Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Toldot – November 10, 2018 – 2 Kislev 5779

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 3, 2018 – 25 Cheshvan 5779

Ha-Makom Yinachem…

Our Parasha begins with reporting the death of Sarah. “And Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.” It has been pointed out that the wording here is counter-intuitive. It would be expected from one suffering the death of his beloved that he would cry first and afterwards eulogize. Why the reverse order?

The Book of Ezekiel contains a prophecy which says, “Behold, I take from you the delight of your eyes at a stroke… Groan silently; do not mourn.” The Talmud cites this passage and posits that it refers to the tragic situation of a sudden, unexpected death. A case in which the deceased was “snatched” away.

Death can be shocking and disorientating. Sometimes tears of mourning cannot come right away. A person may need the framing and modest emotional distance of a few words, or a eulogy, to regain a sense of equilibrium. Whereas some may find it “too early” for words, another may “groan silently” until the right words, carefully chosen, allow the more raw expressions of profound loss, wailing and tears, to well up. Perhaps Abraham found at first he could not cry for Sarah. He eulogized her, and then his tears flowed.

Terrible sadness, anger, and a range of unhappy emotions hammer us as we reel from the blow of the anti-Semitic atrocity perpetrated at the Tree of life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Some of us were immediately moved to tears on the behalf of the victims, fellow Jews at prayer, and for the courageous police officers wounded while trying to save them. Some of us may need the acknowledgment of words to begin to fully absorb the tragedy. Whether it moves from tears to words, or from words to tears, mourning is a process. “May God console the mourners in the midst of all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayera – October 27, 2018 – 18 Cheshvan 5779

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 – October 20, 2018 – 11 Cheshvan 5779

The Lord said to Abraham, “Get going from your land, etc.” Rabbi Yitzhak said, “It is like one who was passing by and saw a palace on fire. He said, ‘Is it possible that this palace is without a manager?’ The owner of the palace peeked out at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ So it was with our father Abraham. He said, ‘Is it possible that this world is without a manager?’ The Holy One Blessed Be He peeked out at him and said, ‘I am the owner.” (Bereshit Rabbah)

We call Abraham the founder of ethical monotheism. Some people think that God must be the basis for morality and so belief in God comes before, and leads to, a commitment to a moral life. I think Abraham took the opposite view. According to the midrash, Abraham saw the world as a palace on fire. He demanded to know, “Where is the master of the palace?” Abraham saw a world burning to ruin. He demanded justice, and reasoned that justice demands a judge. He committed to the proposition that life must be governed by morality, and that led him to God.

“He [Abraham] had faith in the Lord; and he [God] reckoned it to him as righteousness” is the Biblical source for Abraham as an exemplar of faith. The word here used for “faith” is more accurately understood as “trust.” Abraham is not being described as righteous on account of some advanced degree in theology or because he blindly embraced some cosmic esoterica. Abraham trusted. He trusted that there is a permanent relationship between the Divine and the world and its creatures. This trust manifests itself as love, fear and in deliberative action. That’s the Biblical tradition of “faith,” and it is reckoned as righteousness.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Noach – October 13, 2018 – 4 Cheshvan 5779

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 Bereshit – October 6, 2018 – 27 Tishrei 5779

The parasha contains quite a bit about the creation of living things according to categories, but we don’t hear too much about specifics. For details, we may turn to the ample legends preserved in Jewish folk and rabbinic lore. One such source, the Alphabet of Sirach (circa 10th century), tells us about the animals most popular in our neighborhood, cats and dogs. It seems that the lack of appreciation that these two species have for one another has its origins in the Creation story itself. According to this legend, cats and dogs originally were partners. Circumstances arose in which they had a hard time finding food. They determined to dissolve their partnership, and go their separate ways, with the provision that they would not turn to the same source for sustenance. The dog struck out on his own. The cat, naturally, went to live with Adam. The first human, noting that the cat was keeping the mouse population at bay, was very pleased to have the cat hanging around, and life was good. Unfortunately for the dog, matters did not turn out so well. Everywhere he turned for help, he managed to goof up. For example, he went to live with the sheep. His constant barking drew the attention of the wolves, who came and ate the sheep. Homeless, the dog wandered over to Adam’s house. The cat immediately resented the dog’s appearance, and gave him a cold and disdainful reception. The dog, upon seeing the cat, once again started barking excitedly. The barking not only annoyed the cat, it also alerted Adam to the presence of wild animals (and to the mailman). Adam, seizing upon the utility of this trait of the dog’s, invited him to join their living arrangement. Ever since, dogs have been grateful to live with people, and cats have resented the intrusion.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot – September 29, 2018 – 20 Tishrei 5779

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 two 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

Parashat Ha’azinu – September 22, 2018 – 13 Tishrei 5779

According to the midrash, Moses’ declaration at the beginning of this week’s parasha “Listen O heavens, and I will speak; earth, hear the words of my mouth,” implies that Moses was especially close to the heavens, such that he could call to the heavens at close range. Moses’ implied ability to negotiate the heavenly sphere bears an interesting connection with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We conclude Yom Kippur by declaring seven times in unison, “Adonai is God.” Why repeat this phrase seven times? According to Jewish tradition there are seven layers of heaven and God’s presence, the Shechinah, resides in the seventh, outermost layer. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when God is most likely to be found because (according to tradition) this is the season that God is closest to us. As the Shechinah departs to ascend back to the seventh heaven at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we escort the Divine Presence by calling out “Adonai is God,” once for each of the seven stages. The ancient Greeks had a conception of the seven heavens (which could well be the source for our notion), which they believed corresponded to the “seven planets” known in antiquity. The outermost planet they named “Saturn,” which is where we get the name of the day “Saturday.” It is intriguing that “Saturday” corresponds to the seventh day of our week, “Shabbat.” It may seem strange that we would associate Saturday/Shabbat with God’s most distant abode. On the other hand, the midrash, noting Moses’ apparent intimacy with God, credits him with the unique ability to bring the Shechinah back down to earth. Perhaps we do something similar when we replicate “heaven on earth” with our Shabbat spirit.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayelech – September 15, 2018 – 6 Tishrei 5779

Twice in this week’s parasha, Moses utters the encouraging words, “Be strong and courageous.” This Biblical expression, which appears several times in scripture, is also to be found at the end of Psalm 27, the special psalm added to our services during the season of repentance. The context of these passages indicates that this expression was used to encourage those who were facing the challenge posed by external foes. In contrast, the Talmudic rabbis use this phrase to explain that four human endeavors require strength and courage. They are: Torah study, prayer, good deeds, and the pursuit of one’s worldly occupation (Brachot 32b). The challenges to these endeavors would seem to be primarily internal. It is largely up to me, and not some external foe, if I study or not, pray, commit to good deeds, work hard, and so forth. Why would the rabbis apply this phrase to internal challenges, rather than to explicitly external ones? In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma advises, “Who is strong? One who rules over himself.” Our rabbis realized that, as formidable as external foes might be, the real challenge in life is to overcome ourselves. Study, prayer, good deeds, and a job don’t happen by themselves. These activities take thought, commitment and discipline. And these traits require strength and courage. May we be blessed with “strength and courage” for the New Year!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Nitzavim – September 8, 2018 – 28 Elul 5778

At the risk of stating the obvious, intentionality is considered essential to Jewish prayer. To simply “go through the motions” by rote without paying attention to the prayer is shallow, misses the point of worship, and probably renders the prayer invalid according to Jewish Law. That’s why it is astonishing to find in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rabbi Hiyya said, “In all my days, I’ve never concentrated in prayer. I wanted to once, and I ended up thinking about Persian court protocols.” Shmuel said, “[During services,] I count baby chickens.” (some texts “clouds”) Rabbi Bun b. Hiyya said, “I count the layers of brick in the wall [during services].” Rav Matinya said, “I must express gratitude for my head, for it knows to automatically bow at the right time!” (Yer. Ber. 2:4)

The traditional commentators are understandably loathe to take this passage at face value. They assume it must contain some deeper, hidden meaning. As modern readers of our tradition, I think we can accept that plainly some of our founding sages found it very difficult, even impossible, to pay attention during services. Their transparency about this difficulty empowers us to confront it honestly as well. Indeed, services have actually grown quite a bit longer over the past 1700 years.

Our cantor, staff, lay leaders and I work hard to keep our services lively and engaging. Over the past few years, we have freshened the format for the shofar blowing, added English readings/poems composed by congregants, innovated brief “bio’s” of those honored to be called to the bima, and included a special prayer which is led by non-Jewish fellow worshippers. I believe we can still do even better and that everyone can help. If you see a neighbor confused how to follow, gently direct him/her to the right page. If you recognize the tune, sing along with energy and spirit, and if you feel we’ve missed a tune that you recall fondly from previous years, let us know. It’s okay to let kids play quietly (there’s a play rug and toys in the social hall section), and it’s okay to take breaks and chat in the hallway.

While you’re there, check out this year’s amazing Agudas Lamed-Vavniks featured on our walls. We invite you to volunteer to greet, usher, or learn a role for the service. We have empty chairs on the bima and it is your bima too. Join me for a little prayerful company whenever you like. Become a partner in making our services engaging. No doubt about it, they are long and can be tough to get through. Worst case scenario, count a few bricks; or chickens.

B’vrachah (with blessings),

Rabbi Mitch Levine