Rabbi’s Parasha Message

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

Parashat Mishpatim – February 14, 2015 – 25 Shevat 5775

This week’s parasha introduces an abrupt and profound shift of emphasis. Up until now, the Torah has followed a pattern of stories interspersed with a scattering of laws. Parashat Mishpatim, as its name (“Judgments”) implies, marks the transition to parshiot that are primarily dedicated to laws, and so the narrative portions begin to take a backseat. If the point of Judaism is what we do or don’t do (the rules), why bother with months of stories? Why not just get straight to the laws?

One function of the lengthy narrative portion of the Torah is to introduce the laws. By learning about the Creation of the world and the founding of our peoplehood, we are able to glimpse the big picture and we become better prepared to properly understand the details legislated as mitzvoth. In line with this idea, the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), noted that human beings are like books. Just as a book includes an introduction which reveals what to expect from its contents, the background story of a person’s experiences and values can help us to anticipate and predict what he or she will do when it is time to act and the details matter.

“To read a person ‘like a book” is a popular idiom which recognizes the significance of knowing someone very well. An essential feature of the social relationships which form the basis of a community is being familiar and valuing the personal stories of one another. These stories inexorably lead to whatever chapter in life each of us presently finds him or herself. Our personal stories illuminate what we do and how we feel. These stories shed light on why some love going to shul and why for others it may be more of a burden. These stories can help us to understand why some love to sing, while others may love to learn and others really just want to schmooze. Whatever our story, the bonds of community remain elusive if the book remains closed. Let’s strive together to create an “open book” Judaism!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Parashat Yitro – February 7, 2015 – 18 Shevat 5775

Parashat Yitro opens with “And Yitro Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel his people when he took Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot/Exodus 18:1). The Talmudic rabbis understand this passage to signal Yitro’s decision to convert to Judaism. In answer to the question as to what precisely did Yitro hear that inspired him to join the Jewish community, we find three answers:

  • He heard about our victory over the Amalekites
  • He heard about the giving of the Torah
  • He heard about the splitting of the Red Sea

The above answers reflect three different rabbinic perspectives on what each considered the most compelling rationale for valuing and pursuing a Jewish identity. Some of us find inspiration in the history of the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism and the miracle of Jewish survival (Amalekites). Alternatively, some of us most highly prize Jewish intellectual achievement and the attraction of the opportunity for life-long learning (Torah). Thirdly, some of us are moved by the experience of Divine providence in our lives (Sea).

There are many valid reasons for cultivating and refining a Jewish identity, and nearly all of them can be best realized in the context of a caring and robust community. Following weekday morning services, we may be discussing the grave challenges to Israel or our concerns for the Jewish community of France over bagels and coffee. Shabbat afternoons at Woodchoppers Talmud we expand our Jewish knowledge and skills. And on Shabbat mornings we get in touch with the Holy spark within us through t’fila and song.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beshalach – January 31, 2015 – 11 Shevat 5775

“Beshalach” means to be “sent away,” which means a radical separation. With this parasha we are reminded that separations, which can be transformative, can also be shaken by anxiety and regret. Pharaoh regrets having sent the people away immediately upon learning that the people had departed. Dishearteningly, the people too, are overcome by the human aversion to risk and loss. Facing the unknown of the Sinai wilderness, the loss of bare existence (however compromised) in Egypt obscures the exciting potential of the desert. They cry, “Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Shemot/Exodus 14:11) But what of reluctance born of more noble motivation?

Rabbi Abbahu of Caesarea sent his son, Rabbi Haninah, to study in Tiberias, the seat of the most important academy in Israel at that time. Friends reported back to him that the son was not attending classes, but instead was spending all his time performing acts of charitable kindness. He sent a message to his son: “Are there no graves in Caesarea?”  (Yer. Pes. 3:7) Those in need of assistance are to be found in every town; the academy is a place of unique opportunity.

What could be wrong about devotion to the welfare of others? Nothing, but then don’t skip over “others” in the search only for more others. Separation can be transformative. Be mindful that giving to others does not distract you from investing in yourself.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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