Rabbi’s Parasha Message

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

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 25, 2015 – 6 Iyar 5775

In this week’s parasha we learn that an individual afflicted with nega tzaraat (an affliction of the human skin translated by the Septuagint as “leprosy”) must be isolated from others for a seven day period. Surely the author of the Torah anticipated that we would associate the quarantine of “seven days” with Shabbat – the seventh day of the week. What’s the connection?

A happy Shabbat contrasts sharply with the unhappiness of one afflicted with nega tzaraat. If we rearrange the letters which spell “nega” (nun-gimmel-aiyen), we can spell “oneg” (aiyen-nun-gimmel). “Oneg Shabbat” (Shabbat happiness) is a fundamental aim of Shabbat. Nega is traditionally thought of having been a consequence of anti-social behavior. Perhaps the Torah is hinting to us that whereas anti-social behavior is associated with nega and isolation, Shabbat should be characterized by oneg; happiness shared socially among family and friends.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemini – April 18, 2015 – 29 Nisan 5775

Among the “impure” birds listed in this week’s parasha, is the “hasida” which is usually translated as the “stork”. The Talmud, noting the similarity to the Hebrew term “hesed” (“kindness”), explains that this species of fowl is known for displays of kindness by members of the flock toward one another. The Hasidic leader (“Hasid,” by the way, is also an occurrence of this Hebrew root), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), asked, “Why should a bird legendary for its acts of kindness be considered impure?” “Because,” he answered, “It extends its kindnesses only to members of its own flock. One who seeks to be pure must be devoted to acts of hesed for all.”

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Pesach – April 11, 2015 – 22 Nisan 5775

The end of Pesach Torah reading includes the verse, “All of the ailments with which I afflicted Egypt, I will not afflict you, for I am the Lord your healer” (Shemot/Exodus 15:26). This verse gave rise to the question, “If we won’t be getting sick, why will we need healing?” The answer to this question is to point out that prevention of illness is an even better blessing than the healing of an illness and it is the former blessing that the Torah promises.

Maimonides (who was a physician in addition to being a rabbi) wrote that many illnesses are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, and that many people go through life stumbling into health problems like a blind man bumping into furniture in a crowded room. In this respect, our spiritual lives parallel our physical lives. Just as we must expend effort and discipline to achieve and maintain physical fitness, we must invest effort in meeting our spiritual goals. Not every weekday service is going to necessarily feel like an encounter with the Holy One, but by maintaining some regular connection to davening we may hope for a Yizkor service or Yom Tov experience which is transformative.

With prayers for a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Pesach – April 4, 2015 – 15 Nisan 5775

There is an apparent contradiction in the Torah over when our liberation from Egyptian bondage began. According to Deuteronomy 16:1, God brought us out of Egypt at night. According to Numbers 33:3, the Israelites left triumphantly while the Egyptians looked on during the following day. When was the Exodus; at night or during the day?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate, reconciled these verses by positing two stages of redemption. According to Rav Kook, physical freedom is actually the second stage of a process. Before one can be outwardly free, one must first experience an inner state of redemption. Our inner liberation took place at night, when Pharaoh finally relented in the wake of the plague of the firstborn. This occurred at night, a time of privacy since one cannot be seen by others due to the darkness. The next day, we realized our physical freedom outwardly, by leaving Egypt in broad daylight for all to see.

We have the opportunity to commemorate this two-staged process of redemption each year. The night of Pesach is a time to celebrate our freedom in the privacy of our homes, amidst the comfort of being with friends and family. The next morning, we get up and go to shul, where we may once again celebrate our freedom as a people; this time publically in the context of our loving community.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat HaGadol – March 28, 2015 – 8 Nisan 5775

The Shabbat right before Pesach is called “Shabbat HaGadol” (“The Great Shabbat”). Many reasons are given for this designation. According to some, this Shabbat became “great” because it marks the anniversary upon which the 7th day of Creation was complemented by an equally significant reason to observe the Sabbath – the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. How is the Story of Passover connected to our observance of Shabbat?

Early in the liberation story, Moses confronts Pharaoh and demands that the people be allowed to take a brief rest from their labors in order to worship their God. Pharaoh, calling the people lazy, retorts that Moses is unjustified in in making this request. He literally questions slaves taking off time from productive labor in order to worship  – “Shabbat-ing.” (Exodus 5:5) Up until now, the Torah understands Shabbat as the day upon which God rested from his labors. This is the first time in the Torah a person speaks of Shabbat as a time of rest for human beings. From now on, Shabbat can be a call to justice for the powerless to seek rest and rejuvenation from those who hold power over them.

This aspect of Shabbat was not lost on our rabbis. Roman pundits (like Seneca) would deride the Jewish Sabbath as fostering laziness. The rabbis joined the debate with polemics of their own. One midrashic legend has it that The Roman emperor Hadrian said to Rabbi Yehoshua: “I am greater than your Rabbi Moshe, because he is dead but I am alive.” Rabbi Yehoshua answered: “Can you decree you’re your people will not light fires in their homes for 3 days in a row?” “Sure, I can”, said the emperor, and he did so. That evening, they went for a walk together and saw smoke coming from a few chimneys. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: “See, even while you live, some ignore your commandments, while many centuries ago Moshe Rabbenu commanded us not to light fires on Shabbat, and to this day the Jews continue to follow this mitzvah.”

The modern Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) also pointed out the implied link between God’s day of rest and ours: “Shabbat is a day on which a person rises above the need for hard work… and thereby becomes like God, who rested and was refreshed after the creation of the world.” Our liberation from slavery in Egypt won us the privilege of “owning” our work, and not the other way around. This concept is essential to Shabbat, and rightly makes this Shabbat a “Shabbat HaGadol.”

May we all enjoy a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine