Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Ki Tavo – September 24, 2016 – 21 Elul 5776

“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 bestow 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. We place so much importance to the Torah being a public document that we refuse to even read it (ritually) without a public presence (a minyan).

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Parashat Ki Teitzei – September 17, 2016 – 14 Elul 5776

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 Mitch Levine

Parashat Shoftim – September 10, 2016 – 7 Elul 5776

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 – September 3, 2016 – 30 Av 5776

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 27, 2016 – 23 Av 5776

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. For example, since “Man does not live by bread alone, 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. They have been fed the miraculous mannah in the desert. 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 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