Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Toldot – December 3, 2016 – 3 Kislev 5777

Jacob and Esau were twins. According to a fanciful interpretation of the rabbis, even when they were still in Rebecca’s womb they revealed their core values. When their mother would walk by a disreputable place, Esau would push to be born. Whenever she would walk by a reputable place, Jacob would push to be born. The commentators note that Esau, being the first born, must have been ahead of his brother in the womb. Therefore, Jacob could not push himself out because Esau was in the way. However, they ask, given that Esau was in the advantaged position, why didn’t Esau follow through and push himself out if being in a disreputable place was so important to him?

The answer, it seems, is that Esau was not primarily interested in pursuing bad for himself. Rather, he was committed to preventing his brother Jacob from pursuing good. We often suppose that our moral choices are between pursuing the good vs. pursuing the bad. Our tradition points out that sometimes a situation is more complicated. There are instances in which even if a person refrains from doing wrong himself, he may prevent another from doing right. This too is morally problematic behavior.

Judaism is practiced not by mere individuals but by individuals who are members of a community. Part of what it means to be a community is that members are not satisfied to only do the right thing themselves; we also work hard to support others in achieving their goals.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Chaye Sarah – November 26, 2016 – 25 Cheshvan 5777

Abraham has reached the end of his life and his estranged son, Ishmael, is back. The text describes Abraham getting his affairs in order and then dying content; at a ripe old age. After Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, we learn that “God blessed Isaac his [Abraham’s] son.” In the coming weeks we will see that Isaac and Jacob are careful to bestow their blessings upon the next generation as they prepare to depart from this world. Abraham had ample opportunity to do likewise, but did not. Instead, God blesses Isaac after Abraham’s death. Why didn’t Abraham bless his son?

The midrash likens Abraham’s situation to that of a tenant farmer whose field hosts two trees which have grown tightly intertwined. One tree produces life-sustaining fruit, but the other offers only fruit which is highly toxic. If the farmer waters the field, both trees will thrive, and if he withholds water, both will perish. Unsure what to do, the farmer reasons that since he is merely a tenant farmer, he can leave this matter up to his boss, the landowner, to decide. Likewise, Abraham feels that he must bless either both his sons or neither. Unable to pick between these two alternatives, he leaves the decision up to God.

Abraham’s predicament seems hard to understand. If he cannot bring himself to ignore Ishmael’s shortcomings and bless both his sons, why can’t he simply bless the son who seems to merit it? After all, they really aren’t intertwined trees, but distinct individuals who will go their separate ways immediately following their father’s funeral anyway.

Abraham wants what most of us want – to be true to what we believe passionately while at the same time respecting diversity. He realizes that Isaac, who will carry on his legacy, deserves the blessing. To select the worthy Isaac, however, excludes the not so worthy Ishmael. Abraham wants to respect diversity but is reluctant to embrace deviancy. The trouble is it can be hard to tell the difference. In a religious community, particularly where “3 Jews = 5 opinions,” making the distinction between legitimate diversity and illegitimate deviancy can be impossible. In those cases, figured Abraham, the matter is best left up to God.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayera – November 19, 2016 – 18 Cheshvan 5777

After the destruction of Sodom, we are informed, “And Avraham journeyed from there.” (Gen. 20:1) Avraham, as we learn at the beginning of the parasha, had a passion for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim; providing hospitality to wayfarers. According to the Midrash, the destruction of the major city in the region resulted in a sharp decline in the number of available wayfarers. Upon realizing that his opportunities for this mitzvah had been considerably diminished, Avraham decided to pitch his tent somewhere more promising. What might we learn from this?

Rabbi Abun cited a verse from the Book of Job, “Mountains collapse and crumble; Rocks are moved from their place.’ ‘Mountains collapse and crumble’ – this is Lot. ‘Rocks are moved from their place’ – this is Avraham, for he turned from place to place.

This seems paradoxical. A mountain is just a really big rock; a rock is just a chunk of collapsed mountain. What’s the difference?

Lot was like a mountain. Fixed to his spot, he could not extract himself from a negative situation until it literally collapsed around him. By contrast, Avraham was a restless seeker, a rolling stone constantly on the prowl for a spiritual frontier; for an opportunity to strike sparks in some new place that had not yet seen the light. In the case of Sodom, it proved better to be an independent “rock” than a settled “mountain.” Nonetheless, there are situations where the sacred is to found in the well-established, and where being an entrenched mountain is better than floundering amidst the flux. Ultimately, we must have the capacity to be both – at times dwelling undisturbed like a mountain; at times breaking loose like a rock.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki was asked what constitutes a true Jew. He said: “Three things are fitting for us: upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.” We may add: To be spiritually seeking while dwelling.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Lech Lecha – November 12, 2016 – 11 Cheshvan 5777

Commentators have expressed surprise over the opening passage of this week’s parasha in which God chooses a relationship with Avraham even though the Torah has offered no explanation as to what Avraham may have done to deserve Divine favor. The Sefat Emet (Hasidic, 19th century) explains that the Zohar teaches us that every human being, in every time and place, receives the call God issues to Avraham: “Go [to a new place I, God, shall show you”]. The difference, suggests the rabbi, is that only Avraham was listening. Learning how to listen to God’s voice on a personal level is itself an achievement, one that inspires a new life with a fresh perspective.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Noach – November 5, 2016 – 4 Cheshvan 5777

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 Bereshit – October 29, 2016 – 27 Tishrei 5777

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, sceptics 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.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot – October 22, 2016 – 20 Tishrei 5777

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.”

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ha’azinu – October 15, 2016 – 13 Tishrei 5777

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.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayelech – October 8, 2016 – 6 Tishrei 5777

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!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Nitzavim & the Days of Awe – October 1, 2016 – 28 Elul 5776

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