Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Masei – July 26, 2014 – 28 Tammuz 5774

This week we learn that although each tribe will receive territory in the Land of Israel, the tribe of Levi is the exception and will not. Instead, the tribe of Levi will be assigned 48 towns located amongst the various other tribes. Why?

According to the rabbis, the tribe of Levi did not experience the full pain of Egyptian servitude because they were already recognized as the priestly tribe and the Egyptians respected that status. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was among those who vehemently opposed Roman rule over Israel in his day. He was so outspoken that on one occasion he had to flee because the Romans put out a warrant for his arrest. Rabbi Shimon expressed his rebellious attitude by remarking, “The Land of Israel can only be acquired through travail.” This helps to explain why the tribe of Levi did not inherit a tribal possession in the land. Since they did not suffer for it, they acquired less of it.

As it is written in Pirke Avot, “Commensurate with the struggle is the reward.” The good things in life seldom come easily and when we struggle a little, we often find we appreciate those good things even more.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot – July 19, 2014 – 21 Tammuz 5774

In this week’s parasha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle east of the Jordan, and not be brought across with the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the Land of Israel. Moses takes umbrage at this request and berates them for abdicating their share in the obligation to take possession of the land. The tribal leadership relents and agrees to join the larger effort, once they’ve built “pens for their livestock and cities for their children.” What can we make of this reluctance to share responsibility with other tribes for the sake of the common good?

The Talmud legislates that a mezuzah for a private home must be checked to make sure that it is still in good shape twice every seven years, whereas a mezuzah for a public building need be checked only twice every fifty years. Why the difference? Rashi explains that public needs cannot be allowed to become too onerous. If communal needs are too much trouble, folks will say, “Let someone else take care of it.”

Once Reuben and Gad have their own property, it becomes difficult for them to sacrifice time and energy (let alone risk their lives in a war) to help the others. One imagines that this is a prelude to what life may be like after the land is settled. Perhaps everyone will be tempted to focus on his or her own needs and ignore the interests of the community as a whole.  No wonder Moses gets so angry; he even compares the attitude of Reuben and Gad to the hapless spies of parashat Shelach! In the Sinai wilderness, with everyone on the mannah-meal plan, it was no great feat to dedicate time for the community, but to forego the obligations of hearth and home in order to promote the public good takes extraordinary personal discipline and devotion.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Pinchas – July 12, 2014 – 14 Tammuz 5774

Traditionally, women are exempted from many mitzvot to which men are obligated. Many modern Jews regard this inequality as problematic, and the familiar response has been to argue that women may change their status by accepting these mitzvot as equally binding upon themselves as with men.  A radically different approach may be derived from the insights of a famous Bible commentator, the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619) on this week’s parasha.  In this parasha we find that the daughters of Zelophehad, whose father has died without a male heir, approach Moses with the request that he grant them their father’s portion in the Land of Israel.  Imagine, just a scant two weeks ago we learned that the men of this generation vehemently refused to take possession of the land.  The Kli Yakar suggests that the daughters prove that it was only the men who refused Israel, but that the women indeed desired the land.  According to his commentary, the decree that this generation would die in the desert and never enter the promised land applied only to the men.  The women were allowed to inherit the land (a conquering force comprised of an army of young men and their Jewish grandmothers 40 years later is quite an image).  The Kli Yakar offers the following as the reason why men are obligated in so many mitzvot for which women are exempt: Women don’t need to be obligated, they are ready to act, but the men holding them back are in need of the extra push of a commandment.  From here, one may speculate on a very different solution to the problem of women’s equality in Judaism.  Perhaps instead of obligating women to observe like men, we should consider exempting men to be like women.  Trouble is, would the men manage to equal the women, if given a second chance?

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Balak – July 5, 2014 – 7 Tammuz 5774

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. Unfortuately 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 28, 2014 – 30 Sivan 5774

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

Parshat Korah – June 21, 2014 – 23 Sivan 5774

Korach was a wealthy man. So rich was he, 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 say, 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 are needles 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 14, 2014 – 16 Sivan 5774

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 7, 2014 – 9 Sivan 5774

According to rabbinic exegesis, this week’s parasha contains hints that the Israelites disappointed God in 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 alacrity should have earned them praise not opprobrium.

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 31, 2014 – 2 Sivan 5774

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 among of 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 foci 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 24, 2014 – 24 Iyar 5774

“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) on 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!”

In our age of professionalism, safety regulations and building codes (and stereotypes about inadequate Jewish carpentry skills!), we no longer enjoy the privilege of creating our dwelling place for God with our own two hands. Instead we accept the satisfaction which comes from making a pledge and serving on a committee. A number of families and individuals stepped up earlier this year, and led the charge planning and/or donating gifts to pay for the work to begin on our new synagogue roof (be careful of the heavy equipment occupying our parking lot).  I’d like to warmly thank each and every one who helped out for your generosity, and may you be rewarded with the spiritual recompense earned through participating in the “building” of our shul.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine