Archive for Shavuot

Bamidbar: To Teach Torah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Bamidbar / Shavuot 

“These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:1)


This weekend we have the unusual circumstance of the holiday of Shavuot  falling immediately after Shabbat and falling over the two days of the Memorial Day long weekend. The theme of the Torah portion is counting and organizing the Jewish people for their long journey to the Land of Israel; there is a census and each tribe is set in a certain place in the camp. After a general census by tribe, and a reporting of the numbers, the descendants of Aharon are named as priests, and the tribe of Levi is set apart for religious service, and some of their duties are enumerated. 

Our friend Rashi points out a glaring problem in the verse above: the sons named were not, in fact, the descendants of Moshe and Aaron, but only of Aaron, the High Priest. Rashi then goes on to make a point which indirectly links our Torah portion to the upcoming holiday, the remembrance of the giving of the Torah: 

“But only the sons of Aharon were mentioned! They are called descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This shows that whoever teaches another person’s child Torah, it’s just as if they were your own child.” 

On Shavuot, we recall the centrality of Torah, in all of its manifestations, to the life of the Jewish people, but here Rashi is saying something about the power of Torah for individuals. When we share the deepest principles of our life, we give birth to something real and important in the world. Who among us has not had a mentor, teacher or role model who has profoundly affected the course of our character development? We teach Torah by the way we live, as well as by sharing knowledge. I know in my own life, I would not be a deeply practicing Jew- and never mind a Conservative rabbi- were it not for the teachers of Torah who showed me the possibility of a joyful Jewish life. 

Torah is not a history book that recounts the past, nor is it esoteric knowledge reserved for a few. It’s a text which only matters when it becomes a conversation- a conversation between its students from across the ages as well as across a table today. That greater sense of Torah, rooted in the most basic questions of how we shall live and for what purpose, is what’s so precious and important to share. When we bring people into a Torah-rooted conversation about the very purpose of life itself, we change lives, and by changing lives, we change the world. That’s what Rashi means when he says that Aharon’s sons were like Moshe’s sons because he taught them Torah- it means that Moshe, through his example of a covenanted life, changed the lives of those around him. 

Such is the challenge before each of us- to become exemplars of a holy striving, to be teachers of Torah through all our ways. 

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy holiday to all, 


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Emor: This Very Day

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portioni: Emor 

 On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations  . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:21)

Dear Friends: 

So sorry for my absence these past few weeks- glad to be back! 

This week an entire chapter of the Torah portion Emor is devoted to the Jewish calendar: Shabbat, the agricultural holidays, the counting of the omer,  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated after a 7 week-period of counting; it is the festival of the first-fruits of summer, and also understood in later Judaism to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Note the verse above: after listing the various Temple rituals of Shavuot, the Torah tells us  that “on that same day” you will have a festive and sacred occasion. This phrase, “on that same day,” [b’etzem hayom] could mean “this very day,” or “that same day,” but the phrase is superfluous: we already know Shavuot is the fiftieth day of counting, so why tell us “that very day” is the same one as the holiday? 

It turns out one other holiday is celebrated b’etzem hayom

You shall not perform any work on that very day, for it is a day of atonement, for you to gain atonement before the Lord, your God.” (ibid 23:28)

Shavuot and Yom Kippur are linked by a short phrase which seems to indicate some immediacy or urgency to the experience of the day. One line of interpretation (found in Itturei Torah) compares these two holidays to other Jewish holidays like Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, each of which commemorates a past event. The two holidays celebrated on “that very day,” however, can be seen as experiences of the present: Shavuot is the holiday of accepting the Torah- not as a text, per se, but as a framework for living Judaism, while Yom Kippur is about accepting responsibility for the moral content of our lives and repairing relationships as necessary- always an immediate concern! 

Seen this way, the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot is something affirmed not just every year, but every time we choose or “do Jewish.” It’s not about what happened then but what happens now, for Torah is a living inheritance, something we have to encounter and make alive, b’etzem hayom, on this very day. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Shavuot: Sharing the Blessings

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Dear Friends:

Hag Sameach! The regular Torah reading is put off for a week, in most
traditional synagogues, because of the second day of the holiday of
Shavuot. The holiday Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17, plus
a maftir from the book of Numbers. The main part of the Dvarim/
Deuteronomy reading is a review of the holidays in chapter 16,
including the holiday we’re about to celebrate:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe
the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill
contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you. You
shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter,
your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the
stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place
where the Lord your God will choose to establish The Divine Name.
Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey
these laws.” (Dvarim/Deut. 16: 9-11)

OK, so far, so good: we count the omer for seven weeks, starting at
Pesach and then have a holiday of agricultural blessing in Jerusalem.
In post-Biblical Israel, Shavuot became the holiday of “Matan Torah,”
the Giving of the Torah, which makes calendrical sense, since it’s
some weeks after leaving Egypt that the Israelites stood at Sinai. One
way to connect the two meanings of the holiday (blessings of the land
and giving of the Torah) is by noticing that even in Biblical times, a
holy time had a distinctly ethical dimension to it. Notice in verse 11
that we are to include the poor and powerless in our celebrations; we
might even say that precisely at a time when we are thanking God for
our blessings, we must share those blessings with others if they are
to have any spiritual or religious meaning at all.

Rashi picks up on the moral teaching of verse 11 and gives it a
profound theological “twist:”

” the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . [God
says:] These are My four, corresponding to your four, [namely,] ‘Your
son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant.’ If
you shall gladden Mine, I will gladden yours. ”

This interpretation, which Rashi gets from older sources, is based on
the symmetry of who is included in a householder’s celebration: if the
“you” is the head of the house, then the children and servants are
part of the family, as it were. The Levite (who had no land holding),
the orphan, the widow, and the stranger (i.e., the non-citizen) were
not part of anybody’s household- therefore, they are part of God’s
family, as it were! Rashi’s text has God saying: if you take care of
Mine- that is, the powerless and lonely- then I’ll take care of yours,
the folks who live with you.

We don’t have to believe that there is a direct connection of Divine
causality between our deeds and our welfare to see the truth of
Rashi’s comment. Our acts of generosity, inclusion, and compassion
speak to the very nature of a person’s soul; one is loving, or not. We
don’t celebrate only for our personal pleasure- that’s not a holy day,
that’s just a party. Rather, we give thanks for our abundance by
sharing it in a life of generosity which is itself a blessing for
ourselves and others. If Shavuot is only about grasping Torah
intellectually, or only about celebrating the arrival of summer, then
we’ve missed the point: the Torah was given so that the world would be
healed through lovingkindness. Now, that’s something to celebrate.

Hag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you’ll find a summary of the holiday Torah reading here,
plus many articles relating to the holiday in the links box on the

and the text of the Torah portions and haftarot here:

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Behar/ Shavuot: Torah of the Land

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar and Shavuot

Dear Friends:

The following article will appear next week in the e-bulletin of the Coalition
for the
Environment and Jewish Life, but it’s directly relevant to this week’s portion,
Behar. Enjoy!

Jewish environmental thinking brings together strands of traditional
Jewish theology and key points of contemporary environmentalism; among
those strands is the recognition that we have to move from thinking of
the Earth as a mere resource for human benefit to something that is
fundamentally not “ours,” to do with as we please. Some call this the
ethic of stewardship, drawing a distinction between a steward and a
master: the steward recognizes that he is not the owner, but one
appointed to guard and protect something precious. Stewardship implies
humility, thoughtfulness, and self-control, which any environmental
thinker would agree are qualities that our society needs to rebalance
its relationship with the Earth we live on.

In Jewish thought, the Earth belongs to God, as stated succinctly in
the Torah portion Behar:

” But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine;
you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)

In Behar, the context for this theology of the Earth is the cycle of
“shmittah,” or sabbatical years, in which the land lies fallow and
debts are forgiven. The sabbatical year is a powerful symbol of living
humbly upon the land, but it’s not the only place in the Torah that
this idea appears. With that in mind, let’s turn to the cycle of
spring holidays, beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot, the
“Feast of Weeks.”

In the Torah portion Emor, we are told that in the early springtime,
we are to bring the “first sheaf of the harvest” to the priest, who
will “elevate” or “wave” the sheaf before God, which then releases, as
it were, the rest of the crop for human use. (Cf. Leviticus 23: 9-13.)
Then we count off seven weeks of the “omer,” or bundle of barley
stalks, until we get to the holiday 0f the “first fruits” of summer,
which we now call Shavuot.

On Shavuot, there is another “elevation” ritual, in which the priest
waved the agricultural offerings on the altar of the Temple. On this
holy day, the offering is not just raw stalks of barley, but loaves of
bread, along with animals:

“The priest shall elevate these — the two lambs — together with the
bread of first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord; they
shall be holy to the Lord, for the priest. On that same day you shall
hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you . . .”
(Leviticus 23:20-21)

For Rashi and other traditional commentators, the “waving” of the
agricultural offerings is to assure God’s favor and avoid destructive
winds and rains; just as the barley stalks or loaves of bread are
waved up and down, back and forth, the winds and rains which sweep
over the land should only be for blessing, and not destruction. Now,
this might seem like a kind of magic, or a pre-modern theology which
draws a direct connection between our rituals and the weather, but
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the
late 1800’s, sees the “waving” as symbolic of the idea we discussed
earlier- that the Land and its blessing belongs to God alone:

“Referring to this “waving,” it says in the Talmud (Menachot 62a):
that thereby injurious winds and damaging downfalls [lit: “dews”] are
kept away from the seeds and fruit. The blessing of the fields of the
Land of Israel is not dependent soley on physical influences. The
physical prosperity of the soil itself is dependent on the unselfish
renunciation of its products, and devoting them to the purposes of a
God-serving life as directed by [God’s] Torah. ” (Hirsch, Commentary
on the Torah)

For Hirsch, the Land is prosperous when the people of Israel recognize
that our tenancy upon the Earth is for the purpose of fulfilling God’s
commandments, and any blessing that the Land produces is only part of
this greater scheme. Yet I think there is a more universal message in
his words: the vitality of the Earth, anywhere, is indeed dependent on
humankind becoming “unselfish.” We must learn to feel that we are but
stewards for future generations, who depend on our unselfishness
regarding a planet already overtaxed with resource extraction and

The rabbis of the Talmud saw the wave- offerings of Passover and
Shavuot as being linked to the winds and rain; this idea is not so
far-fetched when one considers the effect that global warming has on
weather patterns across the planet. If we learn to see the Earth as
the Lord’s, perhaps we can live more humbly upon it, in a relationship
of blessing and sustainability. The symbols and rituals of the holy
days are times of reflection upon this relationship between people,
God, and Earth. Our ancestors lifted up the blessings of the Land in
order to thank the One who blessed them; we too must lift up the Earth
itself, from being inert resources to that which we hold most dear, as
stewards and guardians, for God, for ourselves, for all other species,
and for all future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the usual links:

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Shavuot: The Time of the Giving of Our Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Shalom from swampy, steamy Swampscott! It’s summertime- on
both the Jewish and American calendars. Tonight ends the 49-
day counting of the omer, leading into the celebration of Shavuot,
or the holiday of “Weeks.” (Since we’ve been counting 7 weeks of
7 days since Pesach.)

Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage holidays (the other two
are Passover and Sukkot), dating back to Biblical times, when
our ancestors would come to Jerusalem to give thanks for
agricultural blessings. On Shavuot, they gave thanks for the first
fruits (well, harvest, not just fruit) of summer. Later, in post-
Biblical times, Shavuot also become known as “Zman Matan
Toratenu,” the “Time of the Giving of Our Torah,” and thus
becomes a bookend to Pesach seven weeks earlier.

Pesach is about leaving Egypt; Shavuot is about being present at
Sinai. The re-enactment of liberation on Pesach is eating matzah
and bitter herbs; the re-enactment of revelation on Shavuot
happens in the synagogue, when we hear the Ten
Commandments read from the bimah during the Torah service.
On Pesach, we remember our liberation; on Shavuot, we
rededicate our freedom to a higher purpose.

One of my favorite teachers of the past century is Rabbi Dessler,
an Orthodox rabbi who taught in England after WWII. Rabbi
Dessler, in one of his lectures on the meaning of the holidays,
reminds us of the midrash (rabbinic teaching), which asks why
the Torah was given way out in the desert, on top of a lonely

The midrash answers: because if Torah were given in any part of
the Land of Israel, the tribe whose territory it was would claim the
Torah belonged to them, and if it were given in any nation, that
nation would claim it as exclusive property. So it was given out in
the desert, which doesn’t belong to any family, clan, tribe, or
nation, and thus becomes the inheritance of anybody who will
learn it.

That’s the midrash, but R. Dessler takes it one step further: he
says (I’m paraphrasing here) that each of us, as an individual, in
order to study Torah and receive its wisdom, has to renounce
any sense of self-interest or desire to make the Torah benefit us
as “property.” We have to be wide open and free of personal
agendas- like the desert wilderness- so that we can hear the
Voice of the Divine speak through the words which our ancestors
have loved and revered for countless generations. We have to be
as expansive as we can be- and then Torah can enter into our
hearts and transform us in ways beyond our imagining.

Torah isn’t a book, in this sense; it’s a spiritual practice where
heart meets text in a communal search for meaning which
includes all previous generations, and which every Jew can
claim as an inheritance and birthright.

Hag Sameach,


PS- if you want to study further, here are two great websites. The
first is a one-page summary of the history and themes of the
holiday; the second is a set of links to articles and explorations
which go into much greater depth, but which can be taken one at
a time.

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