Archive for Va’etchanan

Va’etchanan: Wisdom in Action

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Va’etchanan/ Shabbat Nachamu

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

Good afternoon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

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Va’etchanan: Law and its Limits

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you . . . .(Deuteronomy/ D’varim 6:18)

Hello again, it’s a beautiful afternoon in the Hudson Valley and I’m delighted to find a few minutes to offer a Torah thought. I am in the middle of transitions and new challenges and can’t promise a commentary every week, but things should settle down after the Jewish holidays in the fall. Till then, well, I’ll do my best.

Now, onto this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, which continues Moshe’s review of the history of the Israelites since the Exodus some 40 years earlier, for the explicit purpose of reminding them of their obligation to the One Who redeemed them from slavery. To that end, Moshe also reviews the events at Sinai, and recapitulates the Ten Things That Were Said (e.g., aseret ha’dibrot, ten utterances, AKA ten commandments.)

Yet in the middle of all this exhortation to covenantal loyalty comes a verse which reminds them that the law is not the end, but the beginning of a moral life. “Do what is right and good,” from the verse quoted above, is understood to be a basic principle of Judaism: it’s not enough to obey the letter of a legall code or set of spiritual disciplines, but one must also fulfill the spirit of the law, which often requires going beyond a standard of strict adherence to formal standards.

A famous example of this comes from the Talmud [Bava Metzia 83a], wherein workers who broke a barrel of wine were hauled before the judge in order to hold them liable for the damage. Their shirts had been taken as collateral, but the judge, the sage known as Rav, ordered not only their shirts returned but their wages paid. Rav made explicit that his standard was not only the law that workers are liable for damage but the principle that we treat human beings with dignity and relieve their suffering, even if that requires us to go beyond the law. Yes, it would have been legal to take the worker’s shirts, but it would not have been right, nor humane, nor compassionate, nor consonant with larger Jewish ideals of justice and generosity.

Of course, one problem with “do what is right and good” is that it’s a lot easier to know if our actions comply with a specific law than it is to know if our actions are consonant with larger and more abstract moral principles. To which I say: nu? since when is it supposed to be easy to be a mensch? No, it’s not easy to stretch ourselves to go beyond the law (any law, be it Jewish, American, international); it requires active, imaginative empathy for others, humility about our own righteousness, and great generosity. None of those things are easy to discern or to do, but if we are to live in a world balanced with hesed, rather than a world limited to strict justice, it’s the only way.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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Va’etchanan: Happy With One’s Lot

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Va’etchanan
 
Greetings! 
 
This week’s Torah portion has some important texts and laws, including the S’hma and a review of the Ten Commandments. What’s often interesting about texts reviewed or restated in D’varim/ Deuteronomy is subtle changes in wording or emphasis from earlier verses and books of the Torah. In this case, the 10th commandment, “do not covet”, one word leaps out as different from the first iteration of the Ten Commandments back in Exodus: 
 
Sh’mot/ Exodus:: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (20:14)
 
D’varim: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (5:18)
 
Note that the first version begins with property and goes to people and animals, and the second version begins with “wife” and goes on to list house, field, servants and then animals. The more interesting difference is the second verb in the second version: tit’aveh means crave or have a hunger for something. In Exodus, only one verb is used: tachmod, meaning  to covet or want something. 
 
Maimonides, as quoted in Sefer HaHinnuch, distinguishes between “coveting” and “craving” this way: the first is taking something or pressuring somebody to sell something that they don’t want to sell. Thus, for Maimonides, “coveting” is an action to acquire, with money or not, the property of another. “Craving” or “hungering” after something is a purely internal experience, just wanting something that you don’t have. 
 
One classic explanation is that we need to watch our thoughts lest they turn into actions; Sefer HaHinnuch goes so far as to say that “craving” will lead to “coveting” which will lead to robbery ! On the other hand, there are plenty of mitzvot which forbid us to do something without an additional mitzvah not to think about it. Thus, I’m not sure that preventing robbery is the primary goal of this commandment. Rather, it seems to me that the point of distinguishing “coveting” and “craving” is to push us to train our thoughts towards satisfaction rather than acquisition.
 
I don’t know about anybody else, but I find it very easy to become focused on what I want, rather than what I have; I’m probably the guy all the advertising geniuses want to target most. YetHinnuch also points out that to a certain extent, our thoughts of what we desire are under our control, and we can, if we choose, be less distracted by the material things which glitter around us. As Pirke Avot asks: 
 
Who is the one who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion. (4:1)
 
Shabbat is itself an exercise in resisting the acquisitive urge; a day without commerce reminds us of the difference between wants and needs. That, to me, is the point of warning against “craving” the property of others; not so we won’t turn into robbers, but rather because we should learn to be happy because of who we are, who we are with, and to whom we give, and not merely because of what we own. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Va’etchanan: Nothing Else

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan/ Shabbat Nachamu

In Va’etchanan, Moshe reviews how he was denied entry into the Land, and warns the people to stay loyal to the covenant once they enter the Land. He tells them that God is One (the Shma) and reviews the Ten Commandments.

Good morning!

Va’etchanan has so many links to the prayer service I could hardly choose- but then again, many commentaries have been written on the Shma , so let’s look for something with less ink (fewer electrons?) spilled over it.

How about Aleinu, then? Aleinu, as you may recall, is one of the penultimate prayers of a typical service- morning, afternoon, or evening- and has two paragraphs. The first paragraph (here is the text) speaks of Israel’s uniqueness as a people, and the second paragraph speaks of the hope that someday all idolatry will be swept away and the world will be united in a common spiritual consciousness.

Yet it’s interesting that the first paragraph of Aleinu ends with a quote from the Torah- from this week’s portion, of course- that also speaks to a universal spirituality, a radical monotheism which in its Biblical context served as a rebuke to any thought of worshiping other gods:

“Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 4:39)

The final word of this verse- ein od– literally mean “no other” or “nothing else”, or “nothing but this”, and again, when you look at the verse in its Biblical context, it’s clear that Moshe is warning the people not to make the theological mistake of assigning the different parts of nature- heaven and earth- to different gods or lesser powers than the One who is the Source of all realms. Yet more recent commentators from the mystical streams of Jewish thought have interpreted ein od– “no other”- more radically: there is nothing else but God. Heaven, earth, animals, plants, seas, stars, people. . .it’s all God, all connected, all ultimately One. The goal of religious practice is to learn to perceive this unity in a world of infinite diversity and complexity, and to let those experiences transform us into more compassionate, connected, less ego-bound beings.

You might object that the first paragraph of Aleinu is not at all about the unity of the cosmos- it’s about how the Jewish people have a unique mission and obligations. To which I would reply: of course Judaism is a unique spiritual path, and it’s uniquely suited for Jews because of our shared history and spiritual inheritance, but the deepest experiences of Judaism also open one up to the awareness of connection and surrender to . . . well. . . there’s no other way to put it except: ein od. We delve deep into a particular tradition in order to see the interconnection of all things, just as we delve deep into a language in order to understand poetry and song.

We can’t write a love poem, which is a universal thing, without using a particular language. Similarly, Aleinu teaches us that if we want to understand, through deep experience, that God is One, there is no other, then we have to delve deep into our specific practices of mitzvah, study, and community, which pry us from solipsism and open up the heart to connection and love. Our verse says: know and take to heart, that is, know in your intellect but let your heart be changed when you feel deeply that what we call God is right here, filling the cosmos, there is no other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu: Clearing a Path

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu

Now, back to the Torah readings. . . as we’ve been discussing, the
three weeks before the Ninth of Av [Tisha B’Av] are times of
introspection, with special haftarot of “rebuke” calling the people to
account.

However, immediately after Tisha B’Av, the theme of the the hafatarot
switches from rebuke to comfort and consolation, and these readings
continue for 7 weeks, until Rosh Hashana. In fact, this week’s
haftarah gives this Shabbat its name: “Shabbat Nachamu” or the
“Shabbat of Comfort” (in the sense of console or encourage), taken
from the first verse of Yeshayahu, chapter 40:

“Comfort, oh comfort My people,
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her
That her term of service is over . . . .

A voice rings out:

‘Clear in the desert
A road for the Lord!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!’ ” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:1-3)

On the surface, it appears that the Yeshayahu is speaking in the name
of God, telling him (Yeshayahu) and others to “comfort My people,”
while in the next verses, he (the prophet) is telling the people
themselves to “clear in the desert a road for the Lord.” The “highway
for our God” (or “of our God”) seems to be a reference to returning
from exile: that is, the people in exile will return along a straight
road, right through the wilderness, with few obstacles.

So far, so good. Our friend Samson Raphael Hirsch- a great rabbi who
lived in Germany in the 1800’s- notices that in the first verse,
“comfort my people” is in the future (or imperative) tense, while “a
voice rings out” is in the present tense. (Tenses work differently in
Biblical Hebrew than in English, but let’s take this interpretation as
homily rather than linguistics.)

For Hirsch, “comfort my people” is a promise to be fully fulfilled
only in the future, when history is healed and humankind has overcome
its propensity for self-destruction. “Clear in the desert a road” is a
call, now, to us- we’re never going to get to the place where we can
console each other, in the future, if we don’t clear a path to God,
today. That road is not concrete (in both senses of the word) but an
inner path- we need to clear within ourselves the obstacles to
returning to God, and what sustains us along that difficult challenge
is the hope given by the first verse, that our efforts are not in
vain, that consolation for the pains of the past is promised.

Hirsch’s reading of these verses (which I have in turn paraphrased and
interpreted) is an encapsulation of the spiritual challenge of this
season: to slowly grow towards the Days of Awe by “clearing the path”
within ourselves, so that we can renew our sense of deep connection to
God, Torah and Israel on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s worth
noting hear that the word “halacha,” often mistranslated as “law” (in
the sense of “Jewish law”) comes from the word for “walk” or “go”-
Judaism itself is our path, our way of going forward in the world, our
“road to God.” Someday, our world will be fully healed, but to get
there, each one of us has to take small steps, today.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Va’etchanan: Learning and Teaching

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

It’s a beautiful summer day and I have good news for you: by the very
act of reading this email you are fulfilling a mitzvah straight from
this week’s Torah portion!

Which mitzvah, you might ask?

The mitzvah of Torah study, which [according to Sefer HaHinnuch, the
book of commandments we’ve been quoting a lot recently] is derived
from a rather well-known verse in this week’s portion, Va’etchanan.
The verse in question appears as part of the first paragraph of the
prayer known as “Shma,” which tells us to:

“impress [these words] upon your children, recite them when you stay
at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
. . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 6:7)

Although the general idea of learning and studying Torah is stated or
implied else where in D’varim, the rabbis see the mitzvah of “teaching
your children” including the act of study- because if you do not
study, how can you teach? There’s even an interpretation that
“children” here actually means “students,” because students are called
“children” in this regard.

So this is interesting: Torah study, which in some ways is the
foundational spiritual practice of the Jewish religion, is actually
derived from a verse which speaks of teaching, not learning. [Please
note, “Torah” is to be understood not in the narrow sense, as the five
first books of the Bible, but in its broadest sense, as Jewish sacred
teaching or text.]

We are not all teachers professionally, but if every Jew has the
obligation to learn in order to teach, that seems to me to be a large
principle upon which we should base our conception of religious
community. Too often, Jewish teaching is left to professionals, but
the Torah itself reminds us that each of us has the obligation to
share what we can, if not in words, then in ritual or compassionate
action. We study not only to solve intellectual puzzles inside our
private minds, but so that we can each be a living testimony to the
power of Judaism to heal the world- and each of us can be a teacher to
others, if we discover our gifts and bring them forth in the context
of spiritual community.

The mitzvah of study is not only about passing something on to
somebody else; it’s about learning how to be more powerful spiritual
personalities. That is why Torah study – in books, in classes, on the
internet, podcasts, you name it – is a foundational commandment:
because it helps us become more ourselves by sharing with others.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Va’etchanan: Don’t Forget What You Already Are

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

Greetings!

For the last time, it’s Torah from the North Shore. . . . . I hope my move will
not interrupt
our Torah learning schedule, because Sefer Devarim (Book of Deuteronomy) is
proceeding
right along. In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, there is a continuation of
the review of
Israelite history since the Exodus, which, as Moshe reminds the people, should
be
remembered as a great and unprecedented miracle. Moshe predicts that in the
future, the
Israelites will turn away from God and Torah, but there will be an eventual
reconciliation.
The Ten Commandments are recapitulated; parshat Va’etchanan also includes the
passage
known as the Shma, as part of Moshe’s overarching plea for loyalty to the
covenant.

This idea- that loyalty to the covenant needs consistent attention- runs through
Devarim
as a recurring theme. On the one hand, it’s quite amazing to think that a people
who had
been liberated from slavery and brought (albeit by a circuitous route) to a Land
of Milk and
Honey would NOT be loyal to God and Torah- but on the other hand, the preceding
three
books of the Torah make it clear that rebellion, doubt, and conflict are
constant realities in
the Israelite community. Moshe pleads with the people to stay conscious of what
they’ve
learned over the past 40 years:

” And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this
entire Torah,
which I set before you this day? But beware and watch yourself very well, lest
you forget
the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart . .
. (Devarim/
Deuteronomy 4:8-9)

Now, again, it’s an amazing idea: could the Israelites forget the Exodus and the
miracles of
the desert (“the things that your eyes saw”) and if not, would Torah really
depart from their
hearts? After all, sometimes I forget where I’ve parked my car at the mall, but
I rarely
forget major life-saving miracles that have changed me and my people forever!

My sense of the text is that we’re not talking about the kind of forgetting in
which
something leaves our memory for good. Rather, I think the text is suggesting
that the
people may remember the events of the Exodus and the experience of receiving
Torah at
Sinai, but may not truly integrate these principles into their consciousness,
into their
being. The challenge is not simply to remember, as such; the challenge is to
stay true to
our memories.

We all have peak moments of spiritual or emotional insight- Sinai moments, as it
were; not
having peak or wondrous experiences is not actually the problem that religion
comes to
solve. The problem is that the potential of these moments becomes lost when we
return to
daily life, with its stresses, temptations, and distractions. What a religious
discipline (such
as Shabbat, or daily prayer, or putting on tallit and tefillin, or regular Torah
study) can do
is call us back to those peak moments, those flashes of insight, those
experiences of utter
commitment to the depth of true living.

Think of our relationship with God like a relationship with a lover: there are
those
moments of extraordinary connection, and then there is cleaning up after dinner.
The
challenge, in a human relationship or our relationship with the Divine, is to
stay true to the
deepest connection, even in stressful or routine moments.

In fact, I think of Judaism as a grand attempt to stay true to our people’s
experience at
Sinai; every mitzvah, every line of text, every prayer, becomes a link back to
that moment
when the people Israel stood completely awestruck before God, and responded by
committing to the highest ideals of compassionate and spiritual living- i.e.,
Torah.

Sinai is the template for my own “peak” (in both senses of the word) moments;
the
challenge of my life, as I understand it, is to constantly reorient myself
towards that higher
awareness. This is what it means that “these things” will not “depart from my
heart.” There
are many things I have to remember on any given day- and probably a few I’d like
to
forget- but the deeper remembering isn’t a matter of writing something down or
jotting a
note. The deeper remembering is integrating our experiences with our ideals, and
becoming the people we know we can be, if only we remember what we know.

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