Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Ki Tetze – August 29, 2015 – 14 Elul 5775

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 22, 2015 – 7 Elul 5775

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 15, 2015 – 30 Av 5775

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 Va’etchanan – August 1, 2015 – 16 Av 5775

Our parasha this week seems to open in medias res, a narrative that begins not at the beginning of a story but somewhere in the middle – usually at some crucial point in the action. Moses says, “I implored the Lord at that moment.”  What “moment” is Moses referring to?

The founder of the Musar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), explained:  Let a person not say, “I go to shul only on such and such a day,” or “I’ll go to shul later on this morning.” There is no particular time that is the right time to attend services or to be a part of the minyan. All moments contain the possibility for prayer. If not this Shabbat, when? If not today, when? If not this moment, when?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Tisha B’Av – July 25, 205 – 9 Av 5775

The opening verse of Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av (this year: Saturday, July 25, following Havdalah at 9:33 pm), describes dejected Jerusalem as being “like” a widow. What does it mean to be “like” one who has lost a spouse, as opposed to simply having lost one’s spouse? Our rabbis explain by way of a parable: It is like a king who became angry with his wife and gave her a bill of divorce and then snatched it away from her. When she sought to remarry, he said to her, “Where is your proof of divorce?” When she claimed the rights and privileges due the king’s wife, he said to her, “Have I not divorced you?”

Religious and spiritual people largely agree that there is a transcendent purpose, or plan, to our existence. Despite our longing to glimpse this larger picture, our rabbis acknowledge that life contains an aspect of arbitrariness. Matters don’t always turn out the way we deserve; life is not always fair.

Like the king’s hapless wife, we are occasionally challenged by circumstances beyond our control and ability to understand. Unlike her, however, we need not face these circumstances alone. Although on Tisha B’Av we read of Jerusalem’s loneliness, we do so gathered together as a community of friends. Community cannot necessarily change an unpleasant reality. However, community can provide a source of comfort and solidarity. We all pray for a long life of health, happiness and blessing. When the inevitable strikes, it is reassuring to know that others are with us, doing what can be done to make a positive difference.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot-Masei – July 18, 2015 – 2 Av 5775

This week we learn that although each tribe will receive territory in the Land of Israel, the tribe of Levi 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 Balak – July 4, 2015 – 17 Tammuz 5775

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. Unfortunately 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 27, 2015 – 10 Tammuz 5775

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

Parashat Korach – June 20, 2015 – 3 Tammuz 5775

Korach was a wealthy man. He was so rich that 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 have the expression, 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 needles are to 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 13, 2015 – 26 Sivan 5775

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