Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 25, 2015 – 6 Iyar 5775

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 18, 2015 – 29 Nisan 5775

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.”

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Pesach – April 11, 2015 – 22 Nisan 5775

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 4, 2015 – 15 Nisan 5775

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 – March 28, 2015 – 8 Nisan 5775

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 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 you’re 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 Vayikra/Shabbat HaChodesh – March 21, 2015 – 1 Nisan 5775

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaHodesh because on it we announce Rosh Hodesh Nisan and, according to the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, the month of Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew year. (Exodus 12:2) The implication of the verse is that Rosh Hodesh Nisan is the Jewish New Year; and, in fact, the Torah elsewhere (Lev. 23:24) implies that the Jewish New Year is this week, and not 7 months later in the fall.

Although today we celebrate the Creation of the World on Rosh Hashanah, this view has not always gone unchallenged. The Talmud records a debate over when we should consider the Creation to have taken place. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the Creation. However according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the anniversary of the Creation occurs this week, on Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The Talmud distinguishes these two views by suggesting that R. Eliezer reads Genesis as describing a world created in mature form (with trees already laden with fruit), whereas R. Yehoshua believes the Garden of Eden was created with plants just beginning to bloom. The Maharsha (1555-1632) explains that R. Eliezer links the Creation to the season of repentance, while R. Yehoshua links it to the time of redemption. For R. Eliezer, Adam and Eve were cast out of a completed garden into a world about to go cold and barren – a time for repentance. For R. Yehoshua, Adam and Eve left the garden in early spring which is a season of possibility and hope, a time of redemption. The “redemption” of Adam and Eve foreshadows the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt for a new life of freedom – a Jewish spring!

Although the tradition went with R. Eliezer and we celebrate the Jewish New Year in the fall, there is an undeniable “new year” freshness in the month of Nisan air. Shanah tova!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei – March 14, 2015 – 23 Adar 5775

There are over 200 references in the Torah to the construction of the Tabernacle by many specific groups or artisans, but the verse that declares the building finished (39:32) explicitly credits the Jewish people with the work. How can the entire community be given credit for this mitzvah?

The answer lies in the Torah concept of “shlichut”. A “shaliach” is one who serves as the representative of others in the performance of some action on their behalf. In so doing, the shaliach’s entire group earns the credit for his/her achievement. In the fulfillment of religious matters, this concept is predicated on the idea that the religious obligations of the individual are integrated with the rest of the community’s. In this way, a single member of the community is able to fulfill religious obligations on the behalf of the remainder of the group.

In any community inevitably there will be diversity of skill and interest. In recognizing that a talented individual represents the community of which he/she is a part, our Torah enables each of us to express his/her particular gifts in a way that affirms and benefits all of us.

Agudas Achim is fortunate to have a diverse community of talented, dedicated individuals. We are blessed that their hard work is a credit to our community.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 7, 2015 – 16 Adar 5775

We are a chutzpadik people. I say this not merely as an experienced rabbi but as a student of the midrash. On Parashat Ki Tisa, Midrash Shemot Rabbah 42:9 [a nearly 2000 year old text] describes the Jewish people having chutzpa as a way of explaining this week’s repeated references to us being a “stiff-necked people.” We are called stiff-necked twice in the parasha. The first time [Exodus 33:3], God proclaims he will not be found among us because we are stiff-necked, whereas later [in Exodus 34:9] Moses asks God to remain amongst us precisely because we are characterized by this trait. In the first instance, being stiff-necked is clearly regarded as a problem, but in the second instance it seems that it is a positive. This is the way it is with chutzpa. It all depends upon context. When we are brazenly stubborn in resisting the right path, chutzpa only makes a bad situation worse. However when the situation calls for uncompromising and courageous steadfastness, chutzpa becomes a key virtue. We live in challenging times for the Jewish people. (Which generation of Jews has not?). When those challenges call for a chutzpadik response, we know that we can count on ourselves to meet the expectation.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Purim Message – February 28, 2015 – 9 Adar 5775

Haman said to King Achashverosh, “There is a nation scattered and separated amongst the people throughout the provinces of your realm, and their laws differ from that of any other nation, and the laws of the king they do not do, and it is not worth it to tolerate them.” (Scroll of Esther 3:8) With these words Haman gives the first anti-Semitic speech in history, which highlights Jewish exceptionalism as the problem anti-Semites have with the Jews. Haman judges us for living according to our own distinct laws and customs, and his verdict is genocide. But why does Haman introduce his argument by pointing out that we are a people “scattered and separated” about?

Perhaps Haman is counseling the king that the Jews are not only different, they are also vulnerable. Being scattered and separated, it would be implausible for us to organize an effective defense if attacked. If this is Haman’s point, he seems to have exposed a profound weakness. Our distinct laws do not, on their own, keep us unified and ready to sacrifice on one another’s behalf.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaacov Weinberg  (Sredei Aish Vol. I: 61) points out that whereas positive commandments are typically preceded by a blessing; a few, such as honoring one’s parents and giving charity, are not. Mishaloach Manot (sending gifts of food on Purim) is in the latter category. Rabbi Weinberg explains that the language of a blessing, “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, who has commanded us to …” would be inappropriate in any instance where the act should be inspired more by love than by commandment. If you honor your parent because Jewish Law says you must, you really don’t understand what it means to have a parent. If you give charity because it is a legal obligation, you are not giving it because you are generous. Likewise, it is important to give Purim gifts not because our laws say to do so, but out of a deeply felt need to build community and solidarity with our fellow Jews. Our laws do help keep us distinct, but by themselves they cannot keep us unified. Purim teaches us that a love for one’s fellow Jew, an authentic ahavat Yisrael, must transcend those laws.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Terumah – February 21, 2014 – 2 Adar 5775

As a rabbi, I occasionally encounter people who consider themselves as spiritual but who find it challenging to find God in a synagogue. Instead, they experience the Divine spontaneously and in a variety of unexpected places. The possibility of relating to God in this way is not lost on the Jewish tradition. As a young boy, Yacov Yitshak (who grew up to become the revered “Seer of Lublin”) would go out and spend long hours in the woods. His father, concerned for the youngster’s safety, asked him why. “I go into the woods to encounter God,” answered Yacov Yitshak. “Very well,” replied his father, “But do you not understand that God is the same wherever you may encounter him?” “God is the same everywhere,” agreed the young hasid, “But I am not.”

The son’s thoughtful answer to his father provokes a serious question. If we believe that God is everywhere, and that it is possible to connect with God in a variety of places, why erect houses of worship? To this, a midrash offers an answer, by way of a parable:

In Egypt God encountered us. At the Sea of Reeds God encountered us. At Mount Sinai God encountered us. Once Israel stood at Mt. Sinai and accepted the Torah, we became a complete nation. God said, “It is no longer fitting that I speak with them just any place. Instead, ‘Make for me a Mikdash!” (Exodus 25:8)

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: A king had a young daughter. When she was still a child, he would encounter her in the shuk (marketplace) and speak with her there. If he encountered her in the courtyard or street, he would speak with her there. Once she matured into adulthood, the king said, “It is no longer fitting that I should address my daughter just any place. I will build for her a pavilion, and when I wish to consult with her I will arrange for a meeting with her in the pavilion.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah, Parasha 3)

It is a playful delight for any child to unexpectedly bump into his or her loving parent. But once the child grows up and serious conversation becomes more central to the relationship, a schedule and suitable meeting place may become indispensable. We may need to encounter God in different settings at different points in our lives. But at some point, it is hoped that we mature in our spirituality and learn to meet God in shul.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine