Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Shabbat HaGadol – March 28, 2015 – 8 Nisan 5775

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 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 you’re 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/Shabbat HaChodesh – March 21, 2015 – 1 Nisan 5775

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 (with 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 which is 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 Vayakhel-Pekudei – March 14, 2015 – 23 Adar 5775

There are over 200 references in the Torah to the construction of the Tabernacle by many specific groups or artisans, but the verse that declares the building finished (39:32) explicitly credits the Jewish people with the work. How can the entire community be given credit for this mitzvah?

The answer lies in the Torah concept of “shlichut”. A “shaliach” is one who serves as the representative of others in the performance of some action on their behalf. In so doing, the shaliach’s entire group earns the credit for his/her achievement. In the fulfillment of religious matters, this concept is predicated on the idea that the religious obligations of the individual are integrated with the rest of the community’s. In this way, a single member of the community is able to fulfill religious obligations on the behalf of the remainder of the group.

In any community inevitably there will be diversity of skill and interest. In recognizing that a talented individual represents the community of which he/she is a part, our Torah enables each of us to express his/her particular gifts in a way that affirms and benefits all of us.

Agudas Achim is fortunate to have a diverse community of talented, dedicated individuals. We are blessed that their hard work is a credit to our community.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 7, 2015 – 16 Adar 5775

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

Purim Message – February 28, 2015 – 9 Adar 5775

Haman said to King Achashverosh, “There is a nation scattered and separated amongst the people throughout the provinces of your realm, and their laws differ from that of any other nation, and the laws of the king they do not do, and it is not worth it to tolerate them.” (Scroll of Esther 3:8) With these words Haman gives the first anti-Semitic speech in history, which highlights Jewish exceptionalism as the problem anti-Semites have with the Jews. Haman judges us for living according to our own distinct laws and customs, and his verdict is genocide. But why does Haman introduce his argument by pointing out that we are a people “scattered and separated” about?

Perhaps Haman is counseling the king that the Jews are not only different, they are also vulnerable. Being scattered and separated, it would be implausible for us to organize an effective defense if attacked. If this is Haman’s point, he seems to have exposed a profound weakness. Our distinct laws do not, on their own, keep us unified and ready to sacrifice on one another’s behalf.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaacov Weinberg  (Sredei Aish Vol. I: 61) points out that whereas positive commandments are typically preceded by a blessing; a few, such as honoring one’s parents and giving charity, are not. Mishaloach Manot (sending gifts of food on Purim) is in the latter category. Rabbi Weinberg explains that the language of a blessing, “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, who has commanded us to …” would be inappropriate in any instance where the act should be inspired more by love than by commandment. If you honor your parent because Jewish Law says you must, you really don’t understand what it means to have a parent. If you give charity because it is a legal obligation, you are not giving it because you are generous. Likewise, it is important to give Purim gifts not because our laws say to do so, but out of a deeply felt need to build community and solidarity with our fellow Jews. Our laws do help keep us distinct, but by themselves they cannot keep us unified. Purim teaches us that a love for one’s fellow Jew, an authentic ahavat Yisrael, must transcend those laws.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Terumah – February 21, 2014 – 2 Adar 5775

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 14, 2015 – 25 Shevat 5775

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 7, 2015 – 18 Shevat 5775

Parashat Yitro opens with “And Yitro Priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel his people when he took Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot/Exodus 18:1). The Talmudic rabbis understand this passage to signal Yitro’s decision to convert to Judaism. In answer to the question as to what precisely did Yitro hear that inspired him to join the Jewish community, we find three answers:

  • He heard about our victory over the Amalekites
  • He heard about the giving of the Torah
  • He heard about the splitting of the Red Sea

The above answers reflect three different rabbinic perspectives on what each considered the most compelling rationale for valuing and pursuing a Jewish identity. Some of us find inspiration in the history of the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism and the miracle of Jewish survival (Amalekites). Alternatively, some of us most highly prize Jewish intellectual achievement and the attraction of the opportunity for life-long learning (Torah). Thirdly, some of us are moved by the experience of Divine providence in our lives (Sea).

There are many valid reasons for cultivating and refining a Jewish identity, and nearly all of them can be best realized in the context of a caring and robust community. Following weekday morning services, we may be discussing the grave challenges to Israel or our concerns for the Jewish community of France over bagels and coffee. Shabbat afternoons at Woodchoppers Talmud we expand our Jewish knowledge and skills. And on Shabbat mornings we get in touch with the Holy spark within us through t’fila and song.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Beshalach – January 31, 2015 – 11 Shevat 5775

“Beshalach” means to be “sent away,” which means a radical separation. With this parasha we are reminded that separations, which can be transformative, can also be shaken by anxiety and regret. Pharaoh regrets having sent the people away immediately upon learning that the people had departed. Dishearteningly, the people too, are overcome by the human aversion to risk and loss. Facing the unknown of the Sinai wilderness, the loss of bare existence (however compromised) in Egypt obscures the exciting potential of the desert. They cry, “Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Shemot/Exodus 14:11) But what of reluctance born of more noble motivation?

Rabbi Abbahu of Caesarea sent his son, Rabbi Haninah, to study in Tiberias, the seat of the most important academy in Israel at that time. Friends reported back to him that the son was not attending classes, but instead was spending all his time performing acts of charitable kindness. He sent a message to his son: “Are there no graves in Caesarea?”  (Yer. Pes. 3:7) Those in need of assistance are to be found in every town; the academy is a place of unique opportunity.

What could be wrong about devotion to the welfare of others? Nothing, but then don’t skip over “others” in the search only for more others. Separation can be transformative. Be mindful that giving to others does not distract you from investing in yourself.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bo – January 24, 2015 – 4 Shevat 5775

At the conclusion of this week’s parasha, the long awaited redemption from Egypt has finally arrived. God commands our ancestors to take a lamb or goat as a Pesach sacrifice and slaughter it four days later. Why wait four days? Why not slaughter the sacrifice right away?

One midrashic answer is that God wanted to create a four day window of opportunity for the Israelites to begin fulfilling mitzvot, so that our redemption could be earned through the performance of these mitzvot. This is a spiritually profound lesson. Some people believe that God, being all powerful and just, makes redemption a freely offered gift. The midrash, reflecting the Jewish tradition, takes the opposite view. For our tradition, God’s redemption must be earned. Even though God had promised Abraham that his children would one day be redeemed from Egypt, we don’t rely on promises alone, even from God. Instead, we seek to earn God’s favor through our deeds each and every day. Later on, in discussing the Tablets of the Law, the rabbis note that the Hebrew root meaning “engraved” may also be rendered as “freedom.” On this the rabbis comment that one is not truly free unless he is occupied with that which is “engraved” – the mitzvot. Freedom is not merely freedom from slavery, it is even more fundamentally freedom (and a responsibility) to make the world a kinder, more righteous place.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine