Parashat Korach – June 24, 2017 – 30 Sivan 5777

“The entire assembly is holy …. why do you preside over the community?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach frames his rebellion against Moses and Aaron by boldly questioning their leadership qualifications for the group they purport to lead. If everyone is “holy,” how could Moses and Aaron be better than that? What makes them so special that they should lead the rest?

It is commonly assumed that even though leaders can’t be perfect, it would be ideal if they could be. If a group has achieved “holiness,” it seems reasonable to insist its leaders be “extra holy.” The Hasidic leader, Elimelech of Lizhensk, suggests that the opposite is the case: It is crucial that our leaders be flawed. He illustrates this view by citing an earlier rabbinic parable about a young child who loses a clay pitcher at a well. After a time, a princess arrives at the same well with a gold pitcher. To the child’s great joy, the princess drops her pitcher into the well. “Why are you so pleased?” astonished bystanders ask the child. “Because,” goes the answer, “No one cares about a clay pitcher. Now that the princess has lost her gold pitcher, however, the well will certainly be drained, and I shall have my clay pitcher back too.”

“This is the way the world works,” observes the rebbe. Leading entails leading the search to identify and tackle problems. Unless a leader is guilty of error herself, there’s little hope she will have the wherewithal to fully appreciate the right approach called for in addressing the mistakes of others. “A righteous person who is completely separated from human failings has no connection to the world and therefore it is difficult for him to lead others to whom he can’t relate.” (Noam Elimelech)

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shelach – June 17, 2017 – 23 Sivan 5777

This week’s parasha contains the tragic episode of the meraglim/spies who returned from scouting out Eretz Yisrael with the unfortunate 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 were exempted from this harsh decree in view of their positive attitude about the land, 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 them. 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.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beha’alotcha – June 10, 2017 – 16 Sivan 5777

According to rabbinic exegesis, this week’s parasha contains hints that the Israelites disappointed God by their apparent eagerness to leave Mt. Sinai in a hurry after receiving the Torah. But why should God be disappointed? After all, the Israelites were headed to the Land of Israel, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. Doing so with eagerness should have earned them praise, not criticism.

Perhaps the answer lies in considering how they left Mt. Sinai. Even moving in the right direction does not excuse a disrespectful departure from an encounter with the holy. The proper course is to tarry just a bit and to enjoy and reflect upon the Sinai experience they had just gone through. The Land of Israel had waited during hundreds of years of Egyptian servitude. Waiting a little longer to better appreciate the Torah they had received would not have hurt.

I believe the synagogue tradition of Kiddush in the atrium may be explained by this very same point. Having prayed and shared a Dvar Torah, we do not rush out to pursue our many important needs. Instead, we linger a bit to eat a bite and swap stories and opinions among friends.

B’Yedidut (with friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Naso – June 3, 2017 – 9 Sivan 5777

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 thought to be amongst the oldest Hebrew fragments recovered by archaeologists (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 a 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 instances 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.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shavuot – May 27, 2017 – 2 Sivan 5777

God tells Moses not to allow the sheep or cattle to graze on Mt. Sinai. Why would they want to? According to our rabbis, God miraculously adorned the mountain with plants and greenery in order to beautify the event of the giving of the Torah. Back in the day, there was a sacred tradition to decorate the sanctuary of the shul with plants and flowers to in an effort to dramatize and recreate this aspect of the original Shavuot experience. In some places, the entire floor would be covered in clipped grasses. Unfortunately, this practice was discontinued by well-meaning leaders who felt that filling a shul with plants seemed out of sync with shul decorum (and maybe cleaning up after was a daunting prospect too). Still, the idea that we should seek to recreate dramatically the Sinai experience retains its appeal.

At the moment of the revelation of the Torah, God addressed the people with the words, “I am the Lord your God…”  The Hebrew word for “your God” is in the singular. This is puzzling, because there were many thousands of people present. Why would God use the singular “you” when the plural form would have been grammatically proper? The midrash’s answer is that although God addressed thousands of people all at once, each individual experienced the moment as if God was speaking personally to him or her. Jewish practice emphasizes the communal nature of prayer.  Examples of this include the insistence on making a minyan and the routine of reciting the same words together at key points of the service. However, we need to also try to recreate the Sinai experience. We need to find a way to encounter God and prayer, not only as members of a community, but also as individuals seeking a personal relationship with the holy.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai – May 20, 2017 – 24 Iyar 5777

At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we are commanded, “You shall not emplace a flooring stone upon which to prostrate oneself.” (Vayikra/Lev. 26:1) This admonition was interpreted by our rabbis as a prohibition against prostrating in prayer upon a stone floor (In antiquity prostration was a feature of daily prayer and was only restricted to Yom Kippur in later times). The context of this prohibition indicates that praying in such a manner on a stone floor appeared to be akin to idol worship. Surprisingly, an early 4th century sage, Rabbi Abahu, disregarded this prohibition. Rabbi Abahu excused his permissive behavior by explaining that the Torah only meant to prohibit prostration on a stone floor as a regular practice; praying this way once in a while would not be a problem. Rabbi Abahu’s audacity becomes even more striking when we consider that synagogue floors in his day were often covered with decorative mosaic motifs depicting animal and human figures. A synagogue floor in Tiberius actually features the Greco-Roman god Helios!

Rabbi Abahu lived in Caesarea, which, as seat of the regional Roman government, was primarily a pagan and Christian town. Despite reason to be strict and purist in his approach to Jewish worship, Rabbi Abahu felt that an occasional breach of practice could be justified. Perhaps he felt enough confidence in his Judaism that even bowing on floors displaying non-Jewish motifs was not threatening to him. Having an open and tolerant attitude towards differing methods of prayer contributes toward our vitality as a spiritual community. It is reassuring to think that even our sages from long ago may have felt the same way.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Emor – May 13, 2017 – 17 Iyar 5777

Parashat Emor begins with the special regulations that pertain only to God’s priests; the kohanim. The first verse of Parashat Emor contains three occurrences of the Hebrew root “emr” (“to say”), and this idiosyncrasy was not lost on our rabbis. The Midrash links this repetition of “to say” with a verse in Psalms that uses the same verb to describe the silent grandeur of the Heavens. Day and night cycle dependably and wordlessly. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes day and night are evenly split. The remainder of the year they flow with give and take in harmonious clockwork. Contrast this, contends the Midrash, with the affairs of humanity. No deal can be struck; scarcely an understanding may be achieved, without barter and negotiation. The status quo of the Heavens reflects a rhythm fixed by God, while down below we contend with the inconsistency and unpredictability of human striving and rivalry. For the rabbis, in singling out the Kohanim for a life regulated by a Divine regimen, the Torah contrasts an austere priestly existence with the vicissitudes borne by the ordinary Israelite.

Of course, we no longer have the Temple and its kohanim to provide a respite and reminder that the world of our making lacks the calm assuredness of God’s realm. Instead, we have our synagogue to provide that refuge from the storm. Like the cycle of day and night, the parashiot we read and the t’filot we recite take us inexorably from Shabbat to Shabbat, from Yom Tov to Yom Tov, and from year to year. The stress of the world may be ever more hectic; at shul we breathe in the reassurance of God’s sanctuary.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week’s parasha admonishes us to “love the stranger.” The Talmud reports that there are 36 or possibly even 46 different passages where the Torah insists we treat the stranger kindly. We are commanded to offer the stranger not mere tolerance, but actual hospitality. It is remarkable for a nation to make the princely treatment of strangers a legal obligation, particularly when we consider how sensible it seems to regard strangers with fear and suspicion.

There are a lot of strangers out there and, by definition, the stranger is anonymous. Modernity engenders anonymity, anonymity helps circumvent accountability, and lack of accountability undermines trust. No wonder we tend to be leery of strangers. Regardless, from a Torah perspective, we are being pathological.

The pre-modern world of our rabbis was not immune to stranger anxiety disorder. The second century Apollodorus wrote of Procrustes, the mythological serial killer of antiquity, that “he had his dwelling beside the road, and made up two beds, one small and the other big; and offering hospitality to the passers-by, he laid the short men on the big bed and hammered them, to make them fit the bed; but the tall men he laid on the little bed and sawed off the portions of the body that projected beyond it.” Not only can strangers be scary; it can be scary to be a stranger.

Students of rabbinic midrash will immediately recognize that the rabbis appropriated this Greek myth to illustrate the evil inhospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah and to contrast this horrifying behavior with the generous hospitality modeled by our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. Insecure people abhor the stranger. Decent people tolerate the stranger. The Torah sets a higher bar. We are called upon to embrace the stranger.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 29, 2017 – 3 Iyar 5777

The Kohen shall command; and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds…” (Vayikra/Lev. 14:4)

The 12th century Bible commentator, Ibn Ezra, comments that in this verse, “shall be taken” means “the Kohen shall take from his own funds;” i.e. that the Kohen must cover the expense of the birds brought to be slaughtered on behalf of the individual afflicted with tzaraat (the Biblical skin condition which is the subject of this week’s parasha). Rabbinic tradition teaches that the skin affliction is a potential consequence of a number of misdeeds (notably gossip and similar types of anti-social behavior). Normally, if one is afflicted and another provides the cure, the former bears the expense of the treatment, not the latter. In this case, all the more so: If the affliction is understood as a punishment, why should the Kohen, who has done nothing wrong, and seeks only to cure the one suffering, be made to bear this expense?

The Kohen-Israelite relationship is similar, but not identical, to the doctor-patient relationship. The most important distinction is that the afflicted person and the Kohen are part of the same intentional community. Whereas the doctor-patient relationship may be transactional (pay for service), the Kohen-Israelite relationship is meant to be transformational (their interactions are an opportunity for each to grow). Therefore, the “cure” must give both parties a chance to learn and develop. A person guilty of anti-social behavior has revealed that he/she is self-centered to an extreme. Only an incredibly selfish person would allow himself to act as though the feelings and welfare of others may be unjustifiably trampled upon. Part of the cure, evidently, is to demonstrate to the guilty party that being human means being part of a community, and when a member of the group fails in his responsibilities and relationship to another, others, even those who seek to help him, may be made to pay the price. We say, “All Israel is responsible for one another.” Rashi explains that this means that we may be asked to suffer the consequences of one another’s failings. When one does badly, it is obvious that others suffer from the poor behavior. What is less obvious is that we also lose, as a community, the positive contribution this person could have been making as a productive participant in our community. Therefore, the Kohen is required to shoulder part of the burden of the afflicted individual’s rehabilitation. From this, he will perhaps learn (or be reminded), that even as the perpetrator pays the penalty for his crime, returning the miscreant to the path of decency deserves his sacrifice as well.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine