Rabbi’s Parasha Message

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

Shabbat Pesach – April 23, 2016 – 15 Nisan 5776

There is an apparent contradiction in the Torah over when our liberation from Egyptian bondage began. According to Deuteronomy 16:1, God brought us out of Egypt at night. According to Numbers 33:3, the Israelites left triumphantly while the Egyptians looked on during the following day. When was the Exodus; at night or during the day?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate, reconciled these verses by positing two stages of redemption. According to Rav Kook, physical freedom is actually the second stage of a process. Before one can be outwardly free, one must first experience an inner state of redemption. Our inner liberation took place at night, when Pharaoh finally relented in the wake of the plague of the firstborn. This occurred at night, a time of privacy since one cannot be seen by others due to the darkness. The next day, we realized our physical freedom outwardly, by leaving Egypt in broad daylight for all to see.

We have the opportunity to commemorate this two-staged process of redemption each year. The night of Pesach is a time to celebrate our freedom in the privacy of our homes, amidst the comfort of being with friends and family. The next morning, we get up and go to shul, where we may once again celebrate our freedom as a people; this time publically in the context of our loving community.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat HaGadol – April 16, 2016 – 8 Nisan 5776

The Shabbat right before Pesach is called “Shabbat HaGadol” (“The Great Shabbat”). Many reasons are given for this designation. According to some, this Shabbat became “great” because it marks the anniversary upon which the 7th day of Creation was complemented by an equally significant reason to observe the Sabbath – the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. How is the Story of Passover connected to our observance of Shabbat?

Early in the liberation story, Moses confronts Pharaoh and demands that the people be allowed to take a brief rest from their labors in order to worship their God. Pharaoh, calling the people lazy, retorts that Moses is unjustified in making this request. He literally questions slaves taking off time from productive labor in order to worship  – “Shabbat-ing.” (Exodus 5:5) Up until now, the Torah understands Shabbat as the day upon which God rested from his labors. This is the first time in the Torah a person speaks of Shabbat as a time of rest for human beings. From now on, Shabbat can be a call to justice for the powerless to seek rest and rejuvenation from those who hold power over them.

This aspect of Shabbat was not lost on our rabbis. Roman pundits (like Seneca) would deride the Jewish Sabbath as fostering laziness. The rabbis joined the debate with polemics of their own. One midrashic legend has it that The Roman emperor Hadrian said to Rabbi Yehoshua: “I am greater than your Rabbi Moshe, because he is dead but I am alive.” Rabbi Yehoshua answered: “Can you decree your people will not light fires in their homes for 3 days in a row?” “Sure, I can”, said the emperor, and he did so. That evening, they went for a walk together and saw smoke coming from a few chimneys. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: “See, even while you live, some ignore your commandments, while many centuries ago Moshe Rabbenu commanded us not to light fires on Shabbat, and to this day the Jews continue to follow this mitzvah.”

The modern Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) also pointed out the implied link between God’s day of rest and ours: “Shabbat is a day on which a person rises above the need for hard work… and thereby becomes like God, who rested and was refreshed after the creation of the world.” Our liberation from slavery in Egypt won us the privilege of “owning” our work, and not the other way around. This concept is essential to Shabbat, and rightly makes this Shabbat a “Shabbat HaGadol.”

May we all enjoy a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine


Parashat Tazria – April 9, 2016 – 1 Nisan 5776

In this week’s parasha we learn that an individual afflicted with nega tzaraat (an affliction of the human skin translated by the Septuagint as “leprosy”) must be isolated from others for a seven day period. Surely the author of the Torah anticipated that we would associate the quarantine of “seven days” with Shabbat – the seventh day of the week. What’s the connection?

A happy Shabbat contrasts sharply with the unhappiness of one afflicted with nega tzaraat. If we rearrange the letters which spell “nega” (nun-gimmel-aiyen), we can spell “oneg” (aiyen-nun-gimmel). “Oneg Shabbat” (Shabbat happiness) is a fundamental aim of Shabbat. Nega is traditionally thought of having been a consequence of anti-social behavior. Perhaps the Torah is hinting to us that whereas anti-social behavior is associated with nega and isolation, Shabbat should be characterized by oneg; happiness shared socially among family and friends.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemini – April 2, 2016 – 23 Adar II 5776

Among the “impure” birds listed in this week’s parasha, is the “hasida” which is usually translated as the “stork”. The Talmud, noting the similarity to the Hebrew term “hesed” (“kindness”), explains that this species of fowl is known for displays of kindness by members of the flock toward one another. The Hasidic leader (“Hasid,” by the way, is also an occurrence of this Hebrew root), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), asked, “Why should a bird legendary for its acts of kindness be considered impure?” “Because,” he answered, “It extends its kindnesses only to members of its own flock. One who seeks to be pure must be devoted to acts of hesed for all.”


Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tzav – March 26, 2016 – 16 Adar II 5776

Twice in this week’s parasha we are told that the elevation-offering must be sacrificed in the same place in the Temple as the sin- offering. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that holding both types of sacrifice in the same area of the Temple made it impossible for an onlooker to know the true purpose of a particular sacrifice. Maybe a particular sacrifice was a consequence of a sin, or maybe it wasn’t. In this way, the Torah protects the feelings of the repentant from any public humiliation.

Coincidently, the Jewish value of protecting the feelings of the vulnerable individual is also reflected in at the Pesach Seder. In the opening passage of “Ha lachma onya,” according to the interpretation of the Malbim Haggadah, we invite the poor to join us in the context of partaking of the mitzvah to eat the Passover sacrifice so that none should feel embarrassed that they must accept this meal as charity due to their poverty.

That religious texts encourage wrongdoers to repent and charity be offered to the poor is unsurprising. What is noteworthy is that we find ways of accomplishing these aims with extraordinary sensitivity for the feelings of those at risk. In this way we are reminded that religious observance is not merely “doing a mitzvah,” but includes finding ways of fulfilling our mitzvoth thoughtfully and with kindness.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine