Archive for Holidays

Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
 
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
 
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Shabbat Zachor: The Tragedy of Revenge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Zachor

“After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. . . ”  (Book of Esther, 3:1-2)

Good evening!

This week we observe two related liturgical occasions within a few hours of each other. On Shabbat morning, we read a special concluding Torah reading and a special reading from the prophets, each related to Amalek, the enemy nation of the Jews whose descendant is the antagonist of the Purim story. These readings, calling us to “remember [zachor] what Amalek did to you,” give the Shabbat before Purim its name.

Then, a few hours later, after nightfall Saturday night, Purim begins, and we read the scroll of Esther, with its famous hero, Mordecai, and its villain, Haman, both mentioned in the verse above, which contains the plot device which propels the story to its conclusion: Haman is incensed that Mordecai will not bow to him as the king’s viceroy. Yet it’s not at all apparent why Mordecai won’t bow to the king’s second-in-command; after all, Avraham bowed to the visitors in the desert and to the residents of Hevron. There are other examples in the Bible as well; it is not an obvious Jewish principle of the times that one would not bow before a man of high station.

So something else is going on, and I believe it’s found in the family trees of both Mordecai and Haman. We learn from the verse above that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek who was slain by the prophet Samuel after being defeated by the first king of Israel, Saul. (Cf. 1 Sam 15– this is the haftarah for  Shabbat Zachor.) On the other hand, we are told that Mordecai is a direct descendant of Kish, and a man of the tribe of Benjamin. (Cf. Esther 2:5)

Who was Kish, you might ask? Kish, since you asked, was the father of King Saul, meaning Mordecai himself is of that royal, albeit deposed, family. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:1-2.) Now, to be clear, the genealogy of Mordecai is not meant to be taken literally; Kish lived hundreds of years before Mordecai, not just a few generations as in the text. I think the abbreviated list of ancestors is meant to give us the highlights of the family line and tell us something important- namely, that the enmity between Haman and Mordecai goes way back to the time of Saul and Agag. It is entirely understandable that Mordecai would not bow down to a descendant of his familial enemy- and it is equally understandable, but not justifiable, that Haman would seek to humiliate and destroy a man associated with defeating the king of his own family’s history.

So what do we do with all this? Shabbat Zachor reminds us of Amalek and Agag, thus putting in context the seemingly arbitrary hatred of Haman and unbreakable pride of Mordecai. Perhaps these historical reminders give the story of Esther a tragic element, in that long-simmering resentments broke out in such a way that tens of thousands died in the cycle of revenge and defense. Ironically, while the readings of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the evil of Amalek, they also humanize, to a degree, the Amalekite Haman, who is now seen as the willful prisoner of a long-standing cycle of violence and war. This does not excuse his evil choices, but does help explain them.

On Purim, we laugh as the wicked Haman got hung from the gallows he made for Mordecai; but every other day of the year, we are to refrain from rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies. It is a tragedy that hatred persists over generations; on Purim our joy overcomes our sadness, but it by no means diminishes the fundamental Jewish obligation to heal hatred when we can, and fight it when we must.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Neal

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A Pesach Question

Dear Friends:

About a month ago, I was at the gym when the movie Gladiator was playing on one of the channels. I had seen it before, though I don’t remember exactly when, but this time I was struck by the historical reality of slaves in the Roman period. The film portrayed, accurately enough, that the slaves chosen for combat were valuable only in the entertainment value of their deaths. Their lives were worthless, but their deaths were celebrated by the Roman elite and even populace. The movie didn’t even show the full extent of the Roman revelry in death, nor the casualness with which slaves and others were killed by the most gruesome means.

This, of course, contrasts profoundly with Judaism and the Pesach story in particular. The Torah tells the most amazing and unusual story: a story in which slaves- not the elite, not the gentry, not the full citizens of a powerful empire, but slaves- were heard and saved by a God who cared for the powerless. The radical notion of the Torah- not always fully realized in every Biblical story, to be sure- is that every human being is made in the Divine Image, and therefore social status is irrelevant to spiritual worthiness or inherent dignity.

Yet it is not only the ancient Romans who would have found the idea of a God who values the poor and powerless to be absurd. A quick scan of magazines and newspapers at the local supermarkets reveals much concern for the wealthy, famous and beautiful,

and scant reporting on human trafficking in the United States, extreme poverty, even hunger, in the richest nation on earth, or the scandal of our indifference to grotesque violation of human rights across the globe, including allied nations and even sometimes by our own government.

So my question to you is: do we take the message of Passover seriously? Do we really believe that the God of Israel cares about the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the hungry?

If so- if Passover is to be more than brisket and family gatherings- how will the experience of reliving the redemption from Egypt be transformative rather than merely satiating?

Jews believe in a God who cares about life, even the lives that nobody else cares about.

Do we?

That’s another question for your Passover table.

With blessings for a provocative, yet warm and wonderful holiday,

Rabbi Neal

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Pesach Resources

Dear Friends:

It’s a rare two-post-without-fixing-a-mistake-day at rabbineal.net!

I’ve put together some recommended Pesach resources for guidance, learning and inspiration; I’ve deleted some parts from the congregational email that are Poughkeepsie-specific but I can sell your chametz from afar if you like. (Not sure what it means to sell chametz? Click here, then email me.)

If you are in or near the Hudson Valley and do not have a place to go for seder, please be in touch. We have families who would love to host guests.

While making your Pesach preparations, it’s helpful to review the laws and practices in advance of cleaning and shopping. The Rabbinical Assembly (our Conservative rabbi’s group) has prepared a page of Pesach resources here, including a brief guide to the relevant laws and an explanation of the ideas of chametz and matzah. The blessing for burning chametz is in most haggadot but there’s a PDF here.

Now, one perennial question for many families is that of kitniyot– seeds and beans and the like- which are eaten by many Sefardim on Pesach but not most Ashkenazim. Last month the magazine of Conservative Judaism published an article arguing against the custom not to eat kitniyot. This raised some controversy- see here for the rebuttal and make up your own mind. If your family is Sefardic or you decided to embrace that tradition, you can find a Sefardic Pesach guide here.

Please note that the time to start thinking about how to deepen, enliven and enjoy your seder is now- not the day before the seder! Maybe you need to brush up on parts of the haggadah and review some of the melodies? Here are audio clips with the relevant texts right in front of you! As I’ve done before, I recommend downloading the Valley Beth Shalom haggadah for free- it’s got some wonderful discussion questions and conversation-starters and commentaries. The Shalom Hartman Institute is an amazing institution of Jewish learning- they have a whole page of Pesach articles, lectures and videos. (If you want to make a youtube video into an mp3 for portable learning, it’s very easy- just email me.)

Closer to Poughkeepsie, Yeshiva University has its annual collection of Pesach articles called Pesach-to-Go, but a Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia has put together the Mother of All Passover Collections at his Jewish Freeware site. There are seder readings, audio clips, recipes, many downloadable haggadot, song sheets- you really need to check this out and find something new to add to your Pesach table.

Finally, I’m proud to announce that some of my own writing and commentaries will be shared on The Daily Rabbi, an pluralistic online Jewish magazine. There are several great articles and commentaries on Pesach up right now and there will be more every day until the holiday- so check it out.

I hope you find these resources helpful and even more I hope your Pesach is one of happiness, family, friends and new appreciation for our freedom. I look forward to seeing each of you soon.

with blessings for a joyous holiday,

RNJL

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Tetzaveh/ Shabbat Zachor: Remembrance of the Present

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor

Good morning!

It’s just a day before Purim, which means tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, or the “Shabbat of Remembering,” which means there will be a special concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah.  These texts, always read on the Shabbat before Purim, tell of Israel’s war wit Amalek, the lawless people who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. We are told in the Torah reading to always “remember” [zachor] to wipe out the memory of Amalek, hence the name Shabbat Zachor. Hundreds of years later, the first King of Israel, Shaul, was given the command to wipe out the Amalekites- man, woman, child and animals- but spares the Amalekite king as well as much of their riches.

This act- sparing the king and some of the animals- costs Saul his kingship, and sets up a connection with Purim (Agag, the Amalekite king, is the ancestor of Haman.) One might say that the texts of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the historical challenges of Jewish security; some believe that Jews must always remember there could always be an Amalek, or a Haman, just waiting to strike. The texts of Shabbat Zachor, and the Megillat Esther, or scroll of Esther, could be seen as teaching the historical imperative of Jewish self-defense. After all, at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews rise up against those who would have attacked them and kill tens of thousands of their enemies in a preemptive strike.

Yet many readers are deeply troubled by Samuel’s order to Shaul to wipe out the Amalekites, including the children and even the animals. Such brutal warfare, punishing the innocent for the sins of their ancestors, seems out of place in a religious system that insists on justice and due process. (See, for example, Abraham’s famous argument with God over the innocent of Sodom.) Such questions become even more urgent in an age of genocide directed against Jews (and Armenians, and Tibetans, and Rwandans- the list goes on.) How can we possibly hold as a sacred text one which condones the massacre of an entire people, along with animals and property?

Perhaps one way to redeem the texts of Shabbat Zachor is by seeing them not as texts about them, but about us. Yes, Jews (and civilized people generally) must be vigilant about those who would harm us, and yes, sometimes innocent people die in defensive wars. It’s also true that if we are troubled by what the texts says happened in the past, we must remember that such acts happen now, in our day, and not only by countries or groups we might consider lawless or aggressive. Let’s remember that the United States is engaged in warfare on several continents, and unknown numbers of innocent men, women, and children have died in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries as well. Drone strikes are sometimes targeted on the basis of activities deemed suspicious from the air, but in some cases bombs dropped on villages and houses kill civilians, including children, as well. (Please see the websites of the NYU Law School drone project  and ProPublica’s comprehensive collection of known information about this semi-secret war for more information. Just hit the links. You’ll probably be amazed.)

I am neither endorsing nor condemning the Administration’s war actions in various countries; I am merely pointing out that we, too, currently take the lives of children when we as a country believe it to be necessary. Our moral revulsion at the violence in Biblical times should be tempered by introspection about the moral state of our own times; at the very least, reflection on how to fight Amalek should require that every citizen become knowledgable about what is being done in our names. On Purim, we rejoice in Jewish victory, but we also reflect on the ethical dilemmas of being a free people in a brutal world. The texts of Shabbat  Zachor call us to remember not only the past, but the present as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Miketz: Waiting in Hope

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Dear Friends:

There is so much sadness in the world. As I write this details are still coming out from Newtown, Connecticut- a mere 53 miles from Poughkeepsie- where a madman killed children and adults alike in the elementary school. After every shooting, every murderous act, we ask why- but it seems that not much changes.

So how do we find hope in a world which can seem so cruel?

This is not a new problem. In fact, I’d say it’s the problem that Hanukkah comes to address, and it’s not coincidental that our Torah portion, Miketz, usually falls during the holiday of lights. The Torah portion is the middle section of the story of Yosef and his brothers; in the beginning of the portion, Yosef is in Pharaoh’s prison, but by the end, he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, and his long-estranged brothers are seeking food from his treasury.

Twice Yosef goes down into a pit of darkness- once when his brothers turn against him and once when Potiphar’s wife accuses him- and twice Yosef rises up, but what really constrains Yosef is not external walls but the pain of his heart, the loneliness and alienation and longing for family that stays with him even after he has reached the heights of power. In this week’s portion, Yosef attains a great station, but the reconciliation that his heart seeks is not yet ready. We read the Torah portion this week and our heart breaks a bit, because we know that healing is almost at hand, but we must wait, as Yosef must, for love to burst forth.

Similarly, Hanukkah asks us to take a leap of faith- not by believing something without evidence, but by living in such a way that our lives bring light into darkness even if we can’t see the world change before our eyes. The Maccabees had no assurance of success when they started their struggle against the foreign power; we have no assurance of success when we struggle to transform our society and our world from its current state of conflict and violence into a place of peace, security and justice. Let me be clearer: we have no assurance of success in the short run, not in our lifetimes or perhaps that of our children. Yet the “leap of action” (to quote Heschel) that Judaism asks us to take is to do the right and good anyway, because we believe that the redemption of the world is not only possible but our particular task.

It’s hard to wait for a better world that seems just out of reach, but remember Yosef and his brothers: he kept hoping that they would become worthy of brotherhood, and yet was shocked to tears when his brother Yehudah showed an extraordinary largeness of heart towards their youngest brother Binyamin. Things can take a long time and change quickly; do not despair. Yosef never stopped wanting brotherhood from his brothers, and ultimately there was reconciliation. The Maccabees never stopped dreaming of a Judaism restored, and their story has kept hope alive for two thousand years and more. We light Hanukkah candles because we refuse to let darkness define human destiny. We will hope but we will also act, and with us and others of good faith and courage, we will eventually achieve shalom.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

RNJL

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Sukkot: Peace and War

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Shabbat of Sukkot 
 
“On that day, when Gog sets foot on the soil of Israel — declares the Lord GOD — My raging anger shall flare up . . . “(Ezekiel 38:18)
 
Good afternoon! After days of rain, it’s finally sunny for Sukkot in the Hudson Valley! Unfortunately, the special haftarah [reading from the prophets] for the Shabbat of Sukkot is not so sunny in its tone and imagery. The text is from Ezekiel 38 and 39, and is a violent and awful prophesy of an apocalyptic battle between God and the forces of “Gog of the land of Magog,” an evil nation that will suffer a terrible vengeance at the End of Days. 
 
Prof. Michael Fishbane, who wrote the introductions to the haftarot found in the Etz HayimTorah commentary used in many Conservative synagogues, points out that this is not the first mention during Sukkot of battles during messianic times. The prophetic reading for the first day comes from Zechariah, and mentions not only a war of the Lord but also a great reconciliation afterwards, when all nations shall come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot together. (See verse 16 here.) Fishbane also notes that the rabbis assumed that the war of Gog was the same war mentioned in Zechariah; hence, tomorrow’s text is an extension of the earlier one, in the understanding of the ancient rabbis who chose them.                                                                                                                                     
Yet the apocalyptic images of our prophetic texts hardly seems to fit the celebratory and joyous mood of the holiday. Some say that part of our joy comes from a renewed faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, but perhaps these stark texts portraying future upheavals and violence are also somber reminders of the fragility of our peace. Like a sukkah, peace can fall apart in a moment; like a sukkah, peace is temporary and fleeting. We must be mindful of peace when we have it, but not be afraid to confront evil when we must. 
 
All of the Abrahamic faiths- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- have ideas of an apocalyptic battle at the end of days. There are those who desire the end times, and seek to understand their enemies in theological terms. Gog, to them, is not a symbol but somebody on this earth who must be fought in the present moment- there is no waiting for Divine intervention. 
 
I reject this. I  believe it’s the job of religious moderates to stand against such reasoning and instead assume that the wars of the Lord are indeed only God’s to fight. Our job is not to rush the end times, but make this time as sweet and peaceful as we can. Our job is to make the whole world a sukkah of peace, now, and let the Holy One handle the end of days. 
 
moadim l’simcha,*
 
RNJL 
 
*happy holidays 

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