Archive for Rosh Hashanah

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,


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,


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


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Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashana: Not in Heaven

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

“It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ “ (D’varim 30:12)

Good afternoon!

The verse quoted above is one of the most famous verses in the Torah, as well as the punch-line to one of the most famous stories in the Talmud. It comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which itself comes toward the end of the Book of D’varim [Deuteronomy]. D’varim, in turn depicts the end of Moshe’s life, and his increasingly dramatic exhortations to the Jewish people to follow Torah and keep the covenant after they go on to the Land of Israel without him. Moshe tells the people that the Torah is not far away, nor in the heavens, nor across the sea- but very close to us, so that we may do it.

Our friend Rashi explains “not in the heavens” in a way that seems a bit obvious at first:

“not in the heavens”- for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend [to heaven] to learn it.

It took me a few minutes of pondering Rashi’s seemingly tautological commentary to realize that he’s not talking about geography, as it were, at all, but rather teaching a point of spiritual psychology. It’s not about ascending to the heavens in a physical way, nor even the notion that we’d have to die or go on some spiritual quest to learn Torah; the plain meaning of the verse makes it clear that those aren’t necessary. Rather, what I think Rashi means is that as individuals (and presumably on a communal level too) we don’t have to reach heights of spiritual or religious purity or achievement in order to live fulfilling lives in Torah. You don’t have to “ascend”- that is, be saintly or scholarly or a model of piety- in order to apply Torah to your life in a practical and fruitful way.

If can I borrow the terminology of last year’s social protests, Torah is not for the 1% – the saintly and pious- but for the 99%. It’s for people who make mistakes, who get confused, who fall short, who don’t feel organized or learned or worthy enough to practice Judaism in their lives. At the heart of Torah is the idea of t’shuvah, or return: when we inevitably fall short, or fall apart, or get undone, we can always return. We return to Torah, to community, to our own souls; nobody is perfect, but everybody can return to a place of wholeness.

This is, of course, a central message of the Days of Awe, rapidly approaching. All that a life of Torah requires is a simple decision to start from where we are in that moment and go forward to do the next mitzvah, whether one of prayer, compassion, justice or learning. These days, to learn Torah doesn’t require much more than a cell phone or internet connection (though a synagogue connection is a much deeper form of spiritual broadband!) so there’s no excuse that it’s too far, too complicated, or too hard.

The path to God we call Torah is waiting for us, closer than we realize.

Shabbat Shalom and a blessed New Year,


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Ha’azinu/ Rosh Hashanah: Painter of Creation

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

The Rock! — His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright is He
. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 32:4, JPS translation)

There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no rock like our God.
(1 Samuel 2:2)

Dear Friends:

This Shabbat, after two days of Rosh Hashanah, we’ll be reading the Torah portion Ha’azinu, the penultimate parsha, in which Moshe recounts in poetic form how God brought the people from Egypt, yet they will betray the covenant in some future time. A recurring image of the poem is God as tzur, or “rock,” as above. In context, it probably connotes strength, immovability, and/or a sheltering presence.

Later on in the portion, Moshe rebukes the people for forgetting the “Rock that begot you . . the God who brought you forth.” (32:18) This image suggests Rock as First Cause, the Source of All, implying timeless strength in contrast to human fickleness. Maimonides has a lot more to say about this sense of the image, but in the meantime, one can compare this use of “Rock” to Psalm 95:1 and 92:16, both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, are part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights.

However, there is some dispute among the sages that tzur means “rock” in these verses; some see tzur as related to tza’yar, the one who forms or makes. That would also make sense for these verses; God formed the world and implanted justice within it, as per the opening of Ha’azinu, above.

In modern Hebrew, tza’yar is a painter, or artist, obviously related to the meaning of maker or one who forms. Yet thinking of God as artist implies something very different than simply “maker;” such a metaphor urges us to be open to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos as a whole, even if our particular piece of it contains pain or injustice. Compare the two verses above: the first, from Ha’azinu, is often recited at funerals, while the second comes from the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. That’s the story of Hannah, who prays for a son and exults when she gives birth and eventually dedicates the boy to sacred service.

In other words, both at sad times and happy ones, we find the image of tzur, God as artist, making a universe which can be fearsome and which can be bountiful but is never less than beautiful. There is a timeless quality to the cycle of birth and life, death and renewal, which is awe-inspiring, wondrous and incomparable beyond our momentary experiences; this, to me, is the complex meaning of tzur. Over the Days of Awe, we attempt to grapple with issues of justice and mercy, judgment and forgiveness, the meaning of our lives and the inevitability of our deaths, and yet God is not only tzur, Rock, but tza’ar, Artist, the Source of extraordinary wonder among which we are blessed to live.

Experiencing that awesome beauty can help us see our lives as part of a greater tapestry, spread across time and cosmos. It’s humbling and uplifting and challenging at the same time, as is any spiritual experience.

Wishing you and yours a New Year of blessing, peace, beauty and wisdom,


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Rosh Hashana: True Hearing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hashana

I’m reasonably certain that those readers of rabbineal-list who are
attending Rosh Hashanah services will hear lots of good Torah this
weekend, so we’ll keep it short for today’s email commentary. (If you
really loved some piece of Torah you heard, pass it along to me- after
all, I don’t get to hear other rabbis teaching on the Days of Awe.)

Back to our haftarah study: the haftarah for the first day of Rosh
Hashanah is the story of Hannah, who was unable to conceive with her
husband, and who took her broken heart into the priestly altar at
Shiloh. She prayed there with such emotion visible on her face that
the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. Hannah told
him that she was hardly drunk, but rather was pouring out her soul in
prayer- at which point Eli realized his mistake and turned his rebuke
into a blessing:

” ‘Then go in peace,’ said Eli, ‘and may the God of Israel grant you
what you have asked of Him.’ She answered, ‘You are most kind to your
handmaid’ So the woman left, and she ate, and was no longer
downcast.” (I Samuel 1:17-18)

It’s striking that Hannah is “no longer downcast” as she takes her
leave- even though her prayer, for a son, has not yet been granted,
and indeed there is no assurance, at this point in the story, that it
will be granted. The only thing she has at this point is Eli’s
recognition of her longings- and it was enough to lift her up from

This private moment between two strangers is a paradigm for building
kehillah, or sacred community: we cannot offer each other assurance
that our prayers will be answered from above, but we can indeed offer
the assurance that our prayers will be heard right here and now. We
can offer each other the gift of presence; of recognition; of some
relief, however short, from the loneliness of the ever-more-busy
modern world- and this recognition of each other’s humanity is a basic
function of religious community.

So wherever you’re going for Rosh Hashanah (or whichever spiritual
community you’re visiting or call home), do remember this: we all come
into the sanctuary with different burdens of heart, and so a warm
greeting, a kind word, or a friendly touch might mean more than all
the sermons and rituals put together. After all- Hannah wasn’t lifted
up by Eli’s priestly role, but by the human connection he offered to

The Days of Awe can be a grand pageant; but right in the middle of the
pageantry, we read a story about the simplest and most meaningful of
human connections: hearing a prayer, seeing a broken heart. This is
where healing begins, and the blessings of the New Year start.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year,


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Ha’azinu / Rosh Hashana: The Soul’s Thirst

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Rosh Hashana

Right after Rosh Hashana is the Shabbat called “Shabbat Shuvah,” or
the “Shabbat of Returning/Repentance,” so called because (among other
reasons) the haftarah, or prophetic reading, calls upon the Israelites
to return to God. The Torah portion itself is Moshe’s final
impassioned plea to the nation, a plea for loyalty to covenant in the
new land. Moshe opens up his poem with a promise that he’s going to
say something significant:

” Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the
words of my mouth!
My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm
winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1)

Our friend Rashi says that Moshe’s words of Torah are compared to
windy rain and dew because just as the rain and dew cause the plants
and crops to grow, so too words of Torah cause people to grow and give
life to those who hear them. From my perspective, it’s important to
note that “Torah” is to be understood here not only as the fixed words
of the Biblical text, but more widely as the Jewish conversation with
text and tradition. Torah is the words on the scrolls, but it’s also
the words of the prayerbook, the commentaries, and even- brace
yourself- the words of the teachings, sermons and meditations that
rabbis and educators and others prepare for the holy days.

Moshe compared his words to life-giving water. This image resonates
for me as I sit in a building with hundreds and hundreds of chairs set
up to accommodate the holy day crowds, who come because they are
thirsting for something- perhaps a sense of being part of a larger
community, perhaps a connection with personal or Jewish history,
perhaps a reminder that the soul needs attention as much as the body
or intellect. Like plants soaking up the water after a dry spell, our
communities soak up music, Torah, prayer, Shofar, and the very
experience of just being together, and with grace, the Days of Awe
give life, and sustain.

I thank you all for allowing me to share words of Torah in the past
year, and look forward to another year of learning together.

L’Shana Tovah U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year-


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Rosh Hashanah 5767

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hashana

L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year to all the old and
new followers of this roaming electronic commentary!

This week’s Torah commentary is not the regular Shabbat reading, of
course, but the special readings for Rosh Hashana, the New Year; you
may remember the main characters of these texts as Avraham and Sarah,
Yitzhak and Yishmael, Hagar, the ram on the mountain, the angels who
arrive just in time (both days), and even Avimelech and Phicol, who
are Avraham’s lieutenants and business partners, as it were. Glancing
over the texts of the two Torah readings (and never mind the haftarot,
or prophetic texts) it becomes astounding to consider the number of
different relationships described, including:

unmarried father-unmarried mother (of the same child)
master- son of the servant
brother in law-sister in law

Of course, there is one overarching Presence inherent in all these
different kinds of human relationships- that is the Presence of the
Merciful One, who gives us the inner capability to overcome our
conflicts, fears, and resentments. The Torah readings on Rosh Hashana
describe families in turmoil, people in desparate pain, relationships
in need of healing, and also the possibility of new insight, renewed
vision, and a fresh start. Perhaps by naming so many different kinds
of relationships in the texts of our Torah readings, the rabbis who
chose them are suggesting that we, too, do a comprehensive inventory
of all our connections- to people, to the Earth, to God- in order to
bring a renewed committment to integrity, compassion and generosity to
all our interactions.

That process of moral inventory and renewed committment is the essence
of t’shuvah, or “return,” which is itself a primary liturgical and
theological theme of the Days of Awe. My hope and prayer for each of
you is that you find inspiration in the continued study of Torah, and
from that study flows inspiration for continual growth, passion for
life, spiritual vision, and deep wellsprings of love. A sweet and
healthy New Year to all, and thank you for the privilege of letting me
share in the study of Torah with each of you.

L’Shanah Tovah,


PS- as usual, the first link is to the text of the Torah portion and
haftarah, plus a nice message from Dr. Arnold Eisen, the incoming
Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This link is to more learning about Rosh Hashana than you can shake an
apple at:

Finally, here’s the “Shabbat Table Talk” for families, on the Rosh
Hashanah readings:

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Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashanah: What if Today Was “This Day?”

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim and Rosh Hashana

Shabbat and holiday greetings to all!

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is read in close proximity to Rosh
Hashanah, and is often combined with the next parsha, Vayelech. Nitzavim means “standing,” or “stationed,” and so the portion opens with Moshe collecting the people all together, so that they may hear his pleas for faithfulness and unity. Nitzavim- like Rosh Hashanah- is all about our
choices: blessing or curse, life or death, embracing our spiritual potential or
giving in to our lesser desires.

The central image of Nitzavim is Moshe standing before the assembled people, urging them to be loyal to God and one another. In fact, the first few verses lay out an inclusive vision of Jewish community:

“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your
tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God . . . . . . . ” (Deuteronomy/ Devarim 29:9 -11)

A straightforward interpretation is this: unless the Jewish community is truly inclusive, across lines of gender, age, status, and class, (and sexual orientation, I would add) we are not truly “entering into the covenant.”

That’s always a relevant lesson!

Our teacher Rashi quotes a powerful midrash (creative interpretation) which reframes the image of the collected people from another perspective:


“[The verse says, “this day,” which] teaches us that on the day of his death,
Moshe assembled Israel in the presence of the Holy Blessed One, to bring them into the covenant.”

It’s a startling image: on the day of his death, Moshe was spending his last
hours bringing the people together and sharing his spiritual vision with them. What’s so powerful about this midrash is how it connects with the themes of Rosh Hashanah coming up next week: the themes of mortality, meaning, and ultimate values.

The liturgy on Rosh Hashanah urges us to consider life’s fragility; this
midrash, read the week before, asks us to consider just what we would do if it were truly “this day,” the day of our passing. Would any of us spend our final hours bringing people together in unity and peace as Moshe is imagined to do? Would we want to share our deepest
commitments, to God and humanity, with our family and community? Would we impart our vision of the good life with our loved ones? Would we, like Moshe, not waste a moment on bitterness, but instead give our last energies over in the service of our highest ideals?

Each of us who enter a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has the opportunity to think deeply about how we spend our days; the example of Moshe, from our parsha, can inspire us to greater urgency in the task of authentic, covenantal living. None of us know which day is “this day;” perhaps Judaism’s genius is to ask us to consider that each day may
be our last, and is thus worthy of living to the greatest extent of our intentionality.

With warmest wishes for a sweet and healthy New Year,


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