Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Pesach – March 31, 2018 – 15 Nisan 5778

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

Pesach – March 24, 2018 – 8 Nisan 5778

The Bible recounts two episodes of the Jewish people having been held captive in a foreign land until we were ultimately redeemed and allowed to return home. Passover celebrates the first time. The second, the Babylonian exile followed by the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem, doesn’t get a celebratory holiday. There are additional dissimilarities between the two. We were enslaved, persecuted and in a hurry to leave Egypt, whereas we prospered and were largely disinclined to leave Babylonia. Pharaoh was despised and resisted our departure, whereas the Persian king, Cyrus the Great (who ruled Babylonia and made it the world’s first superpower), was exceedingly popular with the Jewish leadership for issuing a proclamation assuring our right to return and pursue our national destiny in the land of Israel.

Cyrus promoted, via royal decree and taxpayer funding, the restoration of Jerusalem and our Temple. As one might expect, several passages in the later books of the Bible direct much praise and gratitude toward Cyrus and his dynasty. The prophet Isaiah even goes so far as to call him a messiah! The editors of our Bible chose his magnanimous proclamation to be its concluding verse.

Several US presidents have been accorded (or accorded to themselves) the status of being a modern day Cyrus. Like him, they were understood to have had the opportunity, or could claim the aspiration, to be the champion of Zion and hero to the Jews. Although some evangelicals and Israeli politicians are experiencing a renewed excitement over Cyrus, mainstream Jewry seems to have largely forgotten about this legendary ruler. Why?

The decisive voice on this topic in the Talmud argues that Cyrus (“Koresh” in Hebrew) started out “kosher,” but he became “chametz.” The Talmud pegs Cyrus as having been guilty of duplicitous behavior, disappointing results, and sexual indiscretion. It is possible the sages were influenced to look for hints of his ruinous trajectory by Herodotus, who was considered the definitive historian of Persia in their day. Herodotus implies that Cyrus, despite his auspicious beginnings and improbable early victories, grew impetuous, overreacted to a minor setback, and allowed himself to be distracted by petty grievances. When a single prized horse was lost crossing a river, Cyrus cursed its waters and demanded his vast army squander much time on digging hundreds of canals in order to divert and enfeeble its current! He resorted to cheap tricks in conflict, fought too desperately, and finally fell in battle to a rival warrior queen, who dealt him the ignoble fate of soaking his decapitated head in a sack made from skin and filled with blood.

Whatever the explanation, Cyrus came to be regarded in the Jewish tradition more as a case of unfulfilled potential than of ultimate success. The memory of his laudatory acts faded. We learned that even a “kosher” leader offering to realize our loftiest dream may prove fatally flawed and, unfortunately, turn out to be “chametz.”

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayikra/Shabbat HaChodesh – March 17, 2018 – 1 Nisan 5778

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 (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, 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 10, 2018 – 23 Adar 5778

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 Ki Tisa – March 3, 2018 – 16 Adar 5778

While Moses was off to receive the tablets, the people fell into worshipping a Golden Calf. Angry and disappointed, God threatens the people and makes Moses an incredible offer. God is prepared to annihilate the people and start fresh by making Moses the founder of a great nation (Exodus 32:10). Moses, however, responds only to God’s threat. He completely ignores the offer to become the progenitor of a new people for God. What’s this about?

God begins his outburst by declaring, “Leave me be!” (ibid.) Who is staying God’s hand? The Midrash explains the situation may be compared to a king who has grown terribly angry with his badly misbehaving child. Infuriated, the king cries out, “Leave me be; I’m gonna smite him but good!” Standing just outside the door, the child’s tutor reasons, “By saying ‘Leave me be!’ the king must expect me to overhear, intervene and prevent him from doing something drastic he may later regret.” Immediately, the tutor barges in and calls for the king to exercise compassion and restraint, just as Moses does in pleading with God on behalf of his people.

From the perspective of the Bible, there is perhaps no person more important than Moses and no sin more destructive than idolatry. Maybe Moses could have opted for greater glory while allowing the people to get wacked. We may imagine similar circumstances, where a leader is sufficiently righteous to be tempted to go it alone without feeling dragged down by others who may seem aggravating and irredeemable. Moses’s behavior demonstrates that true leadership involves resisting, even ignoring, such an easy way out. Being part of a community means hanging in together and participating in a shared destiny, even in the face of profound disappointment. Walking away shouldn’t be an option unless we are sure we are better than Moses and that those letting us down are worse than idolaters.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

In anticipation of Purim – February 24, 2018 – 9 Adar 5778

The Megilah opens by depicting the Persian king, Achashverosh, as having hosted a lavish party for all the notables of the outlying Persian provinces (which lasted for an incredible 180 days), followed by a party for the residents of his capitol, Shushan. That’s a lot of partying. What’s going on?

The two giants of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav and Shmuel, surmised that Achashverosh was acting strategically, but they differed over whether or not his tactics were smart. One held the view that the king was wise to first reach out to those far away since he could quite easily demonstrate his appreciation for those in his own city whenever he liked. The other disagreed, holding that the king was foolish for ignoring his base while zealously campaigning in the provinces, since this tactic risks a rebellion at home.

The Jewish world, at present, faces a dilemma similar to that of King Achashverosh. Some Jewish leaders believe that our priorities as a community ought to be reaching out to those on the margins of Jewish life, creating as many attractive opportunities to become engaged in Jewish community as possible. Others, with equal passion, believe that all available resources must be dedicated to strengthening the Jewish core of the already committed.

When faced with a question of two essential options, the answer is to seek to do them both. When we pursue outreach, we are creating portals of engagement for those on our periphery. Such as the king throwing a party that everyone would actually want to come to. When we focus on in reach, we cultivate that engagement so that it will deepen and endure. This is like the king throwing a party where the participants appreciate why it’s being thrown, and feel transformed by having joined in the celebration.  In either case, the successful party, when it’s our party, the Jewish party, will make the connections face to face and personal, we will know who you are, and your participation will be valued. Happy Purim!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Mishpatim – February 10, 2018 – 25 Shevat 5778

There is a Biblical tradition which could turn the modern health care debate on its head. The Talmud infers from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, “He shall surely heal,” (Exodus 21:19) that God has granted the physician the ability to heal. Rav Acha declared, “Blessed is the doctor who heals without payment.” Why shouldn’t a physician be paid?

Rabbi J. David Bleich explains that, unlike the western conception for which the doctor-patient relationship is “contractual,” and a doctor may refuse to serve a patient, Judaism regards the physician as not merely acting on behalf of the patient but in the service of God. He offers an analogy to a drowning person. There is an ethical (and Biblical) obligation to save the person from drowning. However, not everyone’s obligation is equal in this regard. A non-swimmer who tries to help may actually make the situation worse, whereas an expert swimmer would surely be obligated to intervene (with no compensation expected). Similarly, the doctor, having special lifesaving skills, has a religious-legal duty to heal the sick, even for no pay.

The respected Israeli rabbinic leader, R. Eliezer Waldenberg, wrote that it is unnecessary to allocate charity to pay doctors to provide medical care for poor people, because anyway the doctor is obligated to heal the sick. He adds, “However, in a place that has more than one doctor, it is unfair to throw this obligation on anyone of them in particular, therefore it is proper to establish a charity fund for this purpose.” (Ramat Rachel #24)

Our modern health care debate is focused on how to get people to pay (insurance mandate or not). Imagine if, instead, we approached the issue as being one of how will physicians get (fairly) paid?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine


Parashat Yitro – February 3, 2018 – 18 Shevat 5778

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 27, 2018 – 11 Shevat 5778

“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 20, 2018 – 4 Shevat 5778

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