Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Balak – July 4, 2015 – 17 Tammuz 5775

Most people occupy the same spot each time they are in shul. This time honored tradition is called sitting in one’s makom kavua. A valuable insight into this custom may be found in this week’s parasha. The bad guy, Bilam, is committed to cursing Israel. Unfortunately for him, each time he opens his mouth, blessings emerge instead of curses. What does he do? He changes his spot and tries again. The fact that Bilam assumes he will be successful, if only he changes his place, implies that he believes his failure is attributable to the spot and not to his own short-comings. This is why we seek to occupy the same spot each time we are in shul. In this world of imperfection, we do not expect that each prayer experience will be completely successful. Nevertheless, we commit to trying again – but from the same spot, not a different one, for we realize that the change must come from within ourselves and cannot be blamed merely on the place.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Chukat – June 27, 2015 – 10 Tammuz 5775

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the following verse: “Therefore the Book of the Wars of HaShem are said hav be sofa” (the JPS translation calls it a fragment of uncertain meaning). Nobody really knows what the verse means but our tradition renders it “… the Book of Wars of HaShem are said lovingly in the end.” (Numbers 21:14) To what does this refer?

The Talmud remarks that when a rabbi and student, or a parent and child, learn Torah together they become like enemies. This is because individuals naturally form differing interpretations and each person is obliged to passionately argue for his or her point of view. However the argument does not end until the issues have been resolved and the opposing sides have found loving reconciliation (Kid. 29b).

Sometimes it isn’t easy to balance our thirst for the truth with the need to preserve respectful, harmonious relationships. The Talmudic method is to encourage a no holds barred approach to determining the truth, provided the disputants understand that this process must not end until both sides are able to once again restore their emotional bond.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Korach – June 20, 2015 – 3 Tammuz 5775

Korach was a wealthy man. He was so rich that we even have a Yiddish expression, “reich ve Korach,” used to describe anyone of magnificent wealth. The Bible tells us that Korach’s rebellion was put to an end by the earth swallowing up Korach, his supporters, and all of his wealth. Evidently Korach was not only exceptionally rich; he was even able to take it all with him to the grave. We have the expression, of course, “You can’t take it with you,” so what could the Torah mean to teach us by implying that Korach did?

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that worms are as painful to the dead as needles are to piercing the body of the living (Talmud Shabbat 152a). An unsettling implication of this Talmudic statement is that even a body which has lost its life may still be somewhat responsive and clinging to its soul. The Hasidim take this to mean that some individuals are so invested in their physical and material existence that, upon death, the soul has a hard time extracting itself from the body. Because this individual failed to cultivate a distinct life of the soul prior to death, the soul has a hard time distinguishing and separating itself after death. Korach, it seems, was such a person.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shelach – June 13, 2015 – 26 Sivan 5775

This week’s parasha contains the tragic episode of the meraglim/spies who returned from scouting out Eretz Yisrael with the unfortunate report that the land was inhabited by giants who would regard B’nei Yisrael as mere “grasshoppers”.  Due to the discouragement of the spies, the will of the people faltered and as a consequence of losing courage, the entire generation was condemned to live out their lives in the desert and never made it to Eretz Yisrael (Actually, according to some commentators, the women were exempted from this harsh decree in view of their positive attitude about the land, but that is another story!).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l pointed out how peculiar the report of the spies was. After all, these spies had only a short while ago been liberated through God’s power during the flight from Egypt. Having witnessed the plagues, why wouldn’t they have assumed that God would just as handily trounce the intimidating “giants”?

The Rebbe suggested that perhaps the problem was not that these Jewish leaders sought to avoid the land, but rather that they were afraid to take the risk of leading the people out of the desert. In the desert, the people had all of their needs miraculously provided for them. They ate the mannah and even their “clothes did not wear off their backs.” All they had to do in the desert was to study the Torah. The spies realized that once the people settled the land, the mannah would cease. Everyone would become responsible to work the land, or get some sort of job, and provide for themselves. But if that happened, reasoned the spies, what would become of Torah study? Better, they reasoned, to remain in the desert where Torah could be pursued without the distraction of taking responsibility for one’s livelihood.

The spies were wrong. The whole point of the study of Torah is to apply one’s learning to the real world; the world of personal responsibility. Although remaining in the desert protected by Hashem’s sheltering presence is comforting, a Jew is charged with the task of taking the risk of living in the real world; a world in which the pursuit of Torah must be complimented by human initiative and accomplishment.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beha’alotcha – June 6, 2015 – 19 Sivan 5775

According to rabbinic exegesis, this week’s parasha contains hints that the Israelites disappointed God by their apparent eagerness to leave Mt. Sinai in a hurry after receiving the Torah. But why should God be disappointed? After all, the Israelites were headed to the Land of Israel, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. Doing so with eagerness should have earned them praise, not criticism.

Perhaps the answer lies in considering how they left Mt. Sinai. Even moving in the right direction does not excuse a disrespectful departure from an encounter with the holy. The proper course is to tarry just a bit and to enjoy and reflect upon the Sinai experience they had just gone through. The Land of Israel had waited during hundreds of years of Egyptian servitude. Waiting a little longer to better appreciate the Torah they had received would not have hurt.

I believe the synagogue tradition of Kiddush in the Social Hall may be explained by this very same point. Having prayed and shared a Dvar Torah, we do not rush out to pursue our many important needs. Instead, we linger a bit to eat a bite and swap stories and opinions among friends.

B’Yedidut (with friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Naso – May 30, 2015 – 12 Sivan 5775

This week’s parasha includes the well-known and deeply moving Priestly Benediction, “May HaShem bless you and keep you; may HaShem shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; may HaShem lift His countenance toward you, and grant you peace” (BaMidbar/Numbers 6:24-26). These verses have resonated with the Jewish People since ancient times. I remember seeing a silver amulet at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that is thought to be amongst the oldest Hebrew fragments recovered by archeologists (from the 7th century BCE), and it features these immortal words. What may we learn from the context of this important blessing?

Immediately preceding the Priestly Benediction, we find two very different situations presented by the Torah. The first concerns the “sotah”, or “woman accused of adultery.” This is followed by the case of the “nazir”, or individual who voluntarily takes on a considerably more rigorous discipline than that mandated by the Torah. Perhaps the first instance, the sotah, is meant to remind us that there is a sacred dimension to our most significant interpersonal relationships and these deserve the attention and protection of the Torah’s laws. Perhaps the second instance, the nazir, reminds us that even unmitigated enthusiasm for serving God needs to be tempered by the constraints and guidance offered by the Torah. Both instances deserve to be encouraged by the blessing of God’s illumination, support, and peace.

Immediately following the Benediction we find that the Tabernacle is finally raised. Once we are able to be mindful that our human relationships are potentially holy, and that our drive to holiness must be kept within human bounds, we are ready to be blessed by the symbol of God’s presence; the Tabernacle.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bamidbar – May 23, 2015 – 5 Sivan 5775

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…they shall perform duties…before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle” (Numbers 3:4-7). About this verse, the midrash notes, “Great is labor, for the Divine Presence did not dwell amongst the Jewish people until they got to work and built the Tabernacle.”

Jewish law takes the concept of “building” our tabernacle (the synagogue) quite literally. The halachic work, Birkei Yosef (R. Chaim Azulai, 1724-1806) actually forbids the Jewish community from hiring non-Jewish workers to build a shul because of the mitzvah to perform this task for ourselves. According to Hasidic lore, the first Belzer Rebbe, R. Sholom Rokeach (1781-1855), participated in the building of his shul by personally laying bricks and declaring, “Would that I had the strength to build the whole synagogue myself!”

Jordan and Zach have not built a synagogue (yet). But building things is a talent they share. Between the two of them, they can construct a stepping stool that can support the weight of a full grown human out of simple cardboard! Or a special holder to keep playing cards organized during car trips! In addition to rolling up their sleeves, they know how to identify skilled and committed partners, and how organize and lead others in completing the task. Today they become b’nai mitzvah –  ready and able to apply their passion for building and leading to the continued “building” of our shul community and to their Judaic heritage.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Behar-Behukotai – May 16, 2015 – 27 Iyar 5775

In Parashat Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double parasha, we read that God will grant us “peace in the land”, safety from wild beasts, the curtailment of weapons, and the satisfaction of chasing away our enemies. (Numbers 26:6) However one would assume the reverse order, that we must first deal with our enemies and then we may hope for peace. Why does God’s promise appear to be in the wrong order?

The Torah asks us to consider that peace is rarely achieved by focusing on external threats, such as “wild beasts” and enemies, without first resolving our own internal tensions. Perhaps this is most obviously true on the national level, where internal squabbles, whether in the halls of Congress or in the Knesset, seem to distract our leaders from tackling the larger enduring issues which threaten us. However this insight applies equally well to the individual. We are not likely to effectively address external challenges posed by others until our own personal houses are in order. As the saying goes, sometimes we can be our “own worst enemies.” The Torah wants to promise us peace but we must work to do our part by first achieving peace within ourselves.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Emor – May 9, 2015 – 20 Iyar 5775

Parashat Emor begins with the special regulations that pertain only to God’s priests; the kohanim. The first verse of Parashat Emor contains three occurrences of the Hebrew root “emr” (“to say”), and this idiosyncrasy was not lost on our rabbis. The Midrash links this repetition of “to say” with a verse in Psalms that uses the same verb to describe the silent grandeur of the Heavens. Day and night cycle dependably and wordlessly. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes day and night are evenly split. The remainder of the year they flow with give and take in harmonious clockwork. Contrast this, contends the Midrash, with the affairs of humanity. No deal can be struck; scarcely an understanding may be achieved, without barter and negotiation. The status quo of the Heavens reflects a rhythm fixed by God, while down below we contend with the inconsistency and unpredictability of human striving and rivalry. For the rabbis, in singling out the Kohanim for a life regulated by a Divine regimen, the Torah contrasts an austere priestly existence with the vicissitudes borne by the ordinary Israelite.

Of course, we no longer have the Temple and its kohanim to provide a respite and reminder that the world of our making lacks the calm assuredness of God’s realm. Instead, we have our synagogue to provide that refuge from the storm. Like the cycle of day and night, the parashiot we read and the t’filot we recite take us inexorably from Shabbat to Shabbat, from Yom Tov to Yom Tov, and from year to year. The stress of the world may be ever more hectic; at shul we breathe in the reassurance of God’s sanctuary.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – May 2, 2015 – 13 Iyar 5775

This week’s “Double Parasha” covers a wide range of topics and laws. Perhaps among the most well-known and influential is the mitzvah found in Vayikra 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Volumes have been written about the wording of this verse and about the meaning that it seeks to convey. The sage Hillel, who regarded this verse as the Torah’s most central directive, famously rendered it in the negative. “What is hateful to yourself, refrain from doing to others”. Some generations later, Rabbi Akiva taught that this sentiment is to be considered the “greatest principle of the Torah”. Most strikingly, our rabbis were apparently willing to grant the general consideration due one’s fellow human being an overriding status, even where such consideration would conflict with an explicit Torah prohibition.

The Torah, as is representative of its time, understood slavery to be an ordinary and acceptable social institution. According to one passage dealing with slave ownership (non-Jewish) slaves are not ever to be set free by their masters (Vayikra 25:46). Our rabbis discussed the case of an individual slave who had been owned by two masters and subsequently was freed of one of them. The rabbis rejected the obvious solution of making the slave serve his remaining master one day, and then live freely on the alternate day, because it would not be possible for him to marry and raise a family under such circumstances. Therefore, the rabbis insist that the half-free slave be totally liberated, in defiance of the Torah’s commandment that slaves remain in their state of servitude. Perhaps even more surprising, one prominent sage, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, liberated his slave in order to convert him – merely to make a minyan!

Our Torah is a tapestry of law and narrative, rich in wisdom and values. It was the responsibility of our rabbinic sages to identify principles within the Torah, and to appropriately set priorities when those principles seem to be in conflict. In the words “Love Thy Neighbor” they found a principle that they could promote as the greatest one of all.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Mitch Levine