Rabbi’s Parasha Message

Parashat Beshalach – February 11, 2017 – 15 Shevat 5777

“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 – February 4, 2017 – 8 Shevat 5777

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 28, 2017 – 1 Shevat 5777

“HaShem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron and commanded the people of Israel…” (Shemot/Exodus 6:13). It is delightful that this verse (613!) mentions the concept of “mitzvah” (commandment). What is surprising is that God directs Moshe and Aaron to “command” the Israelites, but no commandment is actually mentioned. What mitzvah is being commanded here?

The Talmud Yerushalmi (R.H. 3:5) raises this question and suggests the answer is the mitzvah of the freeing of slaves. This mitzvah is actually taught in P. Mishpatim, which does not occur until 4 more weeks. What is it doing here?

The Talmud cites the verse, “Like a merchant ship bringing bread from afar….” (Prov. 31:14). Why would one want to import a routine product like bread from a distant port? Well, the fact that bread is ubiquitous in one place does not mean there is no urgent hunger for it at some other place. Later on, the Torah is replete with mitzvot. But right now, in order to inspire them to prepare for their liberation from Egypt, the people must focus on one mitzvah in particular – the mitzvah that slaves be freed. This shows us the importance of relevance. There are 613 mitzvot and they are all of equal value. However, depending upon our particular time and situation, some need to be heard more than others.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Shemot – January 21, 2017 – 23 Tevet 5777

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 Vayechi – January 14, 2017 – 16 Tevet 5777

An unusual feature of Parashat Vayechi is that it is “stumah,” or “blocked.” This means that there is no line break between the end of last week’s parasha and the beginning of this week’s in the Torah scroll. Rashi offers a number of explanations. One of them is that the “blocked” stylistic arrangement is meant to symbolize that upon Jacob’s death, his children’s eyes became “blocked” from seeing that the enslavement in Egypt had begun. Elsewhere, Rashi posits that the enslavement in Egypt began later, with the death of Levi, the last of Jacob’s sons. How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled?

According to the Gerer Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Lev Alter (1847-1905), Rashi is speaking of two different “enslavements” – enslavement of the body and enslavement of the spirit. Our physical enslavement did not begin until after the generation of Jacob’s sons had passed. But our spiritual enslavement began the moment we buried Jacob, and with him our commitment to a distinct Jewish way of life and values.

This is the way it is with human nature. We imagine that we are completely free in the absence of physical threat or confinement. Rarely do we reflect upon the cultural and subconscious influences that powerfully yet more subtly influence our choices.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayigash – January 7, 2017 – 9 Tevet 5777

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father. Although the Torah describes Jacob’s reaction to the news that his son, Joseph, still lives, and their emotional reunion in Egypt, the Torah is silent on the issue of how Jacob reacted to the unpleasant details of the brothers’ complicity in Joseph having ended up a slave in Egypt in the first place. Our commentators suggest that, in fact, Jacob never asked Joseph about what had happened to him, and Joseph never told him. Why not?

Perhaps some things are just better left unsaid. Some things we just don’t need to know. If Jacob were to ask, Joseph would have to tell him. If Joseph wanted a family life tainted by resentment and recrimination he could have spilled the beans, but he seems to have been more interested in going along and getting along, counting on lessons learned and better relations going forward.

The haftarah is taken from prophetic books written centuries after the events depicted in our Torah Reading. Typically the haftarah connects to the Torah reading by evoking some theme common to both texts. In the case of this week’s Torah reading, the haftarah refers to an enduring conflict between Ephraim, a tribe descended from Joseph, and the tribe of Joseph’s brother, Judah. Although the eventual reconciliation of these tribes is presented as a prophetic dream, the sad reality seems to be that conflict and disunity amongst them had persisted for many centuries, and the northern tribes were “lost” before unity could be restored.

Relationships can be complicated and tough. Mistakes may be made and regrets deeply felt. There is great risk taking an honest and unvarnished look at who did what to whom. But there is also a risk inherent in avoiding full disclosure – perhaps hurts will fester and the repercussions will leave even deeper scars. Ancient Israel eventually split apart. I wonder if reconciliation may sometimes depend upon the courage to face every truth, no matter how unpleasant.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Miketz – December 31, 2016 – 2 Tevet 5777

When I was a youngster, I remember the impression that movies and television shows made on me by equipping major characters with theme music. I thought how cool it would be if a person could be accompanied by personal theme music in ordinary real life.  Eventually Walkmans were invented and the world learned that personal music can also mean a personal bubble. None the less, I still believe in the power of an inspiring tune.

When Jacob’s sons prepare to return to Egypt for the second time, due to the severity of the famine in the Land of Israel, Jacob coaches them on the importance of bringing gifts for the authorities there. In the midst of this advice, Jacob tells them to bring “Mizimrat.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov noticed the similarity between this word and the Hebrew word for “song” (mizmor). He interprets Jacob as teaching his sons that one who enters into a foreign and a potentially tense situation would do well to bring a familiar song. We all face our “journeys to Egypt.” The music that gives us the strength for that journey can literally grant us a harmonious life. Our Shabbat and Hanukah melodies are meant to provide precisely that harmony.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Chanukah – December 24, 2016 – 24 Kislev 5777

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

Parashat Vayishlach – December 17, 2016 – 17 Kislev 5777

The Torah tells us that Jacob grew very frightened at the prospect of a homecoming confrontation with his brother, Esau. The rabbis express puzzlement over Jacob’s anxiety. “Why,” they ask, “should Jacob have been frightened? After all, his return home has been commanded by God. Doesn’t Jacob trust God’s command enough not to be scared to fulfill it?”

The rabbis answer to Jacob reasoned that although he was following God’s commands, his brother Esau was not without merit. Indeed, Esau may have earned God’s favor by having lived in the land of Israel while Jacob had been living outside the land. Esau had been fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring their parents, while Jacob had long been absent from home. Jacob grew anxious that perhaps his own good deeds were insufficient and in a confrontation with his brother, he may find that he lacks the merit to prevail.

From this episode the Midrash concludes that there are “no guarantees for the righteous.” A person must not think, “I’ve done well, I’ve earned God’s grace, all will be fine with me.” Rather, a person must consider that life comes without such assurances and despite the anxiety of carrying on in uncertainty, we must resist wavering from the goals we believe to be right.

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Vayetze – December 10, 2016 – 10 Kislev 5777

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