Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Shoftim – August 30, 2014 – 4 Elul 5774

This week’s parasha contains the law of the City of Refuge. According to the Torah, three cities in Israel must be designated to serve as places of exile for those deemed guilty of manslaughter. An individual found guilty of manslaughter was obliged to flee to one of these cities and stay there, using it as a place of refuge, lest he become the target of vengeance by the family of his victim (Devarim/Deuteronomy 19:1-7). In the Talmudic period the question arose as to what might be the law in the case where an individual is found guilty of manslaughter but fleeing to a City of Refuge would entail leaving his/her rabbi behind? The Talmud’s answer is that since the text says the man-slaughterer must flee to the city in order to “live” there, the individual who is found guilty must bring the rabbi along because one cannot “live” without one’s teacher.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Akiva, who lived at a time during which the Romans banned the public teaching of Torah, compares a Jewish person without access to Torah study to a fish out of water. The midrash contends that on the day the grasses of the field were created, an angel struck each blade on its head and commanded it, “Learn!” From a blade of grass to a human being, we simply cannot live without a chance to grow and learn.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Re’eh – August 23, 2014 – 27 Av 5774

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a tithe must be taken annually from our crops and that we must carry it to Jerusalem in order to eat it in the presence of God. If the road is too long or the burden too heavy, a person may opt to exchange the tithe for money, bring the sum to Jerusalem and spend the proceeds on a party there with friends and family. Why is God anxious over the potential hardship in carrying the tithe to Jerusalem? What’s the big deal if it is a little heavy or the road a little long? Would not a devout person do this task – and more – for his/her religion?

The Dubnow Maggid explained by way of a parable: It is like a wealthy person who had all of his wealth in precious gems packed away in a suitcase left at some distance. He entrusts a messenger to bring him the suitcase. While waiting, he stands by his window, anxiously peering out to catch a glimpse of the messenger arriving. If he sees the messenger staggering slowly as if under the great weight of the suitcase, he cries out, “Alas! Somehow my treasure of precious gems must have been exchanged for heavy stones and iron bars!” So it is with us, if God sees that Judaism has become like a burden to us, God becomes anxious and wonders if somehow the precious Torah has not been exchanged for an ordinary load that holds no special value or meaning.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ekev – August 16, 2014 – 20 Av 5774

This week’s parasha contains a famous verse that continues to resonate in our own times – “Not by bread alone does man live” (Devarim/Deut. 8:3). We have become accustomed, in secular society, to regard this sentiment as expressing a human need for more than the basics, as in “Man does not live by bread alone, so I’ll be expecting a hot tub and a sports car.” While the Torah agrees that life must be about more than mere survival, it is not even more bountiful material benefits to which this verse aspires. The verse concludes, “… rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live.” What is this verse trying to tell us?

At this point in the Torah, Moses is preparing the people for the transition from life in the desert to life in Israel. In the desert, they have been fed the miraculous mannah. No one needed to earn a living or get a job; all they had to do was accept the Torah and follow God’s and Moses’s instructions. Once in the Land of Israel, there would be no more mannah; i.e. no more “free lunch.” In Israel, they will have to work for a living. Lest the people conclude that with this change there will no longer be any time for God and Torah, the verse reminds them that the purpose of life is not exhausted by working for bread (and other stuff) alone. Even in the real world, beyond the desert, we need to also feed our spiritual lives.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Va’etchanan – August 9, 2014 – 13 Av 5774

Our parasha this week seems to open in medias res, a narrative that begins not at the beginning of a story but somewhere in the middle – usually at some crucial point in the action. Moses says, “I implored the Lord at that moment.” What “moment” is Moses referring to?

The founder of the Musar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), explained: Let a person not say, “I go to shul only on such and such a day,” or “I’ll go to shul later on this morning.” There is no particular time that is the right time to attend services or to be a part of the minyan. All moments contain the possibility for prayer. If not this Shabbat, when? If not today, when? If not this moment, when?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Devarim – August 2, 2014 – 6 Av 5774

The Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, begins with the declaration, “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel.” (1:1) Some commentators explain that the phrase “These are the words” was clear and simple, but “to all Israel” hints at a complexity beneath the surface. In fact, we have a rabbinic tradition that each word of Torah contains seventy possible meanings. Where did all of these meanings come from, if Moshe’s introduction was clear and simple?

We have a contemporary tradition that where you find three Jews you will find five opinions. By giving the Torah to the Jews, Moshe in effect invited each one to form an opinion on everything in the Torah. Immediately, that which had been clear and simple became rich with seventy (or more) meanings.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Masei – July 26, 2014 – 28 Tammuz 5774

This week we learn that although each tribe will receive territory in the Land of Israel, the tribe of Levi is the exception and will not. Instead, the tribe of Levi will be assigned 48 towns located amongst the various other tribes. Why?

According to the rabbis, the tribe of Levi did not experience the full pain of Egyptian servitude because they were already recognized as the priestly tribe and the Egyptians respected that status. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was among those who vehemently opposed Roman rule over Israel in his day. He was so outspoken that on one occasion he had to flee because the Romans put out a warrant for his arrest. Rabbi Shimon expressed his rebellious attitude by remarking, “The Land of Israel can only be acquired through travail.” This helps to explain why the tribe of Levi did not inherit a tribal possession in the land. Since they did not suffer for it, they acquired less of it.

As it is written in Pirke Avot, “Commensurate with the struggle is the reward.” The good things in life seldom come easily and when we struggle a little, we often find we appreciate those good things even more.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot – July 19, 2014 – 21 Tammuz 5774

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 to make sure 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 parashat 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 12, 2014 – 14 Tammuz 5774

Traditionally, women are exempted from many mitzvot to which men are obligated. Many modern Jews regard this inequality as problematic, and the familiar response has been to argue that women may change their status by accepting these mitzvot as equally binding upon themselves as with men.  A radically different approach may be derived from the insights of a famous Bible commentator, the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619) on this week’s parasha.  In this parasha we find that the daughters of Zelophehad, whose father has died without a male heir, approach Moses with the request that he grant them their father’s portion in the Land of Israel.  Imagine, just a scant two weeks ago we learned that the men of this generation vehemently refused to take possession of the land.  The Kli Yakar suggests that the daughters prove that it was only the men who refused Israel, but that the women indeed desired the land.  According to his commentary, the decree that this generation would die in the desert and never enter the promised land applied only to the men.  The women were allowed to inherit the land (a conquering force comprised of an army of young men and their Jewish grandmothers 40 years later is quite an image).  The Kli Yakar offers the following as the reason why men are obligated in so many mitzvot for which women are exempt: Women don’t need to be obligated, they are ready to act, but the men holding them back are in need of the extra push of a commandment.  From here, one may speculate on a very different solution to the problem of women’s equality in Judaism.  Perhaps instead of obligating women to observe like men, we should consider exempting men to be like women.  Trouble is, would the men manage to equal the women, if given a second chance?

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Balak – July 5, 2014 – 7 Tammuz 5774

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. Unfortuately 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 28, 2014 – 30 Sivan 5774

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the following verse: “Therefore the Book of the Wars of HaShem are said hav be sofa” (the JPS translation calls it a fragment of uncertain meaning). Nobody really knows what the verse means but our tradition renders it “… the Book of Wars of HaShem are said lovingly in the end.” (Numbers 21:14) To what does this refer?

The Talmud remarks that when a rabbi and student, or a parent and child, learn Torah together they become like enemies. This is because individuals naturally form differing interpretations and each person is obliged to passionately argue for his or her point of view. However the argument does not end until the issues have been resolved and the opposing sides have found loving reconciliation (Kid. 29b).

Sometimes it isn’t easy to balance our thirst for the truth with the need to preserve respectful, harmonious relationships. The Talmudic method is to encourage a no holds barred approach to determining the truth, provided the disputants understand that this process must not end until both sides are able to once again restore their emotional bond.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine