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

In anticipation of Purim – February 24, 2018 – 9 Adar 5778

The Megilah opens by depicting the Persian king, Achashverosh, as having hosted a lavish party for all the notables of the outlying Persian provinces (which lasted for an incredible 180 days), followed by a party for the residents of his capitol, Shushan. That’s a lot of partying. What’s going on?

The two giants of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav and Shmuel, surmised that Achashverosh was acting strategically, but they differed over whether or not his tactics were smart. One held the view that the king was wise to first reach out to those far away since he could quite easily demonstrate his appreciation for those in his own city whenever he liked. The other disagreed, holding that the king was foolish for ignoring his base while zealously campaigning in the provinces, since this tactic risks a rebellion at home.

The Jewish world, at present, faces a dilemma similar to that of King Achashverosh. Some Jewish leaders believe that our priorities as a community ought to be reaching out to those on the margins of Jewish life, creating as many attractive opportunities to become engaged in Jewish community as possible. Others, with equal passion, believe that all available resources must be dedicated to strengthening the Jewish core of the already committed.

When faced with a question of two essential options, the answer is to seek to do them both. When we pursue outreach, we are creating portals of engagement for those on our periphery. Such as the king throwing a party that everyone would actually want to come to. When we focus on in reach, we cultivate that engagement so that it will deepen and endure. This is like the king throwing a party where the participants appreciate why it’s being thrown, and feel transformed by having joined in the celebration.  In either case, the successful party, when it’s our party, the Jewish party, will make the connections face to face and personal, we will know who you are, and your participation will be valued. Happy Purim!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

JoLT Shabbat Dinner & Kid-Friendly Kabbalat Shabbat Service

Friday, March 2 – OPEN TO THE CONGREGATION!

 
Time: 5:15 pm, followed by dinner
Menu TBA.

Member Cost: $10/adult; $5/child (10 & under); $25/family cap
Non-members: $15/adult; $8/child (10 & under); no family cap

Your payment is your reservation! RSVP by February 23 to rsvp@agudasachim.org   (rsvp@agudasachim.org)  or call the shul at 614-237-2747.