Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Mishpatim – February 6, 2016 – 27 Shevat 5776

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 – January 30, 2016 – 20 Shevat 5776

One of the most remarkable aspects of the midrashic tradition is the liberty taken at times by our rabbis to ascribe human predicaments and frustrations to God. An instance of this occurs in Parashat Yitro, where Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive God’s initial instructions for preparing the Jewish People to accept the Torah.

HaShem called from the mountain saying, ‘Speak to the House of Jacob, and tell the Israelites …” God seems to have two distinct groups, not just one, in mind here. Perhaps because “house” is a common rabbinic euphemism for “wife,” and “Israelite” is literally “sons” of Israel, the midrash posits that the first group to be addressed would be the women and the second comprised of the men. Why should the women receive God’s pronouncement prior to the men?

Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea suggests that God recalled what had happened at an earlier time in which he had issued a commandment and spoke directly only to a man and left the woman out of the conversation. This misstep ended with a complete upset of God’s plan and Adam and Eve tossed from the Garden of Eden. God was not about to make the same mistake twice, so at Mt. Sinai the women are addressed first.

Long gone are the days in which communication may have been restricted to verbal exchanges or the reading of stone tablets. Today we have phones, email, texting, and more. Yet, the frustration over how to communicate effectively never seems to diminish. Who needs to be in the loop right away? Who is better included later on in the process? Often it’s tricky, but it’s reassuring to know even God didn’t always get it right either.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beshalach – January 23, 2016 – 13 Shevat 5776

“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 16, 2016 – 6 Shevat 5776

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 9, 2016 – 28 Tevet 5776

“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 2, 2016 – 21 Tevet 5776

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 – December 26, 2015 – 14 Tevet 5776

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 19, 2015 – 7 Tevet 5776

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father. Although the Torah describes Jacob’s reaction to the news that his son, Joseph, still lives, and their emotional reunion in Egypt, the Torah is silent on the issue of how Jacob reacted to the unpleasant details of the brothers’ complicity in Joseph having ended up a slave in Egypt in the first place. Our commentators suggest that, in fact, Jacob never asked Joseph about what had happened to him, and Joseph never told him. Why not?

Perhaps some things are just better left unsaid. Some things we just don’t need to know. If Jacob were to ask, Joseph would have to tell him. If Joseph wanted a family life tainted by resentment and recrimination he could have spilled the beans, but he seems to have been more interested in going along and getting along, counting on lessons learned and better relations going forward.

The haftarah is taken from prophetic books written centuries after the events depicted in our Torah Reading. Typically the haftarah connects to the Torah reading by evoking some theme common to both texts. In the case of this week’s Torah reading, the haftarah refers to an enduring conflict between Ephraim, a tribe descended from Joseph, and the tribe of Joseph’s brother, Judah. Although the eventual reconciliation of these tribes is presented as a prophetic dream, the sad reality seems to be that conflict and disunity amongst them had persisted for many centuries, and the northern tribes were “lost” before unity could be restored.

Relationships can be complicated and tough. Mistakes may be made and regrets deeply felt. There is great risk taking an honest and unvarnished look at who did what to whom. But there is also a risk inherent in avoiding full disclosure – perhaps hurts will fester and the repercussions will leave even deeper scars. Ancient Israel eventually split apart. I wonder if reconciliation may sometimes depend upon the courage to face every truth, no matter how unpleasant.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Parashat Miketz – December 12, 2015 – 30 Kislev 5776

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 5, 2015 – 23 Kislev 5776

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