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?