Parashat Shoftim – August 18, 2018 – 7 Elul 5778

This week’s parasha contains the law of the City of Refuge. According to the Torah, three cities in Israel must be designated to serve as places of exile for those deemed guilty of manslaughter. An individual found guilty of manslaughter was obliged to flee to one of these cities and stay there, using it as a place of refuge, lest he become the target of vengeance by the family of his victim (Devarim/Deuteronomy 19:1-7). In the Talmudic period the question arose as to what might be the law in the case where an individual is found guilty of manslaughter but fleeing to a City of Refuge would entail leaving his/her rabbi behind? The Talmud’s answer is that since the text says the man-slaughterer must flee to the city in order to “live” there, the individual who is found guilty must bring the rabbi along because one cannot “live” without one’s teacher.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Akiva, who lived at a time during which the Romans banned the public teaching of Torah, compares a Jewish person without access to Torah study to a fish out of water. The midrash contends that on the day the grasses of the field were created, an angel struck each blade on its head and commanded it, “Learn!” From a blade of grass to a human being, we simply cannot live without a chance to grow and learn.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Re’eh – August 11, 2018 – 30 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a tithe must be taken annually from our crops and that we must carry it to Jerusalem in order to eat it in the presence of God. If the road is too long or the burden too heavy, a person may opt to exchange the tithe for money, bring the sum to Jerusalem and spend the proceeds on a party there with friends and family. Why is God anxious over the potential hardship in carrying the tithe to Jerusalem? What’s the big deal if it is a little heavy or the road a little long? Would not a devout person do this task – and more – for his/her religion?

The Dubnow Maggid explained by way of a parable: It is like a wealthy person who had all of his wealth in precious gems packed away in a suitcase left at some distance. He entrusts a messenger to bring him the suitcase. While waiting, he stands by his window, anxiously peering out to catch a glimpse of the messenger arriving. If he sees the messenger staggering slowly as if under the great weight of the suitcase, he cries out, “Alas! Somehow my treasure of precious gems must have been exchanged for heavy stones and iron bars!” So it is with us, if God sees that Judaism has become like a burden to us, God becomes anxious and wonders if somehow the precious Torah has not been exchanged for an ordinary load that holds no special value or meaning.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Brotherhood’s Annual Cigar Smoke Out

Attention Brotherhood Members! Annual Cigar Smoke Out!

You are invited to attend Randy Sokol’s Annual Cigar Smoke Out, at his home, on Tuesday, August 14, 7 pm.

Bring your swimming trunks, if you want to swim, and BYOB!

There is no cost but you must RSVP by August 10th to Brotherhood@agudasachim.org.

If it rains, the program will be rescheduled!

 

Parashat Ekev – August 4, 2018 – 23 Av 5778

This week’s parasha contains a famous verse that continues to resonate in our own times – “Not by bread alone does man live” (Devarim/Deut. 8:3). We have become accustomed in secular society to regard this sentiment as expressing a human need for more than the basics. For example, since “Man does not live by bread alone, I’ll be expecting a hot tub and a sports car.” While the Torah agrees that life must be about more than mere survival, it is not even more bountiful material benefits to which this verse aspires. The verse concludes, “… rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live.” What is this verse trying to tell us?

At this point in the Torah, Moses is preparing the people for the transition from life in the desert to life in Israel. They have been fed the miraculous mannah in the desert. No one needed to earn a living or get a job; all they had to do was accept the Torah and follow God’s and Moses’s instructions. Once in the Land of Israel there would be no more mannah; i.e. no more “free lunch.” In Israel, they will have to work for a living. Lest the people conclude that with this change there will no longer be any time for God and Torah, the verse reminds them that the purpose of life is not exhausted by working for bread (and other stuff) alone. Even in the real world, beyond the desert, we need to also feed our spiritual lives.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Va’etchanan – July 28, 2018 – 16 Av 5778

Even great leaders may be tempted to express exasperation and to shift blame upon those they lead. In this week’s parasha, Moses complains to the people that God’s displeasure with him is rooted in their failures. Moses reveals that God told him, “It is too much for you!” (Deut. 3:26) Moses felt the people had let him down. He must have been crushed to hear God’s assessment that he simply lacked the ability to deliver.

The Talmud explains that in this episode God is merely returning the words Moses earlier himself had dished out to others. In the midst of the Korach rebellion, Moses had stung the rebels by saying, “It is too much for you, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:7). Now it is Moses’s turn to receive that rebuke. Moses is frustrated that the people have let him down. But instead of focusing on their limits, the Talmud suggests he focus on his own.

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, that he would extend his prayers for many hours. His followers would pray more quickly. This discrepancy created time and opportunity; they would leave the synagogue and take care of a few things, always careful to return in time to be with their master at the moment he had finally completed his prayers. On one occasion, the Baal Shem Tov abruptly finished his prayers just as the disciples were leaving the room. Surprised, they ran back to the room and asked their teacher for an explanation. He told them the following parable: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a magnificent exotic bird was spotted nesting on the top of the tallest imaginable tree. The king of that land greatly desired this unique bird, but he had no ladder nearly tall enough. So, he asked the people of his kingdom to stand upon one another’s shoulders, and they made a human ladder that slowly reached as high as the nest. This took an awfully long time. Eventually, the people toward the bottom grew bored, gave up, and left. This triggered the collapse of the entire enterprise.

Leadership can be frustrating. At times it feels like others have let us down. But the message of “It is too much for you” isn’t meant to be an insult or reprimand. It is an insight and a gift. Some tasks are so great, they can’t be accomplished alone. This forces us to reach out and enlist the support of others. Giving up on them reveals not their limits but our own. The impending collapse comes about when they’ve shared the burden but no longer see the point, or its reward.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot-Masei – July 14, 2018 – 2 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle east of the Jordan, and not be brought across with the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the Land of Israel. Moses takes umbrage at this request, and berates them for abdicating their share in the obligation to take possession of the land. The tribal leadership relents and agrees to join the larger effort, once they’ve built “pens for their livestock and cities for their children.” What can we make of this reluctance to share responsibility with other tribes for the sake of the common good?

The Talmud legislates that a mezuzah for a private home must be checked that it is still in good shape twice every seven years, whereas a mezuzah for a public building need be checked only twice every fifty years. Why the difference? Rashi explains that public needs cannot be allowed to become too onerous. If communal needs are too much trouble, folks will say, “Let someone else take care of it.”

Once Reuben and Gad have their own property, it becomes difficult for them to sacrifice time and energy (let alone risk their lives in a war) to help the others. One imagines that this is a prelude to what life may be like after the land is settled – perhaps everyone will be tempted to focus on his or her own needs and ignore the interests of the community as a whole. No wonder Moses gets so angry; he even compares the attitude of Reuben and Gad to the hapless spies of p. Shelach! In the Sinai wilderness, with everyone on the mannah-meal plan, it was no great feat to dedicate time for the community, but to forego the obligations of hearth and home in order to promote the public good takes extraordinary personal discipline and devotion.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine