Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Bereishit – October 14, 2017 – 24 Tishrei 5778

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, sceptics 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.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot – October 7, 2017 – 17 Tishrei 5778

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

Rosh Hashanah – September 20-22, 2017 – 1 & 2 Tishrei 5778

A provocative yet often overlooked passage of our Rosh Hashanah prayers is when we remind God to “Remember the kindness of [our] youth… when we followed God in the [Sinai] wilderness.” What?! According to the Torah, our time in the wilderness consisted of complaint, rebellion, a golden calf, and a disastrous spy mission. Out of all this strife, what “kindness” are we praying God will remember?

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev taught a parable: Once there was a king who was lost in the woods. Lonely and anxious, he started to blow loudly on his hunter’s horn. A woodsman heard the sound, set aside whatever he was doing, and kindly came to the king’s rescue.

This lends a fresh and surprising perspective to the story of our relationship with God. Once upon a time, God was lost in the Sinai wilderness. By sounding the horn (the Torah tells us that the Sinai theophany was accompanied by heavenly blasts of the shofar), God managed to get our attention. We responded, and have been together ever since.

A relationship may face the occasional bump in the road, but acts of kindness (and remembering them) can help it endure. The sound of the shofar is a reminder of this to God. It is also a reminder to us:  People say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rosh Hashanah reminds us that God helps those who help God.

Shana Tova,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayelech – September 16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777

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 Ki Tavo – September 9, 2017 – 18 Elul 5777

“This day you have become a nation to the Lord your God” (Deut/Devarim 27:9)

Our parasha declares that on “this day” we became a nation. Really? The experience of enslavement and exodus from Egypt did not make us a people? The moment of Divine revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai did not form us into a nation? What about the 40-year period of wandering in the desert? How is it that only now, on “this day,” the Torah declares us to have finally achieved the status of peoplehood?

Rashi explains that, originally, Moses intended to bestow the Torah exclusively in the hands of his tribe, the Levites. When the people got wind of this plan (in this week’s parasha), they protested vigorously and demanded to have the Torah in the possession of all, lest the Levites someday claim to be the sole heirs to this legacy. Moses was delighted by the enthusiasm of the people and proclaimed that their assertiveness in insisting on direct possession of the Torah had demonstrated that they had thereby earned the status of a nation of God.

One of the religious/ethnic groups that make up Israeli society are the Druze. Years ago I learned that they divide their community into two parts: the uqqal (“knowers”) and the juhal (“ignorant ones”). The former are the educated elite, whereas the latter follow their traditions in ignorance of their religious meaning. The spiritual truths of the Druze are a secret from everyone but the uqqal, including fellow Druze. Judaism, from its inception, was not meant to be this way. Our religion is more democratic. All of us are not only welcome to learn and understand our traditions and practices; we are religiously obligated to do so. It is noteworthy that there are religious traditions in the world that may be satisfied with only a few initiates understanding the underlying meanings of life.  Ours is not one of them. We place so much importance to the Torah being a public document that we refuse to even read it (ritually) without a public presence (a minyan).

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tetze – September 2, 2017 – 11 Elul 5777

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.                                   – Deuteronomy 22:8

Homes in Biblical times (and often still today) had flat roofs which afforded the advantage of additional outdoor living space. This mitzvah, to erect a protective fence around one’s (flat) roof, ensured that no one would accidentally fall off while enjoying the cool evening air. “If you build…” The law is the same if one buys, inherits, or is given a house as a gift. Why does the Torah use only the verb to “build”? According to the rabbis, this is meant to teach that always one must be engaged in “building,” that is, developing the human community – building and planting for ourselves and for coming generations.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),
Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shoftim – August 26, 2017 – 4 Elul 5777

This week’s parasha contains the law of the City of Refuge. According to the Torah, three cities in Israel must be designated to serve as places of exile for those deemed guilty of manslaughter. An individual found guilty of manslaughter was obliged to flee to one of these cities and stay there, using it as a place of refuge, lest he become the target of vengeance by the family of his victim (Devarim/Deuteronomy 19:1-7). In the Talmudic period the question arose as to what might be the law in the case where an individual is found guilty of manslaughter but fleeing to a City of Refuge would entail leaving his/her rabbi behind? The Talmud’s answer is that since the text says the man-slaughterer must flee to the city in order to “live” there, the individual who is found guilty must bring the rabbi along because one cannot “live” without one’s teacher.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Akiva, who lived at a time during which the Romans banned the public teaching of Torah, compares a Jewish person without access to Torah study to a fish out of water. The midrash contends that on the day the grasses of the field were created, an angel struck each blade on its head and commanded it, “Learn!” From a blade of grass to a human being, we simply cannot live without a chance to grow and learn.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ekev – August 12, 2017 – 20 Av 5777

This week’s parasha contains a famous verse that continues to resonate in our own times – “Not by bread alone does man live” (Devarim/Deut. 8:3). We have become accustomed in secular society to regard this sentiment as expressing a human need for more than the basics. For example, since “Man does not live by bread alone, I’ll be expecting a hot tub and a sports car.” While the Torah agrees that life must be about more than mere survival, it is not even more bountiful material benefits to which this verse aspires. The verse concludes, “… rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live.” What is this verse trying to tell us?

At this point in the Torah, Moses is preparing the people for the transition from life in the desert to life in Israel. They have been fed the miraculous mannah in the desert. No one needed to earn a living or get a job; all they had to do was accept the Torah and follow God’s and Moses’s instructions. Once in the Land of Israel there would be no more mannah; i.e. no more “free lunch.” In Israel, they will have to work for a living. Lest the people conclude that with this change there will no longer be any time for God and Torah, the verse reminds them that the purpose of life is not exhausted by working for bread (and other stuff) alone. Even in the real world, beyond the desert, we need to also feed our spiritual lives.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Va’etchanan – August 5, 2017 – 13 Av 5777

Our parasha this week seems to open in medias res, a narrative that begins not at the beginning of a story but somewhere in the middle – usually at some crucial point in the action. Moses says, “I implored the Lord at that moment.”  What “moment” is Moses referring to?

The founder of the Musar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), explained:  Let a person not say, “I go to shul only on such and such a day,” or “I’ll go to shul later on this morning.” There is no particular time that is the right time to attend services or to be a part of the minyan. All moments contain the possibility for prayer. If not this Shabbat, when? If not today, when? If not this moment, when?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Tisha b’Av – July 29, 2017 – 6 Av 5777

The opening verse of Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av (this year: Monday, July 31 at 8:30 pm), describes dejected Jerusalem as being “like” a widow. What does it mean to be “like” one who has lost a spouse, as opposed to simply having lost one’s spouse? Our rabbis explain by way of a parable: It is like a king who became angry with his wife and gave her a bill of divorce and then snatched it away from her. When she sought to remarry, he said to her, “Where is your proof of divorce?” When she claimed the rights and privileges due the king’s wife, he said to her, “Have I not divorced you?”

Religious and spiritual people largely agree that there is a transcendent purpose, or plan, to our existence. Despite our longing to glimpse this larger picture, our rabbis acknowledge that life contains an aspect of arbitrariness. Matters don’t always turn out the way we deserve; life is not always fair.

Like the king’s hapless wife, we are occasionally challenged by circumstances beyond our control and ability to understand. Unlike her, however, we need not face these circumstances alone. Although on Tisha B’Av we read of Jerusalem’s loneliness, we do so gathered together as a community of friends. Community cannot necessarily change an unpleasant reality. However, community can provide a source of comfort and solidarity. We all pray for a long life of health, happiness and blessing. When the inevitable strikes, it is reassuring to know that others are with us, doing what can be done to make a positive difference.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine