Author Archives: agudasachim

Parashat Matot-Masei – July 14, 2018 – 2 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle east of the Jordan, and not be brought across with the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the Land of Israel. Moses takes umbrage at this request, and berates them for abdicating their share in the obligation to take possession of the land. The tribal leadership relents and agrees to join the larger effort, once they’ve built “pens for their livestock and cities for their children.” What can we make of this reluctance to share responsibility with other tribes for the sake of the common good?

The Talmud legislates that a mezuzah for a private home must be checked that it is still in good shape twice every seven years, whereas a mezuzah for a public building need be checked only twice every fifty years. Why the difference? Rashi explains that public needs cannot be allowed to become too onerous. If communal needs are too much trouble, folks will say, “Let someone else take care of it.”

Once Reuben and Gad have their own property, it becomes difficult for them to sacrifice time and energy (let alone risk their lives in a war) to help the others. One imagines that this is a prelude to what life may be like after the land is settled – perhaps everyone will be tempted to focus on his or her own needs and ignore the interests of the community as a whole. No wonder Moses gets so angry; he even compares the attitude of Reuben and Gad to the hapless spies of p. Shelach! In the Sinai wilderness, with everyone on the mannah-meal plan, it was no great feat to dedicate time for the community, but to forego the obligations of hearth and home in order to promote the public good takes extraordinary personal discipline and devotion.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Pinchas – July 7, 2018 – 24 Tammuz 5778

Contemporary rabbis tend to emphasize dialogue, care and spiritual midwifery, while back in the day rabbis were prone to sermonize, perform, and exercise detachment. As laudatory as this shift most certainly is, there may be an element of the old ways worthy of reconsideration. Could rabbinic distance have value?

In this week’s parasha, Moses calls upon God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh” and advises God on what to look for in choosing his replacement. Moses, perhaps mindful of his experience with recalcitrancy, insists the new leader be visible to the point of having an overarching presence, lest the people become like a flock of “sheep who have no shepherd.” A midrash, exploiting the ambiguity of “God of the spirits of all flesh,” notes that each human personality is unique. Therefore, an appropriate leader must be one  “who will endure each and every one according to his personality.” Pleasing everyone is out of the question. “Spirited” personalities must simply be endured.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner famously described the rationale for rabbis cultivating some distance by making an analogy to the village clock, which was always set on a high tower. “People,” the rabbi explained, “assume that the purpose of having a clock so high up is so everyone will be able to see the correct time from a great distance. The actual reason, however, is that if the clock were easily accessible to everyone then each one would look at his own watch and adjust the clock based on what he perceived to be the correct time. Each person would think: ‘The village clock is wrong!’”

Every villager may spend his or her time anyway they like, but constantly adjusting the standard clock to match each villager’s watch invites chaos. Leaders become unreliable when it is too easy and too tempting to buffet them about. Rabbis rightly recognize and celebrate diversity, just not at the expense of leaving the flock without a shepherd.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Balak – June 30, 2018 – 17 Tammuz 5778

Most people occupy the same spot each time they are in shul. This time honored tradition is called sitting in one’s makom kavua. A valuable insight into this custom may be found in this week’s parasha. The bad guy, Bilam, is committed to cursing Israel. Unfortunately for him, each time he opens his mouth, blessings emerge instead of curses. What does he do? He changes his spot and tries again. The fact that Bilam assumes he will be successful, if only he changes his place, implies that he believes his failure is attributable to the spot and not to his own short-comings. This is why we seek to occupy the same spot each time we are in shul. In this world of imperfection, we do not expect that each prayer experience will be completely successful. Nevertheless, we commit to trying again – but from the same spot, not a different one, for we realize that the change must come from within ourselves and cannot be blamed merely on the place.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Chukat – June 23, 2018 – 10 Tammuz 5778

This week, the Torah announces the death of Miriam and immediately thereafter informs us the Israelites lacked water. We have a tradition that due to the merit of Miriam, a miraculous well accompanied us in the desert and, at her death, the well was taken away. This tradition seems to hint at some special connection between Miriam and water; what might that be?

Much earlier, before the birth of Moses, the enslaved Israelites faced a terrible dilemma. Pharaoh had ordered that all male Israelite newborns be drowned by being cast into the Nile. The rabbis tell the story that Moses and Miriam’s father, Amram, the leader of that generation, prevailed upon his community that they dissolve their marriages. He reasoned that no new births would mean no further infanticide. Miriam confronted her father and persuaded him, through a series of arguments, to allow Israelite births to continue, despite Pharoah’s evil decree. Amram had been prepared to forego having more children, but Miriam boldy prophesied that, in fact, her mother Yocheved would give birth to the hero who would ultimately save the Jews. Pharaoh’s persecution demoralized the people and its leader, but Miriam had true grit; the threat of babies drowning in the water of the Nile, however horrific, did not intimidate her, it provoked her.

When Moses was born, Amram joyfully kissed Miriam on the head and pronounced her prophecy fulfilled. But when baby Moses was set afloat in the river, Yocheved angrily slapped her daughter on the head saying, “What of your ‘prophecy’ now?!” Miriam did not allow her parents’ lack of emotional restraint to distract her. With quiet determination, she marched to the river’s edge to await the commencement of her baby brother’s destiny. The water’s edge did not crush her spirit; it steeled her resolve.

Legend has it that Rabbi Akiva, who ultimately became one of the greatest of our sages, initially felt he was too coarse a person and too distant from his Judaic heritage to ever embrace it. Out for a walk, he came upon a stream dripping steadily onto a rock. He noticed that the water had gouged out a depression in the stone. He surmised, “If [water] which is soft, hollows out the [rock], which is hard, all the more so will Torah, which is hard, carve out my heart, which is merely flesh and blood.” Water, it seems, has two qualities which captured the attention of our rabbis: It is persistent in its efforts, which empowers it to be extravagant in its impact. Miriam likewise demonstrated uncommon determination and audacity.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

 

Parashat Korach – June 16, 2018 – 3 Tammuz 5778

In this week’s parasha, a man named Korach and his faction rebels and God seems prepared to annihilate the entire people in retaliation (Numbers 16:21). Although Moses and Aaron succeed in talking God out of such a drastic response, the question remains how could God in the first place have imagined it just to punish all for the sake of the misdeeds of a few?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught that Korach’s rebellion may be compared to a situation of people together in a boat, and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him, “Why are you doing this?” He replied, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself?” They replied, “But you will flood the boat for us all!”

Meting out collective punishment would indeed be unjust, and God relents from this injustice immediately upon the intercession of Moses and Aaron. However, God’s initial response may teach us about something else: collective responsibility. Community entails, on some level, shared destiny. There are times and circumstances in which, like it or not, we find ourselves “all in the same boat.” Taking responsibility for one another doesn’t necessarily end with helping each other out. It may also include accepting responsibility for one another by suffering together should one among us fail. We should always strive to be supportive. Sometimes, support may include taking away the drill.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shelach – June 9, 2018 – 26 Sivan 5778

This week’s Torah portion begins with listing the leaders from each of the Israelite tribes who are to be sent to spy out the land to which God has been leading them. Each one is described as a “nasi,” which means “leader.” R. Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudilkov (18th century), in his work Degel Mahane Efraim, points out that the word “nasi” is comprised of two other Hebrew words: “Yesh” (“there is”) and “Aiyin” (“there is not”).

This insight calls to mind the famous kabbalistic doctrine of tizmtzum. Tizmtzum refers to the notion that, in order to make the Creation possible, God “contracted” or withdrew God’s reality in order to make room for the universe to come into existence in the vacuum left by God’s absence. Similarly, a good leader needs to know how to strategically “contract” his/her presence in order to allow the group or institution being led to grow and flourish. This doctrine is theologically paradoxical. If all reality is infused with Godliness, how can God be absent from reality? Perhaps the answer lies in a consideration of leadership.

Leadership calls upon leaders to make choices. Some situations call for leading with “yesh”/“there is” – which means leading with substance, out in front and even forcefully, like a force of nature. Other situations call for “Aiyin”/“there is not;” a subtle, behind the scenes approach, in which the leader’s contribution may lie undetected, yet his/her impact sets in motion profound and enduring results. The former may call for courage and strength, whereas the latter depend more upon wisdom and humility.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beha’alotecha – June 2, 2018 – 19 Sivan 5778

In this week’s parasha, Moshe reacts in an astonishing way to God’s declaration that he will provide the entire people with a month’s worth of all the meat that they can eat. Moshe actually expresses doubt that God is capable of such a feat! Amazingly, God does not seem to take offense at Moshe’s lack of confidence in this promise, and simply dismisses Moshe’s doubts with a perfunctory “You’ll see!”

It’s okay for Moshe to express doubts about God?

The rabbis of the midrash compare this passage with the incident of the striking of the rock, and ask why Moshe is punished for his lack of faith there, but not here. The rabbis liken the situation to one in which a king (God) has a close intimate friend (Moshe). When the friend expresses doubts about the king’s abilities privately, the king accepts these doubts as a part of an honest, open relationship. However, when the friend expresses his doubts in front of the king’s legions (B’nai Yisrael at the striking of the rock), the king is forced to react aggressively in order to maintain the respect and loyalty of his troops. Moshe emerges from this midrash as a model for Jewish agnosticism. Even an individual who is as close to God as a Moshe may have doubts about God. The key is to manage those doubts without undermining the morale and commitment of others.

The story is told about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, that once a hasid complained to him of being plagued by doubt. The rebbe asked him what difference it made if he had doubts or not. The hasid replied that if there’s no God, then creation would have no purpose. The Kotzker asked him, “What difference does that make?” The hasid replied, “What difference does it make!?! Rebbe, what are you thinking? What else could possibly matter to me?” The rebbe answered, “If it matters to you all that much, then you’re fine.” Doubt is not a problem, but apathy surely is.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Naso – May 26, 2018 – 12 Sivan 5778

At 176 verses, P. Naso is the longest single Torah portion of the year. Especially galling, the parasha concludes with what amounts to the same passage repeated a dozen times. I’m referring to the gifts and offerings brought by each of the leaders of the tribes to mark the dedication of the altar in the Tabernacle. Each day, the offerings were the same; the only difference is the name of the leader making the gift. Why this tedious repetition? Why not just give all the details once, and include that it was the same for each of the donors?

The Tabernacle was the first non-profit in our history; and same as with the non-profits to come (such as synagogues), major donors deserved to be recognized. I suppose bronze plaques were hard to come by in the desert, but the Torah making it a point to announce each leader’s name in connection with his gift resonates. Perhaps there is also special significance in the tribal leaders arriving day by day, in succession, rather than all together at once. Fundraisers know that it is easier to solicit a gift when it can be said that others are also giving. Could each leader have been waiting to see what his peer was committed to doing?

Back in the 13th century, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet was asked about the propriety of a donor who gave an ark to his synagogue and, to ensure enduring recognition of the gift, he wrote his name on it. The congregation wanted to know if this was acceptable. The rabbi replied that, as a matter of Jewish Law, the congregation has the right to recognize donors, or not, in any way they see fit. However, he admonishes them that, morally and spiritually, they should not only allow the name on the ark, but encourage it. A person has the right to spend his or her money in just about any way he or she would like. Choosing to “sanctify of [one’s] property to Heaven” is a tremendous mitzvah. Everyone is remembered for something; what could be a better memorial than this? Recognizing gifts does not only reward the donor, it “opens the door [to others”] to follow suit, and to do more mitzvot.

Hearing about the gifts and and the donors again and again after a long Torah reading may seem taxing, but it serves a holy purpose. It reminds us that personal sacrifice is sacred, establishing  one’s legacy is a choice which lies before each of us, and that acting on our commitments may be an inspiration to others.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shavuot – May 19, 2018 – 5 Sivan 5778

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 Emor – May 5, 2018 – 20 Iyar 5778

This week’s parasha ends with a jarring Biblical legacy. The Torah prescribes the penalty of death by stoning for the crime of blasphemy. Today, thousands of years later, around a quarter of the nations of the world have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and a fair number of them still impose the death penalty for committing blasphemy. Ironically, Judaism, which introduced the Bible to the world, has a theological tradition through which the harshness of this particular Biblical injunction is undermined and its underlying value redirected.

The Talmud, citing a verse in Psalms, asks, “Who is strong like you, O Lord?” and answers, “Strong and firm in that you listen to insult and blasphemy yet remain silent. In the School of Rabbi Ishmael, they taught the verse, “Who is like you among the mighty ones (‘eilim’) O Lord?” may be read as “Who is like you among the mute (‘eilmim’).?” Through their interpretive technique, the rabbis are able to portray God as stoically enduring insult and remaining silent in the face of blasphemy. Moreover, this is no weakness on the part of God. Quite the contrary, it reveals God’s strength. In sharp relief to the extent we may worship a “jealous” God, the rabbinic approach exposes the weakness of being fanatically “jealous” for God.

Early on, Jewish tradition sought to emulate God, and adopted restraint even when provoked by an insult to the faith. According to Jewish Law, the appropriate response to hearing blasphemy uttered is to tear one’s garment. In contemporary practice, the tearing of one’s garment is the well-known ritual of mourning. Here, we see, it can also be an act of protest. I’ve wondered about the overlap between the two. If we are indeed “made in the image of God,” then the death of a human being is not only to be mourned; it is an objectionable sort of “blasphemy” itself.

Forbearance in the face of insult is not the same as ignoring it. Tearing the garment is not a violent response, but it is a dramatic one. It is an action directed inward, not outward; a way of bearing witness rather than inflicting payback on a perpetrator. Perhaps our tradition, given a wider, modern application, could elevate public protest to become more dignified and, especially, more effective. What if, in response to some perceived offense, the aggrieved party were to refrain from sparking violent clashes and hurling shouts and insults, but instead simply stood silently, and solemnly tore their garments? How much more powerful a demonstration of their despair might that be?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine