When we are young and hear the story of Noach, we get the idea that everyone in Noach’s time, except for Noach, was wicked. However this assumption does not fit what we know about how the world really works. As it happens, if one person is stealing then another is being stolen from. If one person murders, then another must be the victim of that violence. Moreover, why destroy the world because some commit crimes, while others are victims? The Torah addresses this insight in a subtle way. In this week’s parasha, God declares to Noach that he intends to destroy the world because “the earth is filled with lawlessness before them.” (Gen. 6:13) What does the Torah mean by “before them”? Perhaps the meaning is this: Not everyone in Noach’s time was devoted to lawless behavior. However leaders and bystanders failed to protest and stop lawlessness when it occurred. The crimes were being committed “before them” and they failed to take a stand for justice. Because of their apathetic disregard for the welfare of others, the entire society had degenerated to a point that God no longer saw the value in preserving it. From this we learn that it is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. We must also object to the unjust behavior of others and demand a world of righteousness.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
The parasha contains quite a bit about the creation of living things according to categories, but we don’t hear too much about specifics. For details, we may turn to the ample legends preserved in Jewish folk and rabbinic lore. One such source, the Alphabet of Sirach (circa 10th century), tells us about the animals most popular in our neighborhood, cats and dogs. It seems that the lack of appreciation that these two species have for one another has its origins in the Creation story itself. According to this legend, cats and dogs originally were partners. Circumstances arose in which they had a hard time finding food. They determined to dissolve their partnership, and go their separate ways, with the provision that they would not turn to the same source for sustenance. The dog struck out on his own. The cat, naturally, went to live with Adam. The first human, noting that the cat was keeping the mouse population at bay, was very pleased to have the cat hanging around, and life was good. Unfortunately for the dog, matters did not turn out so well. Everywhere he turned for help, he managed to goof up. For example, he went to live with the sheep. His constant barking drew the attention of the wolves, who came and ate the sheep. Homeless, the dog wandered over to Adam’s house. The cat immediately resented the dog’s appearance, and gave him a cold and disdainful reception. The dog, upon seeing the cat, once again started barking excitedly. The barking not only annoyed the cat, it also alerted Adam to the presence of wild animals (and to the mailman). Adam, seizing upon the utility of this trait of the dog’s, invited him to join their living arrangement. Ever since, dogs have been grateful to live with people, and cats have resented the intrusion.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
The rabbis of the Talmud speculate that on judgment day at the end time, the nations of the world will protest that the Jewish people will receive preferential treatment from God. God will reply that the Jewish people deserve the perks because we kept the Torah. The nations will argue that they were unfairly denied an opportunity to also keep the Torah. God will then, according to the rabbis, grant them the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. At first things will go smoothly, but gradually God will cause it to grow hotter and hotter (Talmudic proof that climate change is associated with the end time). It will get so hot that staying in the sukkah becomes impossible. The Jews will conclude that sitting in the sukkah is just not in the cards and retreat indoors, but the nations will become very angry at the situation. Legend has it that they will not only exit the sukkah, but that they will kick the sukkah on their way out.
After two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the days in between, it is little wonder that we would feel entitled to brag just a bit about how good we are at performing mitzvot, and perhaps we can forgive the rabbis for chauvinistically lording it over the nations. Even if they don’t admit it, I suspect that the rabbis realized that Jews are not immune to the human predicament of taking out our frustrations on inanimate objects (and others) rather than grapple more appropriately with the fact of our human limitations. There are occasions in life when we desire a certain outcome very much, but are powerless to determine that outcome. We can only try our best. Sometimes that is enough, but sometimes it simply isn’t. When the latter befalls us, a little humility may be more dignified than “kicking the sukkah.”
Rabbi Mitch Levine
According to the midrash, Moses’ declaration at the beginning of this week’s parasha “Listen O heavens, and I will speak; earth, hear the words of my mouth,” implies that Moses was especially close to the heavens, such that he could call to the heavens at close range. Moses’ implied ability to negotiate the heavenly sphere bears an interesting connection with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We conclude Yom Kippur by declaring seven times in unison, “Adonai is God.” Why repeat this phrase seven times? According to Jewish tradition there are seven layers of heaven and God’s presence, the Shechinah, resides in the seventh, outermost layer. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when God is most likely to be found because (according to tradition) this is the season that God is closest to us. As the Shechinah departs to ascend back to the seventh heaven at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we escort the Divine Presence by calling out “Adonai is God,” once for each of the seven stages. The ancient Greeks had a conception of the seven heavens (which could well be the source for our notion), which they believed corresponded to the “seven planets” known in antiquity. The outermost planet they named “Saturn,” which is where we get the name of the day “Saturday.” It is intriguing that “Saturday” corresponds to the seventh day of our week, “Shabbat.” It may seem strange that we would associate Saturday/Shabbat with God’s most distant abode. On the other hand, the midrash, noting Moses’ apparent intimacy with God, credits him with the unique ability to bring the Shechinah back down to earth. Perhaps we do something similar when we replicate “heaven on earth” with our Shabbat spirit.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
Simchat Torah Hakafot – Monday night, October 1st at 5:30 pm
Dance the night away!
Complimentary light dinner following hakafot.
Sunday, September 30 at 8:30 am
Hoshanah Rabbah is the 7th day of Sukkot, on which 7 circuits are made around the synagogue reciting a prayer with the refrain, “Hosha na!” (please save us!). Traditional beating of the willows at morning minyan followed by a full breakfast. Questions? Contact Ron Rudolph in the shul office, 614-237-2747.
Saturday, September 29
Contact Naomi at 614-237-2747 x17 or firstname.lastname@example.org to get a map with addresses.
Friday, September 28 – Dinner at 5:30 pm
$10/adult; $5/child; $25/family cap
RSVP by September 25 to 614-237-2747 or email@example.com.
After 9/25, all costs increase by $5, NO EXCEPTIONS!
Thursday, September 27
Sponsored by the Agudas Achim Brotherhood. FREE!
Music by Ruvane.
RSVP to Naomi at 614-237-2747 x17 or firstname.lastname@example.org by September 21 to secure your slice!
Twice in this week’s parasha, Moses utters the encouraging words, “Be strong and courageous.” This Biblical expression, which appears several times in scripture, is also to be found at the end of Psalm 27, the special psalm added to our services during the season of repentance. The context of these passages indicates that this expression was used to encourage those who were facing the challenge posed by external foes. In contrast, the Talmudic rabbis use this phrase to explain that four human endeavors require strength and courage. They are: Torah study, prayer, good deeds, and the pursuit of one’s worldly occupation (Brachot 32b). The challenges to these endeavors would seem to be primarily internal. It is largely up to me, and not some external foe, if I study or not, pray, commit to good deeds, work hard, and so forth. Why would the rabbis apply this phrase to internal challenges, rather than to explicitly external ones? In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma advises, “Who is strong? One who rules over himself.” Our rabbis realized that, as formidable as external foes might be, the real challenge in life is to overcome ourselves. Study, prayer, good deeds, and a job don’t happen by themselves. These activities take thought, commitment and discipline. And these traits require strength and courage. May we be blessed with “strength and courage” for the New Year!
Rabbi Mitch Levine