Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Nitzavim/Vayelech – September 20, 2014 – 25 Elul 5774

Parashat Nitzavim and the Days of Awe

Parashat Nitzavim is always the parasha read just before Rosh Hashanah. The founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, explained why this is fitting. The opening verse is “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: The heads of the tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel; your small children, your women, and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Deut. /Devarim 29:9) The Baal Shem Tov asked, “Which days do all Israel stand together? It must be Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur!”

As it evidently was in the time of the Baal Shem Tov (which was the 18th century), so it is in our own times. The shul is filled with all of us, standing in prayer together. May our community continue to grow & prosper and may each of us enjoy a year of health, happiness, and blessing.

Shanah Tova,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tavo – September 13, 2014 – 18 Elul 5774

“This day you have become a nation to the Lord your God” (Deut/Devarim 27:9)

Our parasha declares that on “this day” we became a nation. Really? The experience of enslavement and exodus from Egypt did not make us a people? The moment of Divine revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai did not form us into a nation? What about the 40-year period of wandering in the desert? How is it that only now, on “this day,” the Torah declares us to have finally achieved the status of peoplehood?

Rashi explains that, originally, Moses intended to vouchsafe the Torah exclusively in the hands of his tribe, the Levites. When the people got wind of this plan (in this week’s parasha), they protested vigorously and demanded to have the Torah in the possession of all, lest the Levites someday claim to be the sole heirs to this legacy. Moses was delighted by the enthusiasm of the people and proclaimed that their assertiveness in insisting on direct possession of the Torah had demonstrated that they had thereby earned the status of a nation of God.

One of the religious/ethnic groups that make up Israeli society are the Druze. Years ago I learned that they divide their community into two parts: the uqqal (“knowers”) and the juhal (“ignorant ones”). The former are the educated elite, whereas the latter follow their traditions in ignorance of their religious meaning. The spiritual truths of the Druze are a secret from everyone but the uqqal, including fellow Druze. Judaism, from its inception, was not meant to be this way. Our religion is more democratic. All of us are not only welcome to learn and understand our traditions and practices; we are religiously obligated to do so. It is noteworthy that there are religious traditions in the world that may be satisfied with only a few initiates understanding the underlying meanings of life.  Ours is not one of them. So much importance do we attach to the Torah being a public document, we refuse to even read it (ritually) without a public presence (a minyan).

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tetze – September 6, 2014 – 11 Elul 5774

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 Mitchell Levine

 

Parashat Shoftim – August 30, 2014 – 4 Elul 5774

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 23, 2014 – 27 Av 5774

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 16, 2014 – 20 Av 5774

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, as in “Man does not live by bread alone, so 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. In the desert, they have been fed the miraculous mannah. 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 – August 9, 2014 – 13 Av 5774

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

Parashat Devarim – August 2, 2014 – 6 Av 5774

The Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, begins with the declaration, “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel.” (1:1) Some commentators explain that the phrase “These are the words” was clear and simple, but “to all Israel” hints at a complexity beneath the surface. In fact, we have a rabbinic tradition that each word of Torah contains seventy possible meanings. Where did all of these meanings come from, if Moshe’s introduction was clear and simple?

We have a contemporary tradition that where you find three Jews you will find five opinions. By giving the Torah to the Jews, Moshe in effect invited each one to form an opinion on everything in the Torah. Immediately, that which had been clear and simple became rich with seventy (or more) meanings.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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