Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Re’eh – August 11, 2018 – 30 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we are told that a tithe must be taken annually from our crops and that we must carry it to Jerusalem in order to eat it in the presence of God. If the road is too long or the burden too heavy, a person may opt to exchange the tithe for money, bring the sum to Jerusalem and spend the proceeds on a party there with friends and family. Why is God anxious over the potential hardship in carrying the tithe to Jerusalem? What’s the big deal if it is a little heavy or the road a little long? Would not a devout person do this task – and more – for his/her religion?

The Dubnow Maggid explained by way of a parable: It is like a wealthy person who had all of his wealth in precious gems packed away in a suitcase left at some distance. He entrusts a messenger to bring him the suitcase. While waiting, he stands by his window, anxiously peering out to catch a glimpse of the messenger arriving. If he sees the messenger staggering slowly as if under the great weight of the suitcase, he cries out, “Alas! Somehow my treasure of precious gems must have been exchanged for heavy stones and iron bars!” So it is with us, if God sees that Judaism has become like a burden to us, God becomes anxious and wonders if somehow the precious Torah has not been exchanged for an ordinary load that holds no special value or meaning.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ekev – August 4, 2018 – 23 Av 5778

This week’s parasha contains a famous verse that continues to resonate in our own times – “Not by bread alone does man live” (Devarim/Deut. 8:3). We have become accustomed in secular society to regard this sentiment as expressing a human need for more than the basics. For example, since “Man does not live by bread alone, I’ll be expecting a hot tub and a sports car.” While the Torah agrees that life must be about more than mere survival, it is not even more bountiful material benefits to which this verse aspires. The verse concludes, “… rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live.” What is this verse trying to tell us?

At this point in the Torah, Moses is preparing the people for the transition from life in the desert to life in Israel. They have been fed the miraculous mannah in the desert. No one needed to earn a living or get a job; all they had to do was accept the Torah and follow God’s and Moses’s instructions. Once in the Land of Israel there would be no more mannah; i.e. no more “free lunch.” In Israel, they will have to work for a living. Lest the people conclude that with this change there will no longer be any time for God and Torah, the verse reminds them that the purpose of life is not exhausted by working for bread (and other stuff) alone. Even in the real world, beyond the desert, we need to also feed our spiritual lives.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Va’etchanan – July 28, 2018 – 16 Av 5778

Even great leaders may be tempted to express exasperation and to shift blame upon those they lead. In this week’s parasha, Moses complains to the people that God’s displeasure with him is rooted in their failures. Moses reveals that God told him, “It is too much for you!” (Deut. 3:26) Moses felt the people had let him down. He must have been crushed to hear God’s assessment that he simply lacked the ability to deliver.

The Talmud explains that in this episode God is merely returning the words Moses earlier himself had dished out to others. In the midst of the Korach rebellion, Moses had stung the rebels by saying, “It is too much for you, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:7). Now it is Moses’s turn to receive that rebuke. Moses is frustrated that the people have let him down. But instead of focusing on their limits, the Talmud suggests he focus on his own.

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, that he would extend his prayers for many hours. His followers would pray more quickly. This discrepancy created time and opportunity; they would leave the synagogue and take care of a few things, always careful to return in time to be with their master at the moment he had finally completed his prayers. On one occasion, the Baal Shem Tov abruptly finished his prayers just as the disciples were leaving the room. Surprised, they ran back to the room and asked their teacher for an explanation. He told them the following parable: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a magnificent exotic bird was spotted nesting on the top of the tallest imaginable tree. The king of that land greatly desired this unique bird, but he had no ladder nearly tall enough. So, he asked the people of his kingdom to stand upon one another’s shoulders, and they made a human ladder that slowly reached as high as the nest. This took an awfully long time. Eventually, the people toward the bottom grew bored, gave up, and left. This triggered the collapse of the entire enterprise.

Leadership can be frustrating. At times it feels like others have let us down. But the message of “It is too much for you” isn’t meant to be an insult or reprimand. It is an insight and a gift. Some tasks are so great, they can’t be accomplished alone. This forces us to reach out and enlist the support of others. Giving up on them reveals not their limits but our own. The impending collapse comes about when they’ve shared the burden but no longer see the point, or its reward.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Matot-Masei – July 14, 2018 – 2 Av 5778

In this week’s parasha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle east of the Jordan, and not be brought across with the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the Land of Israel. Moses takes umbrage at this request, and berates them for abdicating their share in the obligation to take possession of the land. The tribal leadership relents and agrees to join the larger effort, once they’ve built “pens for their livestock and cities for their children.” What can we make of this reluctance to share responsibility with other tribes for the sake of the common good?

The Talmud legislates that a mezuzah for a private home must be checked that it is still in good shape twice every seven years, whereas a mezuzah for a public building need be checked only twice every fifty years. Why the difference? Rashi explains that public needs cannot be allowed to become too onerous. If communal needs are too much trouble, folks will say, “Let someone else take care of it.”

Once Reuben and Gad have their own property, it becomes difficult for them to sacrifice time and energy (let alone risk their lives in a war) to help the others. One imagines that this is a prelude to what life may be like after the land is settled – perhaps everyone will be tempted to focus on his or her own needs and ignore the interests of the community as a whole. No wonder Moses gets so angry; he even compares the attitude of Reuben and Gad to the hapless spies of p. Shelach! In the Sinai wilderness, with everyone on the mannah-meal plan, it was no great feat to dedicate time for the community, but to forego the obligations of hearth and home in order to promote the public good takes extraordinary personal discipline and devotion.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Pinchas – July 7, 2018 – 24 Tammuz 5778

Contemporary rabbis tend to emphasize dialogue, care and spiritual midwifery, while back in the day rabbis were prone to sermonize, perform, and exercise detachment. As laudatory as this shift most certainly is, there may be an element of the old ways worthy of reconsideration. Could rabbinic distance have value?

In this week’s parasha, Moses calls upon God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh” and advises God on what to look for in choosing his replacement. Moses, perhaps mindful of his experience with recalcitrancy, insists the new leader be visible to the point of having an overarching presence, lest the people become like a flock of “sheep who have no shepherd.” A midrash, exploiting the ambiguity of “God of the spirits of all flesh,” notes that each human personality is unique. Therefore, an appropriate leader must be one  “who will endure each and every one according to his personality.” Pleasing everyone is out of the question. “Spirited” personalities must simply be endured.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner famously described the rationale for rabbis cultivating some distance by making an analogy to the village clock, which was always set on a high tower. “People,” the rabbi explained, “assume that the purpose of having a clock so high up is so everyone will be able to see the correct time from a great distance. The actual reason, however, is that if the clock were easily accessible to everyone then each one would look at his own watch and adjust the clock based on what he perceived to be the correct time. Each person would think: ‘The village clock is wrong!’”

Every villager may spend his or her time anyway they like, but constantly adjusting the standard clock to match each villager’s watch invites chaos. Leaders become unreliable when it is too easy and too tempting to buffet them about. Rabbis rightly recognize and celebrate diversity, just not at the expense of leaving the flock without a shepherd.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Balak – June 30, 2018 – 17 Tammuz 5778

Most people occupy the same spot each time they are in shul. This time honored tradition is called sitting in one’s makom kavua. A valuable insight into this custom may be found in this week’s parasha. The bad guy, Bilam, is committed to cursing Israel. Unfortunately for him, each time he opens his mouth, blessings emerge instead of curses. What does he do? He changes his spot and tries again. The fact that Bilam assumes he will be successful, if only he changes his place, implies that he believes his failure is attributable to the spot and not to his own short-comings. This is why we seek to occupy the same spot each time we are in shul. In this world of imperfection, we do not expect that each prayer experience will be completely successful. Nevertheless, we commit to trying again – but from the same spot, not a different one, for we realize that the change must come from within ourselves and cannot be blamed merely on the place.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Chukat – June 23, 2018 – 10 Tammuz 5778

This week, the Torah announces the death of Miriam and immediately thereafter informs us the Israelites lacked water. We have a tradition that due to the merit of Miriam, a miraculous well accompanied us in the desert and, at her death, the well was taken away. This tradition seems to hint at some special connection between Miriam and water; what might that be?

Much earlier, before the birth of Moses, the enslaved Israelites faced a terrible dilemma. Pharaoh had ordered that all male Israelite newborns be drowned by being cast into the Nile. The rabbis tell the story that Moses and Miriam’s father, Amram, the leader of that generation, prevailed upon his community that they dissolve their marriages. He reasoned that no new births would mean no further infanticide. Miriam confronted her father and persuaded him, through a series of arguments, to allow Israelite births to continue, despite Pharoah’s evil decree. Amram had been prepared to forego having more children, but Miriam boldy prophesied that, in fact, her mother Yocheved would give birth to the hero who would ultimately save the Jews. Pharaoh’s persecution demoralized the people and its leader, but Miriam had true grit; the threat of babies drowning in the water of the Nile, however horrific, did not intimidate her, it provoked her.

When Moses was born, Amram joyfully kissed Miriam on the head and pronounced her prophecy fulfilled. But when baby Moses was set afloat in the river, Yocheved angrily slapped her daughter on the head saying, “What of your ‘prophecy’ now?!” Miriam did not allow her parents’ lack of emotional restraint to distract her. With quiet determination, she marched to the river’s edge to await the commencement of her baby brother’s destiny. The water’s edge did not crush her spirit; it steeled her resolve.

Legend has it that Rabbi Akiva, who ultimately became one of the greatest of our sages, initially felt he was too coarse a person and too distant from his Judaic heritage to ever embrace it. Out for a walk, he came upon a stream dripping steadily onto a rock. He noticed that the water had gouged out a depression in the stone. He surmised, “If [water] which is soft, hollows out the [rock], which is hard, all the more so will Torah, which is hard, carve out my heart, which is merely flesh and blood.” Water, it seems, has two qualities which captured the attention of our rabbis: It is persistent in its efforts, which empowers it to be extravagant in its impact. Miriam likewise demonstrated uncommon determination and audacity.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

 

 

Parashat Korach – June 16, 2018 – 3 Tammuz 5778

In this week’s parasha, a man named Korach and his faction rebels and God seems prepared to annihilate the entire people in retaliation (Numbers 16:21). Although Moses and Aaron succeed in talking God out of such a drastic response, the question remains how could God in the first place have imagined it just to punish all for the sake of the misdeeds of a few?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught that Korach’s rebellion may be compared to a situation of people together in a boat, and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him, “Why are you doing this?” He replied, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself?” They replied, “But you will flood the boat for us all!”

Meting out collective punishment would indeed be unjust, and God relents from this injustice immediately upon the intercession of Moses and Aaron. However, God’s initial response may teach us about something else: collective responsibility. Community entails, on some level, shared destiny. There are times and circumstances in which, like it or not, we find ourselves “all in the same boat.” Taking responsibility for one another doesn’t necessarily end with helping each other out. It may also include accepting responsibility for one another by suffering together should one among us fail. We should always strive to be supportive. Sometimes, support may include taking away the drill.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shelach – June 9, 2018 – 26 Sivan 5778

This week’s Torah portion begins with listing the leaders from each of the Israelite tribes who are to be sent to spy out the land to which God has been leading them. Each one is described as a “nasi,” which means “leader.” R. Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudilkov (18th century), in his work Degel Mahane Efraim, points out that the word “nasi” is comprised of two other Hebrew words: “Yesh” (“there is”) and “Aiyin” (“there is not”).

This insight calls to mind the famous kabbalistic doctrine of tizmtzum. Tizmtzum refers to the notion that, in order to make the Creation possible, God “contracted” or withdrew God’s reality in order to make room for the universe to come into existence in the vacuum left by God’s absence. Similarly, a good leader needs to know how to strategically “contract” his/her presence in order to allow the group or institution being led to grow and flourish. This doctrine is theologically paradoxical. If all reality is infused with Godliness, how can God be absent from reality? Perhaps the answer lies in a consideration of leadership.

Leadership calls upon leaders to make choices. Some situations call for leading with “yesh”/“there is” – which means leading with substance, out in front and even forcefully, like a force of nature. Other situations call for “Aiyin”/“there is not;” a subtle, behind the scenes approach, in which the leader’s contribution may lie undetected, yet his/her impact sets in motion profound and enduring results. The former may call for courage and strength, whereas the latter depend more upon wisdom and humility.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

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