Archive for Holidays

8th Day Pesach: Change Comes in Haste

Dear Friends, I am chagrined at my writer’s block these past few months but pleased that the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, my alma mater, published my Torah commentary in their weekly email. 

  Torah Reading:  Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17

  Maftir Reading:  Numbers 28:19-25

  Haftarah Reading:  Isaiah 10:32 -12:6

There’s an old saying about public speaking: tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Recapitulating the most important message you want to communicate is not a mystical principle and does readily explain the Torah reading at the end of the three agricultural festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This Torah reading includes Deuteronomy 16, a chapter which distills each holiday to its essence of observance and meaning.

Regarding Pesach, the Deuteronomy text reminds us why we eat matzah, the “bread of affliction:”

You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress-for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly-so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 16:3)

So far, so good: in this verse, matzah is the symbol of leaving Egypt in a hurry. Yet this raises a question: if matzah is the symbol of leaving Egypt in a hurry, why is it called lechem oni, the bread of distress? Isn’t leaving slavery in a hurry a wonder and miracle? Our friend Rashi, the great medieval sage, suggests that the “hurry” in the above verse doesn’t describe the Israelites, but the Egyptians. In this reading, the Exodus was a great blessing, but the reason Israel made haste was the Egyptian army fast pursuing them. Thus matzah symbolizes the leaving of Egypt (good), but the speed of leaving is a reminder of the forces of oppression, hence matzah as “bread of distress.”

An earlier description of matzah, from the book of Exodus, raises a related question:

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:39)

The imagery of these verses is very familiar from our telling of the story on the first night of Pesach: the Jewish people had to leave Egypt so quickly that they had no time to prepare, so they grabbed their kneading bowls and headed for freedom as fast as they could. That’s a compelling scene in the dramatic unfolding of the Exodus, but turning back to the beginning of Exodus 12, we find Moshe telling the people two weeks earlier that the final plague is coming and they must prepare for the miracle to come.

So if the people had been told to prepare weeks in advance, why didn’t they make some bread or other provisions? Rashi again provides a helpful explanation: the verse tells us they didn’t prepare in order to praise the people, who didn’t object that they weren’t ready, but”believed in God and went forward. ” Note well that Rashi’s two comments on these verses can be read together: the Israelites did know the Exodus was coming, trusting in the Divine Promise of freedom, but they left in a hurry when the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit.

Rashi’s commentary on the meaning of matzah hints at a truth about human beings: change is often forced upon us by circumstance, even when we know it’s coming. This is true in every realm of human life, including religion, economics, environment, politics, and health (personal and organizational): we know, intellectually, that things can’t go on the way they always have but we often don’t change our habits until we have no choice. That lack of choice often comes faster than we can ever imagine, sometimes in an instant. In a hospital, we often see patients confronting spiritual, relationship or moral distress only after a medical crisis and it’s easy to wonder: didn’t they know this was coming? One could judge another unfavorably for putting off these reckonings, but as a chaplain, I’ve come to see that it’s simply human nature not to cross the Sea, as it were, until Pharaoh’s army pushes you to the shore.

We make haste when we have to because as humans, it’s often too hard, if not impossible, to prepare for what we can hardly imagine, but then matzah comes along one week a year to remind us that we have what we need for the journey. Sometimes, as Rashi reminds us, all we can do is trust in God and go forward together, forgiving ourselves and each other our frailties and imperfections. Thus matzah is not only lechem oni, the bread of distress, but also symbol of our precious humanity, imperfect but more than sufficient, and in this we can rejoice.

 

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Pinchas: Pay Attention

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 29:1)

Good afternoon! I’ve heard it said that we read the Torah year after year not because the Torah changes, but because we change from one year to the next. Texts and ideas will speak to us in new ways as we navigate the course of our lives over time. Thus, a few years back, when writing about this week’s Torah portion, I interpreted the commandment of shofar in this week’s portion using the first part of the commentary from Sefer HaHinnuch, a medieval textbook of the commandments. (See below for links.)

This year, however, I found something interesting in the later section of the commentary. Briefly, the background of the discussion is the idea that the shofar sounds, especially the t’ruah, or short rapid notes, sound like crying. Sefer HaHinnuch points out that in different parts of the world, sobbing or crying may have various expressions according to the local culture (I’m paraphrasing) and thus at an early stage of Jewish history people would blow the various shofar sounds in accordance with what crying or wailing sounded like locally. A later sage then standardized the shofar sounds across the Jewish world, and thus the combination of sounds you hear in one synagogue is likely to be very close to what you’d hear in another.

Now, many people, myself included, have taught the idea that the shofar sounds are likened to crying in order to arouse our compassion and awareness, and in turn feel a greater call to be agents of healing in the year to come. This particular commentary, however, points out the particularity of suffering: there is no one way to cry, no single modality of emotional expression, no universal sign that another person feels broken and alone. Some cry aloud, others perhaps quietly, and yet others may cry internally, inaudible to others without focus and curiosity. Some cultures are loud, some are stiff-lipped, some are decorous and others value overt expression.

Thus the different shofar sounds- tekiah, shevarim, t’ruah– and the various combinations of the sounds are a reminder that compassion isn’t about applying rules, it’s about paying attention to the people around you. Every cry arises from a unique soul and a unique set of circumstances, and so being present to those cries requires remembering that the Divine is One, but humanity, made in the Divine Image, is infinite in its diversity.

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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Shabbat Zachor: Remember to Wage Peace

Good afternoon! I’ve been absent from commenting for far too long- maybe the world is so crazy I just don’t know what to say, but I do have a commentary on Shabbat Zachor published in this month’s Voice, the Jewish paper in Dutchess County. I shall return to the drashing blogosphere!

Now, on to Shabbat Zachor:

The holiday of Purim is not just one day of costumes and parties, but perhaps more properly understood as a drama of fasting and feasting unfolding over the course of a week, and not just because that’s how long it takes to assemble our mishloach manot (gift baskets of food given on Purim).  The drama of Purim begins unfolding on the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor–  the Sabbath of Remembering.  What we remember on Shabbat Zachor is not, in fact, what happened in Shushan in ancient Persia but what happened to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. We remember by adding an additional text to our Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 26:17-19)

It seems fairly straightforward at first glance: remember the evil deeds of the nation Amalek, how they ambushed the weakest Israelites, and take action to “blot them out” from the earth. Lest there be confusion about what “blot out the memory” of Amalek means, our haftarah, or prophetic portion assigned to this Shabbat, tells the story of the first king of Israel wiping out the Amalekites in war: man, woman and child, and only getting in trouble with the prophet Samuel because he spared the king and the animals. These passages help put the Purim story in a larger historical context, as the villain Haman is descended from Agag, the king that Samuel executed, who himself is an Amalekite.

We hardly need contemporary political events to be troubled by the thought that a mad king could declare a genocidal war. Some commentators have insisted that Amalek no longer exists, so the commandment is no longer in force. Others have seen it as a warning not about any particular people or nation, but about evil more generally: “don’t forget,” in this reading, means “don’t be complacent.”

Yet the commandment to blot out Amalek isn’t as simple as it seems, for it is balanced by another commandment found earlier in Deuteronomy:

When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.  (Deut. 20:10)

Please note that the commandment above- to offer terms of peace before making war- has no exceptions, not even for Amalek; this opinion is codified by no less than Maimonides, the greatest legal sage of medieval Judaism. To be clear, offering terms of peace, according to the ancient texts, doesn’t mean equal coexistence or détente, but more like surrender and becoming a vassal city to the Israelites, along with accepting general commandments of justice and rejecting idolatry.

Yet even that definition of peace redefines our relationship to the memory of Amalek, a nation which cannot be understood as categorically, inherently evil and worthy of destruction if they, too, are  capable of accepting peaceful surrender and taking upon themselves just laws. The rabbis even point to certain clues in the story of Saul’s battle with Amelek to suggest that he offered terms of peace before the battle, which they rejected, thus leading to war.

So what, then are we remembering on Shabbat Zachor? Perhaps we are remembering that despite our anger at being ambushed on the way out of slavery, or any other grotesque historical injustice, we still have an obligation to avoid war if at all possible. Perhaps we must remember that even Amalek, or its contemporary manifestations, is not ontologically evil, but comprised of human beings who are capable of repentance and given the choice of blessing or curse, as are we all. On Shabbat Zachor, we remember what Amalek did to us, but if there’s going to be peace in the world, we also have to remember what the advertisements say about every investment opportunity: past performance does not guarantee future results, so offer peace before waging war.

 

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

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Nitzavim: A Call to Return

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there the Holy One will fetch you. (D’varim 30:4)

Good afternoon!

In a few days we’re going to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and while there are myriad interpretations and understandings of the sound of the shofar, I think most would agree that it has something to do with jarring us out of complacency, reminding us to think about what kind of people we want to be, and calling us back to God and our better selves. Jews have been sounding the shofar, with this same basic message of wake up-think-return, for thousands of years, and the message, ever year, is more or less the same: wake up-think-return.

Every year the message of the shofar is the same: wake up-think-return, but every year we, as individuals and as a community, might be complacent about different things or have gotten off track in different ways. The message is more or less the same, but the response is timely, personal and unique. The shofar is not innovative, new, creative, contemporary, technological, ideological, political or much different in 2016 as it was in 1816 or 1016. I would even say that this is precisely its power: in a world obsessed with the latest celebrity tweet and the slightest twitch of the 24-hour news cycle, the shofar is ancient, wise and relevant because it asks not the latest and loudest question but the most important one: how shall we live in the year to come?

This week’s Torah portion, always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, contains beautiful language of return, especially the verse at the top of the page, which can be read not only in its plain sense of geographic return to the land of Israel but also as a metaphor: no matter how far you feel from God, from Torah, from the Jewish community, from your own sense of soul and self, you can return. No matter if you’ve gotten so far astray from your ideals that you feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, you can return. No matter if you feel like an outcast or exile, you can return. No matter if the previous year had mistakes, misfires, misdeeds, or missed opportunities, this year you can return and choose a deeper and holier life.

It’s such a simple message: wake up-think-return, yet simple isn’t the same as easy. Looking within, asking ourselves hard questions, turning ourselves back to the Source- definitely not easy, or comfortable, or quick, or painless. Yet that’s what Jews do, year after year, generation after generation, called back by a technology that’s never needed an update and could not be improved with new features. The shofar will call us: wake up-think-return, and the promise is: return is possible, from the ends of the earth or wherever we think we are. If we but take the first steps back, from there the Holy One will fetch you.

Wishing all of you sweet blessings in the New Year,

RNJL

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

 

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D’varim: All are Responsible

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. . . (D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1)

Good morning!

We begin a new Torah portion this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, D’varim– literally, “words,” as in the words that Moshe spoke to the Israelites before they crossed over into Israel. Rashi and others understand the theme of D’varim- both the Torah portion and the entire book- to be tochechah, or “rebuke,” to the people for all the times they forgot or angered God.

Rashi has several examples of this in his commentary on this opening verse but he also focusses on the word “all” in the verse: “these are the words [of rebuke, according to Rashi] that Moshe addressed to all Israel.” Rashi brings an almost comical example, which loosely paraphrased goes like this :

If people had been out in the market and didn’t hear Moshe’s rebuke, they could have said, “hey, you heard what Moshe said about this and that, and you didn’t object! But if we had been there, we would have answered him right back.” So Moshe brought all of them together and said, “see, you’re all here, if anybody has an objection, speak up!”

Now, your first question to Rashi might be: what market? They were out in the desert across the Jordan river! The anachronistic example tips us off that his commentary is not meant to be taken literally but rather as an illustration of the human tendency to believe that societal or collective problems are somebody else’s problem and responsibility, not our own. That is, if Moshe had rebuked me, I’d have a great answer as to why the difficulties of the Jewish people or the world at large aren’t my fault- but you other people have no answer for him!

The Torah portion D’varim is always read before the observance of Tisha B’Av, the sad memorial day of fasting and penitence. Tisha B’Av is in many ways the beginning of the season of the Days of Awe. We sit and fast and reflect upon the brokenness of the world precisely so we can take responsibility for our own piece of that brokenness, or at the very least, our failure to fix what we can, starting within ourselves. Whether it’s causeless hatred or the breakdown of social bonds or what seems like a massive failure of mutual understanding among various communities within our greater polity, the rebuke for these problems is on all of us. In a different (but not so different) context, Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”*

Moshe called all the people to account; nobody was permitted to say, “this doesn’t apply to me.” Should we be any different in deeply reflecting upon how to bring healing and repentance to a shouting and violent world?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*There are various versions of this quote but the gist is the same.

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

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Let My People Go: Freedom, Slavery, Work and Worship

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: I am pleased that the Pesach thoughts below were published as part of the Spring edition of the The Orchard, a collection of divrei Torah, published by the Jewish Federations of North America.

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Most children or adults who’ve had even a little bit of Jewish education remember that that Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “let my people go!” We tend to think of the Exodus story as a struggle between freedom and oppression, between the liberator Moses and the despotic Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn becomes emblematic of all the tyrants, dictators, slaveholders, demagogues and corrupt authorities who have abused others from the dawn of history until today. It’s such a familiar story that we take it for granted, but it’s really quite astounding that the basic idea of our most familiar Jewish story is about God on the side of the poor and powerless, the broken and afraid.

This is hardly typical of either ancient or modern texts: think of the ancient myths that valorize heroes, kings, majestic beauties and extraordinary people with godlike powers. It’s not just an premodern problem: think of all the books and magazines you might see in a drugstore or supermarket, and think of who they put on the cover to get your attention. Very few popular magazine covers show us the image of the poorest of the poor, servants and slaves, the suffering and scarred, in order to proclaim the message: these are the people to whom attention must be paid!

If telling the Exodus story at Passover did nothing more than focus our conscience on those who are most often forgotten, dayenu, it would be enough. Yet that’s not the only message of the Exodus and Passover, as seen in the Torah itself. The beginning of Exodus 5 has Moses pleading with Pharaoh not only to let the people go, but to let the people go in order that they may worship God in the desert wilderness. In response, Pharaoh issues new orders to his slave masters, telling them to increase the workload of the Israelites, since wanting to go worship God is an obvious sign of their laziness and sloth. (Cf. 5:8)

The psychologist and theologian Richard Beck points to this as illustrating another polarity in the Exodus story: not only is there the contrast between slavery and freedom, but also, in the mind of Pharaoh, between work andworship. If Pharaoh is symbolic of all those who abuse others, making people into mere instruments of economic or political or military value, then the countervailing force is not only freedom, but worship, which I understand as not just ritual and prayer but as the development of a powerful spiritual consciousness. Knowing that there is a Source of hope greater than our current conditions can lead to courage, perspective, dignity and purpose. The last thing Pharaoh – or any abusive authority- wants is for the people to realize that there is a power higher than Pharaoh!

Of course, Pharaoh can see none of this: to him, spiritual consciousness is just frivolity, nothing that his servants need. In this day and age, when we are constantly pulled towards distraction by our devices and media blaring out from screens all around us, this contrast between work and worship takes on a whole new urgency. It’s not laziness to pray, meditate, study sacred texts and develop our deeper consciousness; in fact, it’s probably a necessary precondition to the really hard work, which is redeeming those still caught in oppression and despair.

The point of Passover isn’t just a nice meal with a good story. The point is to remind us who we really serve. The rituals, narratives, songs and foods of the Seder take us out of our ordinary routines into the realm of “worshiping God in the wilderness,” or seeing the world in a new way, refusing to be scared of Pharaoh anymore. Leaving Egypt- the “narrow place” of restricted vision- means imagining a world wherein the poor are important and the king is not, where meeting the Divine is our greatest goal rather than turning out more bricks and widgets. “Let my people go” ultimately means “let all people go;” Passover is a recommitment to that vision of a redeemed world, which we can only bring about by thinking new thoughts, seeing the world and ourselves differently than before. We see the world as it really is by telling the oldest and best story we have, as we have always done.

A happy and healthy Pesach to all,

RNJL

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

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T’shuvah, Hope and the Struggle for Justice

Shalom Friends, Neal here.

Well, I’ve fully transitioned into the new job at Vassar Brothers Medical Center and so far, so good. Eventually I’ll get access to all the parts of the computer systems that I need to and then we’ll be doing even better!

I do hope to write more consistently in the future- don’t give up on rabbineal-list quite yet.

This week I am honored to write the weekly commentary for T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, basing my thoughts on hope and faith on the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of Jonah, which you can find by going here:

Commentary on Jonah, Hope and Faith for Yom Kippur.

Astute readers of my weekly commentary (I assume that’s all of you!) will remember that I used themidrash about Pharaoh in 2010, but this year I go in a slightly different direction with it.

Wishing you all a peaceful and reflective Yom Kippur and a Sukkot overflowing with joy,

RNJL

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