Archive for Devarim

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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D’varim: What is Within Your Heart

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: D’varim./ Shabbat Chazon 
 

“You murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hates us, God took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand[s] of the Amorites to exterminate us.’ “  (D’varimi/ Deuteronomy 1:27)

 
Good afternoon! 
 
We are starting the book of D’varim, which begins with Moshe recounting the history of the people from the Exodus till the end of the 40 years of sojourning. In the verse above, Moshe recounts how the people wailed and cried after the spies came back with a discouraging report about the Land of Israel; they said “the Lord hates us,” imagining out of their anxiety that they were brought forth to die in the desert. 
 
Rashi, as usual, has an acute insight, noting that it was not God who hated Israel, but the other way around. He quotes a folk saying to the effect that “what’s in your heart about your companion, you think he thinks about you.” Psychologists call this “projection;” the basic idea is that we deal with unwanted or unacceptable feelings within ourselves by “projecting” them onto others. 
 
In other words, the Israelites could not admit that they were scared, angry or anxious about the changes and challenges that had come so quickly since Egypt, so instead they blamed others- Moshe, Aharon, even God- for putting them in a terrible situation. This is a common response to stress and crisis, but it’s not a particularly helpful one; Judaism stresses instead the concept of “cheshbon nefesh,” or “soul-accounting,” so that we may discern what role we played in whatever befalls us. Please note: introspection is not the same as blame or self-recrimination; we assume that in messes both historical and personal, there is enough responsibility to go around. 
 
This fits in well with the prophetic message we’ve been hearing in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Avthe sad memorial day which begins right after Shabbat. The prophets challenge the people Israel to connect their situation to their sins, but also reassure them that a covenant with the Divine will ultimately sustain them. Tisha B’Av is a time to ask: what accountability do I have for the world and its brokenness? What is within me that is broken? It’s an introspective time, in which we remember the tragedies of our people but also seek to understand our own role in healing the world. That can only happen with self-knowledge and appropriate humility, so we do not hate others for what we have not healed within ourselves. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Devarim and Shabbat Hazon: Choosing Not to See

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim and Shabbat Hazon

This week there is no confusion about which Torah
portion goes with which haftarah: we’re starting the book of D’varim/
Deuteronomy, which always begins right before Tisha B’av, and is thus
always accompanied by the opening verses of Yeshayahu [Isaiah]. In
fact, since the book of Yeshayahu begins with the word “hazon,” or
“vision,” this Shabbat is often called “Shabbat Hazon,” after the
haftarah.

Before digging into the haftarah, let’s review where we are on the
Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, or the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,
is the saddest day of of the Jewish year, a day of penitential fasting
marking the destruction of Biblical Jerusalem- a disaster
traditionally understood as arising from the sins and disloyalty of
the Jewish people. For the past two weeks, we’ve read haftarot of
“rebuke” in line with this theme of cosmic moral accountability;
regardless of our personal theology regarding the relationship between
suffering and sin, we can agree that this period in the Jewish
calendar is one of cheshbon nefesh, or “soul-accounting,” and
acknowledging how far we are from our professed ideals, both
individually and communally.

Enter Yeshayahu, who explicitly links the looming overthrow of
Jerusalem with the hypocrisy and selfishness of the people; he
declares that the holiday and new moon offerings are rejected by God
because the people’s hands are “stained with crime.” (Is. 1:14-15)
Twice, the prophet mentions the people’s failure to protect widows and
orphans, two categories of people who would be marginalized in a
patriarchal society. More specifically, Yeshayahu castigates the
leaders not so much for oppressing widows and orphans (that is, the
powerless and marginalized) but for ignoring them:

“Your rulers are rogues
And cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents
And greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (1:23)

The Hebrew of the latter verse is clear: “the cause [or case] of the
widow never comes up to them” [lo yavo aleihem].

Now the prophet’s anger makes sense- it is one thing to condemn evil,
but far more common is apathy and willed ignorance. Criminals will
always be with us, and there will always be laws condemning them, but
what about those people who are simply “off the radar screen” of those
who could help? This is the more widespread offense: to choose not to
see, to be too busy to hear, to simply close one’s perceptions to the
cry of those in pain.

This, I believe, is the source of the prophetic sense of moral
outrage: a society where some are not seen, whose case is not heard,
is a society that cannot, by definition, be just or fair. In the week
before Tisha B’Av, when we are mourning the brokenness of the world,
we can ask ourselves: how can I heal that which I may not even see?
What causes are not coming before us as a community? What have I
dismissed through constricted vision?

When we choose to see what we’ve previously not, we give our hearts a
chance to be stirred- and that’s the moment things change.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Devarim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

So much going on the the world! The Olympics, the U.S. elections, the
Israeli leadership transitions. . . and, of course, we’re starting to
read the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy (the “second telling”), the
final book of the Torah. D’varim is essentially a long speech from
Moshe to the Israelites about where they’ve been and what they’ve done
and what they ought to do going forward. Included in his review is a
retelling of the appointment of judges from way back in the beginning
of Moshe’s leadership:

“I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, ‘Hear out your
fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite
or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and
high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is
too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.’
“(D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

A more in-depth look at this passage would compare it to Exodus 18,
where the appointment of judges and the qualifications for the office
are described a bit differently, but let’s leave that for another
time. Today’s question is this: if the judges are given a clear
command to hear all persons fairly, why do they need a second
imperative to “fear no man?” Isn’t it enough to command the judges to
judge all people fairly- doesn’t that imply that they must not kowtow
to the powerful or strong?

By now anybody who’s smart enough to subscribe to rabbineal-list is
detecting a rhetorical question, and indeed, it’s precisely because
those few words “fear no man” seem to convey a separate thought that
the ancient rabbis enumerated a separate mitzvah based upon them.
Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, says that
“not fearing any man” means that even if the judge is worried that an
evil defendant will kill him or burn down his crops, he still must
rule in accordance with the law and not be intimidated.

The Sefer HaHinnuch brings another example: if a student is present
when the teacher is deciding a case, and the student sees that the
poor man is right and the rich man is wrong, the student must speak
up, even in front of his teacher, and not be intimidated by either his
master nor the litigant.

OK, so far, so good, but given that most of us aren’t banging gavels
and wearing robes, how does this mitzvah apply? To me, the mitzvah is
about having the courage of our convictions despite the potential
unpleasantness of outcomes. When we know- not guess – that a situation
is unjust or unfair, we are called upon not to hold back our voice
from fear. There might be other reasons to be judicious- such as the
desire to preserve human dignity- but it’s important to note that a
religious life is not necessarily one of meek piety in all things.
Sometimes to have faith means to be brave, to take a “leap of action”,
as Heschel put it, or to “fear no man,” – or person- as Moshe
commanded the judges.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Devarim: Like the Sun and Stars

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This week we are reading the first parsha of the book of
Devarim, or Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, which is Moshe’s
final recounting and exhortation to the people before he dies and they
go on into the Land. Right at the beginning, Moshe reminds them that
his job of leadership has been difficult from the start, because the
people are numerous:

“Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.
The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous
as the stars in the sky . . . ‘ ” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:9-10)

Well, I can certainly understand how somebody with the responsibility
of caring for many others would feel overwhelmed- perhaps in its
simplest meaning, comparing the Israelites to the “stars in the sky”
simply reflects Moshe’s frustration at his inability to resolve all
the disputes of so many people without help. That, of course, is why
his father-in-law told him to delegate whatever he could to other
elders and leaders.

Rashi, on the other hand, takes Moshe’s words a little more literally
in order to make a different point. He points out that we actually
know how many Israelites left Egypt- about six hundred thousand,
according to the text- and while that’s a big number, it’s not an
infinite number like the stars in the heavens. So Rashi says Moshe
must have meant that the Israelites had a quality which made them like
the stars in the heavens:

“[This means] -you are compared to the sun, you will exist forever
like the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

Notice how Rashi takes a metaphor about numbers and turns it into a
metaphor about endurance, which makes sense in a historical context.
By the Middle Ages, when Rashi was writing, the people Israel were
small in numbers compared to their neighbors but would have derived
great hope from a promise that the people itself would always survive.

I like Rashi’s reading of the verse because it provides a bit of
perspective on current demographic debates in the Jewish community-
there seem to always be those who see the people Israel as on the
verge of disappearing. Rashi reminds us that we’ve never been a huge
people- “like the stars of the sky”- numerically. Rather, we are
“upheld” over the centuries- the literal translation of “exist”- which
to me means that the Jewish people will exist as long as we remember
to bring light into the world, as do the sun, moon and stars.

I certainly don’t meant to discount or ignore the many real problems
facing our world-wide communities, but I think Rashi reminds us of
something important: the people Israel has never been a numbers game,
but is instead about the enduring spiritual mission given to us at
Sinai. That mission includes compassion, justice, peace, and always
seeing human beings as made in the Image of God, with all the ethical
attention such a perspective demands. If we can do that, then I
believe we will be “upheld,” both as synagogue communities and as a
world-wide people.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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D’varim: The Lens of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

Greetings from the humid regions of tropical Boston! We continue to
hope for peace in Israel and the surrounding regions- may hatred give
way to generosity, speedily and in our days.

This week’s Torah portion, D’varim, begins the book of Deuteronomy,
literally the “second telling” (that’s what Deuteronomy means) of the
story of the Exodus, Revelation, and journey through the wilderness.
Moshe is just about to die, and the people are just about to cross the
Jordan river to the Land, making the entire book of D’varim an urgent
review of their history and laws.

The beginning of D’varim is a rebuke of the people for their lack of
faith and contentiousness along the way, including a reference to the
incident of the spies who go up to the Land (this is the story found
in parshat Shlach-Lecha). Moshe points out to the people that they
didn’t give God much credit for having overthrown Pharoah and split
the sea and provided the manna up till that time:

“Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your
God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates
us that God brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to
the Amorites to wipe us out. What kind of place are we going to? Our
kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, ‘We saw there a people
stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and
even Anakites.’ ‘ ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 1:26-28, and see
Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 14 for the earlier story.)

Moshe condenses the long story of the spies into a few sentences, but
he names the emotional essence of the incident: the people seemed
overwhelmed by doubt and fear, and projected their negative feelings
onto God, whom they claimed took them out of Egypt only so they could
be slain by the sword. (Cf. the beginning of Bamidbar 14.) It’s quite
amazing to think that after the plagues upon Parsha, the splitting of
the Sea, the giving of the Torah, the battles, miracles, manna, water
from the rock and all the rest, that the Israelites could really think
that their journey was all a setup so they could be killed in the
desert by the Amorites!

Rashi understands that the people’s words are an indication of their
inner emotional state, rather than their rational beliefs:

“Because the Lord hates us. . . Really, however, God loves you, but
you hate[d] God. A saying of the common people is: What is in your own
heart about your friend, is in his heart about you.”

I understand this “saying of the common people” to mean: what is in
your heart is what you imagine or believe the other person is thinking
about you- you project your inner state onto others. In other words,
because the people were churned up with fear and anxiety, they
resented those (both Moshe and God, never mind Caleb and Joshua) whom
they associated with the fear-provoking changes, and imputed to them
the worst possible motivations, even to the point where they seemed to
ignore the manna and water than sustained them.

Framed this way, Moshe’s rebuke is not so much about bad theology (God
hates us!), but about lack of self-awareness, so much so that real
suffering resulted from the contentiousness and emotional projection.
Change is hard, and sometimes leaders make mistakes, but when we avoid
confronting fear or grief, naming them clearly, people who genuinely
care can become the casualties of anger and blame. It’s so hard to
always judge “l’chaf z’chut,” on the side of favor and goodwill, but
it’s an essential struggle, without which relationships suffer, hearts
are bruised, reconciliation is delayed, and love is diminished.

The people didn’t really hate God, but their fear prevented them
feeling God’s love for them at the moment when they needed it most.
The alternative to “sulking in your tents” is clear: open one’s eyes
and heart to faithful relationship, with God and community, and let
fear itself be open to a sustaining and transforming love.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find a summary and additional commentary here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/dvarim_index.htm

and the text of the Torah and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Next week is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the
saddest day on the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning. For
more information about this day’s history and practices, here’s a
great start:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/TishaBav.htm

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Devarim: A “Great and Fearful” Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This is the penultimate occasion upon which I can write: greetings from sunny
Swampscott! Amidst the sea of cardboard boxes in my office and the unnatural
neatness which my real estate agent has imposed upon my townhouse, I find this week’s
parsha to be quite topical, since it’s all about moving and journeys. We’re beginning the
book of Devarim (literally, “words”), known in English as Deuteronomy (which means the
“second telling.”)

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, is Moshe’s valedictory review and
exhortation to his people; after 40 years in the wilderness, they will inherit the Land, but he will not. He urges them to be faithful to their Liberator, and in so doing recounts much of the history and many of the laws given since the Exodus. Moshe also recalls some of the
hardships of the journey- perhaps as a way of reminding the the people that they were not
abandoned in their most difficult hours. The journey from Egypt was not always fun, as
Moshe points out in Chapter 1, vs 19:

“And we journeyed from Horeb and went through all that great and fearful
desert, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorites, as the Lord, our God,
commanded us; and we came up to Kadesh barnea . . . .”

Horeb is another name for Sinai (well, it’s a little more complex than that, but
we’ll save the details for another time), so in this passage, Moshe reminds the people that
they came up from Sinai all the way to what we’d now call the Negev, south of the Dead
Sea. Moshe calls this route the “great and fearful desert,” a phrase which our teacher
Rashi elaborates with seeming hyperbole:

” `that great and fearful desert’. . . because in it were serpents as [thick
as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows.”

OK, so the desert wasn’t Club Med, but where there really snakes as big as
alligators and science-fiction sized scorpions? Maybe a better question is: did Rashi mean for us to take this comment literally, and if not, what do we learn from it?

Rashi is quite aware that human beings perceive reality through the lenses of
their subjective experience: in his comment on verse 27, referring to the Israelite’s
feeling ofbthat God had abandoned them, he points out that what we have in our own hearts, we project onto others. So maybe he’s not really asking us to believe in humongous
mutant scorpions, but rather, he may be alluding to the fear that the Israelites felt
as they left the known world of slavery for the unknown world of building a national home. In other words, the snakes were not really as big as beams, but the people’s anxiety and insecurity was such that ordinary irritants seemed like extraordinary dangers.

A journey means that change will happen; a spiritual journey means becoming
something one doesn’t know how to be yet. That’s scary, because we have to leave behind
our comfortable ways of being in the world and act in new and different ways, ways
that reveal our higher and better selves.

That’s the metaphor of the wilderness- not the old place, and not the new place,
but the place in-between, where security is behind us and transformation ahead, and lots
of transitions in the middle. So the challenge of spiritual growth is: don’t let
the perceived challenges hold you back, don’t let fear become the lens through which you see the world, don’t let the snakes seem as big as beams nor the scorpions seem as big as bows- and you, too, can reach the Land of Promise, the place of blessing and covenant.

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