Adherents and detractors alike sometimes confuse religion with magic. The power (or powers) behind the universe may be manipulated by means of the correct execution of rituals or prayers as surely as with a propitious incantation. The rabbis encountered this view. On at least one occasion they recognized its appeal but dismissed it as sophomoric.
The stated purpose of the biblical ritual of the Red Heifer is to purify one who has been rendered impure through contact with a corpse. (Numbers 19:1-22) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once teaching this passage when a listener challenged him to explain how a potion comprised primarily of the ashes of a cow could possibly effect a change in a person’s condition. The rabbi satisfied his questioner by arguing that a procedure doesn’t have to be intuitive in order to work. The students, observing the exchange, were unimpressed with the implied argument for religion’s technical utility and they requested a more convincing answer. The rabbi replied, “Death does not in fact defile, nor does the Red Heifer actually cleanse, rather it is all simply a decree from God.”
The transition from “pure” to “impure” does not represent a change in reality but a change in status. It’s not as if a better microscope would detect the postulated impurity, nor that a better detergent could wash it away. The Judge of the Universe makes a ruling. As with any hearing, the case is decided because the appropriate authority ruled it so. Religion does not discover, it declares. Our categories are not eyeglasses through which we might describe more accurately, but prisms through which we might interpret and understand more deeply. The magic is not in manipulating the soul of our world, but in reclaiming the ecstatic experience of being in touch with its mystery.
Twice in this week’s parasha we are told that the elevation-offering must be sacrificed in the same place in the Temple as the sin- offering. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that holding both types of sacrifice in the same area of the Temple made it impossible for an onlooker to know the true purpose of a particular sacrifice. Maybe a particular sacrifice was a consequence of a sin, or maybe it wasn’t. In this way, the Torah protects the feelings of the repentant from any public humiliation.
Coincidently, the Jewish value of protecting the feelings of the vulnerable individual is also reflected in at the Pesah Seder. In the opening passage of “Ha lachma onya,” according to the interpretation of the Malbim Haggadah, we invite the poor to join us in the context of partaking of the mitzvah to eat the Passover sacrifice so that none should feel embarrassed that they must accept this meal as charity due to their poverty.
That religious texts encourage wrongdoers to repent and charity be offered to the poor is unsurprising. What is noteworthy is that we find ways of accomplishing these aims with extraordinary sensitivity for the feelings of those at risk. In this way we are reminded that religious observance is not merely “doing a mitzvah,” but includes finding ways of fulfilling our mitzvoth thoughtfully and with kindness.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
A striking fact about Purim is that it is a made up Jewish holiday. That is, if you asked a Jewish person in Mordecai and Esther’s day to name the Jewish holidays, they would be expected to simply recite the holidays listed in the Torah. Purim isn’t there. It was instituted, according to the Story of Esther, by that biblical book’s first audience; the Jewish community of Persia.
Purim is not alone in boasting this distinction. An ancient rabbinic document, called Megilat Ta’anit, lists dozens of celebratory days which were instituted by the people in commemoration of special events, but most of them are no longer observed. One of the first listed is the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, which recognized the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem when the city was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. This raises a question: Why did Purim endure, but the Return of the Exile led by Ezra & Nehemiah did not earn lasting recognition as an event worthy of national celebration?
Purim makes an odd religious holiday in other respects. Aside from the familiar observation that God is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the story (and this being a biblical book!), the celebration at the end is unaccompanied by any mention of continued concern for the precariousness of Jewish life in Persia. No one seems to say, “Hey, that was a close call, let’s get out of here and go live in Israel.” Mordecai is appointed to high office, wins accolades from (most) of his brethren, and Esther remains in the palace with her non-Jewish husband, the king. The king gets to collect a new tax. Everyone settles in and there will be a party on the anniversary each year.
Perhaps Purim may be understood as the holiday of diaspora Judaism. Instead of aspiring to achieve the “flowering of our redemption,” (from the Prayer for the State of Israel) we accept the apparent arbitrariness of our destiny. Instead of sacrifice to settle in our Holy Land, we dream of contributing our “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) In “every generation” we have to deal with the bad guys (Passover Haggadah). It’s been quite a ride but, so far, we’ve made it. That’s worth celebrating.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
This week’s Torah Portion, P. Pekudei, includes the completion of the building of the Tabernacle. Moses saw the entire work and blessed the people, but there is no mention of God’s response to the completion of this awesome project, which God had commanded. What’s that about?
A midrash tells us that God did have a response. When God saw that the Tabernacle was finally done, God said, “Oy.” Why? The midrash explains God was tired of hearing the constant litany of complaints from the Jewish people, so God commanded the work of the Tabernacle as a distraction, figuring that the people would be too busy to complain. Once the Tabernacle was finally erected, God realized the complaints would start up once again. Here we have early evidence of a favorite Jewish pastime – the art of kvetching.
Kvetching, or complaining, is generally dismissed as undesirable behavior. We applaud the positive, abhor the negative, and so confidently tell our peers (and children) that all their complaining is really quite unattractive. Even God doesn’t like a kvetch (complainer). But rather than merely condemn it, God thwarts it, by assigning the kvetchers a grand project.
Complaining comes from a place of loneliness and powerlessness. When a situation is aggravating, and the circumstances are beyond my control and with no one on my side, I’m apt to feel the urge to express a little frustration. Having a project to create something; especially to create something beautiful together as a community, can grant us the relief of a sense of camaraderie and purposefulness. It can’t solve the root problem. After all, total control in life is ultimately illusory; and, ultimately, we are alone. But sharing a burden devoted to a higher purpose can restore a sense of control and solidarity to our somewhat beleaguered lives. Evidently, this is what erecting a Tabernacle; creating together a place of worship, was intended to be about.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim, which is the first of the four exceptional Shabbats before Pesach. The name comes from the maftir Aliyah reading which calls upon every Israelite male above age 20 to pay a half-shekel tax for the communal offerings made in the tabernacle (and later toward the Temple in Jerusalem). This tax was paid, even in diaspora communities far from Jerusalem, for as long as the Temple stood. After its destruction in the year 70 CE the emperor Vespasian ordered that the tax still be collected, but now it became the fiscus Judaicus (“Jewish tax”) and the revenue was redirected to the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. The Jews could not allow themselves to pay solely this humiliating tax. They were determined to find a way to continue to also pay a tax which supported a Jewish cause in which they might take pride. They found one: The House of the Nasi; the official leader of the Jewish community of the land of Israel.
A great-great-grandson of Hillel the Elder, a man named Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh led the rabbinic community after the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. His title was “Nasi,” (the “Prince”). Rabban Gamaliel’s leadership dynasty of father to son rule ultimately created the highest political and religious Jewish office in the Roman Empire. This dynasty spanned over 400 years, making it the longest reigning in all of Jewish history, besting even the House of King David by a few decades. There is textual and archeological evidence that Jews all over the Roman Empire contributed an annual tax to the House of the Nasi until the death of the last Gamaliel (c. 429 CE), whereupon Emperor Theodosius II took advantage of the lack of an heir, closed the office of the Nasi, and diverted the taxes to the imperial treasury.
This long-ago 400 year tradition is really an anomaly, for despite half-hearted attempts ever since at establishing “Chief Rabbinates,” the Jewish people have generally eschewed centralized governance. Even the powerful Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh suffered rebellion and dissent from within the ranks. His most relentless opponent, Rabbi Yehoshua, famously declared the law is “lo b’shamyim he” (“not in Heaven”), meaning that since the Torah has been given to the people no one, not even God, may henceforth decide matters autocratically. Therefore the only authentic way to decide issues of religious practice is according to personal conscience and democratic consensus. It is no mean feat to attempt to govern Jewish people singlehandedly, but the half-shekel tax is a remnant of an era when such things still seemed possible.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
Several verses emphasize and repeat that the Israelites were to remove their “edye” as God contemplates the people’s fate in response to the sin of the Golden Calf. It is not clear what an “edye” refers to; the term is often translated as “ornament” or “jewelry,” but our oldest translation (into Aramaic, called the Targum) renders it as “weapons.” Evidently, the people were obliged to face the wrath of the Almighty bereft of any means of personal defense. This seems a little like demanding that people facing a tsunami remove their galoshes- wouldn’t matter much, one way or the other, so what’s the point?
The Israelite error of the Golden Calf occurs while Moses is learning Torah with God on Mt. Sinai. The verse there says the people saw that Moses “delayed” returning to them. This delay prompted anxiety over the fate of their leader. This sense of insecurity led to the placebo of the Golden Calf. Perhaps this is where the impulse to idolatry essentially comes from – the human need to feel in control and secure. A false sense of security is not merely a distraction; it is akin to placing faith in an idol.
The text tells us the the people courageously removed their “edyes.” It never tells us that they ever put them back on. The human condition is to learn to accept uncertainty.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
This week’s Torah portion is largely given over to describing the various garments the kohanim (priests) were required to wear when performing their holy service. Back in the day, there was a corresponding expectation that congregants dress up when attending Shabbat services. Nowadays, many would prefer to dress more comfortably, and so it has become common to see a wide range of sartorial choices in the synagogue.
Clothing sends a message. It is well known that our choice of attire influences how others see us. More recently, researchers have studied a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition;” that is, how our clothes influence us, because what we wear also reflects how we see ourselves. For example, at Northwestern University, study participants were asked to wear plain white lab coats. Some were told it was a doctor’s lab coat and others were told it was a painter’s smock. In performing directed tasks, the former group was found to be the more focused and conscientious (no mention of what this says about painters). On the other hand, formality creates distance and more casual attire promotes conviviality and intimacy.
The Talmud instructs us to have clothing we’ve especially designated for wearing only on Shabbat, as a way of honoring the holy day. Having a garment reserved for a single day of the week was a great expense back then, so the Shabbat garment had to last a long time. The Talmudic injunction was observed so faithfully it became the butt of a Roman joke. One Roman would ask his fellow, “How long do you want to live for?” and his friend would reply, “As long as the years of a Jew’s Shabbat garment!” (Romans were known more for their engineering skills and military prowess than for their sense of humor).
Even amongst those who persist in dressing up for Shabbat, it has become prevalent to dress down a bit for Shabbat afternoon. The source for this custom seems to be a medieval practice of Jewish women, who would take off their fine jewelry in accordance with the slightly more mournful tone of Shabbat Mincha. The guys evidently took this as a green light for anything goes. My own practice has been to wear a tie on Shabbat. With this single tie, I fulfill two mitzvot: I put it on l’kvod (to honor Shabbat) and take it off after services for oneg (Shabbat joy).
Rabbi Mitch Levine
In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, we encounter the enthusiastic response made to the offer of the Torah: “We will do and we will hear” (Shemot/Exodus 24:7). This verse is famously interpreted to mean, “We will do, then we will hear;” that is, we were so excited to receive the Torah; we agreed to abide by it even before we studied its contents. As laudatory as this eagerness was, it ran the risk of neglecting the “hear” in our zealousness to “do.” Nevertheless, the study of Torah has long been among the most highly valued and compelling tasks of Jewish observance. Why?
The Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, wrote:
When God left the earth he forgot the Torah
at the Jews’ and since then they look for him
and cry after him, you forgot something, you forgot, in a loud voice
and others think that this is the prayer of the Jews.
And ever since they strain to find hints in the Bible
as to the place he might be found as it says, Seek the Lord where he is to be found,
Call upon him when he is close. But he is far.
The Torah is like evidence left at the scene of a crime (lehavdil). Although God’s presence can be difficult to detect in our modern, post-Sinai world, we possess the clue to finding the Divine presence once again. “Doing” the Torah won’t help us to find God. But studying the Torah just might.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
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 our concerns Israel or threats against Jewish communities 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.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
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.
Rabbi Mitch Levine