Monday, December 27, 2010

Parshat Va’Era
Sh’mot 6:2 – 9:35
25 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 31 – Jan. 1, 2011

Partnering: Creating a New Paradigm
by Maya Bernstein, UpStart Bay Area

Parashat Va’Era marks the beginning of the maelstrom that culminates in the Israelites’ escape from the bondage of Egypt. Moses, representing the God of Israel who has heard the Israelites’ suffering, and remembered the promise of freedom given to their ancestors, takes action, and rains down plague after plague upon the Egyptians. Structurally, the Parasha is quite predictable: God speaks to Moses, Moses brings the message to Pharaoh, God brings on the plague, Pharaoh begs for mercy, God stops the plague, and Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. The cycle then begins anew.

Before this paradigm begins, though, there is a strange insertion of verses tracing Moses’s lineage. Chapter 6, verse 13 recounts God’s charge to Moses and Aharon to begin the process that will result in the Israelites’ freedom. Then, suddenly, the next verse seems to completely switch tracks, and tells us about the heads of the houses of Jacob’s sons, their marriages and their children. This genealogy ends with the following statement in verses 26-27: “He is Aharon and Moses, whom God told to bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt…they speak to Pharaoh the king of Egypt…he is Moses and Aharon.”

What does this genealogy add to the story? What is it doing here, breaking up the pattern to which the Parasha so closely adheres? And why does the genealogy end with a strange pronoun confusion, referring to Aharon and Moses in the singular, then in the plural, and then again in the singular?

The Book of Genesis, the first book in the Torah, is a story about the challenges of relationships. The pattern throughout is one of dysfunctional familial relationships: Cain kills Abel; Ishmael is banished; Jacob steals from Esau, and the parental units, often dysfunctional as well, encourage this pattern amongst siblings. Jacob and his sons perpetuate this pattern too, with Jacob’s choosing of Joseph as the beloved son, and the brothers’ jealousy, attempted murder, and successful expulsion of Joseph to Egypt. The end of Genesis, though, marks a twist in the pattern, when Judah, representing his brothers, owns up to his mistake, and Joseph forgives his brothers. The Book of Exodus begins with list of all of Jacob’s sons, dwelling together in Egypt. This is a tentative beginning of co-existence amongst those who are different, a fragile rejection of the old pattern, and symbolic hope of a new one. The Book of Exodus as a whole marks the struggle of a group of people to come together as a nation, with a core set of shared values and practices.

Perhaps this is why, before the Exodus process begins, the Torah takes the time to remind us that the pattern of familial disunity, which had marked this nation until this point, has now been fully repaired. Moses and Aharon, literally, are referred to with a singular pronoun. They work together, as one. They are different, yet they complement each other. They are both necessary, for the work they must accomplish is greater than each is capable of managing on his own.

Great challenges require deep learning and growing. Had Israel been stuck in the pattern of exclusion, they would have remained in Egypt, Mitzrayim, which literally means a “narrow place.” The genealogy at the end of Chapter 6 foreshadows the success of this mission. New challenges will arise. But the old patterns have been broken, and brothers, previously a symbol of disunity, hatred, and suspicion, now represent love, complementary strengths, and unity.

Great challenges require great collaborations, specifically with those who think differently from us, and who have the skills and strengths that we lack. As we enter a new secular year, celebrating the potential for renewal, let us think about those changes we can make when we imagine “New Year’s Resolutions” not only for ourselves, but for our community. And let us be blessed with the ability to find partners who challenge and complement us, allowing us to accomplish great feats, and to move from the narrow to the vast.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Confessions of a Young Prophet

Parshat Sh'mot
18 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 24-25, 2010
Shmot 1:1 – 6:1

Confessions of a Young Prophet
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I am so furious at G-d! I am talking fed up, volcanic, hella A-N-G-R-Y with the Lord of Hosts! Oh, You have a new name now, “I will be what I will be.” Well, I will tell You what I won’t be – the Savior of Israel. That is what I won’t be. I am a man of action. When I saw that Egyptian pig whipping my own flesh and blood, I did not hesitate to turn the suffering around. I am not proud that I killed him, but I couldn’t just stand by. Not anymore. And when those beastly shepherds were giving my lovely Tzipporah and her sisters trouble in Midian, I took action. I shut them up good and drew water for the ladies’ plump sheep. (Don’t think I don’t know about my family’s history when it comes to women, wells, and love.) But G-d, you are asking too much now.

I am good with my fists, but not with my words. And now I’ve pulled my brother Aaron into this mess. I just don’t know how to stand up to Pharoah. How can I gain the nation’s trust? Thank you G-d for the signs and all. The staff to snake trick, and the hand of leprosy healing act. And of course, turning Nile river water to blood. That helped get some of Israel to believe that You sent me to save them. But, look what happened. I talked to Pharoah and he increased their labor beyond any person’s physical capabilities. It is just not fair. Why did you send me to fail?

I get that I have no choice in the matter. You’ve already told me to suck up my complaints and accept my responsibility. I am not sure if I can trust You, not sure how to trust you. But I want to. I know that my people can live freely. We can go back to our homeland and live as our own masters again. I have nothing to offer except for passion, a faulty tongue, and shaky faith. If that works with You, then I guess it will have to work for me. Alright, it’s time to go see Pharoah again. Please G-d, don’t desert me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Milk and Honey

Parashat Vayechi
11 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 17-18, 2010
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26

Milk and Honey
by Joshua Avraham Einstein, MH Hoboken

In Parshat Veyechi, the last parsha in Genesis, there are two things of note. One is the passing of two of our forefathers, Jacob and Joseph, and Jacob’s corresponding pre-death arrangements. Jacob blesses his children and grand children, doing so in the manner he wants too and against prevailing custom. Jacob designates Joseph as the first born and makes Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menassah, his own children, incorporating them each into the 12 tribes by his blessing.

Jacob states that he is to be buried in the land of Canaan, on the plot of land known today as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacobs’s wife Leah are buried. He does this because he sees the Jewish people already comfortable outside of the Promised Land. In the area of Egypt known as Goshen the Jewish nation had grown both in number and in influence. By insisting that his burial take place in Canaan, Jacob is attempting to remind the Jewish people that they are but strangers in a strange land and that their birth right lies in Canaan.

When Joseph dies the parsha does not dwell on whom he blessed or what he blessed them with. Compared to Jacob he gets the short end of the stick. That said it’s important to note that both state to the masses that Canaan is their land and that G-d will bring them there. While Joseph is to be buried in Egypt he states that his bones be taken “up out of here.” Presumably, he is referring Canaan.

The parsha is an interesting one because it addresses the dualistic nature of Jewish people hood. We are an exilic people and yet all of our tradition is permeated by the notion of a return to our much vaunted and ballyhooed homeland. The Jewish people began in exile with Abraham who journeyed to the Promised Land, then went back to exile in Egypt with Joseph and Jacob, and then back to Israel with Moses, etc. Clearly times have not always been good for the Jewish people, whether in exile or the Promised Land our history, Biblical and factual, has been replete with migrations. Yet focusing our community on a spiritual notion of Israel as the “Land of Milk and Honey” has focused and kept us together as a coherent group distinct from the larger culture around us, this was true in Jacob and Joseph’s last statements and it remains true today.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Who’s Your Daddy!

Parashat VaYigash
4 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 10 – 11, 2010
44:18 – 47:27

Who’s Your Daddy!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Parasha we have the meeting of two national super-giants. The great Emperor of Egypt, Paroah becomes acquainted with Jacob, the Patriarch of the Jewish people. I imagine some high drama at this gathering. Jacob, who has thought his son was dead, goes to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph who is #2 to the ruler of Egypt. The excitement, fear, joy, confusion, and disbelief could only have been overwhelming. Then the moment comes, for Jacob to stand face-to-face with the man that saved Joseph’s life. Paroah nurtured Joseph, clothed and fed him, and gave him a status level that Jacob could never have offered.
What might have Jacob felt looking into the eyes of the man who became the stand-in father for his most beloved son. This man, Paroah, was able to protect and elevate him. Under Jacob’s watch, Joseph was cast-off and sold into slavery.  

The Torah tells us that when Jacob and Paroah meet, Jacob blesses Paroah two times – once upon introduction and the second upon their parting. Rashi (1040 – 1105) comments that this was in the natural way of people who greet royalty. Though he goes on to quote a Midrash (interpretive story) that Jacob blessed Paroah that the Nile River will rise up to meet him whenever he approached it. And the blessings came true. When Paroah would approach the Nile the waters would rise, enabling their crops to be irrigated.

It seems that in offering this power blessing to Paroah, Jacob was reminding everyone (and perhaps himself too) that the source of Joseph’s success was not only the physical gifts and prestige bestowed on him from Paroah, but rather the spiritual gifts that suffuses Jacob’s blood line. One way of looking at Jacob’s blessings is a statement of power – “Hey Paroah! You think you’re such a hot potato latke! Take this.” In this instance (and with Paroah’s willingness) Jacob was able to re-establish his place as the head of his family, and the father of his beloved and praised son, Joseph.

What is the message in this for us today? I feel that in the U.S. we have to be very careful how we appreciate our Jewishness. “It is great to be Jewish, but not greater than any other religion.” (I wonder how it is for you outside of the U.S.) I think that keeping a level-headedness about our Jewish heritage is necessary. At the same time, I recommend taking some time to contemplate the gift of being Jewish. The rich history and blessing that is part of our story and our spirit. Being Jewish engraves practices and ethics like Shabbat, charity giving, and community support into our daily lives. I believe that we should not shy away from honoring our beautiful traditions.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Parshat Miketz
27 Kislev 5771 / November 27, 2010
41:1 – 44:17

Should we open our mind to the World around us or continue living in the Ghetto?
by Taras (Easy) Prokopenko, Moishe House Gomel, Belarus

Parshat Miketz tells us about the dramatic episode of Josef’s meeting with his brothers. The young man, who was sold into slavery, has reached prosperity and moreover - became the governor of Egypt. When his brothers went down to Egypt for food during the famine, they did not recognize the Governor of Egypt as their lost brother Josef.

On one hand, 22 years passed since their last meeting, and this 17-year-old boy turned into a gentle respectable man with a big beard. Therefore, it was easier for Josef to recognize them.

On the other hand, giving a deeper interpretation, the brothers haven't recognized Josef, not so much by sight, but at spiritual level. The brothers were shepherds. It suited their spiritual lifestyle to be alone in the meadows, surrounded by nature and unchallenged by a society that might be hostile to their beliefs. Sheep whom they grazed, didn't deliver them troubles on religious questions. And it was out of their understanding that Josef could remain a devoted son of Yakov, faithful to his father’s way of life while living in the hub of Egypt, the mightiest superpower on earth! They couldn't even imagine that such a thing could happen! Later we will read that Yakov has been strongly pleased and shaken by news that his ostensibly dead son was not only alive, but also remained his son, i.e. remained faithful to Yakov’s traditions.

It is obviously easier to be a Jew amongst Jewish surrounding. Undoubtedly, it is much more difficult to practice the faith, being in minority. Nobody likes to be isolated, as an abscess on a finger. Therefore the desire to be isolated in the small cozy zone of comfort is very much reasonable. Unless, of course, you believe that you have a responsibility to the world around you. When you believe that G-d expects nothing less from you than to change the world, simply treading water is not enough. Then you have no option but to go out and take on the world, engage it and make it a more G-dly place.

All of Yakov’s sons were righteous people, and Josef was the greatest. Because it is one thing to be righteous in the fields and woods, and absolutely another to be righteous among people. Especially among such morally corrupted, as ancient Egyptians were.

The governor of Egypt of that time had the same status as today's U.S. president, or at least a member of the Senate. Imagine that the person holding so high a post is a Jew believing and observing a Torah. He successfully carries out the governmental duties, occupies a prestigious position, and at the same time leads life of a devout Jew. It seems impossible, but Josef has managed to achieve it. And in the same spirit he has brought up his sons, Efraim and Menashe.

Therefore Josef is an important example to emulate for our generation. The majority of us are strongly integrated into a society. We mix in different circles. We live in a society without walls, even wireless society. Would we be able to keep Jewish culture despite the challenges that are thrust upon us directly by a wide open society? This is a question which Josef answers: it isn't simple, but it is possible.

Therefore, be we heads of corporations or high-ranking diplomats, let the governor of Egypt, Josef a Jew, Yacov’s beloved son, inspires us as an example!

Shavua tov, best wishes from Belarus!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Facing the Pain

Parshat VaYeshev
20 Kislev 5771 / November 27, 2010
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23

Facing the Pain
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We experience times when it is hard to face the truth. When life deals us a hand that is painful, our first reaction can be, “No! It’s impossible.” We’ve all been there personally and part of the global community. 9/11. The Tsunami. A death of a loved one. Sometimes it is a natural disaster and other times a travesty conducted by the hands of people. What shatters the bubble of our disbelief is referred to in this week’s portion as HaKer Nah (הכר נא) – Please recognize.

This phrase appears twice in this week’s portion. The first, when Joseph’s brothers show Jacob the torn and bloodied coat that is submitted as proof that Joseph is dead. The second, when Tamar reveals the ring, cloak and staff of Judah covertly proving that Judah had impregnated Tamar, saving her reputation and her life.

This phrase Haker Nah and its use in Parshat Vayeshev is baffling to me. On the one hand, the phrase is used to rip apart someone’s reality. It is used to make a person face a truth that alters a fundamental part of how their world operats. For Jacob, he becomes a depressed father in mourning, and for Judah, he realizes the error of his ways and the pain he had caused to another person. On the other hand, we have the word Nah (please), which attempts to soften the brutal shattering.

I think that there is a crucial lesson for Kislev, the month where we sift through our darkness to find the light. In order for healing to occur acceptance is the first barrier. And it can be extremely difficult and painful to achieve. We have to be gentle with ourselves and others, softly stroking the awareness to see what we refuse to see. Push ourselves to glimpse quickly and then turn away, again and again until we are ready to face some real terror.

And what is waiting on the other side of acceptance? In Judaism we are not left alone to suffer. This is where the power of ritual in community becomes crucial. For Jacob, slow healing ensues with the process of sitting Shiva (mourning rituals). For Judah, it is the practice of confession and Teshuvah.

May we all grow from our pains softly, gently, and in the right time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Fresh Start

Parashat Vayishlach
13 Kiselv 5771 / November 19-20, 2010
Bereshit 32:4 – 36:43

A Fresh Start
by Jordan Mandel, MH St. Louis

Parashat Vayishlach is filled with a great "prepare for the worst, receive the best" example. Jacob is hesitant to return home, for he fears the inevitable confrontation with and possible death from his brother Esau. But G-d promises that if he returns to his home, Jacob will be kept safe from the hand of Esau and be blessed with as many children as there are grains of sand of the sea. In preparation for a battle, Jacob splits his fellow travelers into two camps so at least one camp will survive.

During the night, an Angel wrestles with Jacob, but no winner can be declared during the struggle. The Angel renames Jacob "Israel" as a result of this confrontation.

When the two brothers reunite, Esau kisses his brother's neck and welcomes him with no intention of a fight. This reunion embodies the thought that it is never too late to start a better relationship. Whether it is between friends who have differences between them, co-workers who do not see eye-to-eye on policies or work habits, or family who have not been on speaking terms for some time, the strength of a renewed relationship can overpower the previous obstacles that lay between the parties.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Digging for Love

Shabbat VaYetzeh
Bereishit 28:10 – 32:3
6 Kislev 5771 / Nov. 12 – 13, 2010

Digging for Love
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Welcome back to the well. Two weeks ago, Rebecca, Yitzhak’s wife, is discovered by the well in Avraham’s old home town. This time, it is Yitzhak’s son, Yaacov that will meet his future beloved, Rachel by the well, it seems in the very same town. The Torah loves to pair the hanging out by the well with finding one’s soul mate. A well is a place where one must dig deep in order to discover and draw forth water – the life blood of the Earth. As we enter into the month of Kislev, the month of sleep, we focus internally – a hibernation process – to discover our own life blood. This can be a process to prepare for bringing love into our life.

Water is often seen as a symbol for Torah. Just as water sustains life, so too Torah sustains life by creating a path and practice for how one might live his or her life. Just as water can be found by digging deep into the Earth, Torah, the authentic path of how we should live our lives, can be found by digging deep inside ourselves. We move past self-doubts that hold us back, and limiting thoughts that degrade us. We let go of false restrictions that we place upon ourselves, and refine our beliefs and attitudes. And awaiting us, in these depths is the pintaleh yid, the Divine spark, that reminds us how holy and beloved each person is.

It might be so that our soul mate is the person who recognizes the inner Divine spark and helps us to live up to our highest potential. This can work in the normative models of one-to-one partnership, and it also is relevant between close friends, family relationships, and even chance and limited encounters.

May we all be blessed with many people in our lives who can easily see how unique and holy we are.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Blogging the Bible

Shabbat Toldot

29 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 5 - 6, 2010
Bereshit 25:19-28:9

Blogging the Bibleby Ariel Raz, MH San Francisco

This week's parasha follows the story of Yitzhak, headstrong wife Rivkah and their offspring. The portion presents an opportunity for God to renew and reiterate his vow to Abraham, a vow of longevity and prosperity to his offspring. One of the centerpieces to our portion is the strength of the covenant, the enduring hold of a promise and its ramifications.

A curious element to this story, which follows Abraham's Yitzhak, is how incidental a character our patriarch is. Whereas his father must endure unfathomable hardship to enjoy the common pleasures of life, like having his beloved wife bear his children, Yitzhak is a wholly passive character, his main personality trait being a sort of blind devotion to God and the covenant. Twice--once amid descriptions of his wife's lineage and once after Rivkah’s dialogue with God about how to manage the prophetic truth of bearing twins who are to lead their lives at war, we are bluntly reminded of Yizthak's age. It's as if there is nothing else to say about him.

So this section has a, what one could call, a gender reversal: Rivkah is the active character; Yitzhak, the passive. Pretty subversive for biblical text.

Later, when Ya'akov, with Rivkah's encouragement, commits an act of deathbed deception, Yitzhak is powerless to overturn it. This too speaks to Yitzhak's passivity, but also to our own powerlessness when facing a covenant, or a promise that we have made. One lesson is that we should not take a promise lightly, even if the outcome is undesirable or unfair.

That lesson has powerful resonance. It teaches us to be careful of what we promise and relentless about seeing them through, even when they are unfair. But this should give us pause. It's unsettling how Ya'akov's diabolical lie goes unpunished, especially considering he uses the lord's name to take credit for the speediness with which he, disguised as his brother Esav, was able to fashion his father's favorite meal. And it's downright unfair that Esav, the more able brother, is outwitted by a cunning brother and a conniving mother.

But the greater point here is that a bond with God is unyielding. That we must take the utmost care to ensure that it's sanctity is in tact. Because that which is holy can easily be corrupted, and the burden is on us to maintain a pure covenant.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“I Saw the Sign!”

Parashat Chayei Sarah
15 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 29 – 30, 2010

Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

“I Saw the Sign!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, is sent back to Avraham’s home town to find a wife for Isaac. Avraham wants this bride to be from his very own family. Eliezer arrives at the town’s well and thinks,

“Gee! How am I going to find a woman from Avraham’s family? This is tough! I know, I will ask for a sign.”

Which he indeed does. The woman who will be for Isaac will be one who draws water for Eliezer and for all his camels. This lady with exceptional kindness will be perfect for Isaac (who often represents restriction). Just as Eliezer finishes asking for this sign, Rebecca comes down to draw water. Eliezer runs to her and asks for water. Rebecca quickly gives him to drink and then says the magic words, “I will even get water for your camels to drink.” SCORE!

And what did Eliezer do – he waited and watched with astonishment as Rebecca finished quenching the camels’ thirst. (Chapter 24, verse 21). He did not jump into action immediately after she made the offer; rather he paused and took in the complete fulfillment of his requested prophecy.

The mentioning of Eliezer’s pause caught my attention this week. It reminded me of the countless times that I receive a sign from the universe that things will work out the way I want them to. I get very excited and then when things turn sour, I experience disappointment or hopelessness. Maybe we can learn from Eliezer that when we are witnessing a sign we can pause and consider alternatives as to what it might mean. We can give a little time to pass to see if the sign is actually hinting at what we think, or perhaps not at all. Said simply, I can learn not to rush into narrow interpretations of events.

And also, like Eliezer, after pausing and witnessing, it is okay to make decisions based on a carefully interpreted sign. After the camels completed to drink, he presented Rebecca with gifts and discovered that he indeed found Avraham’s kin and the perfect wife for Isaac.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lawlessness in the Family

Parashat VaYeirah
15 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 22 - 23, 2010
Bereishit 18:1 - 22:24

Lawlessness in the Family

by Uri Manor, Moishe House Silver Spring

I think there are actually two overarching themes in this parsha; one is brutal lawlessness and the other is brutal love between parent and child.

Perhaps symbolically, we start off with Abraham serving angels calf and milk. Abraham, one of the holiest men in Judaism (and of course also Christianity and Islam), is serving one of the most unkosher meals ever and to angels!!! Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that the angels eat it and their next action is to reward him and Sarah with news of a son. Ok fine, this meal was prepared before the laws of kashrut were handed down, but I think that there was a reason why it was calf and milk. It could have been calf and potatoes or milk and vegetables but it was specifically calf and milk. Calf and milk is treif because it represents the mixing of the mother and child---killing a child and mixing with the mother---it is an unholy mixture. Immediately we have both themes of the parsha intertwined - lawlessness and parent:child.

Sarah responds to the good news of a new child by laughing - perhaps literally, perhaps metaphorically - in G-d's face.

We've barely begun the parsha and we already have Abraham cooking one of the most treif meals possible and Sarah laughing in G-d's face.


After some incredibly monotonous arithmetic swordplay between G-d and Abraham (50, 45, …, 15, 10) we transition to what happens when the angels actually get to Lot's house in the horrible city of Sodom and Gomorrah. Immediately every man in town --the entire town--surrounds Lot's house and demands that Lot lets them in so that they can Sodom-ize his guests. Lot responds by begging the townspeople to, instead, take his virgin daughters and to "do to them as you please".

Now we're dealing with lawlessness riding piggy-back on even greater lawlessness - notably, always within the context of parents and their children.

The angels are kind enough to absolve Lot from having to deal with this situation any further by blinding the townspeople, and then they immediately tell Lot to get the hell out of town and to take his family with him, because they're going to destroy the city. In perhaps one of the most famous scenes in Genesis, although the fleeing family (minus the sons who mocked Lot's warnings and stayed behind) was instructed not to look, his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Why salt? Salt was actually precious, almost worth its weight in gold and is also a wonderful preservative. Is Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt a condemnation or an adulation?

We've just heard about Lot offering his daughters in exchange for peace to the angels/men (whether he knew they were angels was unclear). Lot's wife may or may not have feared G-d but her love for her children was so great that as the city was being destroyed she had to look back. It is all too common to read this story as a reflection of the weakness of woman, but I wonder if this story is more about the strength of a woman's love for her children.

So we have Abraham cooking up some treif, Sarah laughing in G-d's face, Lot offering his daughters up for gang-rape, and we have Lot's wife looking back. But apparently, that's not enough lawlessness…nor is it enough about parent:child relations...

We now cut to a scene where Lot is in a cave, with his two daughters - the same two daughters Lot offered to the townspeople. The daughters are convinced that they must either seduce their father by getting him drunk, or they will never reproduce. Obviously, they whipped out the wine opener, and drunken incest-rape ensues. Note that they were both successful in becoming pregnant, and that this is where King David's lineage comes from, and that King David's lineage is of course the ancestry of the Messiah. SO, the next time you mock or judge these women, realize that you are mocking and judging the great great great…..great great great grandmother of the Messiah. If you were convinced that you were the last human on earth would you sleep with your father for the sake of humankind? If not, does that make you a greater or lesser person than these women?

Either way, this parsha has just dished out another delicious combo of lawlessness and parent:child love for us. Oy ve.

The next part is so weird and contorted, it gives me chills.

While Abraham is journeying in Gerar, Abraham tells everyone that Sarah is his sister so that they don't kill him in order to be able to take her as their wife. The king of Gerar, Abimelech, had Sarah "brought to him". In a dream G-d tells Abimelech that he's going to die, for he has "taken" a married woman. Abimelech realizes that he has done something horribly wrong, but pleads to G-d that he did it unknowingly since he thought Sarah was just Abraham's sister. Interestingly, it is never clearly articulated whether Abimelech slept with Sarah or not, but in the very next scene, Sarah is pregnant. We are not told how much time has elapsed.

Given the behaviors of the time and the persistent theme of lawlessness, the wandering mind may dare ask the question: Was Abimelech, Isaac's birth father? Probably, not, but either way we can definitely be sure that Abraham was at the very least concealing part of the truth when claiming Sarah as his sister.

Lawlessness wins again.

Isaac is born and everything is happy and wonderful for Sarah who revels in her laughter, when almost immediately we are thrust into more intertwinements of lawlessness + parent:child relations: Sarah demands Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael , the son Hagar had borne to Abraham, into the wilderness (so that Isaac doesn't have to share the inheritance - again we're witnessing a mother's love for her own children overriding other considerations). Abraham complies, having been assured by G-d that his son will survive. Hagar wanders in the wilderness, and after running out of water in the wilderness (a classic symbol of lawlessness) Ishmael almost dies before G-d rescues her and Ishmael with more water. The close call between Ishmael and death can mean many things, but I just want to point out that Abraham almost killed Ishmael by agreeing to send him and Hagar into the wilderness.

At this point, we can hardly be surprised to read that G-d Himself has instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham appears to have no issues with this (remember that this is the same dude who questioned G-d's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah), and proceeds to prepare for the sacrifice. Thankfully, G-d stops Abraham from completing the sacrifice.

After reading these stories I have a sense of "Oh my G-d we really need laws - without structure the world would be such a horrible place!". I find myself wondering if I only think all these behaviors (e.g. Sodomites raping visitors) are so bad because the laws against these abominable behaviors have already existed all my life - am I brainwashed? Was Lot brainwashed from being surrounded by such extreme abomination?

Maybe a lesson needs to be learned from the chronological positioning of these stories? This parsha obviously came before Moses gave us the groundwork upon which all modern civilization is based, and in these stories you can see the way the world was before Moses.

The truth is that the scientific community would argue that many of these stories are likely to be at least true in principle - rape, sacrifice, and incest were all regular occurrences in that day and age. So maybe these stories are here to simply to instill a sense of awe in us, and a newfound appreciation for how far we've come as a society, and as a people?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but one thing that is apparent from both scientific and spiritual grounds is that we humans have been selected to have a sense of morality, and that those who lack that sense are usually removed from the face of the Earth rather quickly. Whether by epic floods, sulphuric fire from the heavens, or by an inability to cooperate well enough to survive together in more difficult times, we would clearly all perish without the divine sense of love and care for each other, and for our children.

Monday, October 11, 2010

G-d in All Things

G-d in All Things

Shabbat Lech-Lecha
8 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 15 – 16, 2010
Bereshit 12:1 – 17:27

What grabbed my attention in this week’s portion is the use of the word נפש (NEFESH) in three different places. Let me list the verses and then talk about the meaning of the word נפש .

In Chapter 12, verse 5, we read that Abram took all his belongings, including his kinsmen, with him when he left his father’s house. The verse lists that he took his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, all of their stuff, and the נפש that they all made. The word נפש here is generally interpreted as slaves and/or people that signed on to the Monotheistic way of life.

Later in the chapter, verse 13, Abram and Sarai are on their way to Egypt to escape a disastrous famine in the Canaan. Abram instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptians that she is Abram’s sister in order that, “it will go well with me, and my נפש will be saved for your sake.” Abram assumed that if the Egyptians knew Sarai was his wife, he would be killed so that Pharaoh can have this rare beauty. In this context, נפש, refers to Abram’s life.

The last use of נפש that I wish to call attention to is in Chapter 14, verse 21 in which Abram and his warriors vanquished the army of an alliance of kings who were living in Canaan. These kings were warring against another set of kings. The vanquished kings made the mistake of taking Lot, Abram’s nephew, captive – and nobody messes with Abram’s family. Thus, Abram helped the one set of kings (who among them was the King of Sodom) defeat the other group of kings. After all the fighting, the spoils of war belonged to Abram – after all, he lead the charge of victory. The King of Sodom approached Abram and asked him for his נפש back. This is traditionally interpreted as wanting back his people that were originally captured by the enemy. Abram obliges and declares that he will not take anything that originally belonged to the King of Sodom.

Though נפש is used here as meaning people or life, there is another mystical meaning. In Jewish thought there are at least 5 levels of soul. The “lowest” of which is called נפש . This level of soul refers to the base physical desires that are present in all living beings – for example, the need for sex and hunger. I believe that the use of the word נפש in this part of Abraham’s journey is teaching us about the unique revelation that he lived his life disseminating – that even the most base, physical experiences of the human being stem from the highest spiritual connection. In my understanding of Judaism, believing in one G-d means that there can be as much holiness in going to the bathroom as there is in fasting on Yom Kippur!

In the first verse, when Abram takes his נפש with him, it can be a reference to him “taking” the understanding of how intimately the physical and spiritual are connected. After he goes to Egypt, in Hebrew מצרים (Mitrayim), the Land of Constriction. Here Abram needs help to hold on to his insight and it is Sarai who saves the unique revelation of oneness. And in the third verse, the King of Sodom, asks for his נפש to be returned. Perhaps he is not ready for that level of Divine integration. It is a scary thought to believe that God is in our shit. Abram does not resist King Sodom’s request to return his נפש, because Abram does not need others to think like him in order to feel justified.

To sum things up, I think this is what we can learn from our Grand Papa Abraham:

1. 1. As Lauryn Hill said, “Everything is Everything!” Or, everything in this reality is a gateway to spiritual connectedness, even the un-pleasantries that we rather deny.

2. 2. We do not have to push ourselves to believe in anything new. We do have to live in a way that protects our revelations and perspectives, though.

3. 3. Differing beliefs and understandings do not mean that you are wrong. There are multiple levels and comforts when thinking about G-d in the world.

Wishing you a beautiful week!

Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lessons from Noach

Parshat Noach
1 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 8-9,2010
Bereshit 6:9 - 11:32

Lessons from Noah
by Rae Gross, Moishe House Orange County

This week’s Torah portion made me think about a recent experience of mine. I just started taking a painting class. My very first project assigned was to paint clouds, I sat in class for a moment, bewildered as to what to do and then decided the only way to learn was to dive in and start mixing colors. I have to say, my first attempt wasn’t bad, but I knew I could do better. So I took my first painting of clouds, I painted over the canvas in grey (but not before taking a picture to document my first ever painting) and made my second attempt.

The second painting was a lot better; I took what I learned from my first painting and incorporated that with a clearer vision of what I wanted to create the second time around.

When I thought about this week’s Torah portion, I saw G-d for the first time as an artist, he/she had created something that wasn’t bad, but it could be improved on. When I was younger I used to think that G-d was incredibly cruel for flooding the World and making Noah start all over again with just his family. But now, I see this as G-d’s way of graying over the canvas and starting again.

Another thing that has always stood out to me was Noah’s obedience. Plenty of people balk at doing things, even small tasks because they are not convenient. What G-d asked Noah to do was not easy, but he did it because he was supposed to. How often do we neglect doing small things for ourselves, things that might otherwise save us from our own internal flood because it is just not convenient?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Simchat Torah
Parashat V’Zot Habracha
by Josh Weinstein, MH Palo Alto

It was a month ago, late at night, when I received a call from my father. Josh, he said, almost whispering, Zayde has passed away. My reaction was total incomprehension; something I later heard was not unique to me. Why would he do that? Who killed him? The notion that my grandfather, Eddie Weinstein, could expire by any natural means seemed utterly impossible. Only a few years earlier he was still running the same sweater factory in Queens he had built from scratch decades ago. I for one could not understand how a man who had insisted just six weeks beforehand on stopping for beer after dark on highway E30 en route to Warsaw could have any less than ten years left. This was a man who gushed about his children and grandchildren while communicating his life experiences before schools in the Bronx and by video-conference with schools in Australia, exuding infinite resolve. And yet one August 12, he quietly left us in his sleep.

Arriving in New York the following day and looking out onto the five hundred attendees at his funeral, I felt dazed. This crowd had gathered for what was to me a very personal loss. Eddie was the grandfather who took me to Met games, who listened patiently to me when I was seven as I explained to him what I had learned about the week’s parsha at day school, and who had given me a summer job on his factory floor when I was nine, measuring and marking zippers. And yet Eddie was also a man who had remained alive within the gates of the man-made hell known as Treblinka II for 17 days, witnessing the darkest depths of inhumanity in the fiery pits that consumed more than eight hundred thousand Jewish men, women, and children, his mother and brother among them. A man who, with an untreated bullet wound to his right lung, smuggled himself out of the camp in a train car filled with the belongings of slain innocents. A man who made it back to his town’s ghetto to warn the remaining inmates, who hid in the dyke of a fish pond for a year and a half, and who finally, escaped capture when turned into the German authorities by local Polish villagers. A man who joined the Polish Second Army, marched on Saxony, and proudly participated in Germany’s defeat.

My visit with my grandfather to Treblinka in late June was my first and his last. He was the last able-bodied survivor of that death camp, and after lighting yarzeit candles and reciting kaddish, he walked away, my arm around his back. Standing before the hundreds who came to pay their respects in New York six weeks later, I found the realization of the significance of this event, in its seeming finality, overwhelming. It was as though my memory of him merged right then and there with the vast sea of collective Jewish memory and longing, of loved ones lost and families rebuilt, of a civilization destroyed and renewed.

Every year on Simchat Torah we read from parshat Vezot ha’Bracha and recall the passing of Moses, unable to enter the Promised Land: vayamat sham moshe eved hashem b’eretz moav. The Torah ends with an affirmation of Moses’ uniqueness in what he had done for and before the Children of Israel.

The generation that is passing from us now is one that, in protecting and rebuilding a people and civilization on the verge of annihilation, achieved something tangibly similar to what Moses did in taking the Israelites out of Egypt. In their brief interlude upon the earth, this generation brought us up from the deepest abyss and gave us a future of unimaginable opportunity to live our lives as Jews. They restored Jewish sovereignty in Israel, they unleashed creative genius in every field of science and literature, and those like Eddie became the embodiment of the American dream, building new lives, successful businesses, and loving Jewish families.

The two final readings on Simchat Torah, the first parts of The Book of Genesis and The Book of Joshua, remind us both of the chaos from which our world has come and of what is required of us in facing its uncertainties and challenges. As God reminds Joshua, rak hazak ve’amatz, only strength and courage. We must remember that while people die, legacies do not; that they are there to be built upon, and not to gather dust as relics of history. So may it be with our grandparents’, so may it be with our parents’, and so may it be with our own.

Josh Weinstein is a graduate student at Stanford University and a resident in Moishe House Palo Alto

Eddie Weinstein’s memoir, 17 Days in Treblinka, is published by Yad Vashem

The Big Beresheet BANG!

I want to share this very simple idea with you about the word Beresheet. It begins with the letter BEIT (ב) and is the first letter of the Torah. The letter is a bracket, or a container for all that is to come. And all that is to come is the creation of the world and the continual unfolding story of the entire universe, including your own story. That is quite a lot!

Inside the letter ב is a small little dot. The dot tells us that in order to pronounce the letter we have to squeeze are lips together and then create a small burst that makes a B sound. Try it! Make a B sound really slowly and experience that tiny explosion.

Think about all the potential that is squeezed into the beginning of the Torah cycle, the beginning of another yearly cycle in your personal life. I imagine that the dot in the ב is a reminder of the Big Bang, that tiny intense pregnant particular from which all matter exploded from. That is the moment of starting the Torah again, the whole year is compacted into the first sound and when we speak the first word we let loose the chain of events that will lead us into the New Year.

It is a time of year to bring intention to how you embark on new beginnings. What is your mindset going into the New Year? What are some of your first thoughts and words? What are the activities that you engage in? I invite you to act, think, and intend as if you knew it would impact your entire year to come.

Many blessings!

Zvi Bellin, MHHQ