Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Vaetchanan – August 20, 2016 – 16 Av 5776

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/Tisha B’Av – August 13, 2016 – 9 Av 5776

The opening verse of Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av (this year: Saturday, August 13, following Havdalah at 9:11 pm), describes dejected Jerusalem as being “like” a widow. What does it mean to be “like” one who has lost a spouse, as opposed to simply having lost one’s spouse? Our rabbis explain by way of a parable: It is like a king who became angry with his wife and gave her a bill of divorce and then snatched it away from her. When she sought to remarry, he said to her, “Where is your proof of divorce?” When she claimed the rights and privileges due the king’s wife, he said to her, “Have I not divorced you?”

Religious and spiritual people largely agree that there is a transcendent purpose, or plan, to our existence. Despite our longing to glimpse this larger picture, our rabbis acknowledge that life contains an aspect of arbitrariness. Matters don’t always turn out the way we deserve; life is not always fair.

Like the king’s hapless wife, we are occasionally challenged by circumstances beyond our control and ability to understand. Unlike her, however, we need not face these circumstances alone. Although on Tisha B’Av we read of Jerusalem’s loneliness, we do so gathered together as a community of friends. Community cannot necessarily change an unpleasant reality. However, community can provide a source of comfort and solidarity. We all pray for a long life of health, happiness and blessing. When the inevitable strikes, it is reassuring to know that others are with us, doing what can be done to make a positive difference.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot-Masei – August 6, 2016 – 2 Av 5776

This week we learn that although each tribe will receive territory in the Land of Israel, the tribe of Levi 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 Pinchas – July 30, 2016 – 24 Tammuz 5776

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 this proves that the women indeed desired the land, and it was only the men who refused Israel.  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 23, 2016 – 17 Tammuz 5776

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 – July 16, 2016 – 10 Tammuz 5776

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

Parashat Korach – July 9, 2016 – 3 Tammuz 5776

“The entire assembly is holy …. why do you preside over the community?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach frames his rebellion against Moses and Aaron by boldly questioning their leadership qualifications for the group they purport to lead. If everyone is “holy,” how could Moses and Aaron be better than that? What makes them so special that they should lead the rest?

It is commonly assumed that even though leaders can’t be perfect, it would be ideal if they could be. If a group has achieved “holiness,” it seems reasonable to insist its leaders be “extra holy.” The Hasidic leader, Elimelech of Lizhensk, suggests that the opposite is the case: It is crucial that our leaders be flawed. He illustrates this view by citing an earlier rabbinic parable about a young child who loses a clay pitcher at a well. After a time, a princess arrives at the same well with a gold pitcher. To the child’s great joy, the princess drops her pitcher into the well. “Why are you so pleased?” astonished bystanders ask the child. “Because,” goes the answer, “No one cares about a clay pitcher. Now that the princess has lost her gold pitcher, however, the well will certainly be drained, and I shall have my clay pitcher back too.”

“This is the way the world works,” observes the rebbe. Leading entails leading the search to identify and tackle problems. Unless a leader is guilty of error herself, there’s little hope she will have the wherewithal to fully appreciate the right approach called for in addressing the mistakes of others. “A righteous person who is completely separated from human failings has no connection to the world and therefore it is difficult for him to lead others to whom he can’t relate.” (Noam Elimelech)

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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