June 15, 2013 - 7 Tammuz, 5773
No one really knows what the verse "Therefore the Book of the Wars of HaShem are said hav be sofa" (the JPS translation calls it a fragment of uncertain meaning), but our tradition renders it"…the Book of Wars of HaShem are said lovingly in the end." (Numbers 21:14) To what does this refer?
The Talmud remarks that when a rabbi and student or a parent and child learn Torah together, they become like enemies, because individuals naturally form differing interpretations, and each person is obliged to passionately argue for his or her point of view. The argument does not end, however, until the issues have been resolved and the opposing sides have found loving reconciliation (Kid.29b).
Sometimes it isn't easy to balance our thirst for the truth with the need to preserve respectful, harmonious relationships. The Talmudic method is to encourage a no holds barred approach to determining the truth, provided the disputants understand that this process must not end until both sides are able to once again restore their emotional bond.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
June 8, 2013 - 30 Sivan, 5773
Korach was a wealthy man. So rich was he, we even have a Yiddish expression, "reich ve Korach," which is used to describe anyone of magnificent wealth. The Bible tells us that Korach's rebellion was put to an end by the earth swallowing up Korach, his supporters, and all of his wealth. Evidently, Korach was not only exceptionally rich; he was even able to take it all with him to the grave. We say, of course, "You can't take it with you," so what could the Torah mean to teach us by implying that Korach did?
Rabbi Yitzhak claims that worms are as painful to the dead as are needles piercing the body of the living (Talmud Shabbat 152a). An unsettling implication of this Talmudic statement is that even a body which has lost its life may still be somewhat sentient and clinging to its soul. The Hasidim take this to mean that some individuals are so invested in their physical, material existence that, upon death, the soul has a hard time extracting itself from the body. Because this individual failed to cultivate a distinct life of the soul prior to death, the soul has a hard time distinguishing and separating itself after death. Korach, it seems, was such a person.
A synagogue and its community have many noble and worthwhile purposes, but at our core is the sacred space and time in which the possibilities for creating a holy community and distinct life of the soul are paramount. What's worse than "You can't take it with you?" Maybe, "You can't seem to leave it behind."
Rabbi Mitch Levine
June 1, 2013 - 23 Sivan, 5773
Parashat Shelach lecha
This week's parasha contains the tragic episode of the meraglim/spies who unfortunately returned from scouting out Eretz Yisrael with the report that the land was inhabited by giants who would regard B'nei Yisrael as mere "grasshoppers." Due to the discouragement of the spies, the will of the people faltered, and as a consequence of losing courage, the entire generation was condemned to live out their lives in the desert, and never made it to Eretz Yisrael (Actually, according to some commentators, the women, in view of their positive attitude about the land, were exempted from this harsh decree, but that is another story!).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe z"l pointed out how peculiar the report of the spies was. After all, these spies had only a short while ago been liberated through God's power during the flight from Egypt. Having witnessed the plagues, why wouldn't they have assumed that God would just as handily trounce the intimidating "giants?"
The Rebbe suggested that perhaps the problem was not that these Jewish leaders sought to avoid the land, but rather that they were afraid to take the risk of leading the people out of the desert. In the desert, the people had all of their needs miraculously provided for. They ate the mannah, and even their "clothes did not wear off their backs." All they had to do in the desert was to study the Torah. The spies realized that once the people settled the land, the mannah would cease. Everyone would become responsible to work the land, or get some sort of job, and provide for themselves. But if that happened, reasoned the spies, what would become of Torah study? Better, they reasoned, to remain in the desert, where Torah could be pursued without the distraction of taking responsibility for one's livelihood.
The spies were wrong. The whole point of the study of Torah is to apply one's learning to the real world; the world of personal responsibility. Although remaining in the desert protected by HaShem's sheltering presence is comforting, a Jew is charged with the task of taking the risk of living in the real world; a world in which the pursuit of Torah must be complimented by human initiative and accomplishment.
The dilemma faced by the spies is not unlike that faced by one becoming Bar Mitzvah. Up until now, the young person has been a child, whose Jewish experience has been shaped and directed largely by his parents, grandparents, and other caring adults. Bar Mitzvah represents the transition to Jewish adulthood, when the responsibility to embrace Jewish commitments is assumed by the young person himself. Surely it is tempting to resist this new status and to instead prefer to continue to rely completely on the direction and support of one's guardians. This is not the Jewish way, nor is it (given his hard work and effort these past months) Harry Keller's attitude. This Shabbat, Harry stands before the congregation eager to take his place in our community as a young Jewish adult. We look forward to you joining the celebration.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
May 18, 2013 - 9 Sivan, 5773
This week's parasha includes the well-known and deeply moving Priestly Benediction, "May HaShem bless you and keep you; may HaShem shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; may HaShem lift His countenance toward you, and grant you peace" (BaMidbar/Numbers 6:24-26). These verses have resonated with the Jewish People since ancient times. I remember seeing a silver amulet at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that is among the oldest of Hebrew fragments recovered by archeologists (from the 7th century BCE), and it features these immortal words. What may we learn from the context of this important blessing?
Immediately preceding the Priestly Benediction, we find two very different situations presented by the Torah. The first concerns the "sotah," or "woman accused of adultery." This is followed by the case of the "nazir," or individual who voluntarily takes on a considerably more rigorous discipline than that mandated by the Torah. Perhaps the first instance, the sotah, is meant to remind us that there is sacred dimension to our most significant interpersonal relationships and these deserve the attention and protection of the Torah's laws. Perhaps the second instance, the nazir, reminds us that even unmitigated enthusiasm for serving God needs to be tempered by the constraints and guidance offered by the Torah. Both foci deserve to be encouraged by the blessing of God's illumination, support and peace.
Immediately following the Benediction we find that the Tabernacle is finally raised. Once we are able to be mindful that our human relationships are potentially holy, and that our drive to holiness must be kept within human bounds, we are ready to be blessed by the symbol of God's presence; the Tabernacle.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
May 11, 2013 - 2 Sivan, 5773
"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…They shall perform duties…before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle." (Numbers 3:4-7) on this verse, the midrash notes, "Great is labor, for the Divine Presence did not dwell amongst the people until they got to work, and built the Tabernacle."
Jewish law takes the concept of "building" our tabernacle (the synagogue) quite literally. The halachic work, Birkei Yosef (R. Chaim Azulai, 1724-1806) actually forbids the Jewish community from hiring non-Jewish workers to build a shul because of the mitzvah to perform this task for ourselves. According to Hasidic lore, the first Belzer Rebbe, R. Sholom Rokeach (1781-1855), participated in the building of his shul by personally laying bricks and declaring, "Would that I had the strength to build the whole synagogue myself!"
In our age of professionalism, safety regulations and building codes (and stereotypes about inadequate Jewish carpentry skills!), we no longer enjoy the privilege of creating our dwelling place for God with our own two hands. Instead we accept the satisfaction which comes from making a pledge and serving on a committee. Spiritual recompense may be earned through participating in the "building" of our shul in this way as well, and we will need everyone's help with the much needed planned renovations. A special thanks to those special individuals and families who are spearheading this campaign. May we merit 100% membership participation in following their lead.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
May 4, 2013 - 24 Iyar, 5773
In the second of this week's double parasha, we find that God will grant us "peace in the land" followed by safety from wild beasts, the curtailment of weapons, and the satisfaction of chasing away our enemies. (Numbers 26:6) One would suppose the reverse order, that we must first deal with our enemies and then we may hope for peace. Why does God's promise appear to be reverse in order?
The Torah asks us to consider that peace is rarely achieved by focusing on external threats, such as "wild beasts" and enemies, without first resolving our own internal tensions. Perhaps this is most obviously true on the national level, where internecine squabbles, whether in the halls of Congress or in the Knesset, seem to distract our leaders from tackling the larger enduring issues which threaten us. However, this insight applies equally well to the individual. We are not likely to effectively address external challenges posed by others until our own personal houses are in order. As the saying goes, sometimes we can be our "own worst enemies." The Torah wants to promise us peace, but we must work to do our part, by first achieving peace within ourselves.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
April 27, 2013 - 17 Iyar, 5773
The opening of this week's parasha, which prohibits Kohanim (priests) from contact with the dead, conveys more power once we realize how radical it must have seemed in the context of the ancient near east. In ancient Egypt, funerals were a very big business. As evidenced by the pyramids, only the super-rich and members of the nobility could hope for a lavish funeral, which included a retinue of paid mourners headed by an Egyptian priest. One pharaoh, Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, spent 20 years of his 23-year reign on its construction. Imagine a leader spending nearly his entire time in office planning his own funeral and constructing his burial place. Egyptian priests were heavily invested in these funeral practices, which must have contributed considerably to their strong influence on Egyptian society.
By contrast, our priests, the kohanim, are told, quite simply, to stay away from death and funerals. By dint of this law, our priests lacked even the opportunity to cultivate spectacular ceremonies and memorials to the dead. Jewish spiritual leadership, beginning with the priests, would have to focus their efforts on life in this world.
Even though the Torah prohibits the priest from contact with the dead, important exceptions to the rule are the deaths of immediate family members and the case of a corpse where there is no one to bury it. These exceptions remind us of the priority we must assign to making sure that all members of our community are buried with the love and dignity that we would wish for those to whom we are closest.
B' Yedudit (w/friendship)
Rabbi Mitch Levine
April 20, 2013 - 10 Iyar, 5773
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
This week's "Double Parasha" covers a wide range of topics and laws. Perhaps among the most well-known and influential is the mitzvah found in Vayikra 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Volumes have been written about the wording of this verse and about the meaning that it seeks to convey. The sage Hillel, who regarded this verse as the Torah's most central directive, famously rendered it in the negative. "What is hateful to yourself, refrain from doing to others." Some generations later, Rabbi Akiva taught that this sentiment is to be considered the "greatest principle of the Torah." Most strikingly, our rabbis were apparently willing to grant the general consideration due one's fellow human being an overriding status, even where such consideration would conflict with an explicit Torah prohibition.
The Torah, as is representative of its time, understood slavery to be an ordinary and acceptable social institution. According to one passage dealing with slave ownership, (non-Jewish) slaves are not ever to be set free by their masters (Vayikra 25:46). Our rabbis discussed the case of an individual slave who had been owned by two masters and subsequently was freed of one of them. The rabbis rejected the obvious solution of making the slave serve his remaining master one day, and then live freely on the alternate day, because it would not be possible for him to marry and raise a family under such circumstances. Therefore, the rabbis insist that slaves remain in their state of servitude. Perhaps even more surprising, one prominent sage, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, liberated his slave in order to convert him – merely to make a minyan!
Our Torah is a tapestry of law and narrative, rich in wisdom and values. It was the responsibility of our rabbinic sages to identify principles within the Torah, and to appropriately set priorities when those principles seem to be in conflict. In the words "Love Thy Neighbor" they found a principle that they could promote as the greatest one of all.
B 'Yedudit (w/friendship),
Rabbi Mitch Levine
April 13, 2013 – 3 Iyar, 5773
Parashat Tazria Metzora
In this week's parasha, we learn that an individual afflicted with nega tzaraat (an affliction of the human skin translated by the Septuagint as "leprosy") must be isolated from others for a seven day period. Surely the author of the Torah anticipated that we would associate the quarantine of "seven days" with Shabbat; the seventh day of the week. What's the connection?
A happy Shabbat contrasts sharply with the unhappiness of one afflicated with nega tzaraat. If we rearrange the letters which spell "nega" (nun-gimmel-aiyen), we can spell "oneg" (aiyen-nun-gimmel). "Oneg Shabbat" (Shabbat Happiness) is a fundamental aim of Shabbat. Nega is traditionally thought of having been a consequence of anti-social behavior. Perhaps the Torah is hinting to us that whereas anti-social behavior is associated with nega and isolation, Shabbat should be characterized by oneg; happiness shared socially among family and friends. The long standing Agudas Achim tradition of a weekly seated Shabbat luncheon following services and our new tradition of Cocktails for Kabbalat Shabbat and Shul Dinner are apt reflections of this aspect of Shabbat. Join us, and share the oneg!
Rabbi Mitch Levine