Author Archives: Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

About Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.

If Not Now, When?

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

Moses addresses the Israelites one last time, recounting the giving of the Torah and blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moses will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

In Focus

"And this is blessing by which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death." (Deuteronomy 33:1)

Pshat

The penultimate chapter of the Torah contains a very condensed history of the Israelites since Sinai, and a specific blessing for each of the 12 tribes.

Drash

I want to focus on the subtle observations of the greatest darshan (commentator) of them all, Rashi. I’ve tried to show how close readings of the Torah text enable us to find layers of meaning that a quick glance cannot reveal–and nobody does this better than our friend from medieval France. Rashi notices every word: in the verse above, he seems to be picking up on the apparently unnecessary phrase, "before his death." (After all, could Moses have blessed the people after his death?) Thus, Rashi’s explanation, based on earlier sources:

"before his death"–"before" [Hebrew lifney] means close to his death, for if not now, when?

In his usual terse manner, Rashi hints at the urgency of Moses blessing, imagining that Moses felt that his death was imminent and this was his last chance to impart any final words of wisdom to the people he had shepherded for forty years. Moses could put off no longer any words which he longed to speak, for this opportunity was fleeting.

Now, if we stopped right here with Rashi’s midrash, we’d have a powerful reminder that words between intimates cannot be postponed indefinitely, for no one knows the day of his or her death. If you want to bless your loved ones, or say anything else of significance, do so now, for you might not have the warning that Moses received that his days were soon ending. This is solid wisdom, often repeated, and still true for the repeating.

Yet Rashi hints at something else, as well. The phrase "If not now, when?" was almost certainly known to him as part of a larger statement in the name of Rabbi Hillel, from the section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot ["Ethics of the Ancestors"]:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Now Rashi’s midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moses blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moses could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people–but "what am I" if I don’t speak the truth, even if it’s not pleasant? After all, his blessing for the tribe of Reuven–that they "live and not die"–is rather lukewarm, probably recalling earlier prophecies concerning their forefather Reuven in Genesis 49.

On the other hand, Moses is quite willing to mention his own role in the people’s history, claiming in verse 3 that the Torah was "commanded by Moses," although it came from God. Again, think of our saying from Pirkei Avot: "If I am not for myself, who is for me?" Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.

By linking Moses blessing to Hillel’s mini-philosophy of self-examination, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. According to this reading, Moses spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moses final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That’s what makes him Moshe Rabbenu ["Moses our teacher"], not just Moses the leader.

The Times Are A-Changing

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

Parashat Ha’azinu is Moses‘ last speech to the Israelites–it is a powerful poem recalling the sacred history since the Exodus from Egypt, and warning the Israelites in the strongest terms not to stray from the path that God has commanded. At the end of the parasha, God tells Moses that he will be able to see the Land of Israel, but will not be able to enter it.

In Focus

“Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations. . .” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

Pshat

At the beginning of his long, poetic, theological discourse, Moses asks the current generation to consider the past, when the previous generations had done things that brought about God’s anger. Presumably Moses is referring to the people’s complaining in the desert, the building of the Golden Calf, and other acts of apparent rebellion. As we make our choices in life, it’s important to consider and be open to learning the lessons of history.

Drash

Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a Hassidic rabbi who lived in Poland in the late 19th century, makes a wonderful drash (explanation) out of a wordplay on the word “years” in our verse above. “Years,” in Hebrew, is shanot; picking up on a comment by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relates this to the root of the word for changes, which in Hebrew is shinui. So he reads the verse like this: “understand the changes throughout the generations.”

For R. Bornstein, the highest point of the Jewish people was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and we’ve been in slow spiritual decline every year since. So “considering the changes” in the generations, in his perspective, is a humbling experience–we might think that the latest, most technologically advanced age is the best, but perhaps the spiritual accomplishments of the previous generation were even greater than our own. We should humbly reflect on both the faults and achievements of those who came before us, and ask ourselves if we’ve really worked on improving the faults and living up to the achievements.

That’s not a bad idea to mull over at this introspective time of year, but we might take his midrash in a different direction too. Perhaps “considering the changes of the generations” means that we can reflect on the potential for change in every generation. I understand one essential element of Judaism as the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place–there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves. All these would be elements of tshuvah, or “repentance,” but more literally understood as “returning” to that which makes us most fully human.

Thus on this “Shabbat of Returning” (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we might understand Moses’ poem as not only urging us to consider the mistakes of the past, and learn accordingly (which is hard enough), but also to consider that the past is not necessarily a prologue to the future. We are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past, either as individuals, communities, or nations–to me, Judaism is more optimistic than that. Consider the past, but don’t feel that you’re stuck in it; this is a central message of the holiday season.

Integrating Knowledge

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

Overview

Moshe continues to review the history of the Israelites from the time of their liberation from Egypt; he also repeatedly implores them to accept and faithfully follow the Torah, stressing its goodness and wisdom. Moshe warns the people not to worship any other god or power except the One God who gave them the Torah. Moshe then reiterates the Ten Commandments. The paragraph which we know as the first paragraph of the Shma forms part of Moshe’s exhortation to the people to keep faith with God after they enter the land, when Moshe himself will no longer be able to guide or instruct them.

In Focus

"Know this day and set it upon your heart that Adonai is God–in heaven above and on earth below–there is no other." (Deuteronomy 4:39)

Pshat

Moshe delivers a long sermon to the people on the dangers of forgetting their experience of Liberation and Revelation–he warns them that they might fall into idolatry once they enter the land of Israel. He also promises that God will take them back, just as God took them out of Egypt to be a unique people. Moshe urges the people to remember the giving of the Torah at Sinai and be mindful of God’s presence.

Drash

The main point of Moshe’s sermon seems fairly straightforward: don’t forget about the God who liberated you once you settle in the Land. The verse above could therefore be a simple rhetorical device, employing extra phrases merely for emphasis of the basic point.

Read this way, there would be no substantial difference between "know this day" and "set it upon your heart"–they might mean basically the same thing, a steady consciousness of God’s existence, authority, and instructions. The next phrase, "in heaven above and on earth below," could also be read this way, as complementary images which strengthen each other. Scholars of Biblical rhetoric and poetry call this "parallelism," from the idea that two parallel or similar images strengthen the rhetorical point but don’t really have two different meanings in themselves.

Traditional rabbinic Bible commentators, on the other hand, often like to read the text in more expansive and creative ways, perceiving new and additional meanings in each seemingly superfluous word. Thus Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant [popularly known as R. Israel Salanter], a 19th century giant of mussar [ethical development] teachings, sees "know this day" and "set it upon your heart" as two different stages in a process:

It is not sufficient merely to "know" it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire service of a Jew. There is as much distance between "knowing" [something] and "setting it upon your heart" as there is between knowledge and ignorance.
[Quoted in Hebrew in Itturei Torah; this translation modified from the English Wellsprings of Torah]

R. Salanter draws an important distinction here: what we know only intellectually may not actually influence our behavior; this must come from a more integrated "knowing" of mind, heart, and soul. We might think of somebody with a bad habit, for example, who knows with their brain that their habit is self-destructive, yet cannot stop until they have really emotionally internalized their desire to change. I think R. Salanter is making the same point regarding the spiritual life: we can know something purely abstractly or intellectually, yet the challenge is to act at all times out of our spiritual convictions.

That’s a deeper, more holistic kind of spirituality; not merely believing something, but acting with great integrity, wherein one naturally behaves according to one’s own ideals. The great American preacher and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way:

But we must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny [God’s] existence with your life. The most dangerous kind of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism. And the world . . . is filled up with people who pay lip service to God but not life service. (A Knock at Midnight: the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, p.15)

I am especially moved by Dr. King’s notion of "practical atheism;" this seems to me very close to what R.Salant is saying: while religious knowledge is a good thing, it’s not the same as leading a truly religious life. There’s a well known story, attributed in different places to different 19th century rabbis, about a man who boasts that he’s been through the Talmud many times. "Fine," replies the rabbi–"but how many times has the Talmud been through you?"

Striving for a wholeness, an integration, of mind, heart and soul–this is the "entire service" of a Jew.

Self Deception

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moses gathers the entire Israelite people and gives them a stern warning to uphold God’s covenant. Terrible things await the person who does not observe the commandments, but God will take back in great mercy anyone who sincerely repents. The parashah ends with words of encouragement: Moses tells the people that following the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.

In Focus

Now you know that we dwelled in the land of Egypt and that we passed through other nations as we went on. You have seen detestable things and the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold that they had. Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is turning today away from Adonai our God, in order to serve the deities of those nations–maybe there is among you a poisonous root or wormwood. When such a one hears all these words, he may bless himself in his heart, saying: "I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart"–thus sweeping away the moist with the dry. God will not come to pardon such a one.  (Deuteronomy 29:15-19, translation mine, based on notes in the JPS commentary).

Pshat

Even after the Israelites have seen all the different kinds of idolatry practiced by Egypt and all the other nations, and even after God has warned them time and time again not to worship other deities, it’s still possible that there might be someone who doesn’t take these warnings seriously. Moses thus warns the people yet again that they must be very careful not to allow in their midst any worship except that of the God of Israel.

Drash

Our passage this week contains some unusual and difficult language, giving our usual cast of commentators some work to do, especially in understanding the blessing that the disobedient one gives himself. I have translated this passage:

"I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart"–thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.

But really, each clause is debatable. A few different translations show the possibilities:

When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry (New American Standard Bible).

It shall be when he hears the words of this curse that he will boast, saying, "I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry" (Revised Standard Version).

And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit–thereby adding the watered upon the thirsty (Artscroll).

The biggest problem is the last clause of the verse: "thus sweeping away the moist with the dry." The simplest explanation of this image is that it is "all-inclusive," like saying "day and night," or "soup to nuts." The disobedient one will end up being "swept away" entirely; alternatively, he will bring disaster among the entire nation (Jewish Publication Society Commentary).

Rashi, on the other hand, sees the word sfot, which I am translating as "swept away," as being related to the word for "added," which has a similar root. Thus Rashi sees "adding the moist to the dry" as God adding punishments upon punishments for his sins.

Ramban has yet a third interpretation: this person is "giving himself a blessing" when all the other Israelites are hearing the curses related in chapter 28. He thinks that by exempting himself, the consequences won’t apply. Furthermore, according to Ramban, to "add moist to the dry" is a description of the psychological consequences of "following" one’s problematic desires: first somebody does something they ought not do, and then they keep on doing different forbidden things, looking for a greater thrill every time, constantly needing to "up the ante" in order to find temporary satisfaction of their desires.

All of these interpretations offer a more detailed explanation of the basic problem: this person (or group) that Moses warns about is in utter denial of the consequences of their actions. As Ramban points out, they are deluding themselves if they think that they can exempt themselves from the same conditions that apply to everybody around them. Whether they have mistaken ideas, or they are arrogant, or painfully naive, a person in denial can create big problems for themselves and those around them.

The specific issue that Moses addresses–worshipping the deities of the ancient nations–may not be much of a problem anymore, but the human capacity for self-deception remains with us always. People are often prone to think that "the rules" apply to everybody but themselves; whether in the realm of health, ethics, or simply the inevitable consequences of our actions, the refusal to confront reality is a pervasive and destructive force in human existence.

When you eat too much junk food, it’s not healthy for your body; when you tell little distortions of the truth, it’s not healthy for your relationships; when you consistently put off prayer and good deeds, it’s not good for your soul. These are teachings we all know, but all too often, try to forget.

Thus it’s especially appropriate to read these words the week before Rosh Hashanah. On the Days of Awe, we are challenged to fearlessly review our deeds: did we do what we ought? Did we do things we shouldn’t have? Are our relationships in order–with ourselves, with others, with God? Are we like the "self-blesser" that Ramban imagines, telling ourselves that it’s going to be all right, because the basic laws of nature and morality don’t really apply to me? (I, for one, am still firmly convinced that I can eat chocolate and cookies and not gain weight.)

The good news in all of this is that change is always possible. The following chapter is an extended meditation on the possibility of choice and change, along with the assurance that this is within the reach of every person:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off (Deuteronomy 30: 11).

Preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe can be daunting–sometimes it’s easier to look away than at parts of ourselves that need work. Yet Judaism insists that we have the capability to change, grow, and better ourselves–it’s hard work, but it’s that simple.

It’s The Joy, Not The Oy

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment to bring the first fruits to the priests. This ritual includes a verse many will recognize from the Passover Seder, recalling that "my ancestor was a wandering Aramean." This is followed by an elaborate staging in order to illustrate the many blessings that will follow one who follows Torah, and the many curses which will come upon the nation if they don’t. The parashah concludes with a review of the good things that God has done for Israel since the exodus from Egypt.

In Focus

"Because you did not serve the Adonai your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity…" (Deuteronomy 28:47).

Pshat

In the theology of Deuteronomy, blessings of abundance and prosperity follow loyalty to God’s covenant, while curses of the most terrible kind are the consequence of disloyalty. The section of curses in this parashah is called tokhekha, or rebuke; it is not a prophecy of what will happen, but a warning of what might happen.

Drash

To understand suffering as punishment for sin leads to the idea that undeserved suffering must be because of undisclosed sin–and that can add layers of guilt and shame onto sickness, accidents, or other tragedies. Thus, I’d rather not read this section of curses, the tokhekha, for its theology of punishment. I can, however, read it as a statement of values–by positing dire consequences for certain actions, the Torah is saying: "pay close attention, this is what I want you to take really seriously."

With that in mind, we can better understand the insight of the Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (Poland, 19th century):

"Because you did not serve Adonai your God joyfully . . ." The Torah does not specify the sins for which the Jewish people will be punished. The only one that it mentions specifically is "because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully" (Itturei Torah).

How is it that lack of joy is a sin? I don’t think this means that we can never be sad or angry–life has its ups and downs, and that is normal and expected. Rather, I think R. Simcha Bunim is talking about "serving Adonai your God," that is, making our religious and spiritual disciplines joyful.

There is a line of classical Jewish theology which stresses feeling commanded by God at all times, which is certainly a very serious thing–but R. Simcha Bunim reminds us that we can experience our spiritual practices as a tremendous gift, a daily opportunity to find blessings in the world. As one recent convert to Judaism put it, "I don’t think of it [pick a commandment] as have to, but get to."

We get to pray moving, ancient words every day, we get to say little blessings of gratitude before eating, we get to study laws for moral refinement, we get to sing and dance and celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, we get to bring holiness into our lives through beautiful rituals . . . . the list goes on. Making religion into a dreary drag is probably the best way possible to drive people away from it.

Maybe that’s why not serving God "joyfully" is such a sin–not only do we fail to lift ourselves out of the burdens of daily life, we might even be convincing others that Judaism is a path of "oy" rather than a path of "joy."*  It’s ironic, then, that in the middle of the most sobering passage in the Torah, we find a strong reminder that Judaism is supposed to be more sweetness than fright.

All Is Not Fair In Love And War

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

Ki Tetze contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parashah ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.

In Focus

"When you go to war against your enemies and the Adonai your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her" (Deuteronomy 21:10-15).

Pshat

As my teacher R. Eddie Feinstein wrote regarding this passage, all is not fair in love and war–the Torah recognizes the reality of war, but demands that even in the insanity of battle, a human being be recognized as a human being. That women were captured in war was non-controversial in the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world; the Torah, however, says that even this sexist cultural norm must be subject to some kind of moral regulation. Rape is condemned, and a ritual of bringing the woman into the soldier’s house slowly, and allowing her to mourn, is instituted in its place. Many commentators assume that the point of this ritual delay is so that the soldier will change his mind, and let her go.

Drash

The law of the woman captured at war is difficult for contemporary readers; it is an artifact from an ancient world, a world whose attitudes toward women, war, marriage, and family is far from our own. I can accept that this law represented an advance over the typical "rules of war" of its day, but it’s difficult to accept that the Torah gives permission for men to capture women and marry them forcibly.

Lucky for me, our good friend Rashi does something quite amazing with this entire passage, offering an interpretation which creatively illustrates my feeling that the Torah is saying something subtler than "capture women, but be more dignified about it."

Rashi links this passage, concerning the captured woman, with the next two, in verses 15-20. These laws concern the "hated wife" (whose children must be treated fairly) and the "rebellious son" (who could be put to death–but don’t worry, the rabbis say this never actually happened.) Rashi says that taking a woman in war will lead to her becoming the "unloved wife," and any children from this union will become "rebellious sons":

"‘You may take her as your wife…’ The Torah speaks here only to oppose the Selfish Inclination [Yetzer Hara], because if the Blessed Holy One did not permit [it], he would marry her against the law. But if he does marry her, she will in the end be ‘hated,’ as the verse says, and eventually they will beget a ‘rebellious son.’ That’s why all these sections are connected."

By linking these three strange laws, Rashi seems to be saying that we are to learn the consequences of acting on our shallowest urges. Yes, it’s theoretically permissible to marry the woman captured in war, according to the letter of the ancient law, but look where it gets you: You end up hating that which reflects back to you your own worst side, and you end up with family difficulties across the generations. One who sees in another human being only a way to gratify personal desires–even in a more restrained, "permitted" way–ends up without even the respect of others, not even of his or her own children.

Because the law of the "rebellious son" is usually assumed to be only theoretical, never applied, I think Rashi is saying the same thing about the "captured woman." Maybe it’s only a parable for the destructive consequences of seeing others as means, rather than as holy ends in themselves. Maybe the emphasis on the woman’s beauty is a way of warning us against focusing on external appearances, rather than spiritual qualities–even in wartime.

As the ancient rabbis like to say, if in war one should recognize the essential humanity of each person, and never use them or abuse them, how much more so in everyday life, when we have daily opportunities to affirm the best in ourselves and others.

The Emergence Of Environmentalism

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

Overview

The word shoftim means "judges"; issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.

In Focus

"When, in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

Pshat

This whole section of the parashah deals with rules for warfare, setting limits on what the Israelite army may do even in the heat of battle. In these verses, "scorch and burn" warfare is prohibited; the Israelite army may not destroy the source of sustenance of the enemy city, even if they are seeking to conquer it.

Drash

Beginning in the time of the Talmud, these verses were understood to apply to all of life, not just a time of war. The rabbis derived from these verses a principle called bal taschit, or "do not destroy," which they formulated as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful or necessary to sustain life. For example, the Talmud itself says:

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashhit. (Kiddushin 32a).

Hundreds of years later, Maimonides applied the law to both trees and other objects, though he concedes that trees may be cut down as part of a thoughtful agricultural decision:

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The law forbids only wanton destruction…. Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command "you must not destroy." (Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

Because the principle of bal taschit demands that we refrain from engaging in destructive or wasteful actions, many contemporary Jews have understood it to be part of an emerging Jewish environmental consciousness. For example, some contemporary writers have suggested that a commitment to bal taschit in its original context might lead Jews to greater activism to prevent the wasteful exploitation or destruction of wilderness areas. On a more everyday level, bal taschit might serve as a religious language for greater conservation and recycling efforts on the part of Jewish homes and institutions.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, finds an even deeper teaching embedded in the principle of bal taschit:

The purpose of this mitzvah [commandment of bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)

According to this interpretation, acting to safeguard the beauty and abundance of the world is a measure of our appreciation of it. Inculcating a consciousness of our behavior is at the core of Judaism, as the teachings pertaining to sacred time and moral rigour might suggest. Bal taschit asks us to apply that same conscientiousness to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions; perhaps that kind of consciousness is an essential part of "righteousness" for our times.

PS–For those interested in more information on Jewish environmental activism and a more in-depth look at Judaism’s perspectives on environmental issues, the best place to start is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Not Seeing Is The Sin

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

Overview

This week’s parashah is mostly the story of Balak, the king of the nation Moab. He hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he perceives as a threat. Balaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing is God’s alone. On his way to curse Israel, his donkey stops, for an angel blocks the way, but Balaam can’t perceive what his animal is doing. Finally, Balaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing that is now part of the daily morning service. At the end of the parashah, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.

In Focus

“Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back'” (Numbers 22:34).

Pshat

Balak really wants Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam senses that this is not what God wants him to do. After Balak’s men pressure and cajole him, God tells Balaam he can go to meet Balak, but he must only do what God tells him. Still, God seems to be angry that Balaam has chosen this path, and sends an angel with a drawn sword to block his way. The donkey sees the angel, and refuses to proceed, but Balaam thinks the donkey is disobeying him. Finally, God allows Balaam to perceive the angel, and then Balaam pleads ignorance–he wouldn’t have tried to move on if he had known there was an angel blocking his way!

Drash

A Hasidic commentator points out that if Balaam really didn’t know about the angel, how could he have “sinned” in trying to move along?

“I have sinned. . .” This is surprising! If he didn’t know, what was the sin? The answer is that there are times when not knowing is itself the sin. For example, if a child strikes a parent, he can’t justify it by saying he didn’t know it was forbidden to strike one’s parents. A captain of the guard of the king cannot say that he didn’t know who the king was!

This is the case of a prophet and an angel–if the prophet says that he didn’t know that the angel was stationed before him, that’s the sin. This is what Balaam said: “I sinned, because I didn’t know–as a prophet, I should have known that the angel stood before me–not knowing was the sin itself.” (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

We could further point out that Balaam went with God’s apparent permission, even though he knew that Balak’s goals were destructive. He chose to go anyway–that’s what having free moral choice means. Even though Balaam knew it wasn’t a good thing, God let him go, with the warning to make the right choices in the end. So then we get back to our original question: what was the sin, if he really didn’t know the angel was there?

I think this midrash implies that Balaam really did know, on some semiconscious level, that it was not good to head out to meet Balak. Balaam did a very common thing: he overruled his own conscience, and chose not to see, not to understand, the problematic nature of his chosen path. It’s literally a path in the story, but I think the road or path here symbolizes the set of decisions he’s making. He didn’t want to see the angel, so he didn’t.

The idea that not knowing can itself be a chet, or falling short of the mark, is a powerful challenge. What are we not seeing that we choose not to see? Do we use Balaam’s excuse–“I didn’t know”–when our friends and family need our help and support? Do we say, “I didn’t see” when we step over the homeless on our way to work, or when we encounter the effects of any other problem in our community? Choosing not to see is something we all do at times–even a prophet can sometimes fail to see the angel in front of him. The good news is that we are created with a spark of the Divine within, and we can have our eyes opened at any time.

Reflect Before You Respond

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

Overview

In this parashah, the Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart. A man named Korah leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon‘s leadership. Korah has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that the “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.

In Focus

“They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?”

When Moses heard this, he fell face down.” (Numbers 16:3-4)

Pshat

Moshe does not get immediately defensive or angry with the assembled crowd, nor does he assert his authority. Instead, he humbles himself, and asks the rebels about their motivation. He also points out, a few verses later, that they should have no problem with Aharon; it’s interesting that Moshe comes to Aharon’s defense before defending himself.

Drash

Continuing our study of Moshe’s reactions to leadership challenges, a famous Hasidic commentator offers a different kind of explanation of Moshe “falling facedown.” R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (lived in Russia, died in 1812), the founding rabbi of the Lubavitch (or Chabad) Hasidic movement, says that Moshe fell on his face because he really had to ask himself if Korah has a valid point:

It would have been fitting for Moshe to answer him immediately, so why did he first fall on his face? Moshe, our teacher, had a feeling that maybe they were asking him this from On High, and Korah was only a messenger. Thus, he first fell on his face for self-reflection, to see if in truth he had any arrogance. After he thoroughly checked himself, and found no trace of pride, he understood that he [Korah] was not a messenger from On High, but was a divider [of people], and so he answered as he did. (Tanya, quoted in Itturei Torah)

I think this is a very psychologically provocative midrash. R. Shneur Zalman (also known as the Ba’al HaTanya after his most important book) challenges us to follow Moshe’s example by first reflecting on our own actions in any situation of conflict or anger. In effect, this midrash says to us: even Moshe had to consider the possibility that Korah had a valid point, or at least that his accusations contained some kernel of truth.

In the rabbinic tradition, Moshe is the archetypal good man, and Korah the very symbol of selfishness and evil–so how much more are the rest of us, all the “in-between” people, challenged to consider the possibility that other’s words may contain painful truths.

What’s so brilliant about this midrash is that it refuses to provide any easy answers to human relationships. It would be too easy to say that any situation of conflict reflects equally badly on both parties, and thus slide into a kind of psychological relativism. Yes, sometimes people do bad things out of their own pain, but this way of seeing things gets people “off the hook” for their actions.

On the other hand, it would also be too easy to say that some people do evil or hurtful things simply because they are evil people–but this does not account for Judaism’s insistence that all people, even Korah, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korah could have been the agent of holy truth. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but there was no easy way, other than real soul-searching, to either “validate” Korah’s feelings or write him off as an arrogant usurper.

According to the Ba’al HaTanya, some people may be bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source. Or, as Kolel’s webmaster often says, we must “seek first to understand,” before we react in a situation of conflict. Who knows–we might be in the presence of a “divider,” or we might be in the presence of “messenger from On High.”

Seeing Beneath The Surface

The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

Overview

As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, spies are sent ahead to scout out the Land. They return with a discouraging report, and the people believe that it will be too difficult to possess the Promised Land. They long to return to Egypt; God wants to destroy the faithless people, but Moshe persuades God to relent. Instead, God lengthens their wanderings to 40 years, so that none of the generation of the Exodus will enter the Land. The parasha ends with various laws of sacrifice which will take effect when they are settled in the Land; the final paragraph contains the commandment to attach fringes [tzitzit] to the corners of their clothing.

In Focus

“And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them'” (Numbers 13:32-33).

Pshat

The story of the spies is one of the dramatic highlights of the book of Numbers; it contrasts the fearful majority of the reconnaissance team, with Calev and Yehoshua [Joshua], who urge the people not to be afraid–these heroes of faith believe that God will protect the people and bring them into the land. In the verses quoted above, the fearful spies are telling the people that the land of Israel is filled with giants, or semi-divine beings, who will surely defeat the Israelites if they attempt to settle there.

Drash

One of the greatest teachers of Torah of our age, Nehama Leibowitz, z’l (may her memory be a blessing), in one of her essays on this parasha, asks an important question: how did the spies know what the “giants” thought of them? They don’t report any interaction with these bizarre “Nephilim;” if they really were giant beings, then one could understand the feeling that “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” but how did they know if the “giants” even noticed them?

Unfortunately, although Nehama Leibowitz posed this great question, she didn’t give any hint as to an answer. Not only that, but it seems that this question has been around for a very long time. The contemporary Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, in the Jewish Publication Society commentary, quotes a midrash from the ancient rabbis, in which God rebukes the spies:

“I take no objection to your saying: ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ but I take offense when you say ‘so we must have looked to them.’ How do you know how I made you to look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels!” (based on Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

On the other hand, Rashi says that the spies reported overhearing the giants talking to one another, saying, “there are ants in the vineyard that resemble human beings.” (Rashi is also quoting an ancient midrash, this time from the Talmud.) Rashi answers our question directly, but doesn’t address the feeling I get from the text that the spies were reacting out of panic and insecurity rather than objectively reporting what they saw. On the other hand, perhaps Rashi is trying to emphasize their lack of confidence; after all, an ant is even smaller and more easily crushed than a grasshopper!

The European commentator R. Yaakov ben Asher, (d. 1343; known as the Ba’al HaTurim) quotes a midrash which makes the spies seem almost delusional. In this version, the spies report that:

“. . . One of the giants ate a pomegranate and tossed aside the husk, and all 12 spies entered it and sat down in it. . . we sat down in it like grasshoppers.”

Now, that must have been one humongous pomegranate! If you’re smiling and thinking to yourself, “what a silly story,” I think you understand the force of this midrash. I think the very absurdity of this midrash is a clue as to its meaning: it’s silly and ridiculous to project your own insecurities onto others, thinking you know what they think about you. As the earlier midrash said more explicitly, maybe the spies appeared as angels!

I think we can also hear in this midrash the fear the spies must have been feeling; desperate to avoid the challenge of going up to the land, perhaps they found themselves saying anything that came to mind, even if it was biased to the point of absurdity. Many of us have had those moments when our insecurities have overwhelmed our reason–we might even consider the possibility that the Ba’al HaTurim is portraying the spies as so fearful as to be pathetic, objects of sympathy rather than scorn.

On the other hand, consider the imagery of this midrash in more symbolic terms: the spies arrived at their self-assessment as grasshoppers by sitting down in the “husk” of the pomegranate. Perhaps the image of the outer shell or husk which surrounds the spies when they sit in it is a hint that their real problem is that they don’t look any deeper into things, seeing only outward appearances. Based on the outward appearance of things, this rag-tag bunch of former slaves could never enter the Land; seen with the eyes of faith, even “giants” couldn’t stop them.

Again, the spies present themselves as more tragically flawed than deliberately disruptive; paralyzed by fear, thinking of themselves as weak and ineffectual, they could see only the surface reality of physical strength, not the spiritual truth of their destiny as dwellers in the Promised Land. Seeing only the outer husk of things keeps us from moving forward; having faith in ourselves and faith in the Holy One enables us to grow, evolve, and become what we’re meant to be.

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