Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Beshalach – January 19, 2019 – 13 Shevat 5779

This week, in Parashat Beshalach, the Jewish people face hunger and thirst in the Sinai wilderness. In their distress they cry out in prayer and God answers them by saying, “In the afternoon you shall eat meat and in the morning you shall be sated with bread, and you shall know that I am HaShem, your God.” Rabbi Naftali of Ropczyce (1760-1827) asked, “What does this episode add to our understanding of prayer? After all, it is commonplace for people who are hungry and thirsty to appeal to God in prayer.” “The answer,” he said, “is to be found in the juxtaposition of their being fed with the conclusion that they will then know God. It is typical that a person in distress cries out in prayer, but it is a blessing when even a person who ‘eats meat’ and is ‘sated with bread’ finds the motivation to turn to God.”

This interpretation characterizes the Shabbat morning experience at Agudas Achim. First, we pray and afterwards we sit down to a lovely Kiddush luncheon. It is no great surprise that we pray at the time appointed for prayer (and while still hungry for lunch). However, when we also find spiritual renewal in the conversation among friends at the Kiddush following the service; this is truly a blessing.  We thank Jeri Block & Robert H. Schottenstein for the kiddush this week and offer a hearty mazel tov to Jia Jia on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Bo – January 12, 2019 – 6 Shevat 5779

We value having a sense of control in life and we use planning and preparation in order to maintain it. On the other hand, spontaneity is a critical component of the awe and wonderment we call spiritual experience. Spontaneity is the antithesis of planning and preparing.

Moses knew that encounters with God are not generally planned (recall the burning bush), but that does not necessitate being caught unprepared. In this week’s Torah portion, pharoah tries to persuade Moses to take only what will be required for worship when he leaves Egypt to serve God in the desert. Moses replies that the Israelites must depart with all of their belongings, for “we will not know with what we will serve God until we get there.” The unknowable deprives us of the opportunity to plan, but marshalling all of our resources allows us to compensate somewhat by being prepared.

The sage Hillel went a step further. He and his colleague, Shammai, shared the goal of honoring the Sabbath with the best possible meal. Both made daily visits to the market. Shammai had a plan. He would purchase the best food he could afford for Shabbat each day of the week. If he found something even better the following day, he would consume the first purchase and set aside the second for Shabbat. By week’s end, Shammai could not have been better prepared for the shabbat meal. Hillel embraced a different virtue. He would wait to do his Shabbat shopping until the last minute and arrive in the marketplace on Friday, confident that among its offerings he would find whatever meal would be the best. Having substituted faith for an actual plan, Hillel risked entering shabbat less prepared than Shammai. Nonetheless, his Shabbat meals seem to have been no less delicious. The Talmud comments that every day Shammai merited to eat “for Shabbat,” but Hillel’s carpe diem attitude enabled him to live the blessing of each and every day.

It is human nature to plan and to prepare. Our survival may depend upon it. But following a script is not the path to awe and wonderment. There can be no spontaneity on our journey without a measure of risk. We just can’t know how we’ll serve God until we are there.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vaera – January 5, 2019 – 28 Tevet 5779

In politics, standing for truth & justice and being pragmatic are not the same, and may even be in conflict. Moses, an adept political leader, seeks to resolve this conflict by tempering idealism with some strategic thinking. Consider this example:

In the midst of the plagues devastating Egypt, Moses tells pharaoh that he must let the people go to worship God in the wilderness. Pharaoh suggests that the people worship God right where they are; in Egypt. Moses replies that it would be improper to do so, for Israelite worship involves the sacrifice of animals viewed as sacred by the Egyptians, and it would be counterproductive to cause the Egyptians blatant offense by slaughtering their gods right in front of them.

One would not expect Moses, the zealous prophet of ethical monotheism, to politely speak up to protect the sensibilities of idol worshippers, yet here we have it. Moses’s aim is to liberate his people and, to succeed, pharaoh must be thwarted. There seems to have been no upside to deliberately offending the Egyptians.Trying to separate pharoah from his base by allowing plagues to be blamed on his obstinacy makes strategic sense, whereas insulting the Egyptians’ values might only reinforce blind loyalty to their leader.

God, it seems, adopts a different perspective. God insists on a four day long interval during which the Israelites tie up and slaughter their paschal lambs in the presence of the Egyptians. The religion of Egypt was false. The risk that a demonstration of this might provoke the Egyptians does not seem to have been a factor; but then again, God is not a politician.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayechi – December 22, 2018 – 14 Tevet 5779

An unusual feature of Parashat Vayechi is that it is “stumah,” or “blocked.” This means that there is no line break between the end of last week’s parasha and the beginning of this week’s in the Torah scroll. Rashi offers a number of explanations. One of them is that the “blocked” stylistic arrangement is meant to symbolize that upon Jacob’s death, his children’s eyes became “blocked” from seeing that the enslavement in Egypt had begun. Elsewhere, Rashi posits that the enslavement in Egypt began later, with the death of Levi, the last of Jacob’s sons. How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled?

According to the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Lev Alter (1847-1905), Rashi is speaking of two different “enslavements” – enslavement of the body and enslavement of the spirit. Our physical enslavement did not begin until after the generation of Jacob’s sons had passed. But our spiritual enslavement began the moment we buried Jacob, and with him our commitment to a distinct Jewish way of life and values.

This is the way it is with human nature. We imagine that we are completely free in the absence of physical threat or confinement. Rarely do we reflect upon the cultural and subconscious influences that powerfully yet more subtly influence our choices.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayigash – December 15, 2018 – 7 Tevet 5779

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father. Although the Torah describes Jacob’s reaction to the news that his son, Joseph, still lives, and their emotional reunion in Egypt, the Torah is silent on the issue of how Jacob reacted to the unpleasant details of the brothers’ complicity in Joseph having ended up a slave in Egypt in the first place. Our commentators suggest that, in fact, Jacob never asked Joseph about what had happened to him, and Joseph never told him. Why not?

Perhaps some things are just better left unsaid. Some things we just don’t need to know. If Jacob were to ask, Joseph would have to tell him. If Joseph wanted a family life tainted by resentment and recrimination he could have spilled the beans, but he seems to have been more interested in going along and getting along, counting on lessons learned and better relations going forward.

The haftarah is taken from prophetic books written centuries after the events depicted in our Torah Reading. Typically the haftarah connects to the Torah reading by evoking some theme common to both texts. In the case of this week’s Torah reading, the haftarah refers to an enduring conflict between Ephraim, a tribe descended from Joseph, and the tribe of Joseph’s brother, Judah. Although the eventual reconciliation of these tribes is presented as a prophetic dream, the sad reality seems to be that conflict and disunity amongst them had persisted for many centuries, and the northern tribes were “lost” before unity could be restored.

Relationships can be complicated and tough. Mistakes may be made and regrets deeply felt. There is great risk taking an honest and unvarnished look at who did what to whom. But there is also a risk inherent in avoiding full disclosure – perhaps hurts will fester and the repercussions will leave even deeper scars. Ancient Israel eventually split apart. I wonder if reconciliation may sometimes depend upon the courage to face every truth, no matter how unpleasant.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chanukah – December 8, 2018 – 30 Kislev 5779

Lighting the Hanukiah (“menorah” or Hanukkah lamp) is the central aspect of Hanukkah observance, but in antiquity lighting lamps at home would have been a regular evening occurrence, not restricted to Hanukkah. The Talmud promises that anyone who is steadfast in lighting a “light” will merit children dedicated to Jewish learning. The question is what act of providing light is being referred to here? Some commentators, noting the context of the Talmudic passage, explain that the text refers to the Hanukkah light. Others, noting that Hanukkah is not actually specified in the promise, comment that the reference is to ordinary lights that are lit upon dark.

According to the view that ordinary lights are meant, the promise of the Talmud may mean that going to the trouble of providing light in the home (a bit of a luxury before electricity) in order to read is educational. Children who see that their parents love reading may (eventually) value it themselves. After a stressful day, parents are tired and understandably feel that they deserve a break. It often takes extra effort to “turn on the lights,” but doing so to study justifies the expectation that one’s children will internalize similar patterns of discipline and dedication.

According to the view that the promise of studious children depends upon lighting the Hanukiah, the above reasoning cannot apply. The Hanukkah lights are wholly dedicated to publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah; it is forbidden to use their illumination for any other purpose, including to read by! Perhaps the answer is hinted at in the blessing recited over the ritual lighting.

According to the text of the blessing, God “commanded” us to light the Hanukkah lights. The rabbis ask how this is possible. There is no such command in the Torah (the events commemorated by the holiday happened centuries after the Torah was written). The rabbis answer that the Torah grants permission to innovate, and so Hanukkah lighting becomes a subsequent commandment. In lighting for Hanukkah, we affirm the richness and elasticity of our tradition that allows for adaptation and growth. It is through this mechanism that Judaism finds expression and even flourishes despite ever changing cultural contexts and challenges. When our children see that we embrace the capacity of our tradition to innovate, they will begin to understand its enduring relevance. This will inspire a life of learning.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Chanukah – December 1, 2018 – 23 Kislev 5779

There is a Hanukah story told towards the end of the Talmudic tractate Sukkah:

There is a story about Miriam bat Bilgah, that she denied her Jewish identity. She went and married a Greek officer. When the Greeks entered the Bet HaMikdash, she kicked the altar with her sandal saying, “Wolf, wolf, how long will you continue to devour the money of Israel [she is referring to the expensive sacrifices offered] and not be there for the people in their hour of need [that is, save them from the Greeks]!?!

Miriam bat Bilgah may not have been a great theologian, but she did know how to make a point with theatrical flourish. Her point, of course, was that religion sometimes seems to take away without always giving back. Why contribute time and money, if our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears? The answer to Miriam’s complaint is the central message of Hanukah. Not every crisis in our lives will be resolved through miraculous interventions on the scale of plagues in Egypt or the splitting of a sea. But if we emulate the Maccabees by taking courage and demonstrating initiative, we may be able to find a miraculous spark in our lives that burns quite a bit longer than anyone might have thought likely. By coming together as a community for study and worship, we coax that spark into a flame that illuminates and generates warmth. Have an illuminating (and happy) Hanukah!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayishlach – November 24, 2018 – 16 Kislev 5779

The Torah tells us that Jacob grew very frightened at the prospect of a homecoming confrontation with his brother, Esau. The rabbis express puzzlement over Jacob’s anxiety. “Why,” they ask, “should Jacob have been frightened? After all, his return home has been commanded by God. Doesn’t Jacob trust God’s command enough not to be scared to fulfill it?”

The rabbis answer to Jacob reasoned that although he was following God’s commands, his brother Esau was not without merit. Indeed, Esau may have earned God’s favor by having lived in the land of Israel while Jacob had been living outside the land. Esau had been fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring their parents, while Jacob had long been absent from home. Jacob grew anxious that perhaps his own good deeds were insufficient and in a confrontation with his brother, he may find that he lacks the merit to prevail.

From this episode the Midrash concludes that there are “no guarantees for the righteous.” A person must not think, “I’ve done well, I’ve earned God’s grace, all will be fine with me.” Rather, a person must consider that life comes without such assurances and despite the anxiety of carrying on in uncertainty, we must resist wavering from the goals we believe to be right.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayetze – November 17, 2018 – 9 Kislev 5779

Our parasha opens with Jacob stopping to sleep in the place where he has his dream of the angels and the ladder to heaven. The text says that he collected stones (in the plural) as a pillow for his head, but when he wakes up it turns out he had been sleeping upon a single stone. Rashi famously explains that the stones bickered amongst themselves, each one insisting that it deserved the honor of being Jacob’s pillow, so God appeased them by miraculously combining them into a single large stone.

Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipa (d. 1904), Grand Rebbe of Siget, had many opponents in his city. Once, while at the table with his disciples, a large stone was thrown through the window. The rebbe ducked, and by a miracle the stone did not injure him. One of the disciples picked it up and said, “How awful. What a terrible person to throw such a stone, which is large enough to seriously injure someone!” “No,” said the rebbe, “We must not suspect people of throwing such stones. It must be that they threw a bunch of small stones; and, in the midst of arguing amongst themselves – each stone saying, ‘Let me be the one to come up against the head of this rabbi’ – they were made all into a single stone.”

The capacity to de-escalate a fraught situation when one is the intended victim takes incredible courage and discipline. To do so with a humorous play on the Rashi commentary requires knowledge and intellectual agility. Torah at its best.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Toldot – November 10, 2018 – 2 Kislev 5779

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