Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Bo – January 24, 2015 – 4 Shevat 5775

At the conclusion of this week’s parasha, the long awaited redemption from Egypt has finally arrived. God commands our ancestors to take a lamb or goat as a Pesach sacrifice and slaughter it four days later. Why wait four days? Why not slaughter the sacrifice right away?

One midrashic answer is that God wanted to create a four day window of opportunity for the Israelites to begin fulfilling mitzvot, so that our redemption could be earned through the performance of these mitzvot. This is a spiritually profound lesson. Some people believe that God, being all powerful and just, makes redemption a freely offered gift. The midrash, reflecting the Jewish tradition, takes the opposite view. For our tradition, God’s redemption must be earned. Even though God had promised Abraham that his children would one day be redeemed from Egypt, we don’t rely on promises alone, even from God. Instead, we seek to earn God’s favor through our deeds each and every day. Later on, in discussing the Tablets of the Law, the rabbis note that the Hebrew root meaning “engraved” may also be rendered as “freedom.” On this the rabbis comment that one is not truly free unless he is occupied with that which is “engraved” – the mitzvot. Freedom is not merely freedom from slavery, it is even more fundamentally freedom (and a responsibility) to make the world a kinder, more righteous place.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vaera – January 17, 2015 – 26 Tevet 5775

“HaShem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron and commanded the people of Israel…” (Shemot/Exodus 6:13). It is delightful that this verse (613!) mentions the concept of “mitzvah” (commandment). What is surprising is that God directs Moshe and Aaron to “command” the Israelites, but no commandment is actually mentioned. What mitzvah is being commanded here?

The Talmud Yerushalmi (R.H. 3:5) raises this question and suggests the answer is the mitzvah of the freeing of slaves. This mitzvah is actually taught in P. Mishpatim, which does not occur until 4 more weeks. What is it doing here?

The Talmud cites the verse, “Like a merchant ship bringing bread from afar….” (Prov. 31:14). Why would one want to import a routine product like bread from a distant port? Well, the fact that bread is ubiquitous in one place does not mean there is no urgent hunger for it at some other place. Later on, the Torah is replete with mitzvot. But right now, in order to inspire them to prepare for their liberation from Egypt, the people must focus on one mitzvah in particular – the mitzvah that slaves be freed. This shows us the importance of relevance. There are 613 mitzvot and they are all of equal value. However, depending upon our particular time and situation, some need to be heard more than others.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemot – January 10, 2015 – 19 Tevet 5775

Astonishingly enough, the first human being to invoke the concept of “Shabbat” is none other than the paradigm of anti-Jewish villainy himself, the Pharaoh of Egypt. In this week’s parasha, Moses requests that the people be allowed to take a few days off of work in order to worship God in the wilderness (Exodus 5:3). In reply, Pharaoh complains to Moses with the accusatory question, “The people are numerous, why are you ‘Shabbat-ing’ them?!” (5:5). In Pharaoh’s view, evidently, the idea of the entire labor force taking off time for worship is the epitome of laziness, and he calls encouraging this vice “Shabbat.”

As it happens, we spurned Pharaoh’s employment and his work ethic a long time ago, and we are still gathering in worship once a week, on our Shabbat. In fact, the rest of the world enjoyed the concept so much they have doubled it, and now we are blessed with the concept of the “weekend.” So, on some fine Shabbat morning, should you find yourself sitting in shul with your mind wandering over what more productive use you might be putting the time to – pause, and reflect, that is exactly the question that Pharaoh put to Moses. Moses’ response laid the foundation for a pillar of Judaism in particular and of western heritage in general, the liberation from slavery in Egypt. What will your response be?

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayechi – January 3, 2015 – 12 Tevet 5775

An unusual feature of Parashat Vayechi is that it is “stumah,” or “blocked.” This means that there is no line break between the end of last week’s parasha and the beginning of this week’s in the Torah scroll. Rashi offers a number of explanations. One of them is that the “blocked” stylistic arrangement is meant to symbolize that upon Jacob’s death, his children’s eyes became “blocked” from seeing that the enslavement in Egypt had begun. Elsewhere, Rashi posits that the enslavement in Egypt began later, with the death of Levi, the last of Jacob’s sons. How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled?

According to the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Lev Alter (1847-1905), Rashi is speaking of two different “enslavements” – enslavement of the body and enslavement of the spirit. Our physical enslavement did not begin until after the generation of Jacob’s sons had passed. But our spiritual enslavement began the moment we buried Jacob, and with him our commitment to a distinct Jewish way of life and values.

This is the way it is with human nature. We imagine that we are completely free in the absence of physical threat or confinement. Rarely do we reflect upon the cultural and subconscious influences that powerfully yet more subtly influence our choices.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayigash – December 27, 2014 – 5 Tevet 5775

In this week’s parasha, Jacob and his family join his son Joseph to live in Egypt. The Torah states that this move “seemed good in the eyes of Pharaoh.” (Gen. 45:16). Why would Pharaoh care whether or not Joseph’s family would be in Egypt, and why would he be pleased about it?

On this issue the commentators differ. According to the Seforno, Pharaoh realized that a person works harder when his labors benefit his own family as well as strangers. According to the Ramban, Pharaoh realized that the presence of Joseph’s family would mean that the populace would no longer regard Joseph as a mere ex-convict and former slave, but would now regard him as the progeny of a fine and noble family.

The two views, taken together, offer a compelling lesson about leadership: For a person to fulfill his/her potential, he/she needs to be able to invest heart and soul, to feel that one’s own family and future are at stake in the outcome. Secondly, a person needs to have credibility in the eyes of those he serves. These two traits, vigor and eminence, are often associated with success. In the eyes of Pharaoh, they are its building blocks as well.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Miketz – December 20, 2014 – 28 Kislev 5775

When I was a youngster, I remember the impression that movies and television shows made on me by equipping major characters with theme music. I thought how cool it would be if a person could be accompanied by personal theme music in ordinary real life.  Eventually Walkmans were invented and the world learned that personal music can also mean a personal bubble. None the less, I still believe in the power of an inspiring tune.

When Jacob’s sons prepare to return to Egypt for the second time, due to the severity of the famine in the Land of Israel, Jacob coaches them on the importance of bringing gifts for the authorities there. In the midst of this advice, Jacob tells them to bring “Mizimrat.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov noticed the similarity between this word and the Hebrew word for “song” (mizmor). He interprets Jacob as teaching his sons that one who enters into a foreign and a potentially tense situation would do well to bring a familiar song. We all face our “journeys to Egypt.” The music that gives us the strength for that journey can literally grant us a harmonious life. Our Shabbat and Hanukah melodies are meant to provide precisely that harmony.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayeshev – December 13, 2014 – 21 Kislev 5775

This week’s parasha is about Joseph, a stunning success story of a young immigrant  who rises from lowly servitude and imprisonment to become the leader in charge of economic policy and second in command of a great empire. How did he do it?

A partial answer is imbedded in a curious juxtaposition that occurs early on in the story. Joseph, we are told, is a “youth” with his brothers and a “son of old age” to his father. These two descriptions taken together reveal that Joseph was able to be a “youth” with the young and a “a son of old age” with the elderly. The Torah is telling us that Joseph possessed the right instincts to relate to people of different generations. Today, we refer to someone  with this trait as having a high social or emotional intelligence, and the research indicates that being adept at handling encounters and relationships in a broad range of social situations can be a key to overall success in life.

Being in a community does not necessarily mean being “best friends” with everyone in that community. But fruitful and effective community participation does require a penchant for relating to a variety of needs in the group, and being willing to embrace diversity helps a lively bunch of people retain its cohesiveness. Joseph drew on these personal strengths in his rise to leadership in ancient Egypt. Striving to emulate Joseph is a step towards being a leader in the modern community of today.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayishlach – December 6, 2014 – 14 Kislev 5775

The Torah tells us that Jacob grew very frightened at the prospect of a homecoming confrontation with his brother, Esau. The rabbis express puzzlement over Jacob’s anxiety. “Why,” they ask, “should Jacob have been frightened? After all, his return home has been commanded by God. Doesn’t Jacob trust God’s command enough not to be scared to fulfill it?”

The rabbis answer to Jacob reasoned that although he was following God’s commands, his brother Esau was not without merit. Indeed, Esau may have earned God’s favor by having lived in the land of Israel while Jacob had been living outside the land. Esau had been fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring their parents, while Jacob had long been absent from home. Jacob grew anxious that perhaps his own good deeds were insufficient and in a confrontation with his brother, he may find that he lacks the merit to prevail.

From this episode the Midrash concludes that there are “no guarantees for the righteous.” A person must not think, “I’ve done well, I’ve earned God’s grace, all will be fine with me.” Rather, a person must consider that life comes without such assurances and despite the anxiety of carrying on in uncertainty, we must resist wavering from the goals we believe to be right.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayetze – November 29, 2014 – 7 Kislev 5775

This week’s parasha opens with the famous incident of Yacov’s dream of the angels and the ladder to heaven. Upon awakening, Yacov declares, “This awesome place must be a house of God yet I did not realize it.” The label, “house of God” would seem to imply that Yacov has identified this place as being the very first synagogue. Why does Yacov describe his shul as “awesome,” rather than as being “elegant” or “stately”?

In his choice of words, Yacov reveals to us that it is not the extravagance of the place that reflects its holiness. After all, this initial synagogue lacks even a pew to sit on – Yacov must gather a few stones to arrange a place to rest. In calling the place “awesome,” Yacov must not be referring to its physical state, but rather to the experience of his encounter there. From here we may learn that it is not the physical state of a place that makes it spiritually “awesome.” Clearly, what counts is the quality of the experience. At Agudas Achim, we are blessed with a comfortable, well-appointed building in which to study and worship. However, as our name implies, we are not about a pretty building. We are an “Agudas Achim;” a fellowship of brothers and sisters. For our religious community, the warmth of the physical space is secondary to the warmth and enthusiasm of those gathered together for the Shabbat services and wholesome Kiddush. We look forward to you joining us. Shabbat Shalom!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Toldot – November 22, 2014 – 29 Cheshvan 5775

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