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

Parashat Shemini – April 22, 2017 – 26 Nisan 5777

Among the “impure” birds listed in this week’s parasha, is the “hasida” which is usually translated as the “stork”. The Talmud, noting the similarity to the Hebrew term “hesed” (“kindness”), explains that this species of fowl is known for displays of kindness by members of the flock toward one another. The Hasidic leader (“Hasid,” by the way, is also an occurrence of this Hebrew root), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), asked, “Why should a bird legendary for its acts of kindness be considered impure?” “Because,” he answered, “It extends its kindnesses only to members of its own flock. One who seeks to be pure must be devoted to acts of hesed for all.”

B’Yedidut,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach – April 15, 2017

The end of Pesach Torah reading includes the verse, “All of the ailments with which I afflicted Egypt, I will not afflict you, for I am the Lord your healer” (Shemot/Exodus 15:26). This verse gave rise to the question, “If we won’t be getting sick, why will we need healing?” The answer to this question is to point out that prevention of illness is an even better blessing than the healing of an illness and it is the former blessing that the Torah promises.

Maimonides (who was a physician in addition to being a rabbi) wrote that many illnesses are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, and that many people go through life stumbling into health problems as if they were blindfolded. In this respect, our spiritual lives parallel our physical lives. Just as we must expend effort and discipline to achieve and maintain physical fitness, we must invest effort in meeting our spiritual goals. Not every weekday service is going to necessarily feel like an encounter with the Holy One, but by maintaining some regular connection to davening we may hope for a Yizkor service or Yom Tov experience which is transformative.

With prayers for a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine