Monday, July 28, 2014

Don’t Just Do Jewish!

Shabbat Dvarim (Chazon)
Dvarim 1:1 – 3:22
6 Av 5774 / August 1 - 2, 2014

Don’t Just Do Jewish!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

After each Torah portion, a section of the Prophets is also read, called the Haftorah. During the Three Weeks (leading up to Tisha B’Av, August 5th) we read specific writings that fit into the themes of despair and punishment. This Shabbat, connected to Parshat Dvarim, we read a famous Haftorah that begins with the words, “Chazon Yishiyahu,” (The vision of Isaiah). Thus, this Shabbat, the week before Tisha B’Av, is called Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision.

Isaiah’s words take us to the final hour. The moral and ethical level of the Jewish people has fallen beyond repair and the only solution is exile. The Holy Land (and God too) will not tolerate inhabitants that offer
meaningless sacrifices, judge without righteousness, and ignore the poor  and needy. I find it very wise that as we read the opening section to Moshe’s farewell address in Dvarim, we also read about the shortcoming
of our community several generations later. Moshe’s speech is given at the boundary of the Land of Israel. He reviews some of the challenges that were had on the way to the Promised Land. Finally, the Israelites
can actualize their dream. The promise to Abraham will become manifest! And in a blink of an eye, we read Isaiah’s admonishment,

“Woe! O sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evil, destructive children.” (1:4).

Isaiah reminds the people, both our ancestors and us, about what is truly important.  He pleads, “Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.” What good is “doing Jewish” if the world around us is not getting any better. Kashrut, Shabbat, and Torah study are not practices that will inherently improve our communities. They are some of the Jewish tools
that have the potential for transformation. The key though is our own intention and how the world is impacted as a result of our engagement with Judaism.  

I often hear and think about this question: So,  why be Jewish? You can transform the world as a Buddhist or an atheist. Does it add anything if we do things in a “Jewish way”?

No one should have a really perfect answer to this question, because we should never seek to completely invalidate one life path over another. My “work-in-progress” answer is that having a foundation story to
connect with adds a tremendous amount of meaning to our engagement with the world. Our Jewish story fuels our passions, it frames our exploration of certain values and beliefs, and it creates an intimate
bond in a sometimes lonely and empty universe. Living a Jewish life enables you to access the specific tools of transformation that are inherent in Jewish practice. As you wrestle to find your own authentic expression of Shabbat and Kashrut, for example, how does this process impact you? To me, this is a question that is worth living into - a question that helps to shape our vision of a world we want to live in.

Have a beautiful week and a meaningful Shabbat.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Do We Need Destruction?

Shabbat Masei
Bamidbar 33:1-36:13
28 Tamuz 5774 / July 26 – 27, 2014

Do We Need Destruction?

by Zvi Bellin, Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

In this week’s portion, Parshat Masei (Journeys) we are given a recap of a variety of stops made on the way from Egypt  to Palestine. Finally, the time has arrived for the Jewish people to end their lives as nomads and become land owners. One problem: Palestine is not an empty land. It is inhabited by people from a variety of nations and in Chapter 33, verses 50-53, the Israelites are instructed to not only take the land of the people dwelling there but to “drive them out,” and “destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; all their high places you shall demolish.”

Reading these verses resonates sadly with the situation in Israel and Gaza today, and with the Jewish time period we are now in, called the Three Weeks. It is the time between two fast days that mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The first day is the 17th of Tamuz when the walls of the Temple were breached and the second day is the 9th of Ave, the actual day the Temples were destroyed.

The destruction of the Temples brought a lot of change to the Jewish people and not all of it was bad. We have stopped killing animals for our worship and have become a book-based faith, able to survive anywhere. I wonder about how destruction is sometimes necessary in order for new ideas and understandings to bloom.

In my community I hear a lot about taking the “Buddhist approach” to a situation. Accept change and give up the pain of holding on to something that you will eventually lose anyway. I definitely see the value in this philosophy and with many things try to practice it. The problem though is when we try to judge others through that lens. It is easy to say that the Jews living in the Old City of Jerusalem should have just accepted that life as they knew it was over and a new model was needed. They could have opened the city gates and surrendered – perhaps saving many lives and the Temple itself. Obviously, this is a very difficult statement to make. How can we point back at the past and purport to know what should have been done? How do we really know if things would have turned out better?

The people of Israel is charged with a responsibility to Wrestle with God (the literal translation of Yisra-El). During these Three Weeks I think it is important to wrestle with the following question: What convictions do we want to hold on to, even in the face of destruction?  Let’s take this contemplative period of our calendar to consider what are the beliefs about our selves, our community, and God that are really worth risking it all for. And similarly what convictions might we be fighting for that are no longer relevant or helpful.     

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Danger in Promises

Shabbat Matot
Bamidbar 30:2-32:42
21 Tamuz 5774 / July 18 – 19, 2014

The Danger in Promises
by Shifra Mince, MH Park Slope

This week's Torah portion is the second to last in the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers. This book basically chronicles the Israelites wandering through the desert and so the penultimate chapter of the book is describing the ending of that journey. After 40 years of wandering the desert, the Israelites are pretty close now to entering the Land of Israel.

One of the most prominent themes of this week's portion is promises. The portion begins with a list of rules about taking vows. The Torah says, "When a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."

We are being reminded that our speech has power and that if we make a vow to do or not do something, that vow is truly binding. In fact, this issue is so serious that the famous Kol Nidre prayer that we say on Yom Kippur is all about cancelling the vows of the previous year.

For example, if someone vowed to never eat chocolate, that vow is taken pretty seriously. They can only annul that vow on Yom Kippur when all vows are annulled. It is for this reason that observant Jews will sometimes refrain from saying "I swear." There is a sense that making such a binding agreement, even if its just a verbal agreement, has some real-world power. Not following through may have serious consequences.

Right after listing the rules about making vows, the Torah tells us a story of a promise. Two tribes, Reuven and Gad, decide they would rather stay on the eastern bank of the Jordan river and not live on the western side with the rest of the Jewish people. Moshe tells them that in order to do this they must promise to fight for and conquer the rest of the land with the rest of the Israelites. They agree. They promise to help with the fight and only after its done return to their homes on the east side of the river.

What is going on here? Why does the Torah specifically tell us very serious rules about making promises and then tell us a story about a big promise being made. Is the Torah warning us about making promises? Is it telling us that we can't generally follow through with them and so its better not to make them at all? Is it simply showing us an example of a promise in order to illustrate the importance of following through with one's word?

Perhaps the whole idea of a promise is pointing at an even larger promise that is setting the entire stage of this story: the promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. The Jewish people have been wandering through the desert because God promised the Land of Israel to Abraham. But there are consequences, dirty consequences to that promise. We see just how violent the people have to become in order to conquer the land. It’s not simple. 400 years after God's promise to Abraham, the landscape of Israel seems to have changed.

This portion seems to be inviting us to explore both sides of promise-making. What is it like to just say a promise and then "flake out" and not follow through? Well, you hurt people. But what are the consequences of making a promise AND following through, as God is doing by bringing the people into Israel? Maybe this kind of promise is ALSO dangerous. Emotions run high because this land has been promised to them, even though they don't currently live there. Then they have to violently conquer the land.

With tensions in Israel rising, I would like to invite everyone to take a moment and think about promises in our lives. Beyond just reflecting on the power of speech, you might notice the promises others have made to you that you are still holding onto. Are those healthy visions/dreams for the future? Or are you just holding onto something because it was promised long ago? Maybe take a moment to allow the message of this week's portion to sink in. Promises are powerful and dangerous and must be taken seriously. But even more so, being promised something can be dangerous because it allows us to act from a past point of view rather than a present or forward looking point of view.

May this Shabbat bring us each greater inner peace and bring the world closer to global peace.

Awesome G-D Cast video, on topic:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Stained Righteousness

Parshat Pichas
Bamidbar 25:10 - 30:1
14 Tammuz 5774 / July 11 – 12, 2014

Stained Righteousness
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This week’s parsha is complicated for me. It begins with Pinchas (Aaron’s grandson) who after killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman in the midst of coitus, is rewarded by God with the eternal gift of priesthood.  The back story is that the Israelites meet the Midianites on the way to Canaan and the Midianite women lure the Israelite men into a bit of a sex party. Pinchas’ bloody action, as you might guess, breaks up the fun. The fact that violence is commended and rewarded so highly does not compute in my brain and my reaction is, NOPE – I don’t get it.

The text states, in last week’s portion, that as the couple were publicly having sex, there was a plague occurring where other Israelites were dropping like flies. This plague claimed 24,000 lives and after Pinchas’ act of zealotry, people stopped dying. This leads me to believe that there was more at stake here than inter-religious baby making. The Israelites were under a spiritual and/or cultural attack. This was no meeting of two peaceful cultures for the sake of expanding wisdom. The Israelites were vulnerable and ungrounded, and if the charge led by this Israelite man would have succeeded, our history might have ended there. Pinchas killed two and saved thousands, and generations to come.

This ultimately does not satisfy me. I do not love Pinchas. Aaron’s lineage is about being a Rodef Shalom (a pursuer of peace) using peaceful means. His grandson seems to bring peace, though falls short in employing peaceful means – so there is a bit of a stain on his reward. The text suggests that God’s feelings towards what happened were not super positive either. First, in the parsha, when Pinchas is first mentioned, his name is spelled with a smaller-than-usual yud,  י ,this denotes a limiting of Divine favor, as yud is a letter in God’s holy name.
In addition, in the phrase for Pinchas’ blessing, which the Torah says is a Brit Shalom - ברית שלום -   a covenant of peace – the letter vav (ו )in the word Shalom is broken in the middle. This letter is also a letter in God’s name. To me this says that this covenant of peace has something broken within it.

As I reflect on this theme of stained righteousness, I think of the current events in Israel and Palestine. Four teenagers lost their lives for the sake of some supposed holier purpose. It makes me very sad that Israel still finds itself struggling to secure peace through peaceful means. It is easy to get sucked into an argument over which side is more right. I think that the Parsha teaches us that even if you think that one side is right, it does not mean that this side is whole. Ultimately, it is not enough to be right. Correctness does not lead to peace.  Ramy Kaufler, MH Business and Finance Manager, shared this article with me, about how the families of the victims have connected to share in each other’s pain. To me, this is the wholly-est ending to such tragic stories and the best learning from such pain. It is the truest meaning of a Brit Shalom.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Own your Jewish Karma

Parshat Balak
Bamidbar 22:2 – 25:9
7 Tammuz 5774 / July 4-5, 2014

Own your Jewish Karma  
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Holy Blessings Batman!
When Balak, the King of Moav, enlists the desert dwelling prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelite nation, words of  blessing emerge that become timeless as part of our daily prayer. Balaam is summoned to an overlook where he can see the entire Israelite encampment. He intends to curse the people, but has promised that he will only speak the words that God puts into his mouth. Balaam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and chants these famous words that have found their way into scripture:

ה  מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
ו  כִּנְחָלִים נִטָּיוּ, כְּגַנֹּת עֲלֵי נָהָר; כַּאֲהָלִים נָטַע יְהוָה, כַּאֲרָזִים עֲלֵי-מָיִם.
6 As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters;
ז  יִזַּל-מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו, וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים; וְיָרֹם מֵאֲגַג מַלְכּוֹ, וְתִנַּשֵּׂא מַלְכֻתוֹ.
7 Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
ח  אֵל מוֹצִיאוֹ מִמִּצְרַיִם, כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם לוֹ; יֹאכַל גּוֹיִם צָרָיו, וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶם יְגָרֵם--וְחִצָּיו יִמְחָץ.
8 God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.
ט  כָּרַע שָׁכַב כַּאֲרִי וּכְלָבִיא, מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ; מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ, וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר.
9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.

Balaam’s prophecy is a timeless blessing that includes us, the current generation of Jewish people. Our pluralistic and progressive homes are tents of Jacob and dwelling places of Israel. And so they are good. What is the goodness that this familiar line (verse 5) of prayer is talking about? Perhaps there are clues to be found in the lesser known continuing lines.

How exciting that verses 6 and 7 contain beautiful images from the natural world! “Gardens by the river side,” and “water shall flow from his branches.” Our generation is engaged in the process of exploring the deep bond between Jewish identity and caring for our planet. True to Balaam’s verses, we are discovering that our homes are good places because we do not see them as completely separate from the world outside of our windows. We know that we need to use natural resources responsibly in order for goodness to continue.  

Verses 8 and 9 are less politically correct and so perhaps, a bit harder to digest. The blessing connects our relationship to a God of war and power. Is that what we need God for? To eat up nations and crush their bones?

I want to suggest that we read the end of the blessing as a progression. We began with the need for a God that destroys our enemies (verse 8), but we head towards a relationship whereby we have the power to bestow blessings and curses because of a connection with God within (verse 9).

Stephanie Nash is an actress and meditation teacher that talks about the resonance between two pitchforks. If you strike one pitchfork at the end of a gymnasium, a second pitchfork at the other end of the room will begin to chime in tune. Human relationships are guided by this phenomenon too. When we watch a movie and witness strong and powerful emotions we begin to experience the same feelings. Might the same be true for the blessings and curses that we put out into the world.

Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.” If we choose to see truth in these words, then it is our responsibility to ensure that we act in ways that people will bless us, so we can all (Jews and non-Jews) benefit from increased blessing in the world.  

Grief and Leadership

Parshat Chukat
Bamidbar 19:1 – 22:1
30 Sivan 5774 / June 27 – 28, 2014

Grief and Leadership
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all might be familiar with the sequence of events:

- The Israelites complain for water.
- God tells Moshe to ask a rock to release water.
- Moshe hits the rock and brings forth water.
- God punishes Moshe that he can no longer bring the people into the Promised Land.

This story is shattering in a way. Where is God’s forgiveness? Wasn’t Moshe God’s #1 profit? Could Moshe have screwed up so badly by hitting a rock instead of talking to it?

These are difficult questions to answer, though our sages comment that Moshe hitting the rock in anger displayed a quality that would make him unfit to lead the people into the land.

That might be true, but couldn’t Moshe at least see the land of Israel? Couldn’t he have just taken a little stroll across the Jordan River, picked a pomegranate and enjoyed the view? I want the answer to be, “of course!” But this is not what happened. Moshe’s privilege to step foot into the land was stripped.

I was very struck upon reading the portion that in the narrative Miriam dies right before the people complain and Moshe hits the rock. It gives me a new perspective to understand that Moshe was wrapped in grief at that time. Perhaps his anger was not really about the people, rather he was angry as part of the natural process of grieving the loss of his sister. Remember, Miriam saved Moshe from Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish male babies way back in the beginning of Exodus. She watched over him and made sure nothing bad would befall him.

Now Moshe has lost his sister, his protector. He is torn apart. I think this is one of the most challenging places for a leader to stand in...How do I deal with my own emotional pain, while having to show up with a level head to greet my congregation/participants/students/clients? Moshe simply was unable to hold this dichotomy. When we are dealing with grief, it is almost impossible not to be overpowered with it.

The road to Israel was not a peaceful path. Joshua leads the Israelites into war. It is a tale of violence and loss. Perhaps, God was protecting Moshe from experiencing more loss. The lesson to be learned is that when facing strong emotions like grief, a leader will know when it is time to take a break, or even to step down. A robust system can sustain itself when roles need to shift and when power needs to be reconfigured. Moshe not entering the land was a clear message that it was time for Moshe to step down as the leader - the system needed restructuring. It is a hard lesson, but deep in wisdom. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Between Life and Death

Parshat KorachBamidbar 16:1 -18:3223 Sivan  5774 / June 20 – 21, 2014

Between Life and Death
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This Torah Portion is famous for the challenge that Korach and his band of rabble-rousers raise against Moshe and the miraculous punishment of the Earth opening its mouth and swallowing these dissenters. On the surface, Korach’s claim is not so strange. He wants to know why Moshe and Aaron are given a higher status of leadership than other people of their own Levite tribe. Upon deeper exploration is seems that Korach’s intentions were not to increase justice, but rather to usurp power.
As the Earth licks its lips after a satisfying meal, there is yet another conflict in the Israelite camp. The entire Jewish people are now scared of Moshe and Aaron, faulting them for the death of Korach’s crew. They assemble against the Dynamic Duo (Moshe and Aaron) and shout with raged fists, “You have killed the people of God!” According to the text, their mob mentality strikes up another punishment. This time it is a mysterious plague that begins to spread throughout the camp, killing people instantly (the death toll reached 14,700!). God too seems to be infected with the fury virus and is ready to demolish all the Jewish people.

Fear not Israelites, Moshe knows how to stop this plague! He tells Aaron to take incense and burn it amongst the people and atone for them. Aaron does just this and the Torah states beautifully in verse 17:13,

He stood between the dead and between the living and the plague was halted.

I read this verse as saying that Aaron was able to stand between life and death and that his ability to hold these two extremes ended the plague. Aaron is able to dive into the plague -- into the anger, fear, and death -- and bring the remedy, his very own life and presence, and this calms the Divine rage.
We can see the above episode as the people being infected with a rage that is composed of maddening fear and despair. You are in the middle of the harsh desert and a large group of people have suddenly perished. And worse yet, you cannot trust your leaders.  God has turned against you. Your world is shattered and your sanity broken. I imagine the people in a hysterical panic, trampling each other, fighting, lashing out, lost. (Think of some recent zombie movies.)

Aaron comes out with the sweet smell of the incense. He immerses into the mob and feels his own pain and hopelessness. He begins to panic, to feel the cold creeping hand of death tightening around his throat. He inhales deeply and smells the incense. The smell pacifies him, reminds him of his purpose and of the spirit which makes all things possible. Aaron rediscovers his own vitality and remains infectiously calm. The raging Israelites draw near to descend on Aaron. They are halted by the smell of incense and become infected with Aaron’s hope and peace of mind. There is no longer room for rage … the plague is halted, though not entirely obliterated.

We still encounter the same plague of hysterical fear and doubt today. We point similar fingers at our leaders, and react in unhealthy ways when our experiences do not make sense. We often react with extreme behaviors that are detrimental to our own and our community’s stability (i.e. addiction, suicide, homicide). Aaron offers one model to help us ignite the spark of life that can temporarily calm this anger and doubt. Using the burnt incense as a tool, which serves as a reminder of the soul and soothes the spirit (just like we do today in the Havdalah ceremony), Aaron was able to introduce order into the chaos. This is not an easy task and exemplifies big shoes to fill - a direction to grow in.
May we all be blessed to connect with the resources in this world and within ourselves that strengthen and stabilize us so that we might beneficially face our plagues and find comfort even in the times of utmost chaos.