Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 18, 2017 – 20 Adar 5777

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 – March 11, 2017 – 13 Adar 5777

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

Parashat Terumah – March 4, 2017 – 6 Adar 5777

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 25, 2017 – 29 Shevat 5777

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 18, 2017 – 22 Shevat 5777

One of the most remarkable aspects of the midrashic tradition is the liberty taken at times by our rabbis to ascribe human predicaments and frustrations to God. An instance of this occurs in Parashat Yitro, where Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive God’s initial instructions for preparing the Jewish People to accept the Torah.

HaShem called from the mountain saying, ‘Speak to the House of Jacob, and tell the Israelites …” God seems to have two distinct groups, not just one, in mind here. Perhaps because “house” is a common rabbinic euphemism for “wife,” and “Israelite” is literally “sons” of Israel, the midrash posits that the first group to be addressed would be the women and the second comprised of the men. Why should the women receive God’s pronouncement prior to the men?

Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea suggests that God recalled what had happened at an earlier time in which he had issued a commandment and spoke directly only to a man and left the woman out of the conversation. This misstep ended with a complete upset of God’s plan and Adam and Eve tossed from the Garden of Eden. God was not about to make the same mistake twice, so at Mt. Sinai the women are addressed first.

Long gone are the days in which communication may have been restricted to verbal exchanges or the reading of stone tablets. Today we have phones, email, texting, and more. Yet, the frustration over how to communicate effectively never seems to diminish. Who needs to be in the loop right away? Who is better included later on in the process? Often it’s tricky, but it’s reassuring to know even God didn’t always get it right either.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

 

Parashat Beshalach – February 11, 2017 – 15 Shevat 5777

“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 – February 4, 2017 – 8 Shevat 5777

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

Parashat Vaera – January 28, 2017 – 1 Shevat 5777

“HaShem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron and commanded the people of Israel…” (Shemot/Exodus 6:13). It is delightful that this verse (613!) mentions the concept of “mitzvah” (commandment). What is surprising is that God directs Moshe and Aaron to “command” the Israelites, but no commandment is actually mentioned. What mitzvah is being commanded here?

The Talmud Yerushalmi (R.H. 3:5) raises this question and suggests the answer is the mitzvah of the freeing of slaves. This mitzvah is actually taught in P. Mishpatim, which does not occur until 4 more weeks. What is it doing here?

The Talmud cites the verse, “Like a merchant ship bringing bread from afar….” (Prov. 31:14). Why would one want to import a routine product like bread from a distant port? Well, the fact that bread is ubiquitous in one place does not mean there is no urgent hunger for it at some other place. Later on, the Torah is replete with mitzvot. But right now, in order to inspire them to prepare for their liberation from Egypt, the people must focus on one mitzvah in particular – the mitzvah that slaves be freed. This shows us the importance of relevance. There are 613 mitzvot and they are all of equal value. However, depending upon our particular time and situation, some need to be heard more than others.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemot – January 21, 2017 – 23 Tevet 5777

Astonishingly enough, the first human being to invoke the concept of “Shabbat” is none other than the paradigm of anti-Jewish villainy himself, the Pharaoh of Egypt. In this week’s parasha, Moses requests that the people be allowed to take a few days off of work in order to worship God in the wilderness (Exodus 5:3). In reply, Pharaoh complains to Moses with the accusatory question, “The people are numerous, why are you ‘Shabbat-ing’ them?!” (5:5). In Pharaoh’s view, evidently, the idea of the entire labor force taking off time for worship is the epitome of laziness, and he calls encouraging this vice “Shabbat.”

As it happens, we spurned Pharaoh’s employment and his work ethic a long time ago, and we are still gathering in worship once a week, on our Shabbat. In fact, the rest of the world enjoyed the concept so much they have doubled it, and now we are blessed with the concept of the “weekend.” So, on some fine Shabbat morning, should you find yourself sitting in shul with your mind wandering over what more productive use you might be putting the time to – pause, and reflect, that is exactly the question that Pharaoh put to Moses. Moses’ response laid the foundation for a pillar of Judaism in particular and of western heritage in general, the liberation from slavery in Egypt. What will your response be?

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayechi – January 14, 2017 – 16 Tevet 5777

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