Monday, July 26, 2010

Parshat Eikev
D’varim 7:12 – 11:25
20 Av 5770 / July 30 – 31, 2010

And if you do obey these rules and observe them faithfully, the Lord your God will maintain for you the gracious covenant that He made with you fathers” [Devarim 7.12] is how Parshat Eikev begins.  The first blessing bestowed upon us is that of fertility, both of the womb and of the soil, two essential elements to sustaining any population. The blessings which follow include health and seeing God’s might struck against those who oppose the Jews.  Sounds all well and good right? Follow all of the laws in the Torah and we will be rewarded not just personally  but  as a nation as well, with good  health, abundant food and offspring. And better yet, all those groups who oppose us will be punished. 

As we read Devarim the last book in the Torah, we are reminded that Torah was given as a system of guidelines to live moral and ethical lives, and if followed we will be rewarded. This is a typical conditional  statement. The parsha begins with a conditional; If a is true, then b has to be true. Here is where I often get stuck  though.  Maybe a is not true. I keep kosher and go to shul on Friday nights, celebrate  holidays and pray, but what  does it exactly mean to “obey these rules and observe them faithfully”?  Am I following the laws of the Torah, the hypothesis in the first verse in Eikev? And is there one specific way to do this? And ultimately, is the way that I observe the thing that defines me as a Jew? 

This question has plagued me for some time now, not because I do not feel adequate or because I believe that there  is only one specific way to follow Torah, but more so  that I am not sure how to outwardly substantiate my passion for Pluralistic Judaism in which I can use mitzvot as a guide for my life rather than strict doctrine. I can focus on the commandments with the most personal meaning.  I can adapt commandments that resonate with me and if others decide that a different piece of Judaism is more meaningful to them, all that will happen is the creation of a  rich and diverse Jewish community. Most of all, this makes following the Torah a dynamic and organic process- just as life is. Even as Jews, different sects and communities have formed due to differences in observance and practice.  Yet to me- they are all Jews and this is the thing that I love the most about Judaism.  

Likewise, each Moishe  House has defined its own Jewish community and practices/observes in their own way.  This is extremely unique within a Jewish organization, not being told that our events or community need to follow the guidelines of a particular movement, but that the residents and participants are able to define for themselves the type of Jewish environment in which they  feel comfortable. Moishe House is a wonderful place to “obey these rules and observe them faithfully” while creating a truly diverse  yet unified Jewish community, joined by a shared ancestry, values and most of all passion.

Shabbat Shalom.
-Jordy Snyder (Moishe House Silver Spring)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sacrifice of Moshe

Parshat Va’Etchana
13 AV 5770 / 23-24 July 2010

In this week’s parsha Moshe orates on his inability to be the leader of the people in the land of Israel. He reviews the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Moshe blames the Israelites’ actions and attitudes at the time of getting the Torah for G-d’s decision to have Moshe die before he enters the land. What actions is he speaking about? And what is truly the source of Moshe’s flawed leadership skill?
I think the answers to these questions are hinted at in the following Rashi commentary on Chapter 5, verse 24. In the verse, Moshe recounts when, at the time of hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites pleaded with him to be an intermediary between G-d’s voice and their ears. They feared that hearing G-d’s voice would kill them. So they said to Moshe, “You speak to us!” And the word for YOU is written in the feminine language. Rashi ponders about this, why refer to Moshe in the feminine? He answers his own question:

“And you speak to us: Heb. וְאַתּ, a feminine form]-You weakened my strength as that of a female, for I was distressed regarding you, and you weakened me, since I saw that you were not anxious to approach God out of love. Would it not have been preferable for you to learn [directly] from the mouth of the Almighty God, rather than to learn from me?”

First, let’s bypass the blatant chauvinism of Rashi’s statement – (He lived from 1040 – 1105!) It is gross, but meaning-wise – it is explaining the source of Moshe’s ineptitude as the leader for the next generation. When the people asked Moshe to be their go-between he was left, almost as a sacrifice, to come in direct contact with G-d alone. Their fear was real; the close contact with the Divine was a death sentence for Moshe. He was unable to comprehend the world from a limited perspective now that he had glimpsed reality from the perspective of Eternal Oneness. It may have been that bearing the load of an entire nation was difficult, while acting as sole channel of G-d was detrimental. The Israelites’ action of asking for an intermediary was a sign that they could not yet share the Divine connection with Moshe. Therefore, Moshe, left to the task alone, was weakened in his ability to relate and could not carry on as leader.

Where does that leave us today? I believe that Jews as a people are continuously in a process of figuring out how to connect with the great mystery that is beyond what the eyes can see. The myriad laws and commandments which come out of Torah are teaspoons of taking G-d in, in small digestible and sustainable doses. We are all called to task, in our own way, to figure out the correct prescription, from moment-to-moment, to stay attuned to the Divine in our lives. When we are not sure, we might ask a Rabbi, parent, or friend. Ultimately though, we can grow to be our own teachers and our own healers.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Learning from Suffering

Parshat Devarim

6 Av 5770 / July 16 - 17

Learning from Suffering

           This week’s parsha is Parshat Devarim. The portion recounts the story of the spies. When the Israelites left Egypt, God promised to bring the people into the land of Israel. Israelite spies were sent to scout out the land before they entered. All of the spies, except Caleb and Josuha, brought back negative reports. They claimed that the inhabitants were too strong and that the Israelites would not be able to succeed in a war. These actions showed distrust in God. Instead of accepting the land of Israel as a gracious gift, the people of Israel complained and were sentenced to 40 years of wandering in the desert.
            This Parsha is traditionally read on the Shabbos before Tisha B’ Av. As Tisha B’ Av approaches and I think about all of the terrible things that have happened to the people of Israel, I wonder why we choose to read this Parsha and remember that the people of Israel did not trust God.
            I am a strong believer in the idea of making your own fate. I am not one to wait around for things to happen me. I believe in being pro active. If I had been in the desert with Beni Yisrael, I am not so sure that I would have wanted to fight against the inhabitants of Israel. To me faith is not the idea that God will save me when I am in trouble. If someone I love were sick, I would surely want him or her to get treatment over waiting for God’s intervention. To me, faith is the idea that everything- bad or good- can teach us something. In the case of the spies, I think the people learned that they should accept God’s gifts.
            Perhaps we recognize this idea of faith in relation to Tisha B Av because of the challenge to faith that Tisha B’ Av presents. On Tisha’ B Av, we think about all of the terrible things that have happened to our people. It is hard to believe in a God that allows such bad things to happen. Instead of using Tisha B’ Av as time for only mourning, it could be beneficial to think about life lessons that can be taken from the suffering of the Jewish People, throughout history.
            On Tisha B’ Av, I spend a lot of time thinking about the Shoah. My grandparents were both survivors so I feel especially connected. I cannot fathom a reason that such a catastrophe would occur but I feel like I can learn by the immense loss about how lucky I am to practice Judaism freely. As this period of mourning culminates on Tisha B’ Av, I hope it can be a time filled with, not only the remembrance or our losses but also learning and having faith that even bad times are times where we can learn.

Naomi Wischnia
Moishe House Philly

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Caring for the Caretaker

Parshat Matot/Masei
28 Tammuz / July 10
Numbers Chapter 30:2 - 36:13

As the Jewish people are nearing the end of their 40-year desert journey, the Parasha reports two seemingly unrelated stories. The first is a continuation from the preceding portion. Moshe tells the Israelites to avenge themselves against the Midianites because the Midianite women enticed the Jewish people to worship another god. The act of killing the Midianite people is supposed to re-establish the national faith in the, “one true G-d.” And indeed, this is what occurs, though many people, both Israelites and Midianites were killed.
Following this story, we read about the 2.5 Israelite tribes (Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasha) who request to stay on the East side of the Jordan where the nation is currently camped. They do not want to go into the Promised Land! Since they have a lot of cattle, and that the land on they are in now is great for grazing, they reason that they should acquire this land. Moshe becomes worried that their request would spark another revolt of people not wanting to go into Israel (similar to the story about the 10 spies that were sent to scout the land). The tribes that are making this request assure Moshe that the men will join the rest of the nation on the other side of the Jordan to help conquer the land. Moshe is placated by this and allows them to settle in the land that would support their cattle grazing.

I focused in on finding meaning in these stories because of a word play that exists in the Hebrew for “vengeance” and “cattle.” The word for vengeance is NeKaMa. The word for cattle is MiKNeh. The Hebrew letters are basically the same just in a different order. When I noticed this, I became curious between the connection between vengeance and cattle – What do these words have in common??

Thanks to Kelly and Kevin, this is what I learned. Both stories are about a group of people that veer away from their caretaker. The Israelites leave G-d for a foreign god. The 2.5 tribes leave Moshe and the rest of their community. The first story is a disaster, while the second story works out great. The difference seems to be in the approach that the group had toward the change they were making and the care and appreciation that they showed for their original caretaker. The 2.5 tribes gently, but firmly, state their request to Moshe. They work with Moshe through his fears about the change, about the abandonment that he will face. They transition from the cared-for to the caretakers. They claim the maturity to decide when their journey will end. In contrast, in the first story, there is a complete disregard for G-d – they leave G-d in a flash like a Band-Aid being ripped off a wound.

A good example of how this lesson from the Torah might be relevant for our lives is if we consider our relationship with the people who have raised us. Our parents and caretakers have instilled within us certain values which have directed our life. As we move into our own adult lives, we consider these values, though do not always follow them.

The Parasha suggests that we can share these conflicting choices with our parents and caretakers in a way that still shows them respect and appreciation for the guidance that they have given thus far. We can let them know that living our own paths does not equal a severing, or abandonment, of our relationship with them.

Shabbat Shalom!
-- Zvi, Kevin, and Kellyn MHHQ