Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Shemini – April 22, 2017 – 26 Nisan 5777

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,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach – April 15, 2017

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 as if they were blindfolded. 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 HaGadol – April 8, 2017 – 12 Nisan 5777

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 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 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

Parashat Vayikra – April 1, 2017 – 5 Nisan 5777

How might a person act righteously yet still sin inadvertently? In describing the sin-offering brought by an individual, the Torah states, “If a single individual sins unintentionally…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27). Rav Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov (d. 1816) asked why the Torah would emphasize “single individual” in this context. He answered that even if a person behaves properly, but fails to engage the community, his/her deeds are regarded as deficient in a crucial respect. In Judaism, making the right choices as a single individual is not enough. Our tradition calls upon us to find a way to recruit others and get them involved in making a positive difference. Whatever the task, we can do it. But we can do it even better when we inspire others to join us.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei – March 25, 2017 – 27 Adar 5777

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaHodesh because on it we announce Rosh Hodesh Nisan and, according to the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, the month of Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew year. (Exodus 12:2) The implication of the verse is that Rosh Hodesh Nisan is the Jewish New Year; and, in fact, the Torah elsewhere (Lev. 23:24) implies that the Jewish New Year is this week, and not 7 months later in the fall.

Although today we celebrate the Creation of the World on Rosh Hashanah, this view has not always gone unchallenged. The Talmud records a debate over when we should consider the Creation to have taken place. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the Creation. However, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the anniversary of the Creation occurs this week, on Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The Talmud distinguishes these two views by suggesting that R. Eliezer reads Genesis as describing a world created in mature form (Trees already laden with fruit), whereas R. Yehoshua believes the Garden of Eden was created with plants just beginning to bloom. The Maharsha (1555-1632) explains that R. Eliezer links the Creation to the season of repentance, while R. Yehoshua links it to the time of redemption. For R. Eliezer, Adam and Eve were cast out of a completed garden into a world about to go cold and barren – a time for repentance. For R. Yehoshua, Adam and Eve left the garden in early spring, a season of possibility and hope, a time of redemption. The “redemption” of Adam and Eve foreshadows the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt for a new life of freedom – a Jewish spring!

Although the tradition went with R. Eliezer, and we celebrate the Jewish New Year in the fall, there is an undeniable “new year” freshness in the month of Nisan air. Shanah tova!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 18, 2017 – 20 Adar 5777

We are a chutzpadik people. I say this not merely as an experienced rabbi but as a student of the midrash. On Parashat Ki Tisa, Midrash Shemot Rabbah 42:9 [a nearly 2000 year old text] describes the Jewish people having chutzpa as a way of explaining this week’s repeated references to us being a “stiff-necked people.” We are called stiff-necked twice in the parasha. The first time [Exodus 33:3], God proclaims he will not be found among us because we are stiff-necked, whereas later [in Exodus 34:9] Moses asks God to remain amongst us precisely because we are characterized by this trait. In the first instance, being stiff-necked is clearly regarded as a problem, but in the second instance it seems that it is a positive. This is the way it is with chutzpa. It all depends upon context. When we are brazenly stubborn in resisting the right path, chutzpa only makes a bad situation worse. However when the situation calls for uncompromising and courageous steadfastness, chutzpa becomes a key virtue. We live in challenging times for the Jewish people. (Which generation of Jews has not?). When those challenges call for a chutzpadik response, we know that we can count on ourselves to meet the expectation.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tetzaveh – March 11, 2017 – 13 Adar 5777

When Josephus (1st century of the common era) visited the Temple in Jerusalem as a young man, he was struck by the blue band upon the headdress of the High Priest, and he declared that it must represent the heavens, for upon it was inscribed “Holy to The Lord” (Exodus 28:36-37). According to an early rabbinic text, this inscription “Holy to The Lord” occupied two lines, inscribed one on top of the other, on the front of the headband. This would have been taken as a statement of fact, had a man named Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi not spoken up and declared, “I saw the priestly vestments in Rome [where they had been taken after the Temple’s destruction], and the inscription occupied only a single line.” (Shabbat 63b) This seemingly trivial discrepancy reveals an important tension in Judaism: Sometimes what a tradition tells us is contradicted by what our eyes see.

“One must judge according to that which one sees with his/her own eyes,” remarks the Talmud in a number of places. This is compelling advice, but one must also know where to look. The story is told of the man who lost his key and searched for it on hand and knee in the light of a street lamp. “Where did you last have it?” enquired his companion. “Further down the block,” the first replied. His friend admonishes him, “Why then are you searching here?” He answered, “This is where the light is.”

Some look for answers in life where it is convenient to search but where there is nothing to be found. Others brave a harder search and discover truths which eluded others. Some see an ordinary headband, while some other might see the flash of the heavens. It all comes down to knowing how to search.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Terumah – March 4, 2017 – 6 Adar 5777

As a rabbi, I occasionally encounter people who consider themselves as spiritual but who find it challenging to find God in a synagogue. Instead, they experience the Divine spontaneously and in a variety of unexpected places. The possibility of relating to God in this way is not lost on the Jewish tradition. As a young boy, Yacov Yitshak (who grew up to become the revered “Seer of Lublin”) would go out and spend long hours in the woods. His father, concerned for the youngster’s safety, asked him why. “I go into the woods to encounter God,” answered Yacov Yitshak. “Very well,” replied his father, “But do you not understand that God is the same wherever you may encounter him?” “God is the same everywhere,” agreed the young hasid, “But I am not.”

The son’s thoughtful answer to his father provokes a serious question. If we believe that God is everywhere, and that it is possible to connect with God in a variety of places, why erect houses of worship? To this, a midrash offers an answer, by way of a parable:

In Egypt God encountered us. At the Sea of Reeds God encountered us. At Mount Sinai God encountered us. Once Israel stood at Mt. Sinai and accepted the Torah, we became a complete nation. God said, “It is no longer fitting that I speak with them just any place. Instead, ‘Make for me a Mikdash!” (Exodus 25:8)

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: A king had a young daughter. When she was still a child, he would encounter her in the shuk (marketplace) and speak with her there. If he encountered her in the courtyard or street, he would speak with her there. Once she matured into adulthood, the king said, “It is no longer fitting that I should address my daughter just any place. I will build for her a pavilion, and when I wish to consult with her I will arrange for a meeting with her in the pavilion.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah, Parasha 3)

It is a playful delight for any child to unexpectedly bump into his or her loving parent. But once the child grows up and serious conversation becomes more central to the relationship, a schedule and suitable meeting place may become indispensable. We may need to encounter God in different settings at different points in our lives. But at some point, it is hoped that we mature in our spirituality and learn to meet God in shul.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Mishpatim – February 25, 2017 – 29 Shevat 5777

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 – February 18, 2017 – 22 Shevat 5777

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