Archive for Shoftim

Shoftim: The Hardest Struggle

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Shoftim 
 
When you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord, your God is with you Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/ D’varim 20:1)
 
We’re back after a summer of. . well, not really so much vacation but diversion to other projects, which took longer than I expected. I think we’ll have a weekly commentary throughout the Days of Awe and as always I thank you for joining me in Torah study. 
 
This week’s portion, Shoftiim, means “judges” and has many laws pertaining to the judiciary, the king, and legal procedures.The end of the portion deals with the laws of warfare and the conduct of the military, but one commentator, known as Or HaChaim, uses an unusual vowel to take the discussion in a very different direction. D’varim 20 begins with the practice of excusing certain classes of soldiers from the battle, but the Or HaChaim notices that the Hebrew of our verse above suggests a definite article: lamilchama can be read as “to the war,” which suggests to him that the Torah is talking about something specific and immediate and important. 
 
According to the Or HaChaim, going out to “the war” means a battle not against any internal enemy but an internal struggle with the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is often called the “evil urge” but really means the egocentric or self-centered inclination present in every human being. Especially as we prepare for the Days of Awe, we remember that the greatest struggle is internal, to become the people we aspire to be, exemplars of holy compassion and forgiveness and generosity. 
 
This extraordinary reading of “the war” is connected to the end of the verse, which exhorts the Israelites not to be afraid, because the Holy One who took them out of Egypt is with them. Read in its simple meaning, the verse suggests divine intervention in military affairs, but read in reference to the internal struggle, the Torah reminds us that we need not be afraid of imprisonment within ourselves. The Holy One freed us from the place of bondage, and that means we can boldly confront our inner Pharaohs: fear, negativity, shame, addiction, resentment and despair. The yetzer hara uses these emotions and more to keep us stuck and shrinking from bringing light into the world, but spiritual growth is all about changing ourselves to change the world. When you go out to war- you aren’t going out at all. You’re going in, to the deepest place of soul-accounting, and raising yourself up as a mighty deed. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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Shoftim: Shake off the Dust

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Hello again!

It’s been too long since we’ve been learning together. This week we’re reading the Torah portion Shoftim and the fourth of seven haftarot of consolation , which are read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.

All of these haftarot [readings from the prophets] are taken from the second half of the book of Isaiah, which has the general theme of redemption, restoration, and rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. These texts are poetic, with metaphors upon metaphors; the prophet addresses the city of Jerusalem as if she were a person, yet it’s understood that Jerusalem herself is symbolic of the people Israel, ready to return from exile:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive one, Fair Zion!” (Is. 52:1-2)

In context, this and other verses (cf. 51:17) which commands Jerusalem to “arise,” “rouse” or “awake,” are probably exhortations to the people to find courage and encouragement in the imminent return from exile. That is, exile to Babylon is like the dust that needs to be shaken off or the sleep which dulls one’s senses- awakening, rousing, and shaking off the dust are metaphors for the people’s return and restoration. (See Rabbi Riskin’s take on this here.)

Some readers will recognize these verses in the Shabbat evening him Lecha Dodi, which we’ve discussed previously. I’d like to interpret these verses a little differently than I did last year, based on a text from the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings I’ve been learning with a friend. The Besht, as the Ba’al Shem Tov is know, draws a distinction between two spiritual states: katnut and gadlut, which literally mean “smallness” and “bigness” but which refer to a spiritual experience of constriction, fear, or distraction, compared to an experience of expanded awareness, connection and love.

Yet these ways of experiencing aren’t real or objective. Even when we’re in katnut, or smallness, if we can just think of the “upper worlds,” we’ll be there, “for a person is where his thought is.” [Tzava’at HaRivash 69] That is, you might think you’re “covered in dust,” or in a constricted spiritual place, but that’s just your thinking talking to you, as it were. The Besht teaches that you can think of the “upper worlds”- that is, expand your spiritual horizons- because you’re already there. If you weren’t already there- how could you think of it?

Returning to our text, and to its placement on Shabbat evening, I see the image of “shaking off the dust” as remembering that it’s possible to be in a different state than the hurried, distracted and ego-centric rushing around that many of us are doing throughout the day. Just thinking: “I can be more centered, more God-aware, more generous, more connected to the Source of love,” moves us there, because if that wasn’t the root of our being, how could we even think of it?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Rising from the Dust

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

(This was posted on rabbineal-list Aug 21, 2009)

Hello one and all!

We’re continuing with our discussion of the seven haftarot of
consolation (see previous messages), and we’re up to number 4 with the
haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. All of these readings
are taken from the book of Isaiah; in these chapters the prophet
addresses a personified Jerusalem, telling the city to awake and
arise:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck . . . (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 52:1-2)

Astute readers of the Hebrew and even the English may note that
phrases from these verses are quoted in “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn for
bringing in Shabbat. In context, the idea that Zion, or Jerusalem,
arises or shakes off the dust is clearly a metaphor for the Jewish
people regaining hope and dignity as their redemption approaches.

