Archive for 5. Deuteronomy

Nitzavim: A Call to Return

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there the Holy One will fetch you. (D’varim 30:4)

Good afternoon!

In a few days we’re going to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and while there are myriad interpretations and understandings of the sound of the shofar, I think most would agree that it has something to do with jarring us out of complacency, reminding us to think about what kind of people we want to be, and calling us back to God and our better selves. Jews have been sounding the shofar, with this same basic message of wake up-think-return, for thousands of years, and the message, ever year, is more or less the same: wake up-think-return.

Every year the message of the shofar is the same: wake up-think-return, but every year we, as individuals and as a community, might be complacent about different things or have gotten off track in different ways. The message is more or less the same, but the response is timely, personal and unique. The shofar is not innovative, new, creative, contemporary, technological, ideological, political or much different in 2016 as it was in 1816 or 1016. I would even say that this is precisely its power: in a world obsessed with the latest celebrity tweet and the slightest twitch of the 24-hour news cycle, the shofar is ancient, wise and relevant because it asks not the latest and loudest question but the most important one: how shall we live in the year to come?

This week’s Torah portion, always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, contains beautiful language of return, especially the verse at the top of the page, which can be read not only in its plain sense of geographic return to the land of Israel but also as a metaphor: no matter how far you feel from God, from Torah, from the Jewish community, from your own sense of soul and self, you can return. No matter if you’ve gotten so far astray from your ideals that you feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, you can return. No matter if you feel like an outcast or exile, you can return. No matter if the previous year had mistakes, misfires, misdeeds, or missed opportunities, this year you can return and choose a deeper and holier life.

It’s such a simple message: wake up-think-return, yet simple isn’t the same as easy. Looking within, asking ourselves hard questions, turning ourselves back to the Source- definitely not easy, or comfortable, or quick, or painless. Yet that’s what Jews do, year after year, generation after generation, called back by a technology that’s never needed an update and could not be improved with new features. The shofar will call us: wake up-think-return, and the promise is: return is possible, from the ends of the earth or wherever we think we are. If we but take the first steps back, from there the Holy One will fetch you.

Wishing all of you sweet blessings in the New Year,

RNJL

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

 

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Ki Tetzei: The Pain of the Dispossessed

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one — when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses . . . . the birthright is his due. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15:17)

Good morning! It’s been a while since I’ve found the space to write a drasha but I haven’t given up the enterprise just yet!

This week’s portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of various laws, including laws of war, criminal and civil regulations, and laws defining membership in the Jewish people. One law in particular, quoted above, struck me as a potent metaphor in a time of highly divisive and polarized politics. First, let’s understand the plain meaning of the law: if a man has two wives (not a current Jewish practice anywhere, I believe) and loves one but not the other, he can’t disregard normative inheritance law in favor of the children of the beloved wife.

That’s because the first-born gets a double portion of the inheritance, so that he can in turn become the head of the family when the father dies. This is, quite literally, a law that preserves patriarchy, but in its context, perhaps it’s not as unfair as it seems, since the first-born had additional responsibilities along with privileges.

If you’re now thinking, “but wait! didn’t Jacob favor Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel?,” well, you’re right on target, but hold that thought for a moment.

What’s striking about this law is how it explicitly acknowledges and seeks to prevent the destructive effects of someone feeling unfairly cut off from their due. Again, in our worldview it might not be seen as perfectly egalitarian for the later-born sons (and never mind the daughters!) to receive less than the first born, but in the world of ancient Israel, this was the norm, and a system that allowed for family patriarchs to provide for and protect the clan. Arbitrarily favoring one son over the other would tear families apart. In fact, that’s precisely what happened when Jacob favored Joseph over his older sons- they threw him into the pit and sold him into slavery, not the intended result, I would imagine.

Whether or not this law is a response to the emotional failings of the patriarchs in Genesis, remembering what happened to Joseph, how he was resented by others and the pain that brought to the entire family, gives us a powerful image for the present day. Here in America, there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who feel cut off from their birthright, not given access to what they feel is their due as Americans. On the left you have Black Lives Matters taking to the streets to demand fairness in justice and opportunity; on the right you have whole geographic areas where the white working class has been devastated by deindustrialization, poverty and the neglect of the coastal elites. Social change has left many people with traditional religious values feeling unsure of their place in a rapidly evolving legal and moral landscape, while other groups, such as transgender men and women, are urgently demanding recognition and rights as equal citizens.

It’s not picking sides in the culture wars to say that there are lots and lots of people in America who feel like the child of the unloved mother, at loss to say what happened to their birthright and mad as hell about it. Taking the metaphor one step further, we can react like Joseph’s brothers- with tremendous resentment and anger- or we can try to figure how how to share greater blessings with all.

It’s going to be very hard to address the pain in our country, but if we don’t figure how how to make our fellow citizens feel loved equally and treated fairly, we’re headed, like Joseph, down into a dark pit. Fixing the conflict in our national family is going to require hearing each other with compassion and setting aside prejudices of right and left, color and sexuality, religion and ideology. It’s going to require seeing each other as brothers and sisters, not as deplorable and not as evil, but as children of the Living God.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S. See here for a good explanation of how this law hearkens back to the Genesis story, and others have discussed this as well.

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

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D’varim: All are Responsible

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. . . (D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1)

Good morning!

We begin a new Torah portion this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, D’varim– literally, “words,” as in the words that Moshe spoke to the Israelites before they crossed over into Israel. Rashi and others understand the theme of D’varim- both the Torah portion and the entire book- to be tochechah, or “rebuke,” to the people for all the times they forgot or angered God.

Rashi has several examples of this in his commentary on this opening verse but he also focusses on the word “all” in the verse: “these are the words [of rebuke, according to Rashi] that Moshe addressed to all Israel.” Rashi brings an almost comical example, which loosely paraphrased goes like this :

If people had been out in the market and didn’t hear Moshe’s rebuke, they could have said, “hey, you heard what Moshe said about this and that, and you didn’t object! But if we had been there, we would have answered him right back.” So Moshe brought all of them together and said, “see, you’re all here, if anybody has an objection, speak up!”

Now, your first question to Rashi might be: what market? They were out in the desert across the Jordan river! The anachronistic example tips us off that his commentary is not meant to be taken literally but rather as an illustration of the human tendency to believe that societal or collective problems are somebody else’s problem and responsibility, not our own. That is, if Moshe had rebuked me, I’d have a great answer as to why the difficulties of the Jewish people or the world at large aren’t my fault- but you other people have no answer for him!

The Torah portion D’varim is always read before the observance of Tisha B’Av, the sad memorial day of fasting and penitence. Tisha B’Av is in many ways the beginning of the season of the Days of Awe. We sit and fast and reflect upon the brokenness of the world precisely so we can take responsibility for our own piece of that brokenness, or at the very least, our failure to fix what we can, starting within ourselves. Whether it’s causeless hatred or the breakdown of social bonds or what seems like a massive failure of mutual understanding among various communities within our greater polity, the rebuke for these problems is on all of us. In a different (but not so different) context, Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”*

Moshe called all the people to account; nobody was permitted to say, “this doesn’t apply to me.” Should we be any different in deeply reflecting upon how to bring healing and repentance to a shouting and violent world?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*There are various versions of this quote but the gist is the same.

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

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Re’eh: The Easy and the Hard

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh 

All that I command you, be careful to do it.  You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it. . . . .(D’varim/ Deuteronomy 13:1)

Good afternoon! Well, we seem to be in an every-other-week Torah commentary pattern around here. Alas, the spirit is willing but the time-management skills are weak.

At least we’re in for Re’eh, a very interesting Torah portion, which encompasses a tirade against idolatry, an impassioned plea to care for the poor, rules for kosher eating, and a review of the shaloshregalim, or pilgrimage holy days. The beginning of Chapter 13 (no, not that Chapter 13, though after buying an old house that needs work, I’m considering it) is a warning against following false prophets who might lead the people away from the laws or practices of the Torah, and most commentators see the opening verse above in that context. In this view, a commandment to do “all that I command you,” and “don’t add or subtract from it” is the beginning of the injunction against false prophets, who might claim to have a Divine mandate to change, abrogate, or add new laws to the Torah.

Obviously, the whole idea of adding to, or subtracting, from the Torah is the subject of much debate in the modern world; we see some laws of the Torah very differently than a premodern society, and have in some cases a different sense of the overarching moral sensibility of Judaism within which the specific laws are interpreted. On the other hand, our friend Rashi takes the first clause of our verse and lets it stand on its own, interpreting “All that I command you” as implying that you have to be careful to do both “the easy things and the hard things.”

What strikes me about Rashi’s comment is we don’t have to agree on the particulars of any practice, commandment or principle in order to recognize that all of us- you and me and the rest of humankind- have a tendency to avoid tasks that challenge our self-image, stretch us beyond a comfort zone, confront us with difficult truths, or demand something we don’t want to give. I would even say that we often confuse what’s hard and what’s easy in Judaism: after all, in the age of Tofurky and national supermarkets, it’s not that hard to keep kosher, but it’s never, ever been easy to guard one’s speechwhen talking of others.

I think every branch of Judaism, from the most liberal to the most stringent, would agree that some of the commandments and principles are harder than others, including:

Forgivness (requires letting go of moral certitude and owning our piece of the mess)

Humility    (requires foregoing privilege and being other-directed)

T’shuvah   (requires accepting our own imperfections and letting go of righteous blame)

Visiting the Sick  (requires confronting mortality and the inevitability of suffering when we encounter the fragility of the body)

Tefillah  (prayer, which requires acknowledging that we are not in control of almost anything except our own spiritual orientation)

These things are hard– harder than we like to imagine- hard to do right and hard to keep doing. Yet if we’re only doing the fun and easy parts of Judaism- or any spiritual path- we’re not really engaging the tradition at all, but just using it as the theme of a nice meal or colorful cultural tradition. I like to drink sangria in the Sukkah as much as anybody (to name one particularly pleasurable mitzvah), and to be fair, Judaism insists on a regular practice of holy joy on Shabbat and the festivals. Yet Judaism also teaches: push yourself to forgive more, give more, love more, connect more. The hard mitzvot never let us off easy, but then again, nothing great comes without effort.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Va’etchanan: Wisdom in Action

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Va’etchanan/ Shabbat Nachamu

This d’var Torah is in memory of Carl Sloane, who passed this week and whose support and friendship changed my life.

Good afternoon!

Apologies for not posting much in recent weeks; between work, kids and vacation some things have slipped through my fingers. Hope to be back on track for the rest of the season!

This week’s portion exemplifies the central theme of the Book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy, which is Moshe’s review of the history and laws of the people since leaving Egypt as a way of exhorting them to stay loyal to the covenant upon entering the land of Israel. In D’varim, living in the land is reward for loyalty, which is due God for liberating Israel and giving us the Torah. So, for example, the following verse reminds them of the laws they are to follow, but also gives them a reason to stay true to Torah, which is that other nations will regard them as wise:

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

What the Hebrew makes clear is that our first order of business is not to learn the Torah in order to become wise or learned intellectually, but to do the commandments, so that others, when they hear of our laws and observance of them, will be impressed with our wisdom and goodness as a people. In this verse, wisdom is not only knowing a lot of important things, but acting in such a way that others will want to seek out the same sources of knowledge and inspiration. To put it another way, to be light unto the nations is not about how much Torah you know, but how much Torah you live, and live in such a way that the world is transformed through an irresistible example.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to study, but rather that religious study is never purely academic. Religious study leads to religious action, in the broadest sense; if it doesn’t, it is neither wisdom nor discernment, but just facts from a book. Just imagine, for a moment, if our synagogues, schools and Jewish institutions had the mission of helping Jews become such inspiring figures of kindness, generosity, reverence and honor that people around them- Jewish and not- would just naturally say, “I want to be like that too!” That would be the highest form of leadership, piety and kiddush Hashem.  [Literally “making the Name holy,” but understood to mean acting in a way that honors God, Torah and Israel.] Plus, you’d never need a marketing budget, because our actions everywhere would speak our deepest truths.

Sounds hard, right? It is, but there are people who do it and I’ll bet you can think of one you already know. Carl Sloane, a congregant at my former synagogue in the Boston area, who passed away earlier this week, was just such a person: his patience, wisdom, caring and generosity inspired me to learn more, do better, give more freely and think harder. A long time ago, when that synagogue was struggling with hard decisions about its future. When I  was feeling stuck with trying to help, Carl gave me a big stack of books, written by his colleagues at Harvard Business School, and said something like, “read these and let’s have coffee.” Those books, and more importantly, the conversations that followed over the next few years, opened me up to new worlds of thinking and deeply affected my perspective on being a rabbi, leader, teacher, role model, and human being.

Carl was a true leader, with deep knowledge earned through long experience, which he shared freely. Yet what impressed me the most about Carl was his acceptance of others, his humility, and his integrity. In giving of himself, he inspired me to want to serve others with a bigger heart, and in sharing his knowledge and experience, he inspired me to be more patient and thoughtful in all my roles. In other words, he helped me with knowledge, but he changed me with love. That’s what the Torah means by “proof of your wisdom and discernment;” not a proof of logic, but living your life such that others can’t help but want to be better people. What a powerful way to redeem the world! What are we waiting for?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Ki Tetze: Conquering One’s Eyes

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Good Afternoon!

Lots of interesting laws in this week’s Torah portion, including famous laws to return lost property to its rightful owner. These laws begin in Chapter 22 with an injunction against ignoring animals that have gone astray:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. . .  (D’varim 22:1)

The Hebrew is interesting, with a sort of double negative: “you will not see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and turn away from them.” Our friend Rashi says that “you will not see” means “covering your eyes, as if you did not see.” The difficulty he addresses is only implicit: if one really didn’t see, there would be no obligation, (we can’t act on what we don’t know about) so “not seeing” must mean one didsee, but chose to act as if one didn’t.

What makes Rashi’s comment even more interesting is the word he uses for “cover,” as in cover one’s eyes. He uses the word kovesh, a root which can mean cover or pave or but also means conquer or achieve victory over. Now, maybe I’m leaning too hard on one word,  but perhaps Rashi is suggesting that it takes some effort not to see what we don’t want to see. In the case of the lost animal or other possession, perhaps we don’t want to go to the effort to identify the rightful owner, or perhaps we choose not to see identifying marks that would obligate us not to keep what we  have found; the mind powerfully justifies what we want to do anyway!

The effort not to see what one doesn’t want to see is often not conscious, but indeed all of us choose to deny certain truths that on some level we know. These truths might be related to health, money, relationships, issues of social justice, poverty or suffering around us, but they are there, and we so often conquer our eyes and act as if we don’t see. Our world is warming and the seas are rising, but we conquer our eyes and turn away from the evidence here and abroad. Right here in America, there are serious issues of racism, inequality, unemployment, hunger and strife, but all too often, we conquer our eyes until images too powerful to ignore erupt on our screens and across the headlines.

The mitzvah of returning lost objects is not only about establishing trust among neighbors (see commentary linked in first paragraph) but also about training our hearts and minds to see things that we’d rather ignore. That, in turn, becomes an indispensable aspect of a mature and engaged life; we cannot fix what we choose not to see, and so healing the world depends on opening our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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Re’eh: Poverty and Hope

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh
 
For there will never cease to be needy in your land. Because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand to your brother, the poor one and the destitute in your land. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 15:11) 
 
Good afternoon! 
 
The Torah portion Re’eh covers a lot of ground, from injunctions against idolatry to the laws of kosher animals to the laws of giving charity and taking care of the poor. Among the laws commanding us to care for the poor and needy is the one above, which points out that poverty is never going to be eliminated but must nonetheless be addressed. Poverty isn’t going to disappear anytime soon because, for one thing, human beings are radically imperfect, making poor decisions, gambling with their money, becoming addicts, plus sheer bad luck like droughts and economic instability. Another reason there will always be poverty is that people aren’t just imperfect, they are also sometimes terrible to each other, whether through political oppression, criminal acts or social injustice. 
 
Nevertheless, we can’t be overcome by despair and refuse to help those who need it. Despair is the antithesis of faith; faith does not mean a false hope of no suffering, but rather the refusal to give up on the meaning of our lives and deeds. Furthermore, it is action that renews our faith, not thinking through some intellectual theological problem- that’s why the verse says, “open your hand,” even with the knowledge that doing so will not be part of an ultimate solution to poverty even in the long run. 
 
We open our hands because it leads us to the truth that human kindness and connection and giving matter, right now, and doing those things changes us. Even if the rest of the world seems to stay the same- we are different. This may be why Rashi picked up on a subtle aspect of our verse above, the seemingly unnecessary word l’emor, “saying”, as in “because of this, I command you, saying: open your hand. . .” 
 
The verse makes perfect sense without the extra word: “because of this, I command you: open your hand,” but Rashi, quoting an earlier text, interpolates: 
 
Saying“- it is advice for your good that I am offering. 
 
What seems to be implied here is that by adding the word “saying,” the emphasis becomes: saying to you, for your sake. Rashi is using an unusual word to make a moral midrash, reminding us that a life of giving and loving-kindness is not only about our obligation to help the poor meet their needs, it is also the way we become the holy people we are meant to be. Of course we should help the poor for their sake, and of course charity or social justice work should not be a narcissistic exercise in feeling good about ourselves, but it’s also true that the only way to sustain a life of charity and activism is by having realistic hopes. I cannot eradicate poverty under current conditions, because I cannot change human nature. But I can help the poor of my city and the poor abroad by giving of myself and my resources, and in so doing, I change myself and bring light to the world. . 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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