Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Shelach – July 2, 2016 – 26 Sivan 5776

This week’s parasha contains the tragic episode of the meraglim/spies who returned from scouting out Eretz Yisrael with the unfortunate report that the land was inhabited by giants who would regard B’nei Yisrael as mere “grasshoppers”.  Due to the discouragement of the spies, the will of the people faltered and as a consequence of losing courage, the entire generation was condemned to live out their lives in the desert and never made it to Eretz Yisrael (Actually, according to some commentators, the women were exempted from this harsh decree in view of their positive attitude about the land, but that is another story!).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l pointed out how peculiar the report of the spies was. After all, these spies had only a short while ago been liberated through God’s power during the flight from Egypt. Having witnessed the plagues, why wouldn’t they have assumed that God would just as handily trounce the intimidating “giants”?

The Rebbe suggested that perhaps the problem was not that these Jewish leaders sought to avoid the land, but rather that they were afraid to take the risk of leading the people out of the desert. In the desert, the people had all of their needs miraculously provided for them. They ate the mannah and even their “clothes did not wear off their backs.” All they had to do in the desert was to study the Torah. The spies realized that once the people settled the land, the mannah would cease. Everyone would become responsible to work the land, or get some sort of job, and provide for themselves. But if that happened, reasoned the spies, what would become of Torah study? Better, they reasoned, to remain in the desert where Torah could be pursued without the distraction of taking responsibility for one’s livelihood.

The spies were wrong. The whole point of the study of Torah is to apply one’s learning to the real world; the world of personal responsibility. Although remaining in the desert protected by Hashem’s sheltering presence is comforting, a Jew is charged with the task of taking the risk of living in the real world; a world in which the pursuit of Torah must be complimented by human initiative and accomplishment.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beha’alotcha – June 25, 2016 – 19 Sivan 5776

According to rabbinic exegesis, this week’s parasha contains hints that the Israelites disappointed God by their apparent eagerness to leave Mt. Sinai in a hurry after receiving the Torah. But why should God be disappointed? After all, the Israelites were headed to the Land of Israel, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. Doing so with eagerness should have earned them praise, not criticism.

Perhaps the answer lies in considering how they left Mt. Sinai. Even moving in the right direction does not excuse a disrespectful departure from an encounter with the holy. The proper course is to tarry just a bit and to enjoy and reflect upon the Sinai experience they had just gone through. The Land of Israel had waited during hundreds of years of Egyptian servitude. Waiting a little longer to better appreciate the Torah they had received would not have hurt.

I believe the synagogue tradition of Kiddush in the atrium may be explained by this very same point. Having prayed and shared a Dvar Torah, we do not rush out to pursue our many important needs. Instead, we linger a bit to eat a bite and swap stories and opinions among friends.

B’Yedidut (with friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Naso – June 18, 2016 – 12 Sivan 5776

This week’s parasha includes the well-known and deeply moving Priestly Benediction, “May HaShem bless you and keep you; may HaShem shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; may HaShem lift His countenance toward you, and grant you peace” (BaMidbar/Numbers 6:24-26). These verses have resonated with the Jewish People since ancient times. I remember seeing a silver amulet at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that is thought to be amongst the oldest Hebrew fragments recovered by archeologists (from the 7th century BCE), and it features these immortal words. What may we learn from the context of this important blessing?

Immediately preceding the Priestly Benediction, we find two very different situations presented by the Torah. The first concerns the “sotah”, or “woman accused of adultery.” This is followed by the case of the “nazir”, or individual who voluntarily takes on a considerably more rigorous discipline than that mandated by the Torah. Perhaps the first instance, the sotah, is meant to remind us that there is a sacred dimension to our most significant interpersonal relationships and these deserve the attention and protection of the Torah’s laws. Perhaps the second instance, the nazir, reminds us that even unmitigated enthusiasm for serving God needs to be tempered by the constraints and guidance offered by the Torah. Both instances deserve to be encouraged by the blessing of God’s illumination, support, and peace.

Immediately following the Benediction we find that the Tabernacle is finally raised. Once we are able to be mindful that our human relationships are potentially holy, and that our drive to holiness must be kept within human bounds, we are ready to be blessed by the symbol of God’s presence; the Tabernacle.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shavuot – June 11, 2016 – 5 Sivan 5776

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 Bechukotai – June 4, 2016 – 27 Iyar 5776

In this week’s parasha, we find that God will grant us “peace in the land” followed by safety from wild beasts, the curtailment of weapons, and the satisfaction of chasing away our enemies (Numbers 26:6). One would suppose the reverse order, that we must first deal with our enemies and then we may hope for peace. Why does God’s promise appear to be in the wrong order?

The Torah asks us to consider that peace is rarely achieved by focusing on external threats, such as “wild beasts” and enemies, without first resolving our own internal tensions. Perhaps this is most obviously true on the national level where internecine squabbles, whether in the halls of Congress or in the Knesset, seem to distract our leaders from tackling the larger enduring issues which threaten us. However, this insight applies equally well to the individual. We are not likely to effectively address external challenges posed by others until our own personal houses are in order. As the saying goes, sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. The Torah wants to promise us peace but we must work to do our part by first achieving peace within ourselves.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Behar – May 28, 2016 – 20 Iyar 5776

At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we are commanded, “You shall not emplace a flooring stone upon which to prostrate oneself.” (Vayikra/Lev. 26:1) This admonition was interpreted by our rabbis as a prohibition against prostrating in prayer upon a stone floor (In antiquity prostration was a feature of daily prayer and was only restricted to Yom Kippur in later times). The context of this prohibition indicates that praying in such a manner on a stone floor appeared to be akin to idol worship. Surprisingly, an early 4th century sage, Rabbi Abahu, disregarded this prohibition. Rabbi Abahu excused his permissive behavior by explaining that the Torah only meant to prohibit prostration on a stone floor as a regular practice; praying this way once in a while would not be a problem. Rabbi Abahu’s audacity becomes even more striking when we consider that synagogue floors in his day were often covered with decorative mosaic motifs depicting animal and human figures. A synagogue floor in Tiberius actually features the Greco-Roman god Helios!

Rabbi Abahu lived in Caesarea, which, as seat of the regional Roman government, was primarily a pagan and Christian town. Despite reason to be strict and purist in his approach to Jewish worship, Rabbi Abahu felt that an occasional breach of practice could be justified. Perhaps he felt enough confidence in his Judaism that even bowing on floors displaying non-Jewish motifs was not threatening to him. Having an open and tolerant attitude towards differing methods of prayer contributes toward our vitality as a spiritual community. It is reassuring to think that even our sages from long ago may have felt the same way.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Emor – May 21, 2016 – 13 Iyar 5776

Parashat Emor begins with the special regulations that pertain only to God’s priests; the kohanim. The first verse of Parashat Emor contains three occurrences of the Hebrew root “emr” (“to say”), and this idiosyncrasy was not lost on our rabbis. The Midrash links this repetition of “to say” with a verse in Psalms that uses the same verb to describe the silent grandeur of the Heavens. Day and night cycle dependably and wordlessly. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes day and night are evenly split. The remainder of the year they flow with give and take in harmonious clockwork. Contrast this, contends the Midrash, with the affairs of humanity. No deal can be struck; scarcely an understanding may be achieved, without barter and negotiation. The status quo of the Heavens reflects a rhythm fixed by God, while down below we contend with the inconsistency and unpredictability of human striving and rivalry. For the rabbis, in singling out the Kohanim for a life regulated by a Divine regimen, the Torah contrasts an austere priestly existence with the vicissitudes borne by the ordinary Israelite.

Of course, we no longer have the Temple and its kohanim to provide a respite and reminder that the world of our making lacks the calm assuredness of God’s realm. Instead, we have our synagogue to provide that refuge from the storm. Like the cycle of day and night, the parashiot we read and the t’filot we recite take us inexorably from Shabbat to Shabbat, from Yom Tov to Yom Tov, and from year to year. The stress of the world may be ever more hectic; at shul we breathe in the reassurance of God’s sanctuary.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Kedoshim – May 14, 2016 – 6 Iyar 5776

This week’s parasha admonishes us to “love the stranger.” The Talmud reports that there are 36 or possibly even 46 different passages where the Torah insists we treat the stranger kindly. We are commanded to offer the stranger not mere tolerance, but actual hospitality. It is remarkable for a nation to make the princely treatment of strangers a legal obligation, particularly when we consider how sensible it seems to regard strangers with fear and suspicion.

There are a lot of strangers out there and, by definition, the stranger is anonymous. Modernity engenders anonymity, anonymity helps circumvent accountability, and lack of accountability undermines trust. No wonder we tend to be leery of strangers. Regardless, from a Torah perspective, we are being pathological.

The pre-modern world of our rabbis was not immune to stranger anxiety disorder. The second century Apollodorus wrote of Procrustes, the mythological serial killer of antiquity, that “he had his dwelling beside the road, and made up two beds, one small and the other big; and offering hospitality to the passers-by, he laid the short men on the big bed and hammered them, to make them fit the bed; but the tall men he laid on the little bed and sawed off the portions of the body that projected beyond it.” Not only can strangers be scary; it can be scary to be a stranger.

Students of rabbinic midrash will immediately recognize that the rabbis appropriated this Greek myth to illustrate the evil inhospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah and to contrast this horrifying behavior with the generous hospitality modeled by our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. Insecure people abhor the stranger. Decent people tolerate the stranger. The Torah sets a higher bar. We are called upon to embrace the stranger.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot – May 7, 2016 – 29 Nisan 5776

In this week’s parasha, we are told, “You shall carry out my judgments and keep my laws in order to walk in them…” (Vayikra/Lev. 18:4) What is the implication of “to walk” in God’s laws?

At the time of the exodus from Egypt, we found ourselves facing the sea on the one side and the advancing Egyptian army on the other side. At that moment our ancestors expressed dismay, but Moses told them, “Stand fast, and see what salvation God will perform for you today.” Immediately, God objects, “Moses, why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Jewish people and let them move out!” (Shemot/Exodus 14:10-15) Why did God admonish Moses?

Moses’ error was in instructing the people to “stand fast” and wait for the “salvation God would perform.” There are times, in our strivings, that a person feels that he/she has nothing left to give; no place further to go. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that only God remains inert in his holiness – a human being must be constantly striving forward; always propelling one’s self to greater spiritual heights. One commentary, the Or HaHayyim, points out that the Jews were between the proverbial rock and the hard spot. With the sea before them and the enemy behind them, which way were they supposed to go? This is indeed the point. Whichever way we turn, no matter how challenging our choices, we are charge to move forward, and not simply stand still waiting for God to make a move.

The Hebrew word for “to walk” in God’s laws shares the same root for the word we use to refer to adherence to the mitzvoth, “halachah.” To “keep halachah” means to “walk” in God’s ways, to overcome our hesitations, and to persevere in moving forward.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

End of Pesach – April 30, 2016 – 22 Nisan 5776

The end of Pesach Torah reading includes the verse, “All of the ailments with which I afflicted Egypt, I will not afflict you, for I am the Lord your healer” (Shemot/Exodus 15:26). This verse gave rise to the question, “If we won’t be getting sick, why will we need healing?” The answer to this question is to point out that prevention of illness is an even better blessing than the healing of an illness and it is the former blessing that the Torah promises.

Maimonides (who was a physician in addition to being a rabbi) wrote that many illnesses are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, and that many people go through life stumbling into health problems like a blind man bumping into furniture in a crowded room. In this respect, our spiritual lives parallel our physical lives. Just as we must expend effort and discipline to achieve and maintain physical fitness, we must invest effort in meeting our spiritual goals. Not every weekday service is going to necessarily feel like an encounter with the Holy One, but by maintaining some regular connection to davening we may hope for a Yizkor service or Yom Tov experience which is transformative.

With prayers for a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine