Archive for Yom Kippur

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,


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Yom Kippur: Kings in Sackcloth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

And the word reached the king of Nineveh, whereupon he rose from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. (Jonah/ Yonah 3:6)

Of all the characters who show up in the Torah readings and haftarot of the Days of Awe, one of my favorites is a supporting actor who turns out to be more important than we might think. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, and meet the king of Nineveh, “that great city,” who, upon hearing Yonah’s prophecy of doom, instantly rose from his throne and sat in sackcloth and ashes, presumably as a way of showing his humility and repentance. Not only that, but the story goes on: the king made a proclamation that the entire city should do t’shuvah, everybody fasting and sitting low, from the noblemen right down to the cattle and herds!

This almost comical example of communal t’shuvah is obviously part of the reason that the book of Yonah is chosen for Yom Kippur afternoon- it seems to gently make light of our difficulties achieving return and reconciliation in our own lives. To put it another way: don’t be so proud of praying and fasting and taking your inventory all day- even the goats of Nineveh did t’shuvah more completely than we do ! Sometimes, laughing at ourselves a little bit helps us be introspective without shame or fear, and this, too, is a central concern of Yom Kippur.

Not only that- but neither the Ninevites (nor, certainly, their flocks and herds) were Jewish: t’shuvah, return, is a path open to any and all human beings who sincerely renew their spiritual core of decency and kindness. That’s a rather startling message on the most Jewish off all days, when our individual and communal looking-inward is linked to Biblical rituals of atonement and purification practiced in Temple days.

The ancient rabbis illustrate this with a truly amazing midrash, which identifies the king of Nineveh with none other than Pharaoh in the day of Moshe. Based on a nuanced reading of the Exodus story, the ancient text called Pirke D’rabbi Eliezer imagines that Pharaoh did not die at the Sea of Reeds but instead lived and was transported by an angel to Nineveh and became its king (sort of an heavenly placement service for deposed tyrants.) It’s really an outrageous claim: that the king who is the very example of t’shuvah on Yom Kippur is none other than the murderous villain whose heart was hardened throughout plagues and disasters in the days of the Exodus!

To me, this midrash sums up the radical message of Yom Kippur: that t’shuvah really is a possibility for anybody, and it’s our ongoing responsibility to deny it neither to ourselves nor others. After all- who could be less deserving of a second chance (make that an 11th chance, after ten plagues) than Pharaoh? And if even Pharaoh got his 11th chance. . . . what’s holding us back from offering a second or third chance for return and reconciliation to ourselves and others? To imagine that Pharaoh is our model of t’shuvah (this time he got it right when the prophet showed up ! ) is to force the question: do we truly recognize that all human beings- including you-  are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, and thus have the capacity for reflection, change and growth?

Our midrash imagines that Pharaoh got another chance to get it right: it’s a not-too-subtle hint that maybe we should give ourselves and others some second (and third. . . .) chances, too. Like many of the most important things in life, it’s simple, but not easy.

with warmest wishes for a meaningful fast,


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Shabbat Shuva/Yom Kippur: Questioning Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur

I hope, for them’s that were observing Rosh Hashanah, that your holiday was beautiful and joyful. We’re in the middle of the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur- these days
are known as the “ten days” or the “ten days of repentance” (The first
day of RH was day 1 of the ten days, which ends on YK itself) in which
we are enjoined to examine our actions and make amends or apologies
where necessary.

The haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a
“combo pack” of verses from the books of Hosea, MIcah and Joel (this
is the Ashkenazi tradition), which taken together proclaim a message
of repentance and forgiveness. There are- at least for those
communities that read the section from Joel- allusions to the
practices of shofar and fasting on the Days of Awe:

“Blow a horn in Zion,
Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly!
Gather the people,
Bid the congregation purify themselves. . . ” (Yoel/Joel 2:15-16)

The rest of the passage proclaims God’s faithfulness to the people
Israel and their eventual redemption. The theological message of the
haftarah for “Shabbat Shuva” (Sabbath of Returning/Repentance) is
pretty straightforward: if the people examine their ways, God will not
forsake them. This makes sense as a prelude to Yom Kippur: we declare
our fasting as a communal commitment to cheshbon nefesh –
“soul-accounting”- secure in the faith that if we return in integrity,
we will be accepted. Divine forgiveness becomes a model for human
behavior- for if God accepts and forgives, shall we not as individuals
do the same with each other?

So far- so good.

Now, fast forward a few days to Yom Kippur, to the famous haftarah
from Yeshayahu/Isaiah, which throws some cold water on our plans to
fast, pray, and be renewed:

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

In the passages preceding this rebuke, the prophet imagines the people
complaining to God that they’re fasting and doing everything right,
but God isn’t heeding their prayer. This is no surprise, because
(according to the prophet’s evocative images) they may be fasting and
praying and doing the rituals of repentance but they are also carrying
on as usual with strife, selfishness and greed. Yeshayahu thus chides
the people for thinking that fasting alone constitutes t’shuvah; they
may be fasting, but they are not growing in compassion and justice,
and thus missing the point.

To me, the contrast between these two haftarot is both striking and
profound: on Shabbat Shuva, this weekend, we’re called to proclaim the
fast day, but on Yom Kippur, the haftarah tells us that the fast day
itself might be part of our problem or even a sign of our hypocrisy,
especially if we grow arrogant about our piety while in denial about
our lovingkindness. The resolution, I think, is to see the two
haftarot hinting at a process: first we gather together, because if
doing the hard work of a fearless moral inventory seems overwhelming,
at least we can support each other in community and grasp on to the
liturgies and rituals of Yom Kippur to prod our introspection.

Then, when we’re in the middle of the process, Yeshayahu comes and
says: be careful not to confuse the outward sign of the t’shuvah
process with the real inner work. Don’t confuse the day, which is the
container, with the contents, which is humble acknowledgment of our
imperfections and a commitment to create more compassion in our lives
despite those imperfections.

Thus there is the instruction: “solemnize the fast day!” and the
bracing question: “is such the fast I desire?” One leads to the other,
and the prophet’s question, framed as God’s demand, is really the
question all of us need to ask ourselves.

With warmest wishes for an beautiful Yom Kippur,


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Yom Kippur: Fasting Reveals Simplicity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

I heard the most beautiful teaching at Seudat Shlishit- the
Third Meal late on Shabbat afternoon- last week, from a gentleman
whose name I never heard but whose Torah stuck with me. He pointed out
that “ten day of t’shuvah” from the beginning of Rosh Hashana through
Yom Kippur are actually seven days when you subtract the holy days
themselves- in other words, seven days, the space of a week between
two holidays. Creation was completed in a week, so we can compare the
seven days it took to make a world to the seven days in which we think
about re-creating & re-orienting ourselves, going forward into the New
Year. It was even suggested that on every day between Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur, one think about how one wants that day – be it Tuesday,
Wednesday, Shabbat, etc.- to be for the coming year.

Excellent idea!

And with that, let’s consider Yom Kippur for just a moment. Most
people reading this know that the practice of Yom Kippur includes
fasting from food and drink (for those who are physically able to do
so), and other will remember that the idea of fasting also includes
refraining from bathing, anointing oneself with oils or cosmetics,
wearing leather shoes [a sign of luxury], and sex. The Torah tells us
to “afflict ourselves”- “tanu et nafshotechem,” literally, “afflict
your souls,” which is understood as including more than just food and
water. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:29, and 23: 26, among other places.)

We’ll talk more about the moral and spiritual meaning of fasting- in
its five components- here at TBE tomorrow night, but for today, I’d
like to bring to your attention a small disagreement over the
obligations of Yom Kippur found in the Mishna, the early part of the
Talmud. In a Mishna discussing the Yom Kippur restrictions, one rabbi
proposes that the idea of “afflict yourselves” doesn’t apply to everybody:

“On the Day of Atonement, eating, drinking, washing, anointing,
putting on shoes, and sexual intercourse are forbidden. But a king,
and a bride, may wash their faces, and one who gave birth may put on
her shoes- this is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages forbid
it [to everybody].” (Mishna Yoma 8:1)

Perhaps R. Eliezer thought that it would be especially psychologically
difficult for a king- who is used to luxury- or a bride to refrain
from washing their faces, but the Sages understood that the whole
point of Yom Kippur is to recast the way we think about ourselves and
other people. On Yom Kippur, we’re ALL aware of our frailty- it only
takes a day to feel pretty weak and grumpy from hunger. On Yom Kippur,
it really doesn’t matter what you look like- you can say your prayers
in bedroom slippers. On Yom Kippur, the king and the pauper are equal
before God, each person grappling with his or her core values and
spiritual struggles, without benefit of titles or the distractions of
being “consumers.”

On Yom Kippur, the ancient rabbis wanted us to understand ourselves
and each other as human beings, unadorned, simple, stripped of our
distinctions and artifice, each of us equally made in the Image of God.

That’s something to consider for more than a week or ten days.

With wishes that each of you is inscribed for a good year,


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Shabbat Shuvah/Yom Kippur: Poetry of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Yom Kippur

The rain is hard and cold today- maybe it’s a good day to stay inside
and prepare for Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur. Shabbat Shuvah- always
the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur- gets its name from
the opening verses of the haftarah (prophetic reading), in which the
prophet urges to return to God- “shuvah” being the same root word as
“t’shuvah,” or “repentance” which is really “returning.” However, the
regular Torah portion, which this year is Ha’azinu, also contains
themes of turning away and turning back, forgetting and remembering.

We are nearing the very end of D’varim/Deuteronomy, and thus we are
also nearing the very end of Moshe’s life and leadership. In these
penultimate words to the nation, Moshe recites a poem about the
covenant between God and the people Israel, a poem which will serve as
a “witness” against them should they go astray in the future. ( I.e.,
should they turn from God, the poem can be recalled as proof of
warning and proper instruction.) However, what’s interesting to me is
the variegated imagery in the poem, depicting God as a parent, an
eagle, a fire, and even a rock:

“You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.” (Dvarim/ Deuteronomy 32:18)

The grammar of this verse is difficult (there is a link below to a
fuller explanation of the various interpretations), but for today, I’m
just interested in the contrast between a “Rock” and “begot you,” a
birth image. A rock is the very definition of inert, lifeless, static,
unchanging, and “begot you” is an image of birth, new life, vitality,
and joy. To put it another way, “Rock” is not the metaphor one might
expect before the phrase “begot you,” unless one is talking about
bricks and sand!

This verse is not the only place that God is called “Rock” in this
parsha; I can only imagine that the image of “Rock” has to be
understood in the context of the travels through the wilderness. To
weary travelers, a rock might be something one leans on, or finds
shade or shelter under- my sense is that it’s an image which connotes
safety and security. Yet God is also that which brings us forth into
the world of life, with all of its bruises and detours and learning
and sorrow.

Thus, to me, the poetic image of the Rock who brings us forth is a
terse statement of a profound theological truth: that there is no
single image which can contain the essential nature of the Holy One of
Blessing. God is a sheltering Presence when we need something greater
than ourselves to lean on, and God is the force inside us which
propels us forward into our life’s potential. Both are true, and
neither cancels each other out- it’s only the limitation of human
imagination and language which has a problem with the Rock who begot you!

So what does all this have to do with Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur?
Perhaps we can take from this poetic verse the reminder that the
images of God we encounter in the long liturgies of Yom Kippur- God as
Judge, King, Forgiver, Shepherd, Beloved, Potter, to name just a few-
are just that: images from poetry, put there to elicit feelings and
restore relationship, not to teach systematic theology. When we call
God Rock, we are naming a relationship which implies sheltering and
support; when we call God Judge, we are naming God as the source of
our highest ideals, to which we must be held accountable. God is not a
Rock, nor a Judge, nor a King, but we use these words to describe
aspects of our experience of that which is ultimately beyond language.

For those of you going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, I urge you to read
the prayers as poetry, and ask yourself what feelings the images
evoke- then pray out of that feeling! The prayerbook is not prayer,
just like a cookbook is not dinner; but both help us get beyond our
individual limits. Poetry expresses what prose cannot; it is a
language of the heart, the language of love, and Yom Kippur is nothing
if not a day of celebrating the love of God for humanity.

May you all be inscribed for a good year,


PS- OK, let’s get the serious links out of the way before we get to
the Yom Kippur humor links. The first link is to the texts of the
Torah portions for this Shabbat and Yom Kippur:

This is your summary (suitable for family learning) and further

Here is a great kid’s parsha page:

and here is a detailed grammatical analysis of this week’s verse:

If you want to learn more about Yom Kippur- its history, themes,
rituals, etc, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge here:

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