Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Emor – May 13, 2017 – 17 Iyar 5777

Parashat Emor begins with the special regulations that pertain only to God’s priests; the kohanim. The first verse of Parashat Emor contains three occurrences of the Hebrew root “emr” (“to say”), and this idiosyncrasy was not lost on our rabbis. The Midrash links this repetition of “to say” with a verse in Psalms that uses the same verb to describe the silent grandeur of the Heavens. Day and night cycle dependably and wordlessly. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes day and night are evenly split. The remainder of the year they flow with give and take in harmonious clockwork. Contrast this, contends the Midrash, with the affairs of humanity. No deal can be struck; scarcely an understanding may be achieved, without barter and negotiation. The status quo of the Heavens reflects a rhythm fixed by God, while down below we contend with the inconsistency and unpredictability of human striving and rivalry. For the rabbis, in singling out the Kohanim for a life regulated by a Divine regimen, the Torah contrasts an austere priestly existence with the vicissitudes borne by the ordinary Israelite.

Of course, we no longer have the Temple and its kohanim to provide a respite and reminder that the world of our making lacks the calm assuredness of God’s realm. Instead, we have our synagogue to provide that refuge from the storm. Like the cycle of day and night, the parashiot we read and the t’filot we recite take us inexorably from Shabbat to Shabbat, from Yom Tov to Yom Tov, and from year to year. The stress of the world may be ever more hectic; at shul we breathe in the reassurance of God’s sanctuary.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week’s parasha admonishes us to “love the stranger.” The Talmud reports that there are 36 or possibly even 46 different passages where the Torah insists we treat the stranger kindly. We are commanded to offer the stranger not mere tolerance, but actual hospitality. It is remarkable for a nation to make the princely treatment of strangers a legal obligation, particularly when we consider how sensible it seems to regard strangers with fear and suspicion.

There are a lot of strangers out there and, by definition, the stranger is anonymous. Modernity engenders anonymity, anonymity helps circumvent accountability, and lack of accountability undermines trust. No wonder we tend to be leery of strangers. Regardless, from a Torah perspective, we are being pathological.

The pre-modern world of our rabbis was not immune to stranger anxiety disorder. The second century Apollodorus wrote of Procrustes, the mythological serial killer of antiquity, that “he had his dwelling beside the road, and made up two beds, one small and the other big; and offering hospitality to the passers-by, he laid the short men on the big bed and hammered them, to make them fit the bed; but the tall men he laid on the little bed and sawed off the portions of the body that projected beyond it.” Not only can strangers be scary; it can be scary to be a stranger.

Students of rabbinic midrash will immediately recognize that the rabbis appropriated this Greek myth to illustrate the evil inhospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah and to contrast this horrifying behavior with the generous hospitality modeled by our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. Insecure people abhor the stranger. Decent people tolerate the stranger. The Torah sets a higher bar. We are called upon to embrace the stranger.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – April 29, 2017 – 3 Iyar 5777

The Kohen shall command; and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds…” (Vayikra/Lev. 14:4)

The 12th century Bible commentator, Ibn Ezra, comments that in this verse, “shall be taken” means “the Kohen shall take from his own funds;” i.e. that the Kohen must cover the expense of the birds brought to be slaughtered on behalf of the individual afflicted with tzaraat (the Biblical skin condition which is the subject of this week’s parasha). Rabbinic tradition teaches that the skin affliction is a potential consequence of a number of misdeeds (notably gossip and similar types of anti-social behavior). Normally, if one is afflicted and another provides the cure, the former bears the expense of the treatment, not the latter. In this case, all the more so: If the affliction is understood as a punishment, why should the Kohen, who has done nothing wrong, and seeks only to cure the one suffering, be made to bear this expense?

The Kohen-Israelite relationship is similar, but not identical, to the doctor-patient relationship. The most important distinction is that the afflicted person and the Kohen are part of the same intentional community. Whereas the doctor-patient relationship may be transactional (pay for service), the Kohen-Israelite relationship is meant to be transformational (their interactions are an opportunity for each to grow). Therefore, the “cure” must give both parties a chance to learn and develop. A person guilty of anti-social behavior has revealed that he/she is self-centered to an extreme. Only an incredibly selfish person would allow himself to act as though the feelings and welfare of others may be unjustifiably trampled upon. Part of the cure, evidently, is to demonstrate to the guilty party that being human means being part of a community, and when a member of the group fails in his responsibilities and relationship to another, others, even those who seek to help him, may be made to pay the price. We say, “All Israel is responsible for one another.” Rashi explains that this means that we may be asked to suffer the consequences of one another’s failings. When one does badly, it is obvious that others suffer from the poor behavior. What is less obvious is that we also lose, as a community, the positive contribution this person could have been making as a productive participant in our community. Therefore, the Kohen is required to shoulder part of the burden of the afflicted individual’s rehabilitation. From this, he will perhaps learn (or be reminded), that even as the perpetrator pays the penalty for his crime, returning the miscreant to the path of decency deserves his sacrifice as well.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemini – April 22, 2017 – 26 Nisan 5777

Among the “impure” birds listed in this week’s parasha, is the “hasida” which is usually translated as the “stork”. The Talmud, noting the similarity to the Hebrew term “hesed” (“kindness”), explains that this species of fowl is known for displays of kindness by members of the flock toward one another. The Hasidic leader (“Hasid,” by the way, is also an occurrence of this Hebrew root), Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), asked, “Why should a bird legendary for its acts of kindness be considered impure?” “Because,” he answered, “It extends its kindnesses only to members of its own flock. One who seeks to be pure must be devoted to acts of hesed for all.”

B’Yedidut,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach – April 15, 2017

The end of Pesach Torah reading includes the verse, “All of the ailments with which I afflicted Egypt, I will not afflict you, for I am the Lord your healer” (Shemot/Exodus 15:26). This verse gave rise to the question, “If we won’t be getting sick, why will we need healing?” The answer to this question is to point out that prevention of illness is an even better blessing than the healing of an illness and it is the former blessing that the Torah promises.

Maimonides (who was a physician in addition to being a rabbi) wrote that many illnesses are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, and that many people go through life stumbling into health problems as if they were blindfolded. In this respect, our spiritual lives parallel our physical lives. Just as we must expend effort and discipline to achieve and maintain physical fitness, we must invest effort in meeting our spiritual goals. Not every weekday service is going to necessarily feel like an encounter with the Holy One, but by maintaining some regular connection to davening we may hope for a Yizkor service or Yom Tov experience which is transformative.

With prayers for a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Shabbat HaGadol – April 8, 2017 – 12 Nisan 5777

The Shabbat right before Pesach is called “Shabbat HaGadol” (“The Great Shabbat”). Many reasons are given for this designation. According to some, this Shabbat became “great” because it marks the anniversary upon which the 7th day of Creation was complemented by an equally significant reason to observe the Sabbath – the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. How is the Story of Passover connected to our observance of Shabbat?

Early in the liberation story, Moses confronts Pharaoh and demands that the people be allowed to take a brief rest from their labors in order to worship their God. Pharaoh, calling the people lazy, retorts that Moses is unjustified in making this request. He literally questions slaves taking off time from productive labor in order to worship  – “Shabbat-ing.” (Exodus 5:5) Up until now, the Torah understands Shabbat as the day upon which God rested from his labors. This is the first time in the Torah a person speaks of Shabbat as a time of rest for human beings. From now on, Shabbat can be a call to justice for the powerless to seek rest and rejuvenation from those who hold power over them.

This aspect of Shabbat was not lost on our rabbis. Roman pundits (like Seneca) would deride the Jewish Sabbath as fostering laziness. The rabbis joined the debate with polemics of their own. One midrashic legend has it that The Roman emperor Hadrian said to Rabbi Yehoshua: “I am greater than your Rabbi Moshe, because he is dead but I am alive.” Rabbi Yehoshua answered: “Can you decree your people will not light fires in their homes for 3 days in a row?” “Sure, I can”, said the emperor, and he did so. That evening, they went for a walk together and saw smoke coming from a few chimneys. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: “See, even while you live, some ignore your commandments, while many centuries ago Moshe Rabbenu commanded us not to light fires on Shabbat, and to this day the Jews continue to follow this mitzvah.”

The modern Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) also pointed out the implied link between God’s day of rest and ours: “Shabbat is a day on which a person rises above the need for hard work… and thereby becomes like God, who rested and was refreshed after the creation of the world.” Our liberation from slavery in Egypt won us the privilege of “owning” our work, and not the other way around. This concept is essential to Shabbat, and rightly makes this Shabbat a “Shabbat HaGadol.”

May we all enjoy a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayikra – April 1, 2017 – 5 Nisan 5777

How might a person act righteously yet still sin inadvertently? In describing the sin-offering brought by an individual, the Torah states, “If a single individual sins unintentionally…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27). Rav Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov (d. 1816) asked why the Torah would emphasize “single individual” in this context. He answered that even if a person behaves properly, but fails to engage the community, his/her deeds are regarded as deficient in a crucial respect. In Judaism, making the right choices as a single individual is not enough. Our tradition calls upon us to find a way to recruit others and get them involved in making a positive difference. Whatever the task, we can do it. But we can do it even better when we inspire others to join us.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei – March 25, 2017 – 27 Adar 5777

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaHodesh because on it we announce Rosh Hodesh Nisan and, according to the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, the month of Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew year. (Exodus 12:2) The implication of the verse is that Rosh Hodesh Nisan is the Jewish New Year; and, in fact, the Torah elsewhere (Lev. 23:24) implies that the Jewish New Year is this week, and not 7 months later in the fall.

Although today we celebrate the Creation of the World on Rosh Hashanah, this view has not always gone unchallenged. The Talmud records a debate over when we should consider the Creation to have taken place. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the Creation. However, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the anniversary of the Creation occurs this week, on Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The Talmud distinguishes these two views by suggesting that R. Eliezer reads Genesis as describing a world created in mature form (Trees already laden with fruit), whereas R. Yehoshua believes the Garden of Eden was created with plants just beginning to bloom. The Maharsha (1555-1632) explains that R. Eliezer links the Creation to the season of repentance, while R. Yehoshua links it to the time of redemption. For R. Eliezer, Adam and Eve were cast out of a completed garden into a world about to go cold and barren – a time for repentance. For R. Yehoshua, Adam and Eve left the garden in early spring, a season of possibility and hope, a time of redemption. The “redemption” of Adam and Eve foreshadows the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt for a new life of freedom – a Jewish spring!

Although the tradition went with R. Eliezer, and we celebrate the Jewish New Year in the fall, there is an undeniable “new year” freshness in the month of Nisan air. Shanah tova!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tisa – March 18, 2017 – 20 Adar 5777

We are a chutzpadik people. I say this not merely as an experienced rabbi but as a student of the midrash. On Parashat Ki Tisa, Midrash Shemot Rabbah 42:9 [a nearly 2000 year old text] describes the Jewish people having chutzpa as a way of explaining this week’s repeated references to us being a “stiff-necked people.” We are called stiff-necked twice in the parasha. The first time [Exodus 33:3], God proclaims he will not be found among us because we are stiff-necked, whereas later [in Exodus 34:9] Moses asks God to remain amongst us precisely because we are characterized by this trait. In the first instance, being stiff-necked is clearly regarded as a problem, but in the second instance it seems that it is a positive. This is the way it is with chutzpa. It all depends upon context. When we are brazenly stubborn in resisting the right path, chutzpa only makes a bad situation worse. However when the situation calls for uncompromising and courageous steadfastness, chutzpa becomes a key virtue. We live in challenging times for the Jewish people. (Which generation of Jews has not?). When those challenges call for a chutzpadik response, we know that we can count on ourselves to meet the expectation.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Tetzaveh – March 11, 2017 – 13 Adar 5777

When Josephus (1st century of the common era) visited the Temple in Jerusalem as a young man, he was struck by the blue band upon the headdress of the High Priest, and he declared that it must represent the heavens, for upon it was inscribed “Holy to The Lord” (Exodus 28:36-37). According to an early rabbinic text, this inscription “Holy to The Lord” occupied two lines, inscribed one on top of the other, on the front of the headband. This would have been taken as a statement of fact, had a man named Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi not spoken up and declared, “I saw the priestly vestments in Rome [where they had been taken after the Temple’s destruction], and the inscription occupied only a single line.” (Shabbat 63b) This seemingly trivial discrepancy reveals an important tension in Judaism: Sometimes what a tradition tells us is contradicted by what our eyes see.

“One must judge according to that which one sees with his/her own eyes,” remarks the Talmud in a number of places. This is compelling advice, but one must also know where to look. The story is told of the man who lost his key and searched for it on hand and knee in the light of a street lamp. “Where did you last have it?” enquired his companion. “Further down the block,” the first replied. His friend admonishes him, “Why then are you searching here?” He answered, “This is where the light is.”

Some look for answers in life where it is convenient to search but where there is nothing to be found. Others brave a harder search and discover truths which eluded others. Some see an ordinary headband, while some other might see the flash of the heavens. It all comes down to knowing how to search.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine