pinchas

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,


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, 


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

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Pinchas: No Envy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Pinchas


Before we have a quick Torah thought for the day, a few brief announcements: 

1) Rabbineal-list is going on vacation for a couple of weeks but will be back soon! 

2) I’m very excited to have a great goal for the end of the summer- I’m going on the Hazon  Hudson Valley – NYC bike ride to raise money for Jewish environmental organizations. 

I’d be so proud if you would consider sponsoring me and being part of this effort. Just click here for more information. You can be the first to sponsor me- I just committed to the ride ! 

Now, on to a brief Torah thought. 

A famous passage from this week’s portion, Pinchas, relates that Moshe had to give over his authority to Joshua, the next leader, in a commissioning ceremony in the presence of the High Priest and the entire community: 

“Moshe did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him—as the Lord had spoken through Moshe. . . “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 27:22-23)

The commentary Torah Temimah brings a teaching from the Talmud which notes that Moshe placed both his hands on Joshua during the leadership commissioning- but a bit earlier, in verse 18, God only tells Moshe to place “his hand” [singular] on him. The Talmud teaches that this shows that a man is not envious of his disciples- that is, Moshe “grabbed it with both hands,” as it were, and did not hold back from raising Joshua up to the level of leadership which Moshe was about to relinquish. 

A small detail- two hands versus the commanded one hand- but it shows an orientation to which most of us can only aspire. It’s so hard to take true joy in the accomplishments of others, without any jealousy, envy, coveting, griping, or gossip. It’s so hard to put ego aside for another- yet here was Moshe, after 40 years of service to his people, ready to see Joshua taking up the mantle, knowing his disciple would achieve what Moshe could not. 

Humility is not thinking “I’m a nothing, others are better than me.” Humility like Moshe’s is knowing that each of us has a unique capability to do something extraordinary to heal this broken world – usually one interaction at a time. Moshe could empower Joshua with both hands when the time was right, setting an example for each of us to rejoice and be grateful for those moments when we can raise up others, and in doing so, be truest to ourselves. 

Shabbat Shalom, 



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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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Pinchas: Priest and Prophet

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

We’ve just entered the “Three Weeks” between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the
9th of the month of Av; these three weeks are a sad and penitential
period, culminating in the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av], a memorial day of
fasting for the disasters of Jewish history.

As a way of evoking reflection in this semi-mourning period, the three
haftarot of the “Three Weeks” are prophetic texts which rebuke the
Israelites and call them to account for their misdeeds. This week’s
haftarah is from the book of Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah, and comprises the
opening passages of the book, in which the prophet receives his
commission to preach difficult words to his people.

Like Moshe, Yirmiyahu doesn’t feel qualified to speak as a prophet,
but is given two visions: the branch of an almond tree and a “steaming
pot,” to impress upon him the importance and meaning of his task.
(Jer. 1:11-14) The “steaming pot tipped away from the north” seems to
symbolize the trouble that will come from the north, in the form of
invading armies (that’s not the only interpretation, but we’ll leave
further discussion for another day), but why would the prophet be
given the vision of an almond branch?

Let’s see the verse in context:

” The Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me:

‘Herewith I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.’

The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I
replied: ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’

The Lord said to me:
‘You have seen right,
For I am watchful to bring My word to pass.’ ” (Jer 1:9-12)

In Hebrew, the almond is “shaked,” which seems to be a pun on the word
for “watchful” (shoked) in the following verse. So on the most basic
level, the vision of the almond branch (or rod) is a kind of visual
metaphor: the prophet sees the branch and is reassured that God will
be “watchful,” that is, reliable or trustworthy, to bring about
accountability to the people.

However, this wouldn’t be the first time the rod of an almond tree has
appeared as an important symbol: recall Bamidbar/Numbers 17, where
Aharon’s staff blossomed with almonds as a sign that God had picked
him to become the priest. Not only that, but the Jewish Study Bible (a
great resource- go get it!) has a note in which we learn that
archaeologists found a pomegranate-shaped cap to a staff with an
inscription which indicated that it belonged to priests or Levites,
serving in the Temple. So with that piece of evidence, and the story
from Numbers, we might assume that the vision of the almond staff is a
way of signifying priestly authority, which in turn makes sense
because Yirmiyahu himself was a priest.

So maybe the vision of the almond staff is a way of telling the
prophet that his role as priest can no longer be merely ritual, but
must also include the moral message of repentance and return. Hirsch
points out that the word for staff or rod, “makel,” connotes not only
authority but also a means of correction or punishment, as when Bilaam
took his rod to strike his donkey. (Bamidbar 22:27)

Here’s how I put these interpretations together: as a priest,
Yirmiyahu was used to bringing people into the Divine Presence with
rituals and offerings. As prophet, however, he need to bring people
close with words of rebuke and a larger moral vision. The prophecy of
the almond rod means: you have just as much authority with your words
as you would with your rituals, as long as your words come from a
spiritual vision such that their true purpose is bring people back to
their Source.

Seen this way, the almond branch is itself a symbol of the richness of
a religious journey, which at times is contemplative or celebratory,
connecting with God in the manner of our ancestors and bringing great
beauty and depth to our everyday experience. Yet sometimes
spirituality requires great introspection, a “chesbon nefesh,” or
soul-accounting, in which we are called to examine ourselves and our
deeds and get back on the path if we’ve strayed. Both are good, and
neither is the sole component of spiritual growth. The vision of the
almond rod conveys to the prophet that sometimes a priest has to be a
prophet- sometimes we need deep rituals and sometimes we need bracing
words to connect to our Source.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Pinchas: Shofar Sounds

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Pinchas, which has in its
latter section may commandments related to the Jewish calendar. Many
of these mitzvot are connected to the priestly rituals and thus no
longer operative but a few still are, including one which will be
familiar to many reading this:

“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)

Seventh month, first day. . . hmm- sounds like Rosh Hashana, and this
verse is indeed one of the sources of the commandment to blow the
shofar on the New Year. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:24.) The textual
wrinkle is that our verse, above, doesn’t actually mention shofar- it
says that this day will be a “yom teruah,” or “day of horn-sounds,” as
it were. To connect “teruah” (a sounding of the horn) to “shofar” (the
kind of horn we use on Rosh Hashana), the rabbis rely on another
verse, Vayikrah 25:9, in which the two words appear together in
relation to the “Yovel” [Jubilee] year, in which servants are
released, debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original

So right away shofar has positive associations: freedom, redemption,
justice. Another very interesting insight comes from Sefer HaHinnuch
(a medieval textbook of the commandments, which I’m paraphrasing a
bit), which points out that the shofar is a commandment based on a
particular physical object, but which has a spiritual purpose, that of
“arousing” or “awakening” [me’orer] a human being. Since human beings
are physical, embodied beings, we need a physical, tangible object to
awaken us, like soldiers being aroused for war by the sounding of

Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that we should be stirred up or
awakened on Rosh Hashana for the purpose of asking forgiveness for our
misdeeds and mercy from the Holy One. The shofar sound called “teruah”
is especially good for this because it’s “broken,” that is, a series
of short, quick sounds, “broken” like the broken heart of one who is
trying to do t’shuvah, or returning.

I think this insight is an important one: as humans, we are not
ethereal spiritual beings. If so, prayer and study itself might be
enough for Rosh Hashana. Everything we do is in our bodies- all our
acts of compassion and charity and caring and the baser deeds as well.
So we take a physical object- the shofar- and use it to speak to the
heart, thus integrating the senses and desires of the body with our
emotions and aspirations. It’s not one or the other, because we are
never spiritual beings without embodied existence. It’s always both
together, body and spirit, mind and heart, as one, always returning.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Pinchas: Fire and the Mountain

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

It’s summertime, and the leyning is easy. . . . well, only because
this week includes some passages which are often read in the synagogue
as the maftir (concluding Torah reading) on festivals and Rosh Hodesh,
the new month. Before we get to those passages, which describe the
daily and special offerings in the Mishkan, [portable Sanctuary], we
have the conclusion of the story of Pinchas, a genealogical review of
the Israelites, and the story of the daughters of Zelophchad and their
legal case to inherit from their father. After all that, including
instructions to Moshe on appointing his successor, the Torah turns
back to the regular operation of the Mishkan, where the hereditary
priests made offerings of animals, wine, grain and oil.

Chapter 28 begins with the daily offerings, called “tamid,” or
“continual” offerings, since they were done morning and evening, every

“And you shall say to them: ‘This is the fire offering which you shall
offer to the Lord: two unblemished lambs in their first year each day
as a continual burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer up in the
morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. . . .
A continual burnt offering, as the one offered up at Mount Sinai, for
a spirit of satisfaction, a fire offering to the Lord.’ ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 28 3-6, abridged.)

What’s interesting about this passage is the reference to Mount Sinai,
which seems a bit out of place and thus attracts commentary. The JPS
translation- found in the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary-
solves the problem by translating “olat tamid ha’asuyah b’har Sinai”
as “the regular burnt offering instituted on Mount Sinai.” It is true
that the tamid was indeed “instituted” on Mt. Sinai- that is, we got
the instructions for it along with the other laws of the Torah- but
it’s equally plausible to translate the passage as it is above, which
would indicate that the daily offering in the Mishkan was like the one
done on or at Mt. Sinai.

So which one is that? Our friend Rashi offers two explanations (for
the price of one!) First, he says that this “tamid” offering was like
the one done at Mt. Sinai when Aharon and his sons were invested as
priests, way back in Exodus 29. Rashi’s second theory is that this
daily offering was like the one offered by Moshe and some young men at
the foot of the mountain, when the people all agreed to the Torah and
its laws- this is at the beginning of Exodus 24. Rashi actually thinks
this episode happened before the Torah was given, even though in the
text it occurs some four chapters later- that’s a discussion for
another day.

S. R. Hirsch makes the connection between the daily offerings, which
were consumed by fire, and the “consuming fire” which appeared on Mt.
Sinai when the Torah was given. (Cf. Exodus 19). Hirsch sees the
daily offerings as a kind of regular reenactment of the offerings at
Sinai, not only because of the symbolism of the fire, but also because
the people promised there to live by the Torah’s covenant- the daily
offerings are a tangible symbol of daily rededication to that promise.

I see all of these explanations as tied together by a common idea:
that the daily offerings were not only a reminder of what happened at
Mt. Sinai, but represent our desire to recreate as best we can the
experience of feeling the Divine Presence immanent to and transforming
our lives. Hence the symbolism of fire- fire transforms that which it
touches, for better or worse, and so too an authentic spiritual
experience has the potential to deeply change a person, should they be
open to it.

To put it another way, Sinai is the place where the Divine Presence
broke through to humankind and forever changed the course of human
history (imagine no Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam.) The daily
offerings were our attempt to reach back to God, to bring the Presence
into our midst, to keep the fires burning, as it were, so the insights
and spiritual energy of Sinai were not lost. (I also like the
implication of Rashi’s first theory that the daily offerings gave a
measure of priesthood to the entire nation.)

What was true for our ancestors is true for us: regular spiritual
practices of prayer, study, and compassion are the discipline which
enable us to stay true to the powerful, transformative “Sinai moments”
which leave us humbled yet energized. Dramatic experiences of the
Divine don’t always happen right when we need them, but small,
recurring acts of spiritual practice open us up to the Sacred
Presence, over time, in no less powerful ways. Our offerings are not
agricultural, but of the heart and soul. Our prayers may be said in
Poughkeepsie, but they raise us up and calls us toward the sacred, no
less awesome and holy as the offerings of Moshe and the dedication of

Shabbat Shalom,


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