Shabbat Pesach I – April 20, 2019 – 15 Nisan 5779

The Haggadah begins with a declaration inviting all those in need to join in for the Seder meal. This welcoming the stranger is not only a display of sensitivity and welcoming the hungry is not simply an expression of charity. Regard for the vulnerable among us at the Seder is closely linked to the theme of the Passover holiday; the Exodus from Egypt.

“You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This sentiment is repeated in the Bible not less than 36 times. In several passages, God makes it clear that God heeds the prayers of the stranger and similarly disadvantaged members of society, explicitly including the “widow” and the “orphan.” The biblical claim that the Jewish People are God’s “chosen” is as familiar as it is fraught. That God is the God of the oppressed is an equally familiar trope. Sadly, throughout much of our history there has been considerable overlap between the concepts of  “God of the Jews” and “God of the oppressed.” Either way, our God has been God of the underdog. What if we are no longer the underdog?

The Ramban (13th century) had a novel approach to the connection between our regard for the vulnerable and our remembrance of Egyptian servitude. God rescued us from Egypt not so much because we were Hebrews who were enslaved but because we were the enslaved who happen to have been the Hebrews. The admonition is meant to warn us against indifference to the oppression of the weak by informing us God’s solidarity is with them. Ultimately, God’s saving grace responds to powerlessness, not to privileged ancestry.

The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. The traditional form of this prayer invokes the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Outside of Orthodoxy it has become commonplace to regard the omission of the matriarchs as problematic, and to repair this deficiency by including “The God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” There is robust debate over the propriety of making any changes to this section of the prayer. That aside, it is at least intriguing to consider: What if we prayed to the “God of the stranger, the God of the widow, and the God of the orphan”?

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat HaGadol – April 13, 2019 – 8 Nisan 5779

‘Tis the season of freedom, and an undeniable sense of freedom accompanies the relief of being done with taxes prior to sitting down to our Seder. Some folks think real freedom would be no imposition of taxation at all. On this, our talmudic rabbis expressed some ambivalence.

Taxes in rabbinic times meant paying one’s dues to the much resented and distrusted Roman occupation government. As one Jewish fellow at the time conceded, Caesar was very keen on being rendered what was due unto Caesar. Our sages debated whether the taxes collected were for the sake of the common good, or merely to support the vanity and extravagance of the rulers. Some went so far as to suggest that, in a corrupt system, it may be permissible to resist by taking a false oath and lying to the tax collector (normally viewed as sinful behavior). But assuming a fair and equitable system, how could it be justifiable to ever take money from people without their wholehearted consent?

One talmudic sage, Rava, points out that we routinely cross bridges the government constructed from trees collected from property owners as a tax. If we are willing to accept the benefits of government funded projects, it would seem our consent to contribute our fair share to the government is implied. What if one were prepared to live totally off the grid and not even make use of public goods such as roads?

One medieval commentator, Perush HaRan, notes that the whole institution of occupancy rights depends upon the government; its rules and control over real estate. A government which confers citizenship and residency permits can, at least in theory, legitimately exercise its authority to expel people from its territory as well. Taxes are a kind of residency fee; so long as you pay you get to stay. So living “off the grid” would not be going far enough. To justifiably avoid taxes according to this opinion, one would have to be prepared to leave the country entirely!

Rabbi Reuven ben Astrobulus said, “The public squares, bathhouses, and roads the wicked kingdom builds would justify their ruling the world if they built them altruistically; but their whole intention is only for their own sake.” In an ideal world, the government is for the people; and the people wisely pay for it, through their taxes.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tazria – April 6, 2019 – 1 Nisan 5779

The Torah instructs the one afflicted with a skin affliction traditionally translated as “leprosy” to repeatedly call out “Impure! Impure!” and to “dwell alone outside the camp.” (Lev. 13:45-46) It seems odd that one who is alone should be obliged to call out anything. Who is supposed to hear it?

“Leprosy” was considered a sign of spiritual contamination, which is the reason the afflicted one cries out “Impure!” According to tradition, the condition was believed to be a divine punishment for a number of sins; most prominently the sin of speaking in a disparaging way about another (even though the remarks are true). On the other hand, disparagement (when true) is not merely a virtue in Judaism, our tradition accords it sacred status. For centuries the prophets of Israel excelled in disparaging the people for their shortcomings, and their words are revered to this day as having been prophetic. Our most vehement critics were our most venerated heros. Why weren’t the prophets afflicted with leprosy?

The difference is leprosy was thought to have afflicted those who criticised others. The prophets were castigating the people as a whole. As part of the community they criticised, they were speaking of themselves as well as toward others. The highest form of criticism is self-criticism, and this is why those afflicted had to shout “Impure!” even if there was no one to hear. They had to learn to hear themselves. Having practiced criticism of others they needed to excel at self-criticism.

The one afflicted called out, “Impure! Impure!” Our rabbis, living in a more urban environment than the agrarian society reflected in the Bible, understood isolation can happen in the midst of a community; not exclusively “outside the camp.” They interpreted the first “Impure!” as a self-condemnation and warning to others in the vicinity. Why the second? In order so that others would hear and pray on behalf of the one afflicted. By disparaging others, s/he discounted their worth. By seeing that they would now pray on his/her behalf, the afflicted one would realize that erroneous assessment caused of the affliction in the first place.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parsha Parah 3/30/2019 – 23 Adar II 5779

Adherents and detractors alike sometimes confuse religion with magic. The power (or powers) behind the universe may be manipulated by means of the correct execution of rituals or prayers as surely as with a propitious incantation. The rabbis encountered this view. On at least one occasion they recognized its appeal but dismissed it as sophomoric.

The stated purpose of the biblical ritual of the Red Heifer is to purify one who has been rendered impure through contact with a corpse. (Numbers 19:1-22) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once teaching this passage when a listener challenged him to explain how a potion comprised primarily of the ashes of a cow could possibly effect a change in a person’s condition. The rabbi satisfied his questioner by arguing that a procedure doesn’t have to be intuitive in order to work. The students, observing the exchange, were unimpressed with the implied argument for religion’s technical utility and they requested a more convincing answer. The rabbi replied, “Death does not in fact defile, nor does the Red Heifer actually cleanse, rather it is all simply a decree from God.”

The transition from “pure” to “impure” does not represent a change in reality but a change in status. It’s not as if a better microscope would detect the postulated impurity, nor that a better detergent could wash it away. The Judge of the Universe makes a ruling. As with any hearing, the case is decided because the appropriate authority ruled it so. Religion does not discover, it declares. Our categories are not eyeglasses through which we might describe more accurately, but prisms through which we might interpret and understand more deeply. The magic is not in manipulating the soul of our world, but in reclaiming the ecstatic experience of being in touch with its mystery.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),
Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tzav – March 23, 2019 – 16 Adar II

Twice in this week’s parasha we are told that the elevation-offering must be sacrificed in the same place in the Temple as the sin- offering. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that holding both types of sacrifice in the same area of the Temple made it impossible for an onlooker to know the true purpose of a particular sacrifice. Maybe a particular sacrifice was a consequence of a sin, or maybe it wasn’t. In this way, the Torah protects the feelings of the repentant from any public humiliation.

Coincidently, the Jewish value of protecting the feelings of the vulnerable individual is also reflected in at the Pesah Seder. In the opening passage of “Ha lachma onya,” according to the interpretation of the Malbim Haggadah, we invite the poor to join us in the context of partaking of the mitzvah to eat the Passover sacrifice so that none should feel embarrassed that they must accept this meal as charity due to their poverty.

That religious texts encourage wrongdoers to repent and charity be offered to the poor is unsurprising. What is noteworthy is that we find ways of accomplishing these aims with extraordinary sensitivity for the feelings of those at risk. In this way we are reminded that religious observance is not merely “doing a mitzvah,” but includes finding ways of fulfilling our mitzvoth thoughtfully and with kindness.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Purim – March 16, 2019 – 9 Adar II 5779

A striking fact about Purim is that it is a made up Jewish holiday. That is, if you asked a Jewish person in Mordecai and Esther’s day to name the Jewish holidays, they would be expected to simply recite the holidays listed in the Torah. Purim isn’t there. It was instituted, according to the Story of Esther, by that biblical book’s first audience; the Jewish community of Persia.

Purim is not alone in boasting this distinction. An ancient rabbinic document, called Megilat Ta’anit, lists dozens of celebratory days which were instituted by the people in commemoration of special events, but most of them are no longer observed. One of the first listed is the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, which recognized the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem when the city was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. This raises a question: Why did Purim endure, but the Return of the Exile led by Ezra & Nehemiah did not earn lasting recognition as an event worthy of national celebration?

Purim makes an odd religious holiday in other respects. Aside from the familiar observation that God is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the story (and this being a biblical book!), the celebration at the end is unaccompanied by any mention of continued concern for the precariousness of Jewish life in Persia. No one seems to say, “Hey, that was a close call, let’s get out of here and go live in Israel.” Mordecai is appointed to high office, wins accolades from (most) of his brethren, and Esther remains in the palace with her non-Jewish husband, the king. The king gets to collect a new tax. Everyone settles in and there will be a party on the anniversary each year.

Perhaps Purim may be understood as the holiday of diaspora Judaism. Instead of aspiring to achieve the “flowering of our redemption,” (from the Prayer for the State of Israel) we accept the apparent arbitrariness of our destiny. Instead of sacrifice to settle in our Holy Land, we dream of contributing our “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) In “every generation” we have to deal with the bad guys (Passover Haggadah). It’s been quite a ride but, so far, we’ve made it. That’s worth celebrating.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine