Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Vayetze – November 29, 2014 – 7 Kislev 5775

This week’s parasha opens with the famous incident of Yacov’s dream of the angels and the ladder to heaven. Upon awakening, Yacov declares, “This awesome place must be a house of God yet I did not realize it.” The label, “house of God” would seem to imply that Yacov has identified this place as being the very first synagogue. Why does Yacov describe his shul as “awesome,” rather than as being “elegant” or “stately”?

In his choice of words, Yacov reveals to us that it is not the extravagance of the place that reflects its holiness. After all, this initial synagogue lacks even a pew to sit on – Yacov must gather a few stones to arrange a place to rest. In calling the place “awesome,” Yacov must not be referring to its physical state, but rather to the experience of his encounter there. From here we may learn that it is not the physical state of a place that makes it spiritually “awesome.” Clearly, what counts is the quality of the experience. At Agudas Achim, we are blessed with a comfortable, well-appointed building in which to study and worship. However, as our name implies, we are not about a pretty building. We are an “Agudas Achim;” a fellowship of brothers and sisters. For our religious community, the warmth of the physical space is secondary to the warmth and enthusiasm of those gathered together for the Shabbat services and wholesome Kiddush. We look forward to you joining us. Shabbat Shalom!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Toldot – November 22, 2014 – 29 Cheshvan 5775

Jacob and Esau were twins. According to a fanciful interpretation of the rabbis, even when they were still in Rebecca’s womb they revealed their core values. When their mother would walk by a disreputable place, Esau would push to be born. Whenever she would walk by a reputable place, Jacob would push to be born. The commentators note that Esau, being the first born, must have been ahead of his brother in the womb. Therefore, Jacob could not push himself out because Esau was in the way. However, they ask, given that Esau was in the advantaged position, why didn’t Esau follow through and push himself out if being in a disreputable place was so important to him?

The answer, it seems, is that Esau was not primarily interested in pursuing bad for himself. Rather, he was committed to preventing his brother Jacob from pursuing good. We often suppose that our moral choices are between pursuing the good vs. pursuing the bad. Our tradition points out that sometimes a situation is more complicated. There are instances in which even if a person refrains from doing wrong himself, he may prevent another from doing right. This too is morally problematic behavior.

Judaism is practiced not by mere individuals but by individuals who are members of a community. Part of what it means to be a community is that members are not satisfied to only do the right thing themselves; we also work hard to support others in achieving their goals.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayera – November 8, 2014 – 15 Cheshvan 5775

After the destruction of Sodom, we are informed, “And Avraham journeyed from there.” (Gen. 20:1) Avraham, as we learn at the beginning of the parasha, had a passion for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim; providing hospitality to wayfarers. According to the Midrash, the destruction of the major city in the region resulted in a sharp decline in the number of available wayfarers. Upon realizing that his opportunities for this mitzvah had been considerably diminished, Avraham decided to pitch his tent somewhere more promising. What might we learn from this?

Rabbi Abun cited a verse from the Book of Job, “Mountains collapse and crumble; Rocks are moved from their place.’ ‘Mountains collapse and crumble’ – this is Lot. ‘Rocks are moved from their place’ – this is Avraham, for he turned from place to place.

This seems paradoxical. A mountain is just a really big rock; a rock is just a chunk of collapsed mountain. What’s the difference?

Lot was like a mountain. Fixed to his spot, he could not extract himself from a negative situation until it literally collapsed around him. By contrast, Avraham was a restless seeker, a rolling stone constantly on the prowl for a spiritual frontier; for an opportunity to strike sparks in some new place that had not yet seen the light. In the case of Sodom, it proved better to be an independent “rock” than a settled “mountain.” Nonetheless, there are situations where the sacred is to found in the well-established, and where being an entrenched mountain is better than floundering amidst the flux. Ultimately, we must have the capacity to be both – at times dwelling undisturbed like a mountain; at times breaking loose like a rock.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki was asked what constitutes a true Jew. He said: “Three things are fitting for us: upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.” We may add: To be spiritually seeking while dwelling.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Lech Lecha – November 1, 2014 – 8 Cheshvan 5775

Commentators have expressed surprise over the opening passage of this week’s parasha in which God chooses a relationship with Avraham even though the Torah has offered no explanation as to what Avraham may have done to deserve Divine favor. The Sefat Emet (Hasidic, 19th century) explains that the Zohar teaches us that every human being, in every time and place, receives the call God issues to Avraham: “Go [to a new place I, God, shall show you"]. The difference, suggests the rabbi, is that only Avraham was listening. Learning how to listen to God’s voice on a personal level is itself an achievement, one that inspires a new life with a fresh perspective.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Noach – October 25, 2014 – 1 Cheshvan 5775

When we are young and hear the story of Noach, we get the idea that everyone in Noach’s time, except for Noach, was wicked. However this assumption does not fit what we know about how the world really works.  As it happens, if one person is stealing then another is being stolen from. If one person murders, then another must be the victim of that violence. Moreover, why destroy the world because some commit crimes, while others are victims? The Torah addresses this insight in a subtle way. In this week’s parasha, God declares to Noach that he intends to destroy the world because “the earth is filled with lawlessness before them.” (Gen. 6:13) What does the Torah mean by “before them”? Perhaps the meaning is this: Not everyone in Noach’s time was devoted to lawless behavior. However leaders and bystanders failed to protest and stop lawlessness when it occurred. The crimes were being committed “before them” and they failed to take a stand for justice. Because of their apathetic disregard for the welfare of others, the entire society had degenerated to a point that God no longer saw the value in preserving it. From this we learn that it is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. We must also object to the unjust behavior of others and demand a world of righteousness.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bereishit – October 18, 2014 – 24 Tishrei 5775

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, skeptics have wondered to what extent God has been made in the image of humanity.

Rabbi Hoshiah said, “When the Holy One created Adam, the ministering angels erred in wanting to proclaim before him ‘Kadosh!’ (‘Holy’). There is a parable: A king and a governor were traveling in a state carriage and the citizens of the province wanted to hail the king, but didn’t know which one he was. What did the king do? He pushed and expelled the governor from the carriage, and all knew that he was only just a governor.” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:10)

Why were the first human beings tossed out of the Garden of Eden? According to R. Hoshiah, God exiled us out of concern that with us in the Garden, the angels would remain unable to tell us apart from God and, in their confusion, think we are all gods. So we are out of the Garden and into the real world. That is why the real world can be so hard and frustrating; it reminds us that part of us is indistinguishable from God, and another part is not like God at all.

Chag Sameach & Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot – October 11, 2014 – 17 Tishrei 5775

The rabbis of the Talmud speculate that on judgment day at the end time, the nations of the world will protest that the Jewish people will receive preferential treatment from God. God will reply that the Jewish people deserve the perks because we kept the Torah. The nations will argue that they were unfairly denied an opportunity to also keep the Torah. God will then, according to the rabbis, grant them the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. At first things will go smoothly, but gradually God will cause it to grow hotter and hotter (Talmudic proof that climate change is associated with the end time). It will get so hot that staying in the sukkah becomes impossible. The Jews will conclude that sitting in the sukkah is just not in the cards and retreat indoors, but the nations will become very angry at the situation. Legend has it that they will not only exit the sukkah, but that they will kick the sukkah on their way out.

After 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the days in between, it is little wonder that we would feel entitled to brag just a bit about how good we are at performing mitzvot, and perhaps we can forgive the rabbis for chauvinistically lording it over the nations. Even if they don’t admit it, I suspect that the rabbis realized that Jews are not immune to the human predicament of taking out our frustrations on inanimate objects (and others) rather than grapple more appropriately with the fact of our human limitations. There are occasions in life when we desire a certain outcome very much, but are powerless to determine that outcome. We can only try our best. Sometimes that is enough, but sometimes it simply isn’t. When the latter befalls us, a little humility may be more dignified than “kicking the sukkah.”

B’Yedidut(w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

Parashat Ha’azinu – September 27, 2014 – 3 Tishrei 5775

According to the midrash, Moses’s 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’s 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’s 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 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