Archive for Re’eh

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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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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Re’eh: The Poor Cry Out

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh 
 
“Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 15:9) 
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, has a whole variety of different laws, including instructions about avoiding idolatry, making the proper offerings, charity, dietary practices and the holy days. The verse above comes from a section that mentions the shmittah, or sabbatical year: every seven years the land lies fallow and debts are forgiven. The Torah anticipates that some might refuse to lend to the needy in the fifth or sixth year, figuring that the debt would be canceled before it is repaid, so there is a law specifically mandating that loans be made to the poor even as the sabbatical year approaches. 
 
However, our friend Rashi finds a possible contradiction between this verse and another. Reading the clause that warns “he will cry out to the Lord against you,” (if you don’t make a loan to the needy), Rashi asks if this could possibly be a positive commandment: that is, “he will cry out” could theoretically mean that the poor must cry out before they are to be helped. However, he points out that there’s another verse a few chapters later which also deals with the poor “crying out:”
 
“You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you. . .” (D’varim 24:15)
 
In the verse above, dealing with paying a worker daily, the image of the poor man crying out is clearly a warning: don’t withhold the money, or else the poor man will cry out against you.
 
Rashi takes this second verse to clarify the first: it’s not that the poor are supposed to cry out, but if we don’t give, they will, and letting poverty get to that level of desperation is the sin of those who could have helped. In other words- we’re supposed to give loans or aid before there is a “crying out.” Now, obviously, nobody can give enough charity to support all the poor of the world, but it’s equally true that we are each responsible for helping as best we can as early and as often as we are able. All to often, we wait until the “crying out,” which might be a disaster or crisis or images of utter deprivation, but the mitzvah is to help before that. Perhaps in our day this mitzvah is best fulfilled by supporting those charitable organizations which help people with counseling, education, shelter and food, but in any event, the point is clear: don’t wait to give. 
 
The Torah teaches that each of us responsible for creating a compassionate community; the challenge is to respond to the crying out before those cries reach the heavens. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Re’eh: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re continuing our stroll through the latter half of the book of
Yeshayahu, or Isaiah, from which the seven “haftarot of consolation”
are taken, read at this season leading up to Rosh Hashana.

Themes in the haftarah this week include God’s role as creator and the
eternal nature of the Davidic kingship, as well as the putative
tension between our spiritual needs and our material needs:

“Ho, all who are thirsty,
Come for water,
Even if you have no money;
Come, buy food and eat:
Buy food without money,
Wine and milk without cost.

Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
Your earnings for what does not satisfy?

Give heed to Me,
And you shall eat choice food
And enjoy the richest viands.

Incline your ear and come to Me;
Hearken, and you shall be revived.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 55:1-3)

These verses are among those which demonstrate the silliness of the
claim to take the Bible “literally,” given that the plain meaning of
these verses is, most likely, best understood as metaphor: the people
are hungering for spiritual instruction, for hope and faith, but are
misled (or misfed, as it were) by the idolatry and materialism
surrounding them. To be fair- one could interpret these verses as
promising material abundance to the people upon their redemption, but
I don’t think that’s the simplest way to understand the passage in
context.

Rather, I think “spending money for what is not bread” means both
literally spending money and also spending our time and energy. We all
hunger for purpose, meaning, love, depth, aliveness, vitality- if
these are not nurtured in positive ways, then we tend to do things to
satisfy our longings but which prove illusory. “Bread” in this context
means a true nourishment- not just of the body but of the soul.
(Apologies to those on the Atkins diet.) It wasn’t the Rolling Stones
who pointed out that human beings have a hard time getting
satisfaction- our great spiritual traditions have long taught that the
path to fulfillment can never be pleasure for its own sake, or
material goods in themselves, or the magical thinking of flimsy
religion. Rather, fulfillment- or enlightenment, if you prefer- can
only come from being called to a greater purpose, which in our passage
is understood as hearing the voice of the Divine.

In this reading, there is no inherent tension between satisfying one’s
body and satisfying one’s soul. This is not about asceticism – it’s
about putting our needs in context, and realizing that our need for
purpose is what gives ultimate meaning – even pleasure- to our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Re’eh: Do Not Add To The Torah!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re blessed in the Hudson Valley with wonderful
seasonal farmer’s markets, and perhaps that’s why twice this week I’ve
gotten questions about strawberries and Orthodox rabbis. It’s not
actually strawberry season anymore but apparently a group of rabbis in
London banned strawberries altogether due to the possible presence of
tiny insects in the berries, and this has caused a bit of a kerfuffle
in the Jewish world and appeared in various news outlets. (See link
below.)

Now, you might think I’m bringing up the Great Strawberry Controversy
because we have a review of the laws of kashrut [kosher or dietary
laws] in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. (Cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy
14). While it’s certainly true that eating insects (with a few
exceptions) is prohibited as not kosher (cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 11),
it’s also true that for the great majority of Jewish history, we have
eaten common fruits and vegetables without too much worry about things
we can’t see. That is, after washing the fruits or vegetables, there
may in fact be teeny little bugs not dislodged by the water, but if
they’re so small as to be not visible to the eye (of a person with
normal eyesight), then they are consider as not there, in terms of
kosher observance.

I’m actually not bringing this example to teach about kashrut, per se,
but about another mitzvah of the Torah found in this week’s Parsha:

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add
to it nor take away from it.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1)

We have a mitzvah, a commandment, not to add nor subtract anything
from the Torah as it is interpreted by the ancient sages. According to
Sefer HaHinnuch [the medieval “Book of Education”] this means we can’t
make up a new mitzvah or do a mitzvah in a completely new way beyond
what is prescribed. For example, waving a lulav at a time other than
Sukkot, or sitting in a Sukkah after the holiday, or adding extra
scrolls to one’s tefillin [phylacteries]- these are all examples of
“adding to the Torah,” and are thus actually forbidden.

However, according to the traditional understanding, developing deeper
or more intense ways of doing a mitzvah is not considered “adding to
the Torah.” So blowing the Shofar extra times on Rosh Hashana (another
example given) might be burdensome, but it’s not a violation of “do
not add.” Our Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, in a comment on
D’varim 4:2, describes what is prohibited as “quantitative” (doing
something on a different day, for example) rather than “qualitative”
changes (doing something the ordinary way but more intensely, perhaps.)

OK, so far, what I’ve described is the traditional way of
understanding the commandment not to add anything to the Torah. Yet to
me, I think this idea describes a sensibility, a spiritual
orientation, as much as parameters for determining practice. I think
“neither add to it nor take away from it” is also about crafting a
Jewish life within the “golden mean” of rigorous but non-obsessive
religious practice.

In other words- and here’s where the strawberries come in- one of the
great things about Judaism is that almost every mitzvah currently
practiced can actually be fulfilled in a way that is observable and
practical. We do not, in fact, have to obsess over little bugs too
small for the naked eye. We do not have to say “Shma” a hundred or a
thousand times a day- twice is plenty! Our job is not to “add to the
Torah” by thinking of new ways to be stringent, but to live a life
balanced by the three modalities of Jewish spirituality: Torah, avodah
[prayer and ritual], and gemilut hasadim [acts of compassion.] If only
one part of Judaism is emphasized, (a way of “adding to the Torah”),
one might miss out on the other two.

If some Jews don’t want to eat strawberries, it’s OK with me- more for
the rest of us, I say!
According to the traditional understanding of “not adding to the
Torah,” the non-strawberry-eating Jews aren’t adding but merely being
cautious with an existing practice. Yet I think they miss the point of
our verse- which is that religion as a discipline also includes the
discipline of moderation. A Judaism which is defined by how many
things it says “no” to is hardly a Judaism which is all about “choose
life!”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Re’eh: Plain Choices

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

D’varim is a series of speeches which Moshe
gives in the mountains across the Jordan river, right before the
Israelites cross over and begin to settle the land. In fact, this
week’s portion,Re’eh , begins with Moshe telling the people that they
have the choice between blessing and curse, a choice symbolized by two
mountains they will see when they soon enter the Land:

“And it will be, when the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land
to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place those blessing
upon MountGerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Ebal . Are they not on
the other side of the Jordan, way beyond, in the direction of the
sunset, in the land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the plain,
oppositeGilgal, near the plains of Moreh ? For you are crossing the
Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is
giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:29-31)

These verses are rather typical of themes in D’varim; Moshe is telling
the people that they have choice: to follow the covenant and receive
blessing, or spurn the Torah and be cursed. This choice will present
itself as starkly as two mountains which face each other, which the
people will see clearly once they enter the land- the mountains
themselves are symbolic of the unavoidable choices the people will
have once they begin to govern themselves as a nation in its homeland.

Our friend Rashi notices that the geographical description of the two
mountains is “near the plains of Moreh,” and connects this to the
description of how Avraham [then called Avram]- way back in the
beginning of Bereshit/Genesis- first entered the Land:

“Avram traveled through the land as far as the area of Shechem, coming
to the plains of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 12:6)

OK, says Rashi, the plains of Moreh are the same as Shechem- the verse
from Genesis proves it.

Uh . . . (I can hear you asking). . . that’s a nice little geography
lesson, but so what?

As I read it, Rashi is doing more than showing us what towns are near
which fields – I think he’s making a subtle historical point about the
choices which will face the Israelites in the future. If Shechem was
only significant as a place where Avraham travelled, Rashi would be
making an interesting connection between Avraham’s journey and that of
his descendants, perhaps implying that their entry into the Land is a
kind of re-enactment of his, rooted in the covenant which began with
Avraham and which his descendants are now realizing.

However, Shechem is mentioned in several other Torah narratives, two
of which are a bit more sobering than a mention of Avraham’s campsite.
In Bereshit 34, Shechem is the name of the prince who raped Yaakov’s
daughter Dinah [it seems that the town bears the same name], which
leads Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons, to deceive the
townspeople in order to take a terrible vengeance on them. Yaakov
rebukes his sons, and worries that their actions will bring trouble
from the other peoples in the Land.

A few chapters later, Shechem is mentioned as the place where Yosef’s
brothers would pasture their flocks- it is where Yosef looked for them
when his father sent him to his brothers after he offended them with
his dreams. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 37)

So what does all this have to do with the two symbolic mountains? As I
read it, by connecting “blessing” and “curse” with the area near
Shechem, Moshe may be reminding the people of what can go right, and
what can go wrong, once they enter the land. The Israelites are
blessed by the example of Avraham, who left his home in the East and
traveled on faith to the Land of Israel- remembering his journey as
far as Shechem might inspire them and give them hope, faith, and
confidence in the future. On the other hand, Shechem is also where
Shimon and Levi used violence far disproportionate to their conflict,
and where Yosef’s brothers nursed their grudge against him. These
stories remind the people to guard themselves against anger, hatred,
and the desire for revenge- all of which can only bring curse, not
blessing.

Seen this way, the plains of Moreh- near Shechem- offer a historical
example of the choice between blessing and curse which Moshe lays out
for the people. Be as courageous and faithful asAvraham, or choose
resentment and vengeance as Yaakov’s sons did with their neighbors and
even with their brother.

It’s nice to live in a place like Poughkeepsie, in a beautiful valley
with mountains on one side and the other, but the two mountains from
our Torah portion represent a more universal truth: that every day and
in every place we have the choice to make the journey one of curse or
blessing.

With warm wishes for a thoughtful Elul,

RNJL

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Re’eh: The Journey and the Resting Place

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re going through some transitions at the Central Headquarters of
Rabbineal-list here in Newton Centre, MA. I’m packing up to move to
Poughkeepsie (see link below) and so for the last time, I offer you
greetings from the beautiful summer climes of the greater Boston area.
(Rest assured, I may be leaving this great Commonwealth, but I’m not
giving up honorary citizenship in Red Sox Nation, even if I am moving
to New York.)

So I’m packing up- or, more accurately, procrastinating when I need to
be packing up- and a verse from this week’s Torah portion just jumped
out at me. In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, Moshe tells the people that
when they get into the Land, sacrificial worship will be centralized
in one place. Apparently, at this point in Israelite history, people
are making their offerings as they please, despite the lengthy rules
given in Exodus and Leviticus for building one Sanctuary at the center
of the camp. (See the Etz Hayim commentary, at the beginning of
chapter 12, for a short discussion of this history.)

Thus, after Moshe tells the people that they must not worship the way
the native Canaanites do, he also tells them that their own practice
will have to change once they arrive in their tribal settlements:

“You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases,
because you have not yet come to the resting place, the inheritance,
that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Dvarim/ Deuteronomy 12:8-9,
modified JPS translation.)

The phrase at the heart of verse 9 is “al ham’nucha v’al hanachala,”
which I’ve translated as “the resting place, the inheritance,” but
could also be translated as “the rest and the inheritance,” or “the
allotted resting place.” According to Etz Hayim, the reason Moshe
connects the “resting place” of the Land and the need to centralize
worship is that once the people are fully settled, they’re going to
have to make it safe for worshippers to travel to the Sanctuary.
Perhaps a nomadic people dealing with the challenges of the journey
hasn’t been ready for that level of social organization, or perhaps
the stresses of the journey through the desert have preoccupied the
people, but whatever the case, things will change once the tribes
settle in their allotted lands.

On the other hand, what struck me about the verses quoted above is the
emotional impact these words probably have had on the weary but
excited Israelites. After all, even though this is the second
generation since the Exodus, it must have been somewhat shocking to be
told: “Getting to the land is not the end point of the journey! Once
we get there, we have lots more to do, and the rest and peace you
hoped for is still some time in the future, even if we’re on the
borders of the place we’ve been moving towards for 40 years.”

I can only imagine that the Israelites were happy and excited to see
the borders of the Land in the distance, thinking “this is it! We’ve
reached the end of the journey!” Moshe had to tell them: this is not
the end, this is the beginning of a new phase of your development as a
people and as a nation. The Israelites probably could not imagine life
beyond arrival at the Promised Land, yet they had to rethink the
meaning of their sojourn once they arrived, in order to realize that
the Land itself was not the goal. Rather, becoming the community they
were meant to be, which could only happen in their homeland, was the
longer and deeper goal. To put it another way, they had to learn that
the Land of Israel was a way of being together, an internal state, as
much as a physical place.

What is true for the Israelites continues to be true for each of us:
repeatedly throughout life, we think “aha, this is it, we’re here,”
yet it turns out to be but a stage in a longer, less predictable
process of growth and journey. In my own life, each time I’ve arrived
at a goal or vision, it turns out to be only the gateway to things I
didn’t even imagine existed. The challenge, of course, is to embrace
the next stage of growth and be open to what is beyond even that. We
are never fully at the “resting place” or “allotted inheritance,” but
may orient ourselves toward it every hour, and every day, and get
closer over the unfolding years.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link has a summary and further commentary on
Re’eh, and the second link has the texts of the parsha and haftarah
(if it’s not switched over from last week yet it will be in a few
days):

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

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

To learn more about the new International World Headquarters of
Rabbineal-list, see here:

http://poughkeepsie.uscjhost.net/

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