Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Kedoshim – April 26, 2014 – 26 Nisan 5774

This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, is the source for the famous dictum “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:18). Each morning and evening we recite in the Shema prayer, “You shall love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5). That is a lot of loving! What are we to do should these loves conflict? Our rabbis did not have far to search. They found a conflict of this sort in the very next verse of this week’s parasha, where we read “A garment of mixed fibers shall not come upon you.” (Lev. 19:19). What if, posits the Talmud, we spy our neighbor in the marketplace wearing a garment sewn of a forbidden mixture of fibers? Our love for our neighbor prompts us to perhaps make a note that a more Biblically correct garment would make a good birthday present, but our love for God compels us to take more immediate action. Indeed, according to the Talmud, we must remove our neighbor’s garment – even in the public space of the marketplace! Mediaeval rabbinic authorities, perhaps troubled by the practical implications of such a ruling, amended it to apply solely in cases where we know the transgression to be deliberate. In the vastly more common case that our neighbor could simply be unaware of his/her error, we wait until he/she has returned to the privacy of home before we call in the cast of TV’s “What Not [Halachically] to Wear!” In this way, we balance our regard for God and Torah with taking seriously the honor and respect we ought to feel for our neighbor.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach – April 19, 2014 – 19 Nisan 5774

On Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach we read from the beautiful love poetry of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs/Song of Solomon). Our tradition understands this poem as an allegory for God’s love affair with the Jewish people. Just as a lover reads each line of a love note carefully, even reading between the lines, our rabbis read spiritual insights into and out of this poem. The poem presents the beloved as having been “brought into the house of wine.” (2:4) What is the meaning of this?

Rashi comments that “house of wine” refers to the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle, where the details and explanations of the Torah were given. What connection between wine and Torah study could Rashi be thinking of? The Talmud points out that the gematria (numerical value) of “wine” is 70, which corresponds to the 70 sages of the Sanhedrin, who had the privilege of revealing the inner meanings of the Torah. Wine reveals secrets, including the secrets of the Torah. The Tent of Meeting was the place those secrets were revealed.

Wine can be a lubricant for discussion and the uninhibited exchange of ideas. Perhaps this is why we are instructed to imbibe cups of wine at the Seder, and to spread them out rather than drink them all at once. Interspersed with the drinking is the expounding upon the Exodus from Egypt. The wine can “liberate” our thinking, and thus enrich our conversation. The Gaon of Vilna noted that the gematria of “wine,” 70, is also the number assigned to the ultimate number of interpretations of Torah, the “Seventy Faces of Torah.” By sharing a “Le-Chaim!” with God, we couple our celebration of freedom with God’s loving embrace, and may merit to access the full meaning of the Torah.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot – April 12, 2014 – 12 Nisan 5774

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’s 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 charged 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. In recounting the story of our liberation from Egypt, we learn that to “keep halachah” means to overcome our fears and anxieties and to persevere in moving forward.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Metzora – April 5, 2014 – 5 Nisan 5774

The Kohen shall command; and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds…” (Vayikra/Lev. 14:4)

The 12th century Bible commentator, Ibn Ezra, comments that in this verse, “shall be taken” means “the Kohen shall take from his own funds;” i.e. that the Kohen must cover the expense of the birds brought to be slaughtered on behalf of the individual afflicted with tzaraat (the Biblical skin condition which is the subject of this week’s parasha). Rabbinic tradition teaches that the skin affliction is a potential consequence of a number of misdeeds (notably gossip and similar types of anti-social behavior). Normally, if one is afflicted and another provides the cure, the former bears the expense of the treatment, not the latter. In this case, all the more so: If the affliction is understood as a punishment, why should the Kohen, who has done nothing wrong, and seeks only to cure the one suffering, be made to bear this expense?

The Kohen-Israelite relationship is similar, but not identical, to the doctor-patient relationship. The most important distinction is that the afflicted person and the Kohen are part of the same intentional community. Whereas the doctor-patient relationship may be transactional (pay for service), the Kohen-Israelite relationship is meant to be transformational (their interactions are an opportunity for each to grow). Therefore, the “cure” must give both parties a chance to learn and develop. A person guilty of anti-social behavior has revealed that he/she is self-centered to an extreme. Only an incredibly selfish person would allow himself to act as though the feelings and welfare of others may be unjustifiably trampled upon. Part of the cure, evidently, is to demonstrate to the guilty party that being human means being part of a community, and when a member of the group fails in his responsibilities and relationship to another, others, even those who seek to help him, may be made to pay the price. We say, “All Israel is responsible for one another.” Rashi explains that this means that we may be asked to suffer the consequences of one another’s failings. When one does badly, it is obvious that others suffer from the poor behavior. What is less obvious is that we also lose, as a community, the positive contribution this person could have been making as a productive participant in our community. Therefore, the Kohen is required to shoulder part of the burden of the afflicted individual’s rehabilitation. From this, he will perhaps learn (or be reminded), that even as the perpetrator pays the penalty for his crime, returning the miscreant to the path of decency deserves his sacrifice as well.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tazria – March 29, 2014 – 27 Adar II 5774

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 – March 22, 2014 – 20 Adar II 5774

Among the “impure” birds listed in this week’s parasha, we find the “hasida” (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.”

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitchell Levine

 

Purim – March 14, 2014 – 12 Adar II 5774

The Megillah opens by depicting the Persian king, Achashverosh, as having hosted a lavish party for all the notables of the outlying Persian provinces (which lasted for an incredible 180 days), followed by a party for the residents of his capitol, Shushan. That’s a lot of partying. What’s going on?

The two giants of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav and Shmuel, surmised that Achashverosh was acting strategically but they differed over whether or not his tactics were smart. One held the view that the king was wise to first reach out to those far away since he could quite easily demonstrate his appreciation for those in his own city whenever he liked. The other disagreed, holding that the king was foolish for ignoring his base while zealously campaigning in the provinces, since this tactic risks a rebellion at home.

The Jewish world, at present, faces a dilemma similar to that of King Achashverosh. Some Jewish leaders believe that our priorities as a community ought to be reaching out to those on the margins of Jewish life, creating as many attractive opportunities to become engaged in Jewish community as possible. Others, with equal passion, believe that all available resources must be dedicated to strengthening the Jewish core of the already committed.

When faced with a question of two essential options, the answer is to seek to do them both. When we pursue outreach, we are creating portals of engagement for those on our periphery. Such as the king throwing a party that everyone would actually want to come to. When we focus on in-reach, we cultivate that engagement so that it will deepen and endure. This is like the king throwing a party where the participants appreciate why it’s being thrown, and feel transformed by having joined in the celebration.  In either case, the successful party, when it’s our party, the Jewish party, will make the connections face to face and personal. We will know who you are and your participation will be valued. Happy Purim!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitchell Levine

Parashat Vayikra – March 8, 2014 – 6 Adar II 5774

How might a person act righteously yet still sin inadvertently? In describing the sin-offering brought by an individual, the Torah states, “If a single individual sins unintentionally…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27). Rav Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov (d. 1816) asked why the Torah would emphasize “single individual” in this context. He answered that even if a person behaves
properly, but fails to engage the community, his/her deeds are regarded as deficient in a crucial respect. In Judaism, making the right choices as a single individual is not enough. Our tradition calls upon us to find a way to recruit others and get them involved in making a positive difference. Whatever the task, we can do it. But we can do it even better when we inspire others to join us.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Shabbat Shekalim – March 1, 2014 – 29 Adar I 5774

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim, which is the first of the four exceptional Shabbats before Pesach. The name comes from the maftir Aliyah reading which calls upon every Israelite male above age 20 to pay a half-shekel tax for the communal offerings made in the tabernacle (and later toward the Temple in Jerusalem). This tax was paid, even in diaspora communities far from Jerusalem, for as long as the Temple stood. After its destruction in the year 70 CE the emperor Vespasian ordered that the tax still be collected, but now it became the fiscus Judaicus (“Jewish tax”) and the revenue was redirected to the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. The Jews could not allow themselves to pay solely this humiliating tax. They were determined to find a way to continue to also pay a tax which supported a Jewish cause in which they might take pride. They found one: The House of the Nasi; the official leader of the Jewish community of the land of Israel.

A great-great-grandson of Hillel the Elder, a man named Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh led the rabbinic community after the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. His title was “Nasi,” (the “Prince”). Rabban Gamaliel’s leadership dynasty of father to son rule ultimately created the highest political and religious Jewish office in the Roman Empire. This dynasty spanned over 400 years, making it the longest reigning in all of Jewish history, besting even the House of King David by a few decades. There is textual and archeological evidence that Jews all over the Roman Empire contributed an annual tax to the House of the Nasi until the death of the last Gamaliel (c. 429 CE), whereupon Emperor Theodosius II took advantage of the lack of an heir, closed the office of the Nasi, and diverted the taxes to the imperial treasury.

This long-ago 400 year tradition is really an anomaly, for despite half-hearted attempts ever since at establishing “Chief Rabbinates,” the Jewish people have generally eschewed centralized governance. Even the powerful Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh suffered rebellion and dissent from within the ranks. His most relentless opponent, Rabbi Yehoshua, famously declared the law is “lo b’shamyim he” (“not in Heaven”), meaning that since the Torah has been given to the people no one, not even God, may henceforth decide matters autocratically. Therefore the only authentic way to decide issues of religious practice is according to personal conscience and democratic consensus. It is no mean feat to attempt to govern Jewish people singlehandedly, but the half-shekel tax is a remnant of an era when such things still seemed possible.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel – February 22, 2014 – 22 Adar I 5774

Our parasha’s name, Vayakhel, comes from the same root as “kehillah” (“community”), and begins with Moses assembling the “community.” In Biblical times we repeatedly hear about the “nation,” and all its members are expected to observe Judaism alike. The Bible shuns the concept of discrete Jewish communities, each one observing Judaism according to its own priorities and traditions, each a little differently from the next.

The Mishnah is where we are finally introduced to distinct Jewish communities; each one entitled to expect its members to conform to its particular policies and interpretations. The community was defined geographically. If you lived in a certain town, you were a member of the Jewish community of that town, and were expected to live according to its standards, irrespective of what traditions you may have grown up with elsewhere, or came to believe in based upon your own study.

Eventually the question arose as to whether or not it would be possible to have multiple communities, or rabbinic courts, in a single town. One opinion allowed divergent courts with jurisdiction over their respective communities to coexist side by side. (Yevamot 14a) This view is challenged by the medieval commentators, Rashi and Rambam, on grounds that legitimizing diversity in the same locale would lead to the intolerable impression that there is more than one “Torah,” or that the ensuing rival practices in close proximity to one another would inevitably lead to friction over whose way is superior. Regardless of the objections of these two Torah giants, the view permitting multiple courts (and with them multiple versions of Judaism) ultimately prevailed.

Jewish history can be divided into 4 periods corresponding to four phases of the essence of the Jewish community which laid claim to the loyalty of its individual members. First, we have the period of all one nation of Israel, followed by residency in a particular town coming to the fore. This was followed by the rise of ethnic Judaism, where one’s Jewish practice was mediated through membership in an ethnic group, such as “Ashkenazi” or “Sephardi.” In the fourth phase we organize our communities ideologically. For purposes of identifying my religious community, it became more important if I am affiliated Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. than if I live in a particular city or that my ancestors came from a particular region of the globe.

Today, the movements seem to be on the wane, and new, independent expressions of what it means to be a part of a Jewish community have begun to emerge. At first, this may seem a bit unsettling but, from the perspective of Jewish history, it is not altogether unexpected. What’s important is where we began, long ago at the beginning of this week’s parasha, and that we continue the holy work of “vayakhel” – that we make community.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine