Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 21, 2018 – 6 Iyar 5778

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 afflicted 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.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemini – April 14, 2018 – 29 Nisan 5778

Our parasha concludes with the sweeping declaration that the “Torah” of “all life” is to make “havdalah;” to “distinguish between the impure and the pure.” Why is “havdalah” the essence of “Torah”?

The story is told of that the Lubliner Rav, Meir Shapiro, remarked upon returning to Europe after a fundraising tour in the US, “American Jewry has learned to make kiddush; it has not yet learned how to make havdalah.” To sanctify a day each week, shrugging off worldly distractions for rest and renewal, is an achievement in these transactional and practical times. But life is supposed to consist of more than satisfying our experiential capacity; we are also called upon to cultivate and exercise our analytical faculties.

To make “havdalah,” is to pierce a monolithic obscurity with the lance of a sharp distinction, and to reveal that what has been seen in a single way might possibly be seen in multiple, even contradictory ways. This is the virtue of discernment, which the Talmudic tradition recognized as the ability to “prove” that an impure thing is in fact pure. The sages established this skill as a prerequisite for serving on the sanhedrein (their highest court). Paradoxically, they made the test for being authorized to make the most important distinctions the ability to confound the most important distinctions.

The facility to discern (and embrace) conflicting points of view comes at a price. Distinction ultimately aims to decide upon a difference. Rabbi Meir reportedly had a disciple so advanced he was able to rule an impure thing pure back and forth again 100 times. His colleagues observed, “That disciple did not know how to decide.” (Yer. Sanh. 4:1) Doggedly seeing the wisdom in many points of view can make it agonizingly difficult to settle on any particular point of view.

If the Truth is on multiple sides and also on no side, where can we find it? The sages admonish us, “Fashion your ears a like a grain hopper, and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to listen to the words of those who say “impure” and those who say “pure,” those who forbid and those who permit, those who invalidate and those who validate.” (Hag. 3b) A Jewish “leap of faith”: coarse grain can become fine flour, provided we are resolute in grinding through every perspective.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat/Pesach VIII- April 7, 2018 – 22 Nisan 5778

On Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach we read from the beautiful love poetry of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs/Song of Solomon). Our tradition understands this poem as an allegory for God’s love affair with the Jewish people. Just as a lover reads each line of a love note carefully, even reading between the lines, our rabbis read spiritual insights into and out of this poem. The poem presents the beloved as having been “brought into the house of wine.” (2:4) What is the meaning of this?

Rashi comments that “house of wine” refers to the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle, where the details and explanations of the Torah were given. What connection between wine and Torah study could Rashi be thinking of? The Talmud points out that the gematria (numerical value) of “wine” is 70, which corresponds to the 70 sages of the Sanhedrin, who had the privilege of revealing the inner meanings of the Torah. Wine reveals secrets, including the secrets of the Torah. The Tent of Meeting was the place those secrets were revealed.

Wine can be a lubricant for discussion and the uninhibited exchange of ideas. Perhaps this is why we are instructed to imbibe cups of wine at the Seder, and to spread them out rather than drink them all at once. Interspersed with the drinking is the expounding upon the Exodus from Egypt. The wine can “liberate” our thinking, and thus enrich our conversation. The Gaon of Vilna noted that the gematria of “wine,” 70, is also the number assigned to the ultimate number of interpretations of Torah, the “Seventy Faces of Torah.” By sharing a “Le-Chaim!” with God, we couple our celebration of freedom with God’s loving embrace, and may merit to access the full meaning of the Torah.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Pesach – March 31, 2018 – 15 Nisan 5778

There is an apparent contradiction in the Torah over when our liberation from Egyptian bondage began. According to Deuteronomy 16:1, God brought us out of Egypt at night. According to Numbers 33:3, the Israelites left triumphantly while the Egyptians looked on during the following day. When was the Exodus; at night or during the day?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate, reconciled these verses by positing two stages of redemption. According to Rav Kook, physical freedom is actually the second stage of a process. Before one can be outwardly free, one must first experience an inner state of redemption. Our inner liberation took place at night, when Pharaoh finally relented in the wake of the plague of the firstborn. This occurred at night, a time of privacy since one cannot be seen by others due to the darkness. The next day, we realized our physical freedom outwardly, by leaving Egypt in broad daylight for all to see.

We have the opportunity to commemorate this two-staged process of redemption each year. The night of Pesach is a time to celebrate our freedom in the privacy of our homes, amidst the comfort of being with friends and family. The next morning, we get up and go to shul, where we may once again celebrate our freedom as a people; this time publically in the context of our loving community.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Pesach – March 24, 2018 – 8 Nisan 5778

The Bible recounts two episodes of the Jewish people having been held captive in a foreign land until we were ultimately redeemed and allowed to return home. Passover celebrates the first time. The second, the Babylonian exile followed by the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem, doesn’t get a celebratory holiday. There are additional dissimilarities between the two. We were enslaved, persecuted and in a hurry to leave Egypt, whereas we prospered and were largely disinclined to leave Babylonia. Pharaoh was despised and resisted our departure, whereas the Persian king, Cyrus the Great (who ruled Babylonia and made it the world’s first superpower), was exceedingly popular with the Jewish leadership for issuing a proclamation assuring our right to return and pursue our national destiny in the land of Israel.

Cyrus promoted, via royal decree and taxpayer funding, the restoration of Jerusalem and our Temple. As one might expect, several passages in the later books of the Bible direct much praise and gratitude toward Cyrus and his dynasty. The prophet Isaiah even goes so far as to call him a messiah! The editors of our Bible chose his magnanimous proclamation to be its concluding verse.

Several US presidents have been accorded (or accorded to themselves) the status of being a modern day Cyrus. Like him, they were understood to have had the opportunity, or could claim the aspiration, to be the champion of Zion and hero to the Jews. Although some evangelicals and Israeli politicians are experiencing a renewed excitement over Cyrus, mainstream Jewry seems to have largely forgotten about this legendary ruler. Why?

The decisive voice on this topic in the Talmud argues that Cyrus (“Koresh” in Hebrew) started out “kosher,” but he became “chametz.” The Talmud pegs Cyrus as having been guilty of duplicitous behavior, disappointing results, and sexual indiscretion. It is possible the sages were influenced to look for hints of his ruinous trajectory by Herodotus, who was considered the definitive historian of Persia in their day. Herodotus implies that Cyrus, despite his auspicious beginnings and improbable early victories, grew impetuous, overreacted to a minor setback, and allowed himself to be distracted by petty grievances. When a single prized horse was lost crossing a river, Cyrus cursed its waters and demanded his vast army squander much time on digging hundreds of canals in order to divert and enfeeble its current! He resorted to cheap tricks in conflict, fought too desperately, and finally fell in battle to a rival warrior queen, who dealt him the ignoble fate of soaking his decapitated head in a sack made from skin and filled with blood.

Whatever the explanation, Cyrus came to be regarded in the Jewish tradition more as a case of unfulfilled potential than of ultimate success. The memory of his laudatory acts faded. We learned that even a “kosher” leader offering to realize our loftiest dream may prove fatally flawed and, unfortunately, turn out to be “chametz.”

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayikra/Shabbat HaChodesh – March 17, 2018 – 1 Nisan 5778

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaHodesh because on it we announce Rosh Hodesh Nisan and, according to the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, the month of Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew year. (Exodus 12:2) The implication of the verse is that Rosh Hodesh Nisan is the Jewish New Year; and, in fact, the Torah elsewhere (Lev. 23:24) implies that the Jewish New Year is this week, and not 7 months later in the fall.

Although today we celebrate the Creation of the World on Rosh Hashanah, this view has not always gone unchallenged. The Talmud records a debate over when we should consider the Creation to have taken place. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the Creation. However, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the anniversary of the Creation occurs this week, on Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The Talmud distinguishes these two views by suggesting that R. Eliezer reads Genesis as describing a world created in mature form (Trees already laden with fruit), whereas R. Yehoshua believes the Garden of Eden was created with plants just beginning to bloom. The Maharsha (1555-1632) explains that R. Eliezer links the Creation to the season of repentance, while R. Yehoshua links it to the time of redemption. For R. Eliezer, Adam and Eve were cast out of a completed garden into a world about to go cold and barren – a time for repentance. For R. Yehoshua, Adam and Eve left the garden in early spring, a season of possibility and hope, a time of redemption. The “redemption” of Adam and Eve foreshadows the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt for a new life of freedom – a Jewish spring!

Although the tradition went with R. Eliezer, and we celebrate the Jewish New Year in the fall, there is an undeniable “new year” freshness in the month of Nisan air. Shanah tova!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei – March 10, 2018 – 23 Adar 5778

At the end of the Book of Shemot/Exodus we find, “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud was upon it.” The Talmudic Rabbi Zerika noted a contradiction: Elsewhere it is written, “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud.” (Exodus 24:18) Rabbi Zerika surmised, “This teaches that the Holy One seized Moses and brought him into the cloud!”

Wow! Even an individual as spiritually inclined as Moses was only able to join the Divine Presence in the Tent of Meeting because the irresistible power of the Holy One dragged him in there. Alas, rabbis are not God and our congregants aren’t all Moses’s (yet). Given this bilateral proficiency gap, how will the Jews be dragged into shul?

Overcoming resistance to change and growth is no easy feat. There is the fear of the unknown (the service is in Hebrew) and the fear of being exposed as incompetent (they might try to give me an “honor”). How can we enter a service when we have the strong premonition that we will despair of making any sense of it all (it’s a cloud)? Religious people are supposed to be “God fearing,” yet it seems fearful paralysis shuts us out of even the possibility of a robust Jewish experience.

The Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) taught regarding the verse, “Let fear of God be upon your faces, so that you shall be without sin.’ What ‘fear’ is intended here? God desires that we fear his remoteness, and it is sin which creates that gap.” We are afraid, so we would have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but our rabbis can do little more than gentle pushing. Too bad we tend to fear the wrong thing.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 3, 2018 – 16 Adar 5778

While Moses was off to receive the tablets, the people fell into worshipping a Golden Calf. Angry and disappointed, God threatens the people and makes Moses an incredible offer. God is prepared to annihilate the people and start fresh by making Moses the founder of a great nation (Exodus 32:10). Moses, however, responds only to God’s threat. He completely ignores the offer to become the progenitor of a new people for God. What’s this about?

God begins his outburst by declaring, “Leave me be!” (ibid.) Who is staying God’s hand? The Midrash explains the situation may be compared to a king who has grown terribly angry with his badly misbehaving child. Infuriated, the king cries out, “Leave me be; I’m gonna smite him but good!” Standing just outside the door, the child’s tutor reasons, “By saying ‘Leave me be!’ the king must expect me to overhear, intervene and prevent him from doing something drastic he may later regret.” Immediately, the tutor barges in and calls for the king to exercise compassion and restraint, just as Moses does in pleading with God on behalf of his people.

From the perspective of the Bible, there is perhaps no person more important than Moses and no sin more destructive than idolatry. Maybe Moses could have opted for greater glory while allowing the people to get wacked. We may imagine similar circumstances, where a leader is sufficiently righteous to be tempted to go it alone without feeling dragged down by others who may seem aggravating and irredeemable. Moses’s behavior demonstrates that true leadership involves resisting, even ignoring, such an easy way out. Being part of a community means hanging in together and participating in a shared destiny, even in the face of profound disappointment. Walking away shouldn’t be an option unless we are sure we are better than Moses and that those letting us down are worse than idolaters.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine