Archive for Special Shabbatot

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 Some commentators have insisted that Amalek no longer exists, so the commandment is no longer in force.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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Shabbat Zachor: Remember Your Power

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra/ Shabbat Zachor

And Samuel said, “You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel…” (I Samuel 15:17)

Good morning!

This week we read a special maftir, or concluding Torah reading, and haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor for the commandment to remember what the Amalekites did to Israel on our way out of Egypt. The haftarah, or reading from the prophetic books, is from the book of Samuel, and also references the war between Amalek and Israel. In this case, Saul, the king of Israel, is commanded to go to war against Amalek and utterly wipe them out, but instead he kept the king as a prisoner and the animals for the troops to offer as sacrifices.

Samuel confronts Saul with his disobedience and kills King Agag himself, but not before rebuking Saul: however “small” you look to yourself, don’t forget you are king of Israel, and therefore held to a different standard than an ordinary citizen. Now, let’s set aside for a moment that Samuel’s command to Saul, to kill the Amalekites from king down to flocks, is not one we would regard as moral or legal according to current perspectives. Let’s instead take this one verse at face value: that a leader must remember they are not free to do as they please but are held to a higher standard of accountability than an ordinary citizen.

Anybody reading this can quickly apply that idea to current events, but I would take it one step further: that all of us, however “small” we may be in our own eyes, thinking our actions don’t matter, actually always have a chance to represent something bigger than ourselves. Every person can embrace a holiness of speech and nobility of action that demonstrates our consistent orientation to a higher and better path, regardless of the actions or pressures of others.

If you don’t like the way a particular leader or person is speaking or acting- don’t be small in your own eyes, but own your power to embody compassion, understanding and justice. Of course those who would presume to lead are held to a higher standard, but if we each hold ourselves to a higher standard, then perhaps we won’t be brought to a lower one by cynics, bigots and divisive demagogues. You may be small in your own eyes, but you are not. Never forget this!

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 Shekalim: Wise Leadership

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel/ Shabbat Shekalim

But in the twenty-third year of King Jehoash, [it was found that] the priests had not made the repairs on the House. So King Jehoash summoned the priest Jehoiada and the other priests and said to them, “Why have you not kept the House in repair? Now do not accept money from your benefactors any more, but have it donated for the repair of the House.” The priests agreed that they would neither accept money from the people nor make repairs on the House.  (II Kings 12:7-9)

Good morning!

Sorry I’ve been AWOL the past few weeks, fell behind after things got busy and never caught up. . .until Shabbat Shekalim, coming up this weekend. It’s so named because we read a special Torah reading and special prophetic reading concerning the collection of donations (taxes, really) for the building and maintenance of first the Miskhan, or portable Sanctuary, and later the Mikdash, or Temple in Jerusalem. (See here or link above for more details on connection to the calendar.)

The haftarah [text from prophets] for Shabbat Shekalim is especially interesting, because it’s all about the system of collections going wrong, and what it takes to fix it. Briefly, the priests were apparently mixing up the donations for the upkeep of the Mikdash with the money for their own sustenance, and not surprisingly, the Temple wasn’t getting fixed properly. So as in the verses above, the king put in a new system for collecting donations, instituted proper counting and oversight of money, and separated the accounts, as it were. 

This story has much to teach us about money and accountability; you can see here what I’ve written in previous years. What struck me this year was a larger issue of wise leadership: the greatness of King Jehoash was not just his cleverness in accounting systems, but the fact that he understood that good governance protects the people from their own worst impulses. In later Jewish terms, we’d say that he understood that even priests in the Temple have a yetzer hara, a selfish or egocentric inclination. This is simply a fact of human life, and so the wise leader understands the needs for checks and balances, along with moderation, deliberation, oversight, transparency and other institutional methods of limiting the damage that selfish, ambitious, vengeful or narcissistic people (most certainly including the leaders themselves) can do.

To put it another way: if even the holiest servants of God, the priests in the ancient Temple, could be tempted to misuse sacred donations, how much more so do all the rest of us need to be aware of our own capacity for moral self-delusion. Rabbinic texts suggest that the real genius of the yetzer hara is convincing a person that a sin is a mitzvah, and it’s something we’ve all done at times. Real leadership helps us understand our own fallibility, and seeks to build resilient systems which guard against our worst impulses so that we have the freedom and resources to become our better selves.

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 Machar Hodesh: Love is Infinite

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Machar Hodesh

Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” he shouted. “I know that you side with the son of Jesse-to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! (1 Samuel 20:30)

Good afternoon!

This week we’re reading an unusual haftarah, called Machar Hodesh, which is only read when Sunday is Rosh Hodesh, or the first of the month, based on a mention in the text of the following day’s new moon. This happens on an irregular basis (as far as I know), which makes this haftarah an unusual liturgical text, since most Torah readings or special prayers happen on certain days or times of the year and shape our experience of the flow of time and turning of the seasons.

The text of the haftarah concerns the relationship between David, future king of Israel, and Jonathan, his best friend, brother-in-law and son of the current king, Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and seeks to kill him. Jonathan is caught in the middle, and tries, in this text, to save David’s life by finding out if Saul still wants him dead, in which case David will flee the royal court. Saul figures out that his son is covering for David’s absence at the feast of the new moon and flies into a rage, insulting and shaming Jonathan for seeming to choose his friend over his father. In the verse quoted above, Saul is so contemptuous that he doesn’t even refer to David by name, but calls him “son of Jesse” and even implies that Jonathan is unworthy of his status as crown prince.

To be clear, there is a strong political component to Saul’s anger: he worries that David will seize the kingship, and if Jonathan is helping David, then Jonathan may be undermining his own claim to the throne. On the other hand, it’s hard not to read the verse above and feel pity for Saul’s jealousy and insecurity; on a purely emotional level, Saul falls into the classic human error of assuming that people are with us or against us, loved ones or enemies.

Yet love is not like that at all: politically, perhaps Jonathan would have to choose to support either his father or his friend as king, but spiritually, he can love and support both. Love is not a zero-sum game: loving one person doesn’t mean loving another any less. It takes maturity and courage to accept that our family, friends, colleagues and dear ones are not our exclusive possessions. To the extend that we recognize and affirm that love is an infinite resource, there is more of it in the world, and for what other purpose were we created?

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 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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Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim: Known By Our Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim 

 
“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Shmot/ Exodus 30:12)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
It’s been a challenge to get a regular Torah commentary out every week with all the changes here in the Hudson Valley- all good ones!- so I appreciate your patience and understanding. This week, in addition to the regular Torah reading, we have a special reading from the Torah which describes a half-shekel tax paid by each Israelite. We read this passage before the new moon of Adar (or, this year, second Adar, as it’s a leap year), which thus comes about 6 weeks before Passover. Historically, the half-shekel was collected in the spring for the upkeep of the ancient Temple; the occasion of the yearly reading is called Shabbat Shekalim. 
 
On a practical level, the half-shekel tax was used for both communal religious needs and also as a means of counting the people; most commentaries understand the linkage between census and collection of the half-shekel as teaching that the Israelites themselves were not counted directly, but rather the coins collected were numbered in their stead. Our friend Rashi brings an ancient teaching that the “evil eye” is attracted to numbered things, so in order to avoid a plague or calamity of some sort, better to count the money rather than number the people. (We can also note in passing that the atonement mentioned above may refer to atoning for the Golden Calf, after which there was a plague, but let’s leave more on that for another day.) 
 
Perhaps the notion of the “evil eye” is mere superstition, but then, it’s interesting that this conception of reified negativity is framed in terms ofseeing. What would it mean to count the Israelites directly? It might mean seeing each person not as an individual but as mere “human resources” (I have never liked the moral implications of that term) for military or economic production. You might think it’s even more dehumanizing to count the coins instead, but maybe numbering the half-shekels is a way of forcing the officials to realize that each person has something to contribute, each person is equal in the eyes of God, each person is known not by size of donation but by a willingness to help build a holy community. 
 
Maybe the “evil eye” in taking the census means seeing others as just numbers, in which case, it’s hardly a superstition but an all-too-common contemporary problem. We are not numbers, nor statistics, nor mere economic units; we are all, each in our own way, contributors towards a society in which equality and dignity should be holy values. Counting coins instead of people reminds us that the people themselves are more than just units in a ledger; nurturing and valuing the contributions of each individual should be the goal of a holy community. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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