Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Ha’azinu – September 22, 2018 – 13 Tishrei 5779

According to the midrash, Moses’ declaration at the beginning of this week’s parasha “Listen O heavens, and I will speak; earth, hear the words of my mouth,” implies that Moses was especially close to the heavens, such that he could call to the heavens at close range. Moses’ implied ability to negotiate the heavenly sphere bears an interesting connection with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We conclude Yom Kippur by declaring seven times in unison, “Adonai is God.” Why repeat this phrase seven times? According to Jewish tradition there are seven layers of heaven and God’s presence, the Shechinah, resides in the seventh, outermost layer. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when God is most likely to be found because (according to tradition) this is the season that God is closest to us. As the Shechinah departs to ascend back to the seventh heaven at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we escort the Divine Presence by calling out “Adonai is God,” once for each of the seven stages. The ancient Greeks had a conception of the seven heavens (which could well be the source for our notion), which they believed corresponded to the “seven planets” known in antiquity. The outermost planet they named “Saturn,” which is where we get the name of the day “Saturday.” It is intriguing that “Saturday” corresponds to the seventh day of our week, “Shabbat.” It may seem strange that we would associate Saturday/Shabbat with God’s most distant abode. On the other hand, the midrash, noting Moses’ apparent intimacy with God, credits him with the unique ability to bring the Shechinah back down to earth. Perhaps we do something similar when we replicate “heaven on earth” with our Shabbat spirit.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayelech – September 15, 2018 – 6 Tishrei 5779

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 Nitzavim – September 8, 2018 – 28 Elul 5778

At the risk of stating the obvious, intentionality is considered essential to Jewish prayer. To simply “go through the motions” by rote without paying attention to the prayer is shallow, misses the point of worship, and probably renders the prayer invalid according to Jewish Law. That’s why it is astonishing to find in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rabbi Hiyya said, “In all my days, I’ve never concentrated in prayer. I wanted to once, and I ended up thinking about Persian court protocols.” Shmuel said, “[During services,] I count baby chickens.” (some texts “clouds”) Rabbi Bun b. Hiyya said, “I count the layers of brick in the wall [during services].” Rav Matinya said, “I must express gratitude for my head, for it knows to automatically bow at the right time!” (Yer. Ber. 2:4)

The traditional commentators are understandably loathe to take this passage at face value. They assume it must contain some deeper, hidden meaning. As modern readers of our tradition, I think we can accept that plainly some of our founding sages found it very difficult, even impossible, to pay attention during services. Their transparency about this difficulty empowers us to confront it honestly as well. Indeed, services have actually grown quite a bit longer over the past 1700 years.

Our cantor, staff, lay leaders and I work hard to keep our services lively and engaging. Over the past few years, we have freshened the format for the shofar blowing, added English readings/poems composed by congregants, innovated brief “bio’s” of those honored to be called to the bima, and included a special prayer which is led by non-Jewish fellow worshippers. I believe we can still do even better and that everyone can help. If you see a neighbor confused how to follow, gently direct him/her to the right page. If you recognize the tune, sing along with energy and spirit, and if you feel we’ve missed a tune that you recall fondly from previous years, let us know. It’s okay to let kids play quietly (there’s a play rug and toys in the social hall section), and it’s okay to take breaks and chat in the hallway.

While you’re there, check out this year’s amazing Agudas Lamed-Vavniks featured on our walls. We invite you to volunteer to greet, usher, or learn a role for the service. We have empty chairs on the bima and it is your bima too. Join me for a little prayerful company whenever you like. Become a partner in making our services engaging. No doubt about it, they are long and can be tough to get through. Worst case scenario, count a few bricks; or chickens.

B’vrachah (with blessings),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tavo – September 1, 2018 – 21 Elul 5778

In this week’s parasha, the Torah reminds us of the importance of the mitzvot. God, through Moses, instructs us saying, “Sh’marta ve asita otam” – “You shall keep them and do them.” Rabbi Yochanan, a rabbi of the Midrash, noticed the apparent redundancy – the Torah says “keep” and “do” them. If we need both words, there must be two actions being referred to. What’s the difference between “keep” and “do”?

Rabbi Yochanan realized that the Hebrew word “asita” not only means “you shall do,” it can also be translated as “you shall make.” Therefore, he interpreted the verse in a surprising and important way. The Torah is hinting that if we “keep” a mitzvah properly, this is tantamount to “making” it – actually creating that mitzvah, and the one who does this gets the credit as if he or she actually commanded it.

This is a strange midrash. Usually, people do mitzvot because they believe, and want to believe, that God commanded them. Why would Rabbi Yochanan interpret this verse to mean that doing a mitzvah is like creating it yourself?

The answer lies in his words, “doing a mitzvah properly.” Doing a mitzvah “properly” in this context means implementing it in a way that is fair and reasonable; as opposed to literal. One who does a mitzvah literally, does the mitzvah as created by God. But the one who does the mitzvah, taking into account justice and common sense, may end up doing the mitzvah very differently – and therefore it is possible to claim that this mitzvah, done properly by this person, was in a sense “created” by that person.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Yochanan goes even further and suggests that doing a mitzvah properly can even be a way of making oneself. That is, people can reinvent themselves through a commitment to doing the right thing – in a tough situation; you create what it really means to be you by getting it right. As a teacher of mine used to say, “God makes us ‘human,’ but we must add the ‘e.’ Only we can make ourselves ‘humane.’”

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tetze – August 25, 2018 – 14 Elul 5778

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 18, 2018 – 7 Elul 5778

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 Re’eh – August 11, 2018 – 30 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a tithe must be taken annually from our crops and that we must carry it to Jerusalem in order to eat it in the presence of God. If the road is too long or the burden too heavy, a person may opt to exchange the tithe for money, bring the sum to Jerusalem and spend the proceeds on a party there with friends and family. Why is God anxious over the potential hardship in carrying the tithe to Jerusalem? What’s the big deal if it is a little heavy or the road a little long? Would not a devout person do this task – and more – for his/her religion?

The Dubnow Maggid explained by way of a parable: It is like a wealthy person who had all of his wealth in precious gems packed away in a suitcase left at some distance. He entrusts a messenger to bring him the suitcase. While waiting, he stands by his window, anxiously peering out to catch a glimpse of the messenger arriving. If he sees the messenger staggering slowly as if under the great weight of the suitcase, he cries out, “Alas! Somehow my treasure of precious gems must have been exchanged for heavy stones and iron bars!” So it is with us, if God sees that Judaism has become like a burden to us, God becomes anxious and wonders if somehow the precious Torah has not been exchanged for an ordinary load that holds no special value or meaning.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ekev – August 4, 2018 – 23 Av 5778

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 – July 28, 2018 – 16 Av 5778

Even great leaders may be tempted to express exasperation and to shift blame upon those they lead. In this week’s parasha, Moses complains to the people that God’s displeasure with him is rooted in their failures. Moses reveals that God told him, “It is too much for you!” (Deut. 3:26) Moses felt the people had let him down. He must have been crushed to hear God’s assessment that he simply lacked the ability to deliver.

The Talmud explains that in this episode God is merely returning the words Moses earlier himself had dished out to others. In the midst of the Korach rebellion, Moses had stung the rebels by saying, “It is too much for you, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:7). Now it is Moses’s turn to receive that rebuke. Moses is frustrated that the people have let him down. But instead of focusing on their limits, the Talmud suggests he focus on his own.

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, that he would extend his prayers for many hours. His followers would pray more quickly. This discrepancy created time and opportunity; they would leave the synagogue and take care of a few things, always careful to return in time to be with their master at the moment he had finally completed his prayers. On one occasion, the Baal Shem Tov abruptly finished his prayers just as the disciples were leaving the room. Surprised, they ran back to the room and asked their teacher for an explanation. He told them the following parable: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a magnificent exotic bird was spotted nesting on the top of the tallest imaginable tree. The king of that land greatly desired this unique bird, but he had no ladder nearly tall enough. So, he asked the people of his kingdom to stand upon one another’s shoulders, and they made a human ladder that slowly reached as high as the nest. This took an awfully long time. Eventually, the people toward the bottom grew bored, gave up, and left. This triggered the collapse of the entire enterprise.

Leadership can be frustrating. At times it feels like others have let us down. But the message of “It is too much for you” isn’t meant to be an insult or reprimand. It is an insight and a gift. Some tasks are so great, they can’t be accomplished alone. This forces us to reach out and enlist the support of others. Giving up on them reveals not their limits but our own. The impending collapse comes about when they’ve shared the burden but no longer see the point, or its reward.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot-Masei – July 14, 2018 – 2 Av 5778

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 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 p. 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