Archive for Uncategorized

Naso: Seeing Angels

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The angel of the Lord never appeared again to Manoach and his wife. — Manoach then realized that it had been an angel of the Lord. (Judges 13:21)

Good morning!

Last year at this time (on the Torah reading calendar) I wrote about one of the less heroic figures of the Bible, Manoach, the father of Shimson (A.K.A. Samson.) In the haftarah for the portion Naso, Manoach’s unnamed wife is visited by an angel, who announces that she will bear a son and instructs her to raise him as a nazirite. This provides the thematic link to the Torah portion, which relates the relevant laws: one who takes a nazirite vow refrains from alcohol, cutting one’s hair, or any contact with the dead. (I also wrote about the nazirite laws a few years back, see here.)

The structure of the story is somewhat amusing: the angel appears to Manoach’s wife, she tells Manoach everything the angel said, and then Manoach gets excited and asks God to send the angel again. The angel comes back, explains the instructions to Manoach directly, and in reply Manoach offers him dinner, which the divine being refuses, telling Manoach to making an offering to God instead. The angel ascends in the flames of the burnt offering, and that’s when Manoach finally realizes the true significance of his interlocutor.

Seen one way, it’s funny how Manoach comes across as a bit dense when it comes to identifying angels, but read another way, the verse above is rather sad: it is only after further interaction is impossible that Manoach realized the extraordinary nature of his guest. Note the order of our verse: it is only after we learn (and I think Manoach realizes this too) that he will never see the angel again that Manoach is fully conscious of his failure of insight and missed opportunity.

In the arc of the story of Shimshon, Manoach is a comic foil to his much more insightful and worthy wife, who is, after all, the actual subject of the angel’s instructions. Yet in his obtuseness, he is all of us, at one time or another. Who among us has not regretted misapprehending the unique gifts of a friend, teacher, loved one or new acquaintance? Who among us has not said, “this was an angel” about someone who who was, perhaps only briefly, part of one’s life? Some of my deepest regrets are that I only understood someone’s depth and gifts after the opportunity to learn and love had passed.

We are not typically visited by divine messengers with explicit instructions for unusual circumstances, but every day we do have the chance to be more open to the extraordinary qualities of our friends, loved ones and neighbors. For Manoach, realization came too late, as it often does, but this very moment we can choose to see with new eyes the holy souls all around us, and be grateful for the chances to connect that are not yet lost.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

 

Comments (1)

Bechukotai: Healing The Deepest Hurts

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts (Jeremiah 17:1)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is the final portion of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. It’s also a very difficult text, having two themes which are hard for many contemporary Jews to interpret, the first being the material rewards or punishments due to Torah observance or lack thereof, and the second being the monetary valuation of people according to various ranked criteria, for the purpose of the payment of vows.

The haftarah, or prophetic text, is from the book of Jeremiah, and seems at first glance to reinforce the theme of faithfulness to God being rewarded and idolatry punished. The verse quoted above begins a long passage describing Divine anger to be visited upon the people of Judah who have worshipped idols and false gods; they will be overthrown and exiled from the land of their inheritance.

So far . . not so good. The metaphor of guilt inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved on a tablet with the cutting edge of a gemstone tool, seems to indicate that the offense of the people of Judah was as permanent as etching in stone. It’s a hard, cold, stark image, implying that some misdeeds permanently disfigure a human heart, leaving an irreparable spiritual flaw. Yet after several more verses in which the faithful person is praised and the idolator condemned and shamed, the haftarah concludes in a different voice, not the third person description of the sinner but a first person, and personal, prayer:

Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; for You are my glory.  (Jeremiah 17:14)

It’s important to remember that a Torah or haftarah reading was chosen by the ancient rabbis to begin and end on certain verses. It’s not an accident that a prophetic text with such an apparently harsh view of sin- engraved upon the heart, like letters in stone- ends with a prayer for healing. This is not an esoteric message: yes, some of our mistakes and misdeeds cut deeply into our own hearts and into the hearts of those we hurt, but we also believe in a God of healing, Whose power is made manifest in the transformation of the human spirit.

Bad things happen when people choose badly, but I believe the point of the haftarah is that we are not condemned to carry the burden of guilt forever. Sin may be as deep in our hearts as engraving in stone, but unlike stone, we can turn back to the One who heals. We believe in a God who heals with love and forgiveness those who truly seek to return, renew, and rebuild themselves, their families and their communities. Of course, a theology of Divine forgiveness has a strong moral corollary: if God can heal the pain engraved in our hearts, shall we not more freely forgive others who feel equally ashamed?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said it well: if you believe you can damage, believe you can fix!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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

Leave a Comment

Acharei Mot: The Torah of Everyday Kindness

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot

And you shall not profane the Name of your God . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 18:21)

Good afternoon!

Glad to be back after a short absence.

Acharei Mot is a difficult portion, with many laws in tension with contemporary sensibilities (though contemporary sensibilities are not necessarily a benchmark of moral aspirations) and other laws which seem rather anachronistic. To wit, the first part of the verse above refers to consecrating or sacrificing children to an ancient pagan deity- hardly a common concern in Poughkeepsie, I hope. On the other hand, the second part of the verse, quoted above, refers to a much more general ethical concept, “desecrating [or: profaning] God’s name,” usually referred to by the Hebrew phrase chillul Hashem. Technically, this commandment- not to do anything which dishonors God, Torah or Israel – derives from a verse a bit later in the Torah (Leviticus 22:32)- but the basic idea appears in several places.

Without going into all the details, for today it’s enough to note that chillul Hashem– profaning God’s name- occurs when people do things which would cause others to question or denigrate the Torah or God of Israel. An example discussed in the Talmud is that of a great Torah scholar not paying the butcher on time. For an ordinary person, a late bill might harm our reputation but doesn’t cause disrepute for Judaism or the Jewish people, but a great Torah scholar, though, is judged on a higher level. How he (or she) pays the grocer is indeed a demonstration that Torah learning which is not transformative in kindness and integrity may cause others to think badly of Judaism itself.

What brings this to mind is the first yahrzeit of my mentor and friend R. Allan Schranz, who died a year ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Schranz was a brilliant orator and wonderful teacher, who served very prominent pulpits in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but what l also remember about my visits with him were the bagel shop guys. Let me explain: before he got sick, I’d visit him several times a year at his synagogue in Midtown Manhattan, and he’d often take me to a bagel shop around the corner. Every time we went there, he was greeted warmly with “hi Rabbi,” from every person who worked there, who smiled when he entered and seemed happy to see him. It didn’t take many visits to figure out why: Rabbi Schranz took care to treat everybody he met with kindness, respect and dignity, from the bagel shop guys to the security guard at his synagogue to people he’d recognize on the street in his neighborhood.

Wearing his trademark fuzzy black velvet kippot – which he tried many times to convince me to adopt, never succeeding- it would have been a chillul Hashem if anybody perceived the local rabbi, paragon of religious Judaism, as disrespectful or arrogant. The opposite was true: he performed a kiddush Hashem, “making God’s name holy,” in his everyday interactions: people saw that a religious Jew was thoughtful, gracious and ennobling of others, which in turn demonstrates that a foundation of Torah is kavod habriyot, human dignity. To show that our everyday actions are suffused with the humane values of Judaism is a mitzvah not just for scholars, but for anyone who wants to make the world more holy, one kind interaction at a time.

Shabbat Shalom,
RNJL

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

Leave a Comment

Tazria: Seeing Ourselves

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/ Shabbat HaHodesh

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 13:2)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion is difficult, concerned mostly with scaly skin eruptions and the ritual impurities of garments. However, as I and many others have written about (here and here, for example), it’s important to note that the Jewish tradition has always seen these skin afflictions as the outward manifestation of an inner condition, perhaps the sin of gossip, in one view, or more generally a kind of spiritual unreadiness to be in community after encountering the boundaries of life and death.

This metaphorical reading of the scabs and skin eruptions is important to keep in mind when we look at the verse above, which reminds us that one cannot “diagnose” these problems in oneself or another. The person with the eruption must be brought to the priest. Again, see links above for my comments in the past on this, but for today let’s just say that the Torah seems to be teaching us how hard it is to truly see ourselves, and how sometimes the job of spiritual leadership is to help us see ourselves more honestly- after all, we’re all blemished in some way or another! The Talmud, in Mishnah Negaim, explicitly uses the language of “seeing” to teach that we cannot “see” certain problems in ourselves, but must go to another to be truly “seen.”  Note as well that in Biblical times, this role was reserved for the priest, but today might be a spiritual leader, wise elder, trusted friend or specialized counselor- the priestly role can be assumed by anyone with humility, love and compassion.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra pointed out that in the verse above, the one who is to be brought to the priest is adam, a human, rather than an Israelite, citizen, or even just “man.” He reads this to teach that anybody, Israelite or not, must be brought to the priest if they have a scaly skin blemish. One would instantly ask why a non-Israelite would be brought to the priest for purification, since they have no obligation to be ritually pure for bringing sacrifices, so Ibn Ezra says all humans are brought to the priest lest an Israelite contracts impurity through them.

On the other hand, contra Ibn Ezra, perhaps the verse says adam, human, because it’s reminding us that it’s a universal truth that people need help “seeing” themselves; by definition, we don’t know when we’re self deceived. (See, for example, psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the fundamental attribution error). For all of us who are adam, humankind, it’s much easier to see the blemishes of others and hard to see our own; thus the Torah teaches that we must not rush to judge others but help them find those they can trust and do the same ourselves. The Mishnah quoted above wisely suggests that we can’t even see the blemishes in our own families, presumably because we’re too close and can’t be even slightly objective.

The good news, of course, is that our Torah portion isn’t about proclaiming others as blemished or plagued, but finding healing from that which afflicts us all. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody goes through cycles when we feel more or less distant from our better selves. The Torah says: see each other like priests, with a heart of love and service, to bring each other back into relationship with God and community. This is what it means to be adam, a human being.

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

Leave a Comment

Shemini: Blessing the People

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Shabbat Parah

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:23)

Good morning! Sorry my commentaries have been sporadic lately; I thank you for reading when I’m able to write!

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, has three main themes: the conclusion of the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests, the tragic death of Aharon’s sons and subsequent rules for the priesthood, and the dietary laws at the end. While the first chapter of the portion feels rather technical with all sorts of. . .um, meaty details about the ancient offerings, there’s actually a story being told.

To wit: at the end of the previous week’s portion, in Vayikra chapter 8, Moshe is commanded to do some special rituals for Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, to dedicate them as priests, after which they are secluded in the Tent of Meeting for a week. After the end of that week, we begin this week’s portion- on the eighth day, from which our portion gets its name- with Moshe bringing out Aharon and his sons from the Tent, promising them that the Divine Presence will appear to them today (verse 9:6), after they do more animal offerings of the various types. They do that, and when Aharon is finished, he comes down from the Altar and blesses the people (9:22), then he and his brother go into the Tent of Meeting again, and they come out together and bless the people again. (9:23).

Then, and only then, does Moshe’s promise come true: the Divine Presence appears as a fire, consuming the offering on the altar. This foreshadows the next chapter, in which the heavenly fire takes the lives of Aharon’s apparently errant sons Nadav and Avihu.

That’s a powerful literary moment, but between Moshe’s promise of the Divine Presence and the appearance of the fire from heaven is a great deal of technical detail about peace offerings and atonement offerings and burnt offerings and all the rest, so if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a bit when reading verse after verse of ritual particulars.

Yet the story behind the details embodies powerful Jewish teachings. Note well that Moshe promises Aharon that the Divine Presence will appear, but it does so only after Aharon “comes down” off the Altar and blesses the people- not once, but twice. It’s not the ritual itself that opens Aharon to evoke and perceive the Divine Presence, it’s coming out of the private and holy space to bless the people, which I take as a metaphor for religious leadership that is not as much concerned with personal mystical experience as it is concerned with service to others. Aharon doesn’t just commune with the Presence in the set-off space of the Altar, but “comes down” from his place of privilege to bless the people, share his experience with them and raise them up.

This point is reinforced by the image in verse 23 of Moshe and Aharon going into the Tent of Meeting- the place where the Holy was experienced- and then coming out again, to bless the people together, prophet and priest as equals in servant leadership (to use a current phrase but an ancient concept.) It’s not when they are in the Tent of Meeting, but have left it to be in community that Moshe’s promise of Divine Presence is fulfilled! To put it another way, Aharon is fit to be a priest when he understands that his job is to be a blessing for all the people, not just to be the master of ceremonies with rituals and offerings.

Personal religious experience is a wonderful thing, and I certainly hope we all have more of it. To me, however, a genuine spiritual experience changes us to the extent that we become vessels of blessing to the people around us; it’s nice to be holy when set apart, but the real challenge is to be holy in community. Even – maybe especially- the High Priest had to learn to come off his high place to be a blessing for others; surely that’s our challenge too.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL  

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

Leave a Comment

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.

 

Leave a Comment

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.

 

Leave a Comment

« Newer Posts · Older Posts »