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

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Spirit of Sukkot

The Spirit of Sukkot
Shabbat Sukkot
17 Tishrei 5771 / September 24 – 25, 2010

This Shabbat we will find ourselves in the midst of the Sukkot Festival. On Sukkot we build our temporary dwelling places, shake our lulav and etrog, and engage in general practices of simcha (joy). On Yom Kippur we tap into our unique and communal connection with the Divine. We are part of the great mystery that makes this reality tick! If you think about all the energy in the world it can be astounding. I am talking about the real energy that it takes for our bodies, rivers, machines to run. Think about all the people in the world that are moving, greatly or subtly, in this moment – a tremendous amount of activity. If we just stayed with the Yom Kippur revelation we would be like eyes perceiving without any filter. Science teaches us that the eyes do not translate every perceived signal into vision. Our sense of sight would be completely overwhelmed and we would ultimately see nothing.

I would like to suggest that the same goes for the Sukkah. We create this structure that is bound in space and time as a container for this immense energy. It is a filtration system for Divine flow giving us the ability to connect authentically with the physical-spiritual world without becoming completely nullified. Thus, the mitzvah of the chag is simply to be in the Sukkah – to integrate your personal vessel into the larger container of the Sukkah. In other words, to find your unique place in the world. The lulav and etrog are the symbolic tools with which we draw in the unbounded energy into the Sukkah (and ourselves!), from the 6 directions into the center.

Lest we begin to confuse the container for the source of energy, the Sukkah is built to be flimsy and temporary. This is a reminder that while our models and perceptions of understanding the world around us are important, they are ultimately limited. Practically, this means that we become aware of our place in the world AND stay open to new insights and changes.

Chag Sameach and Many Blessings!

Monday, September 13, 2010


By Zvi Bellin, Ph.D. (MHHQ)

A few years ago on Yom Kippur, I actually paid attention to the morning Hafotorah Poriton that is read from the Book of Isaiah after the Torah portion. When the reader came to the following verses from Chapter 58, I wanted to stand up on my pew chair and scream, “WHAT THE BLEEP ARE WE DOING!” Here are the verses:

4. Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high.

5. Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man's afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?

6. Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate.

7. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.

It is hard to believe that year after year we can disregard the plain meaning of these verses. Instead of sitting in synagogue all day, should we not be taking our Teshuvah (repentance) to the streets! I began to envision a huge festival in the middle of major cities set up on Yom Kippur where we all wear white (as is customary) and provide free food for anyone who needs. We set up swap clothing racks where anyone can give or take. There is free massage and Yoga, sessions on mediation and community reconciliation. A day where we allow ourselves to bypass the criticism of being “too idealistic”; dream big and manifest a society where people look out for one another.

Perhaps this Yom Kippur dream is on its way. I am glad that I got to share it with you. In the meantime, I feel liberated by these verses to explore alternative services and experiences on Yom Kippur which help me to focus on my relationship with G-d and the world. I invite you to do the same this year.

Break-the-Fast with Birthright Next and Moishe House!
MH is teaming up with Next to spread awareness and address the pervasive problem of hunger in our communities. Check out for more information and download the Break-the-Fast

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who's to Blame?

Parshat Ha’azinu
D’varim 32:1 – 52
3 Tishrei 5771 / Sept. 10 – 11, 2010

Who’s to Blame?
By: Jeremy Moskowitz, MHHQ

Given the opportunity to speak to an audience in your last moments, what would you say? Would you praise your own accomplishments? Would you praise those who helped you do it? Would you take the opportunity to take a shot at those who wronged you a long the way? What message would you want to send?

In Parshat Ha’Azinu, Moses is given this very opportunity. Moses is told he is about to die. Due to his defying of G-d’s word by hitting the rock, he will not be allowed into the land of Israel. In his dying moments, Moses recites a long poem, steeped in earth imagery praising G-d for his greatness and lambasting the Israelites for the trials they put him through when he was their leader.

Admittedly, my personal feelings towards this parsha are negative. It is just hard for me to identify with Moses’ sentiments in this piece. For whatever reason, very likely due to his own human failings, G-d decided not to allow Moses into the land of Israel. It is clear from his final speech, that Moses clearly is unhappy with this decision. In my opinion, Moses has a right to be unhappy with this decision. He has led the Israelites through many trials and tribulations, and because of a moment of weakness, he does not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. I know that this situation would leave me frustrated, to say the least.

My issue is with how Moses expresses these frustrations. It seems to me there are two sources where Moses can direct his anger, G-d for making the decision he disagrees with, or himself for his actions that stopped him from entering the Promised Land. Instead, he directs his rage, in my opinion unjustly, at the Israelites.

Corruption is not his---the blemish is his children’s, a perverse and twisted generation.

They provoked ME with a non-god, they angered ME with their vanities.

You could argue that it is admirable of Moses to praise G-d in the face of this decision, and I may inevitably agree. It’s difficult to criticize up the chain of command. However I cannot co-sign Moses’ decision to vilify his people. As a leader it is Moses’ responsibility to be an example to many. When your people test you, it is your job as a leader to maintain an even keel and through leadership show your followers the path to what is right. Perhaps these traits are why G-d decided not to allow Moses into the land of Israel. He may have been the leader they needed to get to the Promised Land, but he would not be fit to lead upon their arrival.