Rabbi’s Parasha Message

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

Parashat Vayera – November 8, 2014 – 15 Cheshvan 5775

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 1, 2014 – 8 Cheshvan 5775

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

Parashat Noach – October 25, 2014 – 1 Cheshvan 5775

When we are young and hear the story of Noach, we get the idea that everyone in Noach’s time, except for Noach, was wicked. However this assumption does not fit what we know about how the world really works.  As it happens, if one person is stealing then another is being stolen from. If one person murders, then another must be the victim of that violence. Moreover, why destroy the world because some commit crimes, while others are victims? The Torah addresses this insight in a subtle way. In this week’s parasha, God declares to Noach that he intends to destroy the world because “the earth is filled with lawlessness before them.” (Gen. 6:13) What does the Torah mean by “before them”? Perhaps the meaning is this: Not everyone in Noach’s time was devoted to lawless behavior. However leaders and bystanders failed to protest and stop lawlessness when it occurred. The crimes were being committed “before them” and they failed to take a stand for justice. Because of their apathetic disregard for the welfare of others, the entire society had degenerated to a point that God no longer saw the value in preserving it. From this we learn that it is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. We must also object to the unjust behavior of others and demand a world of righteousness.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bereishit – October 18, 2014 – 24 Tishrei 5775

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, skeptics have wondered to what extent God has been made in the image of humanity.

Rabbi Hoshiah said, “When the Holy One created Adam, the ministering angels erred in wanting to proclaim before him ‘Kadosh!’ (‘Holy’). There is a parable: A king and a governor were traveling in a state carriage and the citizens of the province wanted to hail the king, but didn’t know which one he was. What did the king do? He pushed and expelled the governor from the carriage, and all knew that he was only just a governor.” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:10)

Why were the first human beings tossed out of the Garden of Eden? According to R. Hoshiah, God exiled us out of concern that with us in the Garden, the angels would remain unable to tell us apart from God and, in their confusion, think we are all gods. So we are out of the Garden and into the real world. That is why the real world can be so hard and frustrating; it reminds us that part of us is indistinguishable from God, and another part is not like God at all.

Chag Sameach & Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot – October 11, 2014 – 17 Tishrei 5775

The rabbis of the Talmud speculate that on judgment day at the end time, the nations of the world will protest that the Jewish people will receive preferential treatment from God. God will reply that the Jewish people deserve the perks because we kept the Torah. The nations will argue that they were unfairly denied an opportunity to also keep the Torah. God will then, according to the rabbis, grant them the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. At first things will go smoothly, but gradually God will cause it to grow hotter and hotter (Talmudic proof that climate change is associated with the end time). It will get so hot that staying in the sukkah becomes impossible. The Jews will conclude that sitting in the sukkah is just not in the cards and retreat indoors, but the nations will become very angry at the situation. Legend has it that they will not only exit the sukkah, but that they will kick the sukkah on their way out.

After 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the days in between, it is little wonder that we would feel entitled to brag just a bit about how good we are at performing mitzvot, and perhaps we can forgive the rabbis for chauvinistically lording it over the nations. Even if they don’t admit it, I suspect that the rabbis realized that Jews are not immune to the human predicament of taking out our frustrations on inanimate objects (and others) rather than grapple more appropriately with the fact of our human limitations. There are occasions in life when we desire a certain outcome very much, but are powerless to determine that outcome. We can only try our best. Sometimes that is enough, but sometimes it simply isn’t. When the latter befalls us, a little humility may be more dignified than “kicking the sukkah.”

B’Yedidut(w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine