Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Beha’alotecha – June 2, 2018 – 19 Sivan 5778

In this week’s parasha, Moshe reacts in an astonishing way to God’s declaration that he will provide the entire people with a month’s worth of all the meat that they can eat. Moshe actually expresses doubt that God is capable of such a feat! Amazingly, God does not seem to take offense at Moshe’s lack of confidence in this promise, and simply dismisses Moshe’s doubts with a perfunctory “You’ll see!”

It’s okay for Moshe to express doubts about God?

The rabbis of the midrash compare this passage with the incident of the striking of the rock, and ask why Moshe is punished for his lack of faith there, but not here. The rabbis liken the situation to one in which a king (God) has a close intimate friend (Moshe). When the friend expresses doubts about the king’s abilities privately, the king accepts these doubts as a part of an honest, open relationship. However, when the friend expresses his doubts in front of the king’s legions (B’nai Yisrael at the striking of the rock), the king is forced to react aggressively in order to maintain the respect and loyalty of his troops. Moshe emerges from this midrash as a model for Jewish agnosticism. Even an individual who is as close to God as a Moshe may have doubts about God. The key is to manage those doubts without undermining the morale and commitment of others.

The story is told about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, that once a hasid complained to him of being plagued by doubt. The rebbe asked him what difference it made if he had doubts or not. The hasid replied that if there’s no God, then creation would have no purpose. The Kotzker asked him, “What difference does that make?” The hasid replied, “What difference does it make!?! Rebbe, what are you thinking? What else could possibly matter to me?” The rebbe answered, “If it matters to you all that much, then you’re fine.” Doubt is not a problem, but apathy surely is.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Naso – May 26, 2018 – 12 Sivan 5778

At 176 verses, P. Naso is the longest single Torah portion of the year. Especially galling, the parasha concludes with what amounts to the same passage repeated a dozen times. I’m referring to the gifts and offerings brought by each of the leaders of the tribes to mark the dedication of the altar in the Tabernacle. Each day, the offerings were the same; the only difference is the name of the leader making the gift. Why this tedious repetition? Why not just give all the details once, and include that it was the same for each of the donors?

The Tabernacle was the first non-profit in our history; and same as with the non-profits to come (such as synagogues), major donors deserved to be recognized. I suppose bronze plaques were hard to come by in the desert, but the Torah making it a point to announce each leader’s name in connection with his gift resonates. Perhaps there is also special significance in the tribal leaders arriving day by day, in succession, rather than all together at once. Fundraisers know that it is easier to solicit a gift when it can be said that others are also giving. Could each leader have been waiting to see what his peer was committed to doing?

Back in the 13th century, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet was asked about the propriety of a donor who gave an ark to his synagogue and, to ensure enduring recognition of the gift, he wrote his name on it. The congregation wanted to know if this was acceptable. The rabbi replied that, as a matter of Jewish Law, the congregation has the right to recognize donors, or not, in any way they see fit. However, he admonishes them that, morally and spiritually, they should not only allow the name on the ark, but encourage it. A person has the right to spend his or her money in just about any way he or she would like. Choosing to “sanctify of [one’s] property to Heaven” is a tremendous mitzvah. Everyone is remembered for something; what could be a better memorial than this? Recognizing gifts does not only reward the donor, it “opens the door [to others”] to follow suit, and to do more mitzvot.

Hearing about the gifts and and the donors again and again after a long Torah reading may seem taxing, but it serves a holy purpose. It reminds us that personal sacrifice is sacred, establishing  one’s legacy is a choice which lies before each of us, and that acting on our commitments may be an inspiration to others.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shavuot – May 19, 2018 – 5 Sivan 5778

God tells Moses not to allow the sheep or cattle to graze on Mt. Sinai. Why would they want to? According to our rabbis, God miraculously adorned the mountain with plants and greenery in order to beautify the event of the giving of the Torah. Back in the day, there was a sacred tradition to decorate the sanctuary of the shul with plants and flowers to in an effort to dramatize and recreate this aspect of the original Shavuot experience. In some places, the entire floor would be covered in clipped grasses. Unfortunately, this practice was discontinued by well-meaning leaders who felt that filling a shul with plants seemed out of sync with shul decorum (and maybe cleaning up after was a daunting prospect too). Still, the idea that we should seek to recreate dramatically the Sinai experience retains its appeal.

At the moment of the revelation of the Torah, God addressed the people with the words, “I am the Lord your God…”  The Hebrew word for “your God” is in the singular. This is puzzling, because there were many thousands of people present. Why would God use the singular “you” when the plural form would have been grammatically proper? The midrash’s answer is that although God addressed thousands of people all at once, each individual experienced the moment as if God was speaking personally to him or her. Jewish practice emphasizes the communal nature of prayer.  Examples of this include the insistence on making a minyan and the routine of reciting the same words together at key points of the service. However, we need to also try to recreate the Sinai experience. We need to find a way to encounter God and prayer, not only as members of a community, but also as individuals seeking a personal relationship with the holy.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Emor – May 5, 2018 – 20 Iyar 5778

This week’s parasha ends with a jarring Biblical legacy. The Torah prescribes the penalty of death by stoning for the crime of blasphemy. Today, thousands of years later, around a quarter of the nations of the world have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and a fair number of them still impose the death penalty for committing blasphemy. Ironically, Judaism, which introduced the Bible to the world, has a theological tradition through which the harshness of this particular Biblical injunction is undermined and its underlying value redirected.

The Talmud, citing a verse in Psalms, asks, “Who is strong like you, O Lord?” and answers, “Strong and firm in that you listen to insult and blasphemy yet remain silent. In the School of Rabbi Ishmael, they taught the verse, “Who is like you among the mighty ones (‘eilim’) O Lord?” may be read as “Who is like you among the mute (‘eilmim’).?” Through their interpretive technique, the rabbis are able to portray God as stoically enduring insult and remaining silent in the face of blasphemy. Moreover, this is no weakness on the part of God. Quite the contrary, it reveals God’s strength. In sharp relief to the extent we may worship a “jealous” God, the rabbinic approach exposes the weakness of being fanatically “jealous” for God.

Early on, Jewish tradition sought to emulate God, and adopted restraint even when provoked by an insult to the faith. According to Jewish Law, the appropriate response to hearing blasphemy uttered is to tear one’s garment. In contemporary practice, the tearing of one’s garment is the well-known ritual of mourning. Here, we see, it can also be an act of protest. I’ve wondered about the overlap between the two. If we are indeed “made in the image of God,” then the death of a human being is not only to be mourned; it is an objectionable sort of “blasphemy” itself.

Forbearance in the face of insult is not the same as ignoring it. Tearing the garment is not a violent response, but it is a dramatic one. It is an action directed inward, not outward; a way of bearing witness rather than inflicting payback on a perpetrator. Perhaps our tradition, given a wider, modern application, could elevate public protest to become more dignified and, especially, more effective. What if, in response to some perceived offense, the aggrieved party were to refrain from sparking violent clashes and hurling shouts and insults, but instead simply stood silently, and solemnly tore their garments? How much more powerful a demonstration of their despair might that be?

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – April 28, 2018 – 13 Iyar 5778

This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, is the source for the famous dictum “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:18). Each morning and evening we recite in the Shema prayer, “You shall love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5). That is a lot of loving! What are we to do should these loves conflict? Our rabbis did not have far to search. They found a conflict of this sort in the very next verse of this week’s parasha, where we read “A garment of mixed fibers shall not come upon you.” (Lev. 19:19). What if, posits the Talmud, we spy our neighbor in the marketplace wearing a garment sewn of a forbidden mixture of fibers? Our love for our neighbor prompts us to perhaps make a note that a more Biblically correct garment would make a good birthday present, but our love for God compels us to take more immediate action. Indeed, according to the Talmud, we must remove our neighbor’s garment – even in the public space of the marketplace! Mediaeval rabbinic authorities, perhaps troubled by the practical implications of such a ruling, amended it to apply solely in cases where we know the transgression to be deliberate. In the vastly more common case that our neighbor could simply be unaware of his/her error, we wait until he/she has returned to the privacy of home before we call in the cast of TV’s “What Not [Halachicaly] to Wear!” In this way, we balance our regard for God and Torah with taking seriously the honor and respect we ought to feel for our neighbor.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 21, 2018 – 6 Iyar 5778

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 14, 2018 – 29 Nisan 5778

Our parasha concludes with the sweeping declaration that the “Torah” of “all life” is to make “havdalah;” to “distinguish between the impure and the pure.” Why is “havdalah” the essence of “Torah”?

The story is told of that the Lubliner Rav, Meir Shapiro, remarked upon returning to Europe after a fundraising tour in the US, “American Jewry has learned to make kiddush; it has not yet learned how to make havdalah.” To sanctify a day each week, shrugging off worldly distractions for rest and renewal, is an achievement in these transactional and practical times. But life is supposed to consist of more than satisfying our experiential capacity; we are also called upon to cultivate and exercise our analytical faculties.

To make “havdalah,” is to pierce a monolithic obscurity with the lance of a sharp distinction, and to reveal that what has been seen in a single way might possibly be seen in multiple, even contradictory ways. This is the virtue of discernment, which the Talmudic tradition recognized as the ability to “prove” that an impure thing is in fact pure. The sages established this skill as a prerequisite for serving on the sanhedrein (their highest court). Paradoxically, they made the test for being authorized to make the most important distinctions the ability to confound the most important distinctions.

The facility to discern (and embrace) conflicting points of view comes at a price. Distinction ultimately aims to decide upon a difference. Rabbi Meir reportedly had a disciple so advanced he was able to rule an impure thing pure back and forth again 100 times. His colleagues observed, “That disciple did not know how to decide.” (Yer. Sanh. 4:1) Doggedly seeing the wisdom in many points of view can make it agonizingly difficult to settle on any particular point of view.

If the Truth is on multiple sides and also on no side, where can we find it? The sages admonish us, “Fashion your ears a like a grain hopper, and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to listen to the words of those who say “impure” and those who say “pure,” those who forbid and those who permit, those who invalidate and those who validate.” (Hag. 3b) A Jewish “leap of faith”: coarse grain can become fine flour, provided we are resolute in grinding through every perspective.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat/Pesach VIII- April 7, 2018 – 22 Nisan 5778

On Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach we read from the beautiful love poetry of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs/Song of Solomon). Our tradition understands this poem as an allegory for God’s love affair with the Jewish people. Just as a lover reads each line of a love note carefully, even reading between the lines, our rabbis read spiritual insights into and out of this poem. The poem presents the beloved as having been “brought into the house of wine.” (2:4) What is the meaning of this?

Rashi comments that “house of wine” refers to the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle, where the details and explanations of the Torah were given. What connection between wine and Torah study could Rashi be thinking of? The Talmud points out that the gematria (numerical value) of “wine” is 70, which corresponds to the 70 sages of the Sanhedrin, who had the privilege of revealing the inner meanings of the Torah. Wine reveals secrets, including the secrets of the Torah. The Tent of Meeting was the place those secrets were revealed.

Wine can be a lubricant for discussion and the uninhibited exchange of ideas. Perhaps this is why we are instructed to imbibe cups of wine at the Seder, and to spread them out rather than drink them all at once. Interspersed with the drinking is the expounding upon the Exodus from Egypt. The wine can “liberate” our thinking, and thus enrich our conversation. The Gaon of Vilna noted that the gematria of “wine,” 70, is also the number assigned to the ultimate number of interpretations of Torah, the “Seventy Faces of Torah.” By sharing a “Le-Chaim!” with God, we couple our celebration of freedom with God’s loving embrace, and may merit to access the full meaning of the Torah.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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