Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Shabbat Pesach – April 23, 2016 – 15 Nisan 5776

There is an apparent contradiction in the Torah over when our liberation from Egyptian bondage began. According to Deuteronomy 16:1, God brought us out of Egypt at night. According to Numbers 33:3, the Israelites left triumphantly while the Egyptians looked on during the following day. When was the Exodus; at night or during the day?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate, reconciled these verses by positing two stages of redemption. According to Rav Kook, physical freedom is actually the second stage of a process. Before one can be outwardly free, one must first experience an inner state of redemption. Our inner liberation took place at night, when Pharaoh finally relented in the wake of the plague of the firstborn. This occurred at night, a time of privacy since one cannot be seen by others due to the darkness. The next day, we realized our physical freedom outwardly, by leaving Egypt in broad daylight for all to see.

We have the opportunity to commemorate this two-staged process of redemption each year. The night of Pesach is a time to celebrate our freedom in the privacy of our homes, amidst the comfort of being with friends and family. The next morning, we get up and go to shul, where we may once again celebrate our freedom as a people; this time publically in the context of our loving community.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat HaGadol – April 16, 2016 – 8 Nisan 5776

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 Tazria – April 9, 2016 – 1 Nisan 5776

In this week’s parasha we learn that an individual afflicted with nega tzaraat (an affliction of the human skin translated by the Septuagint as “leprosy”) must be isolated from others for a seven day period. Surely the author of the Torah anticipated that we would associate the quarantine of “seven days” with Shabbat – the seventh day of the week. What’s the connection?

A happy Shabbat contrasts sharply with the unhappiness of one afflicted with nega tzaraat. If we rearrange the letters which spell “nega” (nun-gimmel-aiyen), we can spell “oneg” (aiyen-nun-gimmel). “Oneg Shabbat” (Shabbat happiness) is a fundamental aim of Shabbat. Nega is traditionally thought of having been a consequence of anti-social behavior. Perhaps the Torah is hinting to us that whereas anti-social behavior is associated with nega and isolation, Shabbat should be characterized by oneg; happiness shared socially among family and friends.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemini – April 2, 2016 – 23 Adar II 5776

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

Parashat Tzav – March 26, 2016 – 16 Adar II 5776

Twice in this week’s parasha we are told that the elevation-offering must be sacrificed in the same place in the Temple as the sin- offering. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that holding both types of sacrifice in the same area of the Temple made it impossible for an onlooker to know the true purpose of a particular sacrifice. Maybe a particular sacrifice was a consequence of a sin, or maybe it wasn’t. In this way, the Torah protects the feelings of the repentant from any public humiliation.

Coincidently, the Jewish value of protecting the feelings of the vulnerable individual is also reflected in at the Pesach Seder. In the opening passage of “Ha lachma onya,” according to the interpretation of the Malbim Haggadah, we invite the poor to join us in the context of partaking of the mitzvah to eat the Passover sacrifice so that none should feel embarrassed that they must accept this meal as charity due to their poverty.

That religious texts encourage wrongdoers to repent and charity be offered to the poor is unsurprising. What is noteworthy is that we find ways of accomplishing these aims with extraordinary sensitivity for the feelings of those at risk. In this way we are reminded that religious observance is not merely “doing a mitzvah,” but includes finding ways of fulfilling our mitzvoth thoughtfully and with kindness.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayikra – March 19, 2016 – 9 Adar II 5776

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 Pekudei – March 12, 2016 – 2 Adar II 5776

At the end of the Book of Shemot/Exodus we find, “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud was upon it.” The Talmudic Rabbi Zerika noted a contradiction: Elsewhere it is written, “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud.” (Exodus 24:18) Rabbi Zerika surmised, “This teaches that the Holy One seized Moses and brought him into the cloud!”

Wow! Even an individual as spiritually inclined as Moses was only able to join the Divine Presence in the Tent of Meeting because the irresistible power of the Holy One dragged him in there. Alas, rabbis are not God and our congregants aren’t all Moses’s (yet). Given this bilateral proficiency gap, how will the Jews be dragged into shul?

Overcoming resistance to change and growth is no easy feat. There is the fear of the unknown (the service is in Hebrew) and the fear of being exposed as incompetent (they might try to give me an “honor”). How can we enter a service when we have the strong premonition that we will despair of making any sense of it all (it’s a cloud)? Religious people are supposed to be “God fearing,” yet it seems fearful paralysis shuts us out of even the possibility of a robust Jewish experience.

The Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) taught regarding the verse, “Let fear of God be upon your faces, so that you shall be without sin.’ What ‘fear’ is intended here? God desires that we fear his remoteness, and it is sin which creates that gap.” We are afraid, so we would have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but our rabbis can do little more than gentle pushing. Too bad we tend to fear the wrong thing.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel – March 5, 2016 – 25 Adar I 5776

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 – February 27, 2016 – 18 Adar I 5776

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 – February 20, 2016 – 11 Adar I 5776

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