The phrase “arise, shake of the dust” [hitna’ari, m’afar kumi], is
interesting not only for the image of a people “arising” from a
degraded state but also because the word for “shake off” has a root
similar to that of “youth,” or “na’ar.” Thus Hirsch says that “when
Israel attains her goal she arises in youthful beauty,” which itself
is a metaphor not for physical beauty but the moral beauty of youthful
passion and idealism.

Along these lines, a homiletic interpretation of “hitna’ari” could be
“make yourself youthful again,” and perhaps the prophet himself
intended this doubled meaning, given the homonyms. If so, “shaking of
the dust” could be understood as shedding our cynicism and fear, and
renewing our ability to hope and thus work towards a better and
brighter world. Please note: I am not saying that young people are
never cynical, nor that older people lack hope; rather, I’m
interpreting these verses as poetic images, in which the process of
redemption is compared to regaining the passion and hope and idealism
commonly associated with youth.

In this reading, what we “shake off” is not dust on the outside, but
attitudes from the inside. An inner transformation is the beginning of
redemption; or, to put it another way, we can’t bring about what we
don’t dare to dream.

with best wishes for a good month of Elul and a peaceful rest of the summer,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Rising from the Dust

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

We’re continuing with our discussion of the seven haftarot of
consolation (see previous messages), and we’re up to number 4 with the
haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. All of these readings
are taken from the book of Isaiah; in these chapters the prophet
addresses a personified Jerusalem, telling the city to awake and
arise:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck . . . (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 52:1-2)

Astute readers of the Hebrew and even the English may note that
phrases from these verses are quoted in “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn for
bringing in Shabbat. In context, the idea that Zion, or Jerusalem,
arises or shakes off the dust is clearly a metaphor for the Jewish
people regaining hope and dignity as their redemption approaches.

The phrase “arise, shake of the dust” [hitna’ari, m’afar kumi], is
interesting not only for the image of a people “arising” from a
degraded state but also because the word for “shake off” has a root
similar to that of “youth,” or “na’ar.” Thus Hirsch says that “when
Israel attains her goal she arises in youthful beauty,” which itself
is a metaphor not for physical beauty but the moral beauty of youthful
passion and idealism.

Along these lines, a homiletic interpretation of “hitna’ari” could be
“make yourself youthful again,” and perhaps the prophet himself
intended this doubled meaning, given the homonyms. If so, “shaking of
the dust” could be understood as shedding our cynicism and fear, and
renewing our ability to hope and thus work towards a better and
brighter world. Please note: I am not saying that young people are
never cynical, nor that older people lack hope; rather, I’m
interpreting these verses as poetic images, in which the process of
redemption is compared to regaining the passion and hope and idealism
commonly associated with youth.

In this reading, what we “shake off” is not dust on the outside, but
attitudes from the inside. An inner transformation is the beginning of
redemption; or, to put it another way, we can’t bring about what we
don’t dare to dream.

with best wishes for a good month of Elul and a peaceful rest of the summer,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Encroaching Boundaries

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Just a few hours ago, I was going into this week’s Torah portion-
Shoftim- with a plan. I was all set to write about the mitzvah of bal
taschit [“do not destroy”], which is a general commandment of material
and resource conservation (cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy 20:19 and
attendant commentaries). Then I saw a comment in Abraham Chill’s book
called “The Mitzvot” and my plans changed, so we’re going to write
about another mitzvah, that of “hasagat gvul”, or encroaching on
boundaries.

This mitzvah is plainly spelled out in the Torah portion:

“You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous
generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”

This mitzvah is not hard to understand: we are not to move property
markers in such a way that one person’s land is increased at the
expense of his or her neighbor’s. Although the verse speaks of the
Land of Israel as its place of application, the moral idea behind it
is understood to apply universally. The idea of “encroaching the
boundary” is even understood to regulate unfair competition. e.g., a
new business moving into a neighborhood and conducting itself in such
a way that the established businesses would be driven out. (More on
this can be found in the link below.)

Going back to the comment that made me change direction for this
week’s drasha, first let me say that I had always assumed that the
moral idea behind the prohibition of “hasagat gvul” [encroaching the
boundary] was to reduce conflict and keep the peace in a competitive
society- that is, I always understood this mitzvah to be about
property or economic relations between equals. Then I read the
following passage in Chill, “The Mitzvot,” and I understood this verse
in a new way:

“In a free economy, it is not only conceivable but it is also a daily
occurrence that the financially strong can devise ways of encroaching
on the rights and property of the weak. The inescapable result is that
the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The Torah warns us
against hassagat gvul- encroaching on another’s property.”

Seen this way, a law to respect the integrity of a person’s property
(which includes, by extension, their established livelihood in a
particular area), is not only about reducing conflict but also to
protect the poor and weak, who may be unable to defend themselves
against predatory practices. Not only that, but a small landowner or
owner of a small business would be disproportionately affected by
“encroachment,” since they have less to lose.

Ultimately, the mitzvah of respecting the property boundaries of
another is about extending the respect they are due as a person to
those things- like their land or or their business or their web of
relationships- which they have worked to create and by which they may
be sustained. Seen this way, it’s not just about real estate, it’s
about creating a society with compassion, thoughtfulness and human
dignity as core values, which is the very work of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Horses and Human Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

The portion Shoftim has many laws pertaining to civil,
criminal, political, and military governance, including a law which
warns the people not let the future king amass too much power and
treasure:

“Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt
to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go
back that way again.’ ” (Deuteronomy/D’varim 17:16)

I can certainly understand a warning not to let the king have too
many horses- a king with a large standing army will be tempted to use
it unnecessarily. A large standing army will become an end in itself,
requiring ever more taxes and forced service from the people. Having
said that, what difference does it make where the king acquires the
horses he is, in fact, permitted to have? Why should it matter if he
buys them from Egypt or from any other country?

Perhaps the Torah warns against going back to Egypt because Egypt, in
our ancestor’s historical memory, was the paradigmatic place of
oppression, where human beings were treated as mere objects, to be
used and discarded at the pleasure of Pharoah. Egypt- in the
experience of our ancestors- is where classes of human beings had no
inherent worth or dignity, but only instrumental value as a means to
somebody else’s ends.

I think that is why no representative of the king could go to Egypt
to buy horses- because the Torah doesn’t want any member of the
Israelite leadership to experience such an objectifying way of seeing
his fellow citizens. “You must not go back that way again”- that is,
the way of thinking about human relationships which is characteristic
of “Egypt” in the Torah’s frame of reference. Perhaps a king was
especially vulnerable to losing sight of the inherent worth and moral
standing of each person, but the problem of Egypt, as a metaphor for
how humans dehumanize each other, is still with us, and so the
Torah’s warning still stands: don’t go back that way again.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Shoftim: Elders, Prophets and Captains

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Greetings from the Hudson River Valley! I’ve arrived in Poughkeepsie
and begun the long process of avoiding the large piles of boxes in my
house and office. More importantly, I’ve been meeting great people who
for different reasons have been anticipating the arrival of the new
rabbi in town; some want the new rabbi to help with programming plans,
others are looking forward to sermons and learning Torah, some folks
have life-cycle events coming up, and there are those who simply want
a renewed sense of spiritual leadership within the community.

Well, as I’ve said before, one of the amazing things about being
Jewish (which I learned from my teacher R. Brad Artson) is that
whatever issue presents itself at any given moment, there’s always
something relevant to it in the Torah portion of the week. So this
week, as I move into the rabbi’s office on Grand Avenue and meet with
other professional and volunteer leaders of this community, it struck
me how many different models of leadership are named in this week’s
parsha, Shoftim, or “Judges.”

By my count, there are eight different kinds of community leaders
discussed in this week’s parsha, listed in order of appearance in the
text:

1) Shoftim (judges)- legal authorities.
2) Shotrim (“officials”), who seem to be community or civilian
authorities.
3) Kohanim (priests), who have both ritual and some legal duties.
4) Melech, the king, who must learn and fulfill the Torah.
5) Levi’im, or members of the tribe of Levi who have religious
responsibilities but who are not priests.
6) Navi (prophet), a person who speaks the word of God.
7) Ziknei ir (elders of the city).
8) Sharei Tze’vaot (army captains).

A detailed study of the portion, along with comparison to other texts
elsewhere in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), would yield insights into each
role, and how they support and balance each other. (Separation of
powers is a venerable idea.) For today, however, it’s enough to note
that our ancestors understood that different people possess different
gifts, and the community cannot thrive with only one source of
authority or wisdom.

What was true then is no less true today: our spiritual communities
are in need of the wisdom of our elders, the insights of those with
penetrating minds and good discernment, the moral courage of brave
visionaries, leaders of ritual and song and other connections to the
sacred, and the hard work of those generous spirits who provide for
the well-being and safety of communal institutions.

Done well, leadership is not a zero-sum game, with clearly defined
winners and losers; if it’s all about winners and losers, it’s not
leadership, it’s power struggles. Rather, I believe that a healthy
community encourages everyone- everyone!- to find their voice and
offer their unique contributions. There is so much to be done, and so
much to lose if we restrict our openness as to who may guide us to
just a few traditional types. Our ancestors knew that their community
could not thrive with only one kind of leader; neither can ours, and
we are blessed in proportion to our communal ability to bring forth
wisdom and inspiration from the souls all around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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