Rabbi’s Parasha Message

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

Parashat Vaera – January 13, 2018 – 26 Tevet 5778

As the plagues continued to hammer Egypt, Pharaoh’s inner circle of magicians/priests tried to counsel their stubborn leader that Moses was not performing mere tricks, but was manifesting the “finger of God.” (Exodus 8:15) Pharaoh ignored them and the situation worsened. Panicking, they pleaded with Pharaoh to compromise with Moses for “Egypt is lost.” (10:7) Nevertheless, no sooner had the Israelites escaped than Pharaoh’s counselors expressed dismay and Pharaoh impulsively led his loyalists in pursuit. (14:5-6) Pharaoh’s reckless behavior and flawed decision-making were placing his country in jeopardy and would lead to ruin. Members of his inner circle realized this. Why did they stick by him, even as it became increasingly clear that all this would end badly?

It is easy to understand why the Israelites and Moses had disdain for Pharaoh; he was their opponent, not their leader. But for the Egyptians, particularly Pharaoh’s inner circle, Pharaoh was their guy, the captain of their team. The Jews and the Egyptians were a case of “us vs them,” and a lack of partisan Egyptian support for Pharaoh would smack of a lack of patriotism. Pharaoh, in turn, devoted his attention to his base. The moment he senses them wavering, he galvanizes his troops and recklessly pursues the Israelites into the vortex of the Sea of Reeds.

The dynamic of authority can engender sycophancy. Perhaps this is why virtually every Biblical hero is depicted has having been flawed or blemished in some way. When heedless Israelite kings faced criticism, Biblical tradition sided with the critics, and the most vehement critics were rewarded by being called prophets. Fawning over leaders, even good ones, doesn’t sit well with Jewish culture. According to at least one opinion, having a defect is even a prerequisite for leadership: The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon b. Yehozadak said, “A leader should not be appointed to serve unless there is a sack of reptiles on his back (something reprehensible about him) so that, should he behave arrogantly, one may tell him, ‘Turn around!” Unfortunately for Egypt, no one was giving Pharaoh those directions.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemot – January 6, 2018 – 19 Tevet 5778

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 Vayigash – December 23, 2017 – 5 Tevet 5778

In this week’s parasha, Jacob and his family join his son Joseph to live in Egypt. The Torah states that this move “seemed good in the eyes of Pharaoh.” (Gen. 45:16). Why would Pharaoh care whether or not Joseph’s family would be in Egypt, and why would he be pleased about it?

On this issue the commentators differ. According to the Seforno, Pharaoh realized that a person works harder when his labors benefit his own family as well as strangers. According to the Ramban, Pharaoh realized that the presence of Joseph’s family would mean that the populace would no longer regard Joseph as a mere ex-convict and former slave, but would now regard him as the progeny of a fine and noble family.

The two views, taken together, offer a compelling lesson about leadership: For a person to fulfill his/her potential, he/she needs to be able to invest heart and soul, to feel that one’s own family and future are at stake in the outcome. Secondly, a person needs to have credibility in the eyes of those he serves. These two traits, vigor and eminence, are often associated with success. In the eyes of Pharaoh, they are its building blocks as well.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chanukah – December 16, 2017 – 28 Kislev 5778

There is a Hanukah story told towards the end of the Talmudic tractate Sukkah:

There is a story about Miriam bat Bilgah, that she denied her Jewish identity. She went and married a Greek officer. When the Greeks entered the Bet HaMikdash, she kicked the altar with her sandal saying, “Wolf, wolf, how long will you continue to devour the money of Israel [she is referring to the expensive sacrifices offered] and not be there for the people in their hour of need [that is, save them from the Greeks]!?!

Miriam bat Bilgah may not have been a great theologian, but she did know how to make a point with theatrical flourish. Her point, of course, was that religion sometimes seems to take away without always giving back. Why contribute time and money, if our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears? The answer to Miriam’s complaint is the central message of Hanukah. Not every crisis in our lives will be resolved through miraculous interventions on the scale of plagues in Egypt or the splitting of a sea. But if we emulate the Maccabees by taking courage and demonstrating initiative, we may be able to find a miraculous spark in our lives that burns quite a bit longer than anyone might have thought likely. By coming together as a community for study and worship, we coax that spark into a flame that illuminates and generates warmth. Have an illuminating (and happy) Hanukah!

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

December 9, 2017 – 21 Kislev 5778

This week’s parasha is about Joseph, a stunning success story of a young immigrant who rises from lowly servitude and imprisonment to become the leader in charge of economic policy and second in command of a great empire. How did he do it?

A partial answer is imbedded in a curious juxtaposition that occurs early on in the story. Joseph, we are told, is a “youth” with his brothers and a “son of old age” to his father. These two descriptions taken together reveal that Joseph was able to be a “youth” with the young and a “a son of old age” with the elderly. The Torah is telling us that Joseph possessed the right instincts to relate to people of different generations. Today, we refer to someone  with this trait as having a high social or emotional intelligence, and the research indicates that being adept at handling encounters and relationships in a broad range of social situations can be a key to overall success in life.

Being in a community does not necessarily mean being “best friends” with everyone in that community. But fruitful and effective community participation does require a penchant for relating to a variety of needs in the group, and being willing to embrace diversity helps a lively bunch of people retain its cohesiveness. Joseph drew on these personal strengths in his rise to leadership in ancient Egypt. Striving to emulate Joseph is a step towards being a leader in the modern community of today.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayishlach – December 2, 2017 – 14 Kislev 5778

“Jacob came to Luz in the land of Canaan; that is Bet El, he and all the people who were with him. He built there an altar and called the place El Bet El.” With these words, the Bible informs us that Jacob is the first to have made a promise (in this case 20 years earlier; cf. Gen. 28:20-22) and to have kept it. The fulfillment of the first promise was to honor a commitment to return to a place designated for prayer. Why?

The ability to make promises is a feature of humanity which distinguishes us from the rest of the natural world. Other animals do amazing things but, as far as one can tell, making and keeping commitments is beyond their reach. Commitment depends upon at least three prerequisites. In order to make a promise, one must be able to anticipate what lies ahead. To avoid breaking a promise, one must be able to remember what has transpired. To fulfill a promise one must see oneself as having accountability. In Pirke Avot it is said, “Watch out for three things and you won’t come into sin: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you will give justification and an accounting.” These three traits are the hallmark of the covenantal personality. To reflect, to aspire, and to face the verdict are the very essence of prayer.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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