Archive for Ekev

Ekev: Scattering our Idols

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain.    (Deuteronomy/D’varim 9:21)

Good afternoon!

Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, continues with Moshe recounting the history of Israel from the Exodus to their present moment on the edge of the Land. At Sinai, you may recall, the Israelite became anxious at Moshe’s absence and built the Golden Calf; upon his return from the mountain, Moshe burned the idol, ground it up, scattered it upon the waters, and made the Israelites drink of mixture. (Cf. Exodus 32:20 )

Let’s note two things here. First, while Moshe reminds the people of their ancestor’s great sin (the generation of the Exodus had died out and their children were preparing to inhabit the Land), he doesn’t remind them of the humiliation of having to drink the bitter potion of the ground-up idol, mentioned in the Exodus account. (Compared by some to the “ordeal of bitter waters,” or sota, found in the book of Numbers.) If we learn nothing else from this Torah portion, we learn to be careful in how we remind people of past events; it seems like the Torah portrays Moshe as thoughtful about his own reaction to the idolatry while letting the most difficult part go unremarked.

The second interesting thing about this verse is its seeming redundancy: why would Moshe need to burn, break, grind, and then scatter the idol- a four part process?

The ancient rabbis took Moshe’s actions as a positive requirement, saying that “this teaches that purging idolatry requires grinding and scattering to the wind or casting to the sea.” (Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah, quoted in theTorah Temimah) Yet this just begs the question again: if we had to destroy the idol, why wouldn’t just breaking it or melting it be enough?

Perhaps this long process- breaking, grinding, scattering- is really about the process of confronting our own deeds. If we think of idols not as physical things but as representations of our own mistakes, misdeeds, misdirected loyalties and missed blind spots, then the image of Moshe grinding and scattering the Calf is really about a long process of looking right at where we went wrong. The Israelites couldn’t just remove the Calf and say it everything was OK; they needed to take their false ideas about God and humankind and take some time to reflect on their mistakes. “Grinding and scattering” means: when you find an idol, which is probably within you, be thorough and fearless in uprooting it and making sure it can’t be used again.

Think, for example, how often fear, or hatred, or resentment, or anger, is merely transferred from one place to another unless we’ve done real work in uprooting these controlling emotions. The Christian theologian Dietrich Bohnoeffer coined the famous phrase “cheap grace,” by which he meant the forgiveness we quickly grant ourselves without doing a proper amount of soul-searching and atonement. That’s why the rabbis said an idol needs to be ground and scattered: because any internal transformation that’s quick and easy is no transformation at all, and we can do better.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ekev: Just One Mitzvah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

 Good morning! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, continues the theme of Moshe reminding people of their history since leaving Egypt and warning them not to be tempted to worship other gods or be lured by other peoples into forgetting the covenant. The latter part of our Torah portion is also the second paragraph of the Shema, beginning with a general commandment to serve the Holy One out of love:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and serve the Holy One with all your heart and soul . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 11:13)
 
The conditional phrase translated above as “if then you obey. . . ” is a doubled verb in the Hebrew: shamoa t’shmeu, which you may recognize as the same root as shema, or “hear” in the sense of “heed” or “hearken.” The doubling of a Hebrew verb indicates emphasis: “if you will heed, I mean really heed, the commandments . . . ” 
 
However, the ancient rabbis always looked for an opportunity to explore the unusual grammar of the Bible in order to make deeper meanings, and in this case, they saw the double verb root of shema (hear/ heed/ obey) as a hint that if you “heed” one mitzvah, you will be given the opportunity from Heaven to “heed” many mitzvot. (From theTorah Temimah, quoting an earlier source.) This rings true to me as a psychological insight: it’s hard to get started in religious or spiritual practices, but once you do, it becomes a cycle that builds on itself. One mitzvah, whether a ritual or an ethical action, expands our sense of spiritual possibility, our idea of what it means to stretch the soul towards the Sacred and towards each other. Such a shift in consciousness can often lead to naturally growing and stretching ourselves even more. 
 
According to Heschel, a mitzvah is a connection between God and humankind, a point in time where the earthly and heavenly meet; if so, the idea that one mitzvah leads to many mitzvot is really a way of talking about a relationship that deepens over time. If you will listen- really listen- to yourself, to our tradition, to the meaning and feeling in just one mitzvah, then anything becomes possible, and you may yet be surprised at how the journey unfolds. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Ekev: Look to the Rock You Were Hewn From

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

Our haftarah this week is the second of the seven haftarot of
consolation, all taken from Isaiah, which we read between the sad day
of the ninth of Av and Rosh Hashanah. The theme of “consolation” seems
especially appropriate here in San Diego, where I’m visiting family
and yesterday took my niece to see the Braves stomp all over the
hapless Padres, who have the second-worst winning percentage in the
National League. Consolation, indeed. . . . . .

But I digress. Back to this week’s haftarah, which begins with a
lament that God has forsaken and abandoned Israel, the haftarah
proceeds with a series of rhetorical questions and flourishes, all
leading up to the idea that God has not forgotten the people, and
indeed, will redeem them from suffering.

Towards the end of the reading, at the beginning of Yeshayahu/Isaiah
51, the prophet calls out to the people who are still hoping or
yearning for justice, even in their harsh conditions of history:

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice,
You who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him,
But I blessed him and made him many. (Is. 51:1-2)

It’s a bit hard to tell from the translation, but there is a subtle
aspect of the Hebrew phrases “rodfei tzedek,” or “pursuers of
justice,” and “mevakshei Adonai,” or “seekers of God.” As Hirsch
points out, the words “pursue” and “seek” are in the noun form, not
the verb form; as he sees it, there are people for whom the pursuit of
justice and the seeking of the Divine are who they are, in their
essence, not just something they do. This to me speaks of a deep truth
about Judaism: it’s not just about changing what we do, it’s
ultimately about changing who we are, so that what we do flows from a
sense of profound connection to God, to humankind, and the world
itself.

However, even those people- the pursuers of justice and the seekers of
the Divine- can become discouraged in hard times. Justice often seems
so far away, and as soon as progress is made, it often turns out to be
a fleeting victory. So the prophet says to these forward-oriented
people: you can find your hope not only in your vision of the future,
but from your history, as well.

After all, who ever had more faith than Avraham and Sarah? Avraham
left his home, as a seeker of God, and argued with the Holy One at
Sodom, as a pursuer of justice. (Cf. Bereshit 18) Sarah, for her part,
bore Yitzhak [Isaac} when she was already an old woman; I understand
this story not as the history of a biologically improbable event, but
as a tremendous metaphor for the refusal to give up hope in the
renewal of life. Sarah was every bit as much a person of faith, of new
hope, of new life, as Avraham was, and when we remember how Avraham
was a “rock,” that is, one who stood by principles of fairness- even
for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah – we can find new hope in the
capacity of humans for faith, hope, and justice.

yours from sunny San Diego,

Rabbi Neal

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Ekev: Loving the Stranger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Ekev, which is a long
peroration from Moshe on how the Israelites must be loyal to Torah and
covenant when they arrive in the Land of Israel.

Among the praises of God that Moshe recounts is God’s special concern
for those in society who don’t fit easily into a patriarchal,
clan-based society:

“[God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and
befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You
too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of
Egypt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

The JPS translation above is “you too must befriend the stranger,” but
a more literal translation is: you must love the stranger, or “ger,”
which in its Biblical context means someone living among you who is
not an Israelite citizen. The ancient sages understood “ger” as a
convert to Judaism, and thus Sefer HaHinnuch (the medieval textbook of
commandments) understands this as a separate mitzvah to love and treat
kindly and fully accept any converts in our communities. (This alone
proves that Judaism is not an ethnicity, nor a race, but a people,
which one can join.)

Sefer HaHinnuch points out that we already have a commandment to “love
your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which would include the
convert, but posits that we have an extra obligation to love those who
voluntarily join our communities, because they have chosen a path
which may cause them to be separated, in some way, from their families
and communities of origin.

Not only that, but in a very interesting way, Sefer HaHinnuch takes
the original meaning of the verse- love the stranger or non-citizen in
your midst- and adduces it as an additional meaning of this
commandment on top of the normative interpretation, that of loving,
accepting, and being kind to converts. The language is quite beautiful
(taken from the Feldheim translation but made a bit more gender neutral):

“It is for us to learn from this precious mitzvah to take pity on any
person who is in a town or city that is not their native ground and
the place of their ancestors. Let us maltreat him any any way, finding
him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him- just as we
see that the Torah commands us to have compassion on anyone who needs
help.”

Returning to the verse above, we see an exhortation to remember that
we were once in the land of Egypt- that is, far from home, alone,
anxious- and this memory is the source of our compassion. The mitzvah
of loving the “ger” is a mitzvah of becoming more conscious of the
circumstances of people who may not feel fully part of our
communities. It is a commandment to remember any time that any one of
us has ever felt left out, or like we didn’t fit it (I can remember
this from junior high school, for sure, and it was painful ) and using
those memories to connect with those for whom is it is a present
reality right in front of us. In this way, loving the stranger means
recognizing that they are not so strange or alien after all.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ekev: Might and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This week’s parsha is Ekev, which has Moshe alternately exhorting and
rebuking the people as they prepare to enter the Land. He wants them
to remember all that God has done for them over the past 40 years, and
if they do, they’ll better appreciate the blessing of the land they’re
about to receive. To that end, Moshe reminds them that God is both the
mighty and merciful:

“For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the
mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,
but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends
the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:17-18)

Our friend Rashi points out the contrast between the first part of
this passage (where God is called great, mighty, awesome, etc) and the
second part, which names widows, orphans and “strangers”- that is,
non-Israelites- as special categories of Divine concern. Here’s Rashi,
first quoting the verse:

“[God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow. . . . This
[first part] showed God’s power, but alongside God’s power [gevurah]
one finds God’s humility. ”

Rashi says that where you find descriptions of Divine mightiness,
there you will also find hints of Divine humility. Notice what
humility is linked to: not a set of emotions, as such, but a set of
actions, namely, taking up the cause of widows, orphans and strangers.
These latter three are often found together in Torah passages
concerning justice, because in a patriarchal, tribal society, widows,
orphans and strangers are without protection and of liminal status. As
I read it, Rashi’s moral point is that if God – Who has just been
described as the Almighty – cares about the most marginalized members
of humanity, then clearly it’s a sacred value for us to do the same.

So humility, in this case, means encountering and caring for others
without regard to status- or, put another way, with regard only to a
person’s humanity and not any external factor. Humility does not mean
thinking of oneself as less than others, but as not separate from
them. It’s not about feeling small, it’s about remembering that no
matter our title, status, honor, or label, we are never free from the
spiritual obligation to see each person as equally created in the
Divine Image, and act accordingly.

I remember vividly a Shabbat dinner at Beit T’shuvah, in Los Angeles,
which is a residential recovery center for Jews struggling with
addictions. I was serving as a rabbinic intern with the men’s house,
and a retired rabbi had given the d’var Torah [Torah talk] during erev
Shabbat [Friday night] services. Commenting on how much he respected
and loved that retired rabbi, one of the men said with reverence:
“I’ve known him a long time, and he never talks down to anybody.”

That, to me, is the essence of Rashi’s portrayal of Divine humility-
which is really the humility that we experience when we are most in
harmony with the Divine within each of us and in others. It’s about
never talking down to anybody, because we are living deeply in the
experience of knowing that all people are expressions of the Divine
Image, and thus represent a chance to encounter God in the face of
another.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ekev: The Blessings We Wear

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

It’s the middle of August, the days are warm and long, and that means
we’re smack dab in the middle of Dvarim/ Deuteronomy, the fifth book
of the Torah, which is a review of the events and laws which have
taken place from the beginning of Exodus right through the 40 year
trek to the Land of Promise.

Among the amazing things that Moshe recounts for the people is the way
that God took care of them in the wilderness, by providing food [the
manna], water, protection, and so on. A typical reader might remember
the manna and the wells and the wars from previous sections of the
Torah, but Moshe reminds the people of two additional details of the
journey:

” Your clothing did not wear out upon you, nor did your foot swell
these forty years. . . . ” (Dvarim/ Deut. 8:4)

I’ll leave the question of swollen feet to the podiatrist Torah
scholars among us, because I’m more interested in the image from the
first part of the verse. Rashi, quoting earlier texts, offers an
amazing interpretation of “your clothing did not wear out upon you.”
He says that the Cloud of Glory [i.e., the cloud which manifested the
Divine Presence] rubbed their clothing clean! (Talk about your
ultimate environmentally sensitive dry cleaning!) Not only that, but
clothing on the children grew along with them, like a snail’s shell
grows along with the animal, so that it did not “wear out” in the
sense of having to be replaced.

I think that I understand Rashi’s problem- after all, we can
understand the narrative and theological meaning of great miracles
like the splitting of the Sea and getting water from the rock, but
it’s hard to understand fresh laundry as a compelling sign of the
Divine Covenant, at least, not without some midrashic [interpretive]
elaboration. Linking the Clouds of Glory- that is, the imminent Divine
Presence- with this sartorial miracle is a way of portraying God, like
a loving parent, offering nurture and care in even the most mundane
matters of life.

To that end, we can turn Rashi’s comment around and
apply it to our own lives, and say: if you really appreciate how
wonderful it is that you have clothing to wear on your journey through
life, you could experience God’s Presence in the act of putting on a
clean set of socks every day, just like you could find the Divine
Presence anywhere else you choose to be open to it.

To me, Rashi’s midrash suggests that the experience of being
liberated allowed the Israelites to feel that even the clothing they took from
Egypt was sufficient and wonderful, even miraculous. Granted, the
Israelites did their fair share of complaining about various things
along their 40 year sojourn, but perhaps Moshe is reminding them that
complaining and rebelling wasn’t the whole experience- they were also
at times grateful and aware of being nurtured and sustained.

Thus, what at first appears to be the rather undramatic miracle of
Divine dry cleaning could actually be a powerful image for reflection:
how do can we come to feel that our possessions are sufficient ? How
can I nurture gratitude and lessen the urge for new, cool stuff? How do
I come to truly be thankful for something as simple and ordinary as a
clean t-shirt in the morning? Judaism has prayers which thank God for
the material and physical blessings of life [e.g., the Birkot Hashachar, or
morning
blessings], but do I say them with real authenticity?

Believe me, I’m no Moshe in this regard, and this week, when I’m
packing up to move, I’m definitely thinking that I could better learn
to recognize when just enough is just fine. Moshe reminded the people
that with a sense of the Divine in their lives, one clean set of
clothes could be enough for a 40 year journey. That kind of humility,
gratitude, and appreciation of one’s blessings may have been the even
greater miracle.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find a summary and futher commentary on Ekev in
the first link, and the texts of the portion and haftarah, as well as
even more lovely commentary (from two of my classmates in Israel), at
the second link:

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

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

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Ekev 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to exhort the people not to forget God’s wonders and God’s Torah when they enter the land. The theology of the book of Deuteronomy seems straightforward: if the Israelites follow the Torah, God will reward them with blessings in the land, and drive out their enemies. Moshe also reviews some of the earlier incidents when Israel was rebellious, including the Golden Calf and the making of second tablets. The parsha concludes with a passage which constitutes the second paragraph (for many communities) of the Shema; this paragraph reiterates the connection between piety and receiving God’s blessing.

IN FOCUS

“After Adonai your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “Adonai has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.”

No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that Adonai is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, Adonai your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. ” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)

PSHAT

Moshe is preparing the Israelites for the end of their journey in the wilderness. Before they cross the river into the Land of Israel, Moshe stresses that it will be God Who helps them possess the land- not because they do deserve it, but because the nations that live there do not deserve it, and it had also been promised to the Israelite’s ancestors. The larger theme is humble faithfulness to God’s covenant, even after they have achieved all their goals and dwell as a nation in their own land.

DRASH

The noted Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has just released a new commentary on the entire Torah, which is an exciting new addition to the contemporary library of Torah scholarship. In fact, we’ll refer to this new commentary next week, too, so that Kolel students can get a feel for Friedman’s methodology. Very briefly, Friedman wants to follow in the tradition of Rashi and the other great medieval commentators, by closely reading the text itself for subtle hints as to meaning, while at the same time contextualizing all close readings with the insights of modern scholarship, including history, archaeology, comparative religion, philology, and so on.

Thus, Friedman points out and explores the apparent repetition in the verses above:

    The point is made three times, in three verses in row: it is not because of your virtue that but rather because of these nation’s wickedness. Some think that the repetition is just a scribe’s error, repeating a line by mistake. (Such errors are known as dittography.) That is possible, but the repetition itself is not sufficient reason to make that conclusion. On the contrary, the text seems to me precisely to be making the point as emphatically as possible. Moses notes the people’s own lack of virtue even more strongly in the next verse (7), and he begins with the words “Remember- don’t forget!” which is redundant as well but is certainly done on purpose for emphasis.

    And he then goes on for the rest of the chapter listing the people’s record of rebellions. Moses thus gives a powerful warning against chauvinism and self-congratulation. And this also provides a profound balance to the declaration that Israel was chosen to become a treasured people, which came just two chapters earlier (7:6). Possession of the land is result of a promise to Israel’s ancestors. Status as a treasured people depends on actions: faithfulness to the covenant. Israel is not intrinsically better than anyone. What is special about Israel is rather that it has been given a singular opportunity to follow a path that will ultimately bring blessing to all the families of the earth.

Friedman not only explains the literary aspects of the text, but shows how one must understand how the text works before one can understand what the text is trying to say. In this case, their is a threefold repetition of the idea that the Israelites are not inheriting the land on their own merits; this drives home the point that to be “chosen” is not some kind of magical, intrinsic quality, but is rather dependent on moral and spiritual commitment.

Friedman wants to show that the Bible itself endorses a very conditional, action-oriented idea of “chosenness.” Most people living in contemporary democracies resist, and rightly so, the idea that one set of people is inherently better than another. This conditional idea of “the chosen people” says simply that Jews have been chosen for Torah and mitzvot, and if they rise to the challenge, there will be blessings for everybody. This does not, in my mind, preclude the possibility that other nations and peoples have been “chosen” for their own unique missions in the world.

Finally, I would point out that our passage strongly emphasizes the humility required of any person or nation inheriting God’s blessing. Not only does this humility counterbalance any distortions to the idea of being a “treasured people” (if we stay committed to covenant), but it also deflates any egotistical pretensions that the present generation is somehow better or historically unique. The text says: be very grateful for the gifts in your life, because you might not have received them in this way. Being “chosen” doesn’t mean being special ourselves- it means having a special opportunity to do good for the world.

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