Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Vayechi – January 14, 2017 – 16 Tevet 5777

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 – January 7, 2017 – 9 Tevet 5777

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father. Although the Torah describes Jacob’s reaction to the news that his son, Joseph, still lives, and their emotional reunion in Egypt, the Torah is silent on the issue of how Jacob reacted to the unpleasant details of the brothers’ complicity in Joseph having ended up a slave in Egypt in the first place. Our commentators suggest that, in fact, Jacob never asked Joseph about what had happened to him, and Joseph never told him. Why not?

Perhaps some things are just better left unsaid. Some things we just don’t need to know. If Jacob were to ask, Joseph would have to tell him. If Joseph wanted a family life tainted by resentment and recrimination he could have spilled the beans, but he seems to have been more interested in going along and getting along, counting on lessons learned and better relations going forward.

The haftarah is taken from prophetic books written centuries after the events depicted in our Torah Reading. Typically the haftarah connects to the Torah reading by evoking some theme common to both texts. In the case of this week’s Torah reading, the haftarah refers to an enduring conflict between Ephraim, a tribe descended from Joseph, and the tribe of Joseph’s brother, Judah. Although the eventual reconciliation of these tribes is presented as a prophetic dream, the sad reality seems to be that conflict and disunity amongst them had persisted for many centuries, and the northern tribes were “lost” before unity could be restored.

Relationships can be complicated and tough. Mistakes may be made and regrets deeply felt. There is great risk taking an honest and unvarnished look at who did what to whom. But there is also a risk inherent in avoiding full disclosure – perhaps hurts will fester and the repercussions will leave even deeper scars. Ancient Israel eventually split apart. I wonder if reconciliation may sometimes depend upon the courage to face every truth, no matter how unpleasant.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Miketz – December 31, 2016 – 2 Tevet 5777

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

Chanukah – December 24, 2016 – 24 Kislev 5777

There is a Hanukah story told towards the end of the Talmudic tractate Sukkah:

There is a story about Miriam bat Bilgah, that she denied her Jewish identity. She went and married a Greek officer. When the Greeks entered the Bet HaMikdash, she kicked the altar with her sandal saying, “Wolf, wolf, how long will you continue to devour the money of Israel [she is referring to the expensive sacrifices offered] and not be there for the people in their hour of need [that is, save them from the Greeks]!?!

Miriam bat Bilgah may not have been a great theologian, but she did know how to make a point with theatrical flourish. Her point, of course, was that religion sometimes seems to take away without always giving back. Why contribute time and money, if our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears? The answer to Miriam’s complaint is the central message of Hanukah. Not every crisis in our lives will be resolved through miraculous interventions on the scale of plagues in Egypt or the splitting of a sea. But if we emulate the Maccabees by taking courage and demonstrating initiative, we may be able to find a miraculous spark in our lives that burns quite a bit longer than anyone might have thought likely. By coming together as a community for study and worship, we coax that spark into a flame that illuminates and generates warmth. Have an illuminating (and happy) Hanukah!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayishlach – December 17, 2016 – 17 Kislev 5777

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 – December 10, 2016 – 10 Kislev 5777

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 – December 3, 2016 – 3 Kislev 5777

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

Parashat Chaye Sarah – November 26, 2016 – 25 Cheshvan 5777

Abraham has reached the end of his life and his estranged son, Ishmael, is back. The text describes Abraham getting his affairs in order and then dying content; at a ripe old age. After Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, we learn that “God blessed Isaac his [Abraham’s] son.” In the coming weeks we will see that Isaac and Jacob are careful to bestow their blessings upon the next generation as they prepare to depart from this world. Abraham had ample opportunity to do likewise, but did not. Instead, God blesses Isaac after Abraham’s death. Why didn’t Abraham bless his son?

The midrash likens Abraham’s situation to that of a tenant farmer whose field hosts two trees which have grown tightly intertwined. One tree produces life-sustaining fruit, but the other offers only fruit which is highly toxic. If the farmer waters the field, both trees will thrive, and if he withholds water, both will perish. Unsure what to do, the farmer reasons that since he is merely a tenant farmer, he can leave this matter up to his boss, the landowner, to decide. Likewise, Abraham feels that he must bless either both his sons or neither. Unable to pick between these two alternatives, he leaves the decision up to God.

Abraham’s predicament seems hard to understand. If he cannot bring himself to ignore Ishmael’s shortcomings and bless both his sons, why can’t he simply bless the son who seems to merit it? After all, they really aren’t intertwined trees, but distinct individuals who will go their separate ways immediately following their father’s funeral anyway.

Abraham wants what most of us want – to be true to what we believe passionately while at the same time respecting diversity. He realizes that Isaac, who will carry on his legacy, deserves the blessing. To select the worthy Isaac, however, excludes the not so worthy Ishmael. Abraham wants to respect diversity but is reluctant to embrace deviancy. The trouble is it can be hard to tell the difference. In a religious community, particularly where “3 Jews = 5 opinions,” making the distinction between legitimate diversity and illegitimate deviancy can be impossible. In those cases, figured Abraham, the matter is best left up to God.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayera – November 19, 2016 – 18 Cheshvan 5777

After the destruction of Sodom, we are informed, “And Avraham journeyed from there.” (Gen. 20:1) Avraham, as we learn at the beginning of the parasha, had a passion for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim; providing hospitality to wayfarers. According to the Midrash, the destruction of the major city in the region resulted in a sharp decline in the number of available wayfarers. Upon realizing that his opportunities for this mitzvah had been considerably diminished, Avraham decided to pitch his tent somewhere more promising. What might we learn from this?

Rabbi Abun cited a verse from the Book of Job, “Mountains collapse and crumble; Rocks are moved from their place.’ ‘Mountains collapse and crumble’ – this is Lot. ‘Rocks are moved from their place’ – this is Avraham, for he turned from place to place.

This seems paradoxical. A mountain is just a really big rock; a rock is just a chunk of collapsed mountain. What’s the difference?

Lot was like a mountain. Fixed to his spot, he could not extract himself from a negative situation until it literally collapsed around him. By contrast, Avraham was a restless seeker, a rolling stone constantly on the prowl for a spiritual frontier; for an opportunity to strike sparks in some new place that had not yet seen the light. In the case of Sodom, it proved better to be an independent “rock” than a settled “mountain.” Nonetheless, there are situations where the sacred is to found in the well-established, and where being an entrenched mountain is better than floundering amidst the flux. Ultimately, we must have the capacity to be both – at times dwelling undisturbed like a mountain; at times breaking loose like a rock.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki was asked what constitutes a true Jew. He said: “Three things are fitting for us: upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.” We may add: To be spiritually seeking while dwelling.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Lech Lecha – November 12, 2016 – 11 Cheshvan 5777

Commentators have expressed surprise over the opening passage of this week’s parasha in which God chooses a relationship with Avraham even though the Torah has offered no explanation as to what Avraham may have done to deserve Divine favor. The Sefat Emet (Hasidic, 19th century) explains that the Zohar teaches us that every human being, in every time and place, receives the call God issues to Avraham: “Go [to a new place I, God, shall show you”]. The difference, suggests the rabbi, is that only Avraham was listening. Learning how to listen to God’s voice on a personal level is itself an achievement, one that inspires a new life with a fresh perspective.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine