Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Noach – October 25, 2014 – 1 Cheshvan 5775

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.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bereishit – October 18, 2014 – 24 Tishrei 5775

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, skeptics have wondered to what extent God has been made in the image of humanity.

Rabbi Hoshiah said, “When the Holy One created Adam, the ministering angels erred in wanting to proclaim before him ‘Kadosh!’ (‘Holy’). There is a parable: A king and a governor were traveling in a state carriage and the citizens of the province wanted to hail the king, but didn’t know which one he was. What did the king do? He pushed and expelled the governor from the carriage, and all knew that he was only just a governor.” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:10)

Why were the first human beings tossed out of the Garden of Eden? According to R. Hoshiah, God exiled us out of concern that with us in the Garden, the angels would remain unable to tell us apart from God and, in their confusion, think we are all gods. So we are out of the Garden and into the real world. That is why the real world can be so hard and frustrating; it reminds us that part of us is indistinguishable from God, and another part is not like God at all.

Chag Sameach & Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot – October 11, 2014 – 17 Tishrei 5775

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 2 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.”

B’Yedidut(w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Parashat Ha’azinu – September 27, 2014 – 3 Tishrei 5775

According to the midrash, Moses’s 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’s 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’s 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.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Nitzavim/Vayelech – September 20, 2014 – 25 Elul 5774

Parashat Nitzavim and the Days of Awe

Parashat Nitzavim is always the parasha read just before Rosh Hashanah. The founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, explained why this is fitting. The opening verse is “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: The heads of the tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel; your small children, your women, and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Deut. /Devarim 29:9) The Baal Shem Tov asked, “Which days do all Israel stand together? It must be Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur!”

As it evidently was in the time of the Baal Shem Tov (which was the 18th century), so it is in our own times. The shul is filled with all of us, standing in prayer together. May our community continue to grow & prosper and may each of us enjoy a year of health, happiness, and blessing.

Shanah Tova,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tavo – September 13, 2014 – 18 Elul 5774

“This day you have become a nation to the Lord your God” (Deut/Devarim 27:9)

Our parasha declares that on “this day” we became a nation. Really? The experience of enslavement and exodus from Egypt did not make us a people? The moment of Divine revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai did not form us into a nation? What about the 40-year period of wandering in the desert? How is it that only now, on “this day,” the Torah declares us to have finally achieved the status of peoplehood?

Rashi explains that, originally, Moses intended to vouchsafe the Torah exclusively in the hands of his tribe, the Levites. When the people got wind of this plan (in this week’s parasha), they protested vigorously and demanded to have the Torah in the possession of all, lest the Levites someday claim to be the sole heirs to this legacy. Moses was delighted by the enthusiasm of the people and proclaimed that their assertiveness in insisting on direct possession of the Torah had demonstrated that they had thereby earned the status of a nation of God.

One of the religious/ethnic groups that make up Israeli society are the Druze. Years ago I learned that they divide their community into two parts: the uqqal (“knowers”) and the juhal (“ignorant ones”). The former are the educated elite, whereas the latter follow their traditions in ignorance of their religious meaning. The spiritual truths of the Druze are a secret from everyone but the uqqal, including fellow Druze. Judaism, from its inception, was not meant to be this way. Our religion is more democratic. All of us are not only welcome to learn and understand our traditions and practices; we are religiously obligated to do so. It is noteworthy that there are religious traditions in the world that may be satisfied with only a few initiates understanding the underlying meanings of life.  Ours is not one of them. So much importance do we attach to the Torah being a public document, we refuse to even read it (ritually) without a public presence (a minyan).

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tetze – September 6, 2014 – 11 Elul 5774

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. – Deuteronomy 22:8

Homes in Biblical times (and often still today) had flat roofs which afforded the advantage of additional outdoor living space. This mitzvah, to erect a protective fence around one’s (flat) roof, ensured that no one would accidentally fall off while enjoying the cool evening air. “If you build…” The law is the same if one buys, inherits, or is given a house as a gift. Why does the Torah use only the verb to “build”? According to the rabbis, this is meant to teach that always one must be engaged in “building,” that is, developing the human community – building and planting for ourselves and for coming generations.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitchell Levine

 

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