Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Vayetze – November 25, 2017 – 7 Kislev 5778

This week’s parasha opens with the famous incident of Yacov’s dream of the angels and the ladder to heaven. Upon awakening, Yacov declares, “This awesome place must be a house of God yet I did not realize it.” The label, “house of God” would seem to imply that Yacov has identified this place as being the very first synagogue. Why does Yacov describe his shul as “awesome,” rather than as being “elegant” or “stately”?

In his choice of words, Yacov reveals to us that it is not the extravagance of the place that reflects its holiness. After all, this initial synagogue lacks even a pew to sit on – Yacov must gather a few stones to arrange a place to rest. In calling the place “awesome,” Yacov must not be referring to its physical state, but rather to the experience of his encounter there. From here we may learn that it is not the physical state of a place that makes it spiritually “awesome.” Clearly, what counts is the quality of the experience. At Agudas Achim, we are blessed with a comfortable, well-appointed building in which to study and worship. However, as our name implies, we are not about a pretty building. We are an “Agudas Achim;” a fellowship of brothers and sisters. For our religious community, the warmth of the physical space is secondary to the warmth and enthusiasm of those gathered together for the Shabbat services and wholesome Kiddush. We look forward to you joining us. Shabbat Shalom!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Toldot – November 18, 2017 – 29 Cheshvan 5778

It is perplexing that Esau would so blithely give up his birthright for something as trivial as a bowl of lentils. What caused him to so readily part with his patrimony?

Upon coming in from the field, Esau noted that his brother Jacob was cooking lentils; a dish Jewish tradition has long associated with mourning. According to the Midrash, Esau asked, “Who died”? Jacob answered, “Grandpa Abraham.” Immediately, Esau concluded that his birthright was worthless if a man as close to God as Abraham wasn’t holy enough to regain the immortality of the Garden of Eden.

Esau suffered the loss of a grandfather he evidently held in awe. It was an experience which shattered his faith. But even worse, he gave up. Loss of faith doesn’t have to mean giving up. Sometimes loss of faith can be a step in the right direction.

The Hasidic leader, R. Moshe Leib of Sassov, believed that virtually any human trait could be good, depending upon the circumstances. His disciples challenged him to come up with a situation that would vindicate loss of faith. He answered, “When we see pain and suffering, and we have the tendency to think that God will act so that we are absolved from taking action, that is when it would be better not to have faith in God at all.”

Loss and suffering are part of the human experience. Some lose faith in self-pity, others offer “thoughts and prayers,” while a few suspend faith in favor of action.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Chaye Sarah – November 11, 2017 – 22 Cheshvan 5778

Why do we delay Kiddush in shul with singing and blessings? Kiddush is very popular. Why not dig right in and save the blessings for afterwards?

In this week’s parasha, Avraham’s servant is sent on a crucially important mission: To bring back a suitable wife for Isaac from Aram, the place of Avraham’s kin. After having arrived and having met Rebecca, the bride to be, the servant is invited to her family’s home and a delicious meal is placed before him. Then a curious thing happens. Instead of starting to eat, the servant says, “I will not eat until I have spoken my piece.” (24:33) Why doesn’t the servant eat what he has been served and afterwards speak? Why does he insist on speaking first?

The commentators explain that diving into the food would have had the unintended consequence of diminishing the importance of the servant’s message. By insisting that he speak before beginning to eat, he knew he would have everyone’s full attention and respect. A wise rabbi realizes that he/she stands between the Jews and their Kiddush, and services that seem to drag on too long will not be appreciated. None the less, we also realize that if we want our services to get the attention they deserve, davening and blessings need to happen before the Kiddush buffet line gets underway!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayera – November 4, 2017 – 15 Cheshvan 5778

One of the reasons that I look forward to this week’s parasha is because it features the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality). Avraham, the founder of our faith, is the model in our tradition for the pursuit of this mitzvah. He is depicted as stationing himself at the entrance to his tent diligently awaiting the appearance of any wayfarer who he might persuade to partake of his hospitality.

The Torah emphasizes that Avraham sought guests in the “heat of the day.” The commentaries make much of the significance of this detail. One interpretation in particular notes that just as the sun shines on everyone, rich and poor, good and not so good, likewise did Avraham happily offer his hospitality to anyone he could.

The Midrash links Avraham’s hospitality with his success in bringing converts to his newfound faith in God. Although today we are less focused on proselytizing others than on in reach to fellow Jews, the lesson remains the same; hospitality builds community.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Lech Lecha – October 28, 2017 – 8 Cheshvan 5778

The midrash which resonates the most with me, and has since I was in grade school, is the famous story of Abraham minding his father’s idol shop. Abraham teaches his father a paradigm shifting lesson in theology by taking a shepherd’s staff, smashing all the idols, and placing the staff in the arms of the largest statue. When the father returns to his store he angrily challenges young Abraham to explain the mess. Abraham replied, “A woman came with a plate of flour and asked me to offer it to them. Each one said, ‘I want to eat first.’ The largest one took the staff and broke the others.” His father said, “Why do you mock me; do they possess awareness of things!?!” Abraham replied, “Let your ears hear what your mouth has uttered.” In other words, a mere statue which can’t protect even itself is unworthy to be revered as a deity.
I realize it’s unpopular, but I’m thrilled by the idea of mixing religion and politics. Here you have a quaint, peaceful idol shop, and suddenly an activist using guerrilla theater demolishes the religious “truths” of the day. Contrast this with the contemporary synagogue, where the most exciting moment might be a new tune for Adon Olam. Protests and disagreements over important issues are not only exciting, they are potentially engaging as well.
Back in the Middle Ages, there was an Ashkenazi Jewish practice called “Bittul HaTamid.” This tradition involved aggrieved individuals stepping forward in the midst of synagogue services and calling a halt to them until public indignation was suitably aroused and the interest of justice duly addressed. Imagine if today we were to invite our fellow worshippers to force a communal response, or at least a conversation, about the political, economic, and environmental issues which impact their lives and our communities. It might make shul a bit livelier. And it’s worth noting that low synagogue attendance is a modern lament; not a medieval one.
B’yedidut (w/friendship),
Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Noach – October 21, 2017 – 1 Cheshvan 5778

Which was worse, the generation of the Tower of Babel or the generation of the Flood? The Tower of Babel incident was intended as a rebellion against God, whereas there is no mention of anyone raising a hand against God in the story of the Flood. Nevertheless, it seems God must have regarded the generation of the Flood as worse, for they were punished with utter destruction, whereas the generation which built the tower was merely scattered.

Rashi poses this question and suggests that the reason the generation of the Flood merited the harsher punishment was that they felt animosity toward one another and couldn’t get along. The generation of the Tower of Babel esteemed one another and cooperated only too well. It would seem that God is more appreciative of how we regard each other than with how faithful we are to God. Why?

Sarah Yoheved Rigler, in her book Heavenprints, tells the story of an encounter between the Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vijayananda (who was born a Jew named Adolphe Weintrob) and a visiting hasid. The swami reportedly said, “There are two levels of spirituality: a lower level and a higher level. The lower level is religion; the higher level is the recognition that everything is one.” The hasid replied: “There are two levels of love: a higher level and a lower level. There is love for every person in the world, and there is love for your family. If you’re not able to love your own family, your love of the whole world is phony.”

Spirituality yearns for the universal. We aspire to transcend our barriers and embrace the totality of all creation. Cultivating the human relationships closest to us seems mundane and trivial, even counter-productive by comparison. Ironically, the surest path to that universal may be through the embrace of our fellow particulars.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

My High Holiday address on the themes of Noah, kayak-making and getting out of our comfort zones was a winner. Click here to read it now.

Parashat Bereishit – October 14, 2017 – 24 Tishrei 5778

We are told that at the very creation of the world, humanity was made in God’s image. Ever since, sceptics have wondered to what extent God has been made in the image of humanity.

Rabbi Hoshiah said, “When the Holy One created Adam, the ministering angels erred in wanting to proclaim before him ‘Kadosh!’ (‘Holy’). There is a parable: A king and a governor were traveling in a state carriage and the citizens of the
province wanted to hail the king, but didn’t know which one he was. What did the king do? He pushed and expelled the governor from the carriage, and all knew that he was only just a governor.” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:10)

Why were the first human beings tossed out of the Garden of Eden? According to R. Hoshiah, God exiled us out of concern that with us in the Garden, the angels would remain unable to tell us apart from God and, in their confusion, think we are all gods. So we are out of the Garden and into the real world. That is why the real world can be so hard and frustrating; it reminds us that part of us is indistinguishable from God, and another part is not like God at all.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine


Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot – October 7, 2017 – 17 Tishrei 5778

The rabbis of the Talmud speculate that on judgment day at the end time, the nations of the world will protest that the Jewish people will receive preferential treatment from God. God will reply that the Jewish people deserve the perks because we kept the Torah. The nations will argue that they were unfairly denied an opportunity to also keep the Torah. God will then, according to the rabbis, grant them the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. At first things will go smoothly, but gradually God will cause it to grow hotter and hotter (Talmudic proof that climate change is associated with the end time). It will get so hot that staying in the sukkah becomes impossible. The Jews will conclude that sitting in the sukkah is just not in the cards and retreat indoors, but the nations will become very angry at the situation. Legend has it that they will not only exit the sukkah, but that they will kick the sukkah on their way out.

After two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the days in between, it is little wonder that we would feel entitled to brag just a bit about how good we are at performing mitzvot, and perhaps we can forgive the rabbis for chauvinistically lording it over the nations. Even if they don’t admit it, I suspect that the rabbis realized that Jews are not immune to the human predicament of taking out our frustrations on inanimate objects (and others) rather than grapple more appropriately with the fact of our human limitations. There are occasions in life when we desire a certain outcome very much, but are powerless to determine that outcome. We can only try our best. Sometimes that is enough, but sometimes it simply isn’t. When the latter befalls us, a little humility may be more dignified than “kicking the sukkah.”


Rabbi Mitch Levine

Rosh Hashanah – September 20-22, 2017 – 1 & 2 Tishrei 5778

A provocative yet often overlooked passage of our Rosh Hashanah prayers is when we remind God to “Remember the kindness of [our] youth… when we followed God in the [Sinai] wilderness.” What?! According to the Torah, our time in the wilderness consisted of complaint, rebellion, a golden calf, and a disastrous spy mission. Out of all this strife, what “kindness” are we praying God will remember?

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev taught a parable: Once there was a king who was lost in the woods. Lonely and anxious, he started to blow loudly on his hunter’s horn. A woodsman heard the sound, set aside whatever he was doing, and kindly came to the king’s rescue.

This lends a fresh and surprising perspective to the story of our relationship with God. Once upon a time, God was lost in the Sinai wilderness. By sounding the horn (the Torah tells us that the Sinai theophany was accompanied by heavenly blasts of the shofar), God managed to get our attention. We responded, and have been together ever since.

A relationship may face the occasional bump in the road, but acts of kindness (and remembering them) can help it endure. The sound of the shofar is a reminder of this to God. It is also a reminder to us:  People say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rosh Hashanah reminds us that God helps those who help God.

Shana Tova,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayelech – September 16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777

Twice in this week’s parasha, Moses utters the encouraging words, “Be strong and courageous.” This Biblical expression, which appears several times in scripture, is also to be found at the end of Psalm 27, the special psalm added to our services during the season of repentance. The context of these passages indicates that this expression was used to encourage those who were facing the challenge posed by external foes. In contrast, the Talmudic rabbis use this phrase to explain that four human endeavors require strength and courage. They are: Torah study, prayer, good deeds, and the pursuit of one’s worldly occupation (Brachot 32b). The challenges to these endeavors would seem to be primarily internal. It is largely up to me, and not some external foe, if I study or not, pray, commit to good deeds, work hard, and so forth. Why would the rabbis apply this phrase to internal challenges, rather than to explicitly external ones? In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma advises, “Who is strong? One who rules over himself.” Our rabbis realized that, as formidable as external foes might be, the real challenge in life is to overcome ourselves. Study, prayer, good deeds, and a job don’t happen by themselves. These activities take thought, commitment and discipline. And these traits require strength and courage. May we be blessed with “strength and courage” for the New Year!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine