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.