Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jewish Karma: Mida Kineged Mida

Shabbat Vayigash
5 Tevet 5772 /December 30 – 31
44:18 – 47:27

Jewish Karma: Mida Kineged Mida
by Laura W, Guest writer for Moishe House London

In the 2nd Aliyah (part) of this week’s Parsha
Joseph, “Vice-President” of Ancient Egypt, reveals his identity to his
brothers.

45:4 'Please, come
close to me,' said Joseph to his brothers. When they came closer, he said, 'I
am Joseph your brother! You sold me to Egypt. 45:5 Now don't worry or feel
guilty because you sold me. Look! God has sent me ahead of you to save (your)
lives!’

With these dramatic
words the Torah tells us that although we have free will, we are paradoxically
part of a divine universal plan. Joseph is in apposition of great power but
rather than resenting his brothers he interacts with them with great control
and is careful not to embarrass them in front of the Egyptian court.


It seems that although
the brothers were destined to travel to Egypt in order to survive the famine in
Canaan they had to, at the same time, experience the Karma of their
actions which is a way for humans to act with free will and
create their own destiny.

Karma is ‘not
punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of
natural acts. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "act"
and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, that governs all
life’…’The Hindu view of karma is expressed by the following "God does not
make one suffer for no reason nor does He make one happy for no reason. God is
very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve.’’ (paraphrased from
Wikipedia)

We see this clearly in
Joseph’s choice of words and how the events unfolded. When Joseph was 17 he
dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him. Here we see those dreams
manifested. It seems that the brothers had to go through a series of events in
order to correct and balance their individual characters traits. It was wrong
for them to be jealous and for Judah to suggest the idea of selling Joseph into
slavery. We now see the Jewish concept of ‘Mida
Kineged Mida’ or ‘Measure for Measure’ clearly played out when Judah finds
himself many years later in the position of choosing to sacrifice his own
life in order save his younger brother Benjamin. Each brother had to
overcome his envy of Joseph, and through this Karmic process were able
eliminate the source of their jealousy.

“When another
person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and
his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help.
That's the message he is sending.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

Our actions are like
boomerangs if we are not mindful of them they will hit us on the back of the
head at a later date. According to Thich Nhat Hanh only through existing 'in
the moment' can we achieve tranquility that enables us to confront our darkest
fears and tap into our own self-healing powers

My bracha to everyone
is the ability to experience a mindful Shabbos and a stronger sense of love and
brother/ sisterhood in our communities and with all living beings around the
world!

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Lesson in Caring

Parshat Miketz
28 Kislev 5772 / Dec. 23 – 24, 2011
Bereshit 41:1 – 44:17

A Lesson in Caring
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all know the story. Pharoah has two dreams – fat things are eaten by famished things and they do not get any healthier. He calls together his magicians and dream casters for advice. No one can give Pharoah a satisfying interpretation. One of the king’s ministers recalls a prisoner that he once met who interpreted his dream quite accurately and Yosef is brought before Pharoah to interpret the royal dreams. Yosef listens to the dreams and promises an interpretation only as far as G-d will reveal to him. From the dreams Yosef understands that 7 years of plenty are on their way. The abundance will be followed by a treacherous famine, the likes of which have never been seen before. While this seems like a complete interpretation, he adds, (41:33-36)

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.'

Perhaps this was part of the Divine insight that Yosef had about the dream, or maybe he was just capitalizing on a chance to make a huge social status vault from prisoner to Second-in-Command. I am unsure. What I do notice though is that Yosef delivers terrible news to the King with a viable solution without skipping a beat. When I think about how news is delivered to me in the U.S., it is often just a dropped bomb with an attitude of, “Here you go. You are on your own.” The world of media charges itself with delivering some version of the truth, but seems unconcerned with the consequences of its message. Gay teens are bullied. Unemployment is on the rise. A small Yemen city is a significant war zone. Messages delivered, media retreats.

I do not expect the media to have all the answers (or any answers). The folks in front of and behind the camera are just as clueless as anyone else. I do think though that the fissure between delivery of news and caring about the consequences is a symptom of a society that does not act from a place of compassion. And our generation has the potential to learn to create a more caring society by taking this teaching into the personal sphere.

Think about some times in your life when you had to deliver news that was not the greatest. Did you adopt a just the facts attitude in your telling, or did you consider how you might nurture the person as they are impacted by your news? When I interned as a counselor in the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, I had to guide families through a process of identifying their loved ones who had died. I had to learn to pay attention to every word that was uttered, body language, and breathing patterns. My goal was to bring some sense of order to arguably the most chaotic time in someone’s life. This is not feasible for every conversation, though it provides some context for being a caring and compassionate informant.

When Pharoah hears Yosef’s words he elevates him to be his prime advisor and changes his name to Tsafnat Paneach (41:45). Scholars can only guess at the meaning of this name. And one interpretation is given by Onkelus (c.35-120 CE) as “The Man to Whom All Secrets are Illuminated.” Yosef did not simply bring awareness to the coming disaster, but delivered the message with concern for its after-effects.

As Adam Sandler reminds us, “Channukah is the Festival of Lights!” (Celebrated everywhere this year from the evening of Dec. 20 to the 27th.) Metaphorically, we celebrate this holiday to remember that even in the darkest times, there is always light. The light of Channukah is hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s potential when no alternative is in sight. It’s presence in the midst of utter confusion. This year, I want to challenge myself and our community to not just bring awareness of what is happening in our communities, but to act, like Yosef, as total Illuminators – increasing care and compassion. For more on this topic, please see my latest Meaning Blog post: http://tinyurl.com/6oa7lu6 .

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dream a Little Dream

Parshat VaYeshev
21 Kislev 5772 / December 16-17, 2011
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23


Dream a Little Dream
by Sarah Lesser, Director of Repair the World Programming

“Dreaming or awake, we perceive only events that have meaning to us.”
Jane Roberts

“Dreams are the touchstones of our character.”
Henry David Thoreau


Reading this week’s parsha I’m struck by the recurring importance of dreams in foreseeing the future of the dreamer. However, they seem to hold no fortune-telling value without outside interpretation.
What is the significance that the dreamer’s future lies in their own dreams? What does this say about predestination or our ability to control our destiny? Is the power with the dreamer or the interpreter?

In the beginning of the parsha Joseph tells his brothers about a dream he had that they were binding sheaves in the field when suddenly his sheaf stood upright and all of his brother’s sheaves gathered around and bowed low to his sheaf. This made Joseph’s brothers hate him even more as they interpreted the dream as Joseph meaning to reign and rule over them. Was Joseph trying to make this dream a reality by relaying it to his brothers? Did their interpretation determine its meaning? Later on, Joseph’s father, Jacob, interprets his other dream. This time he dreamed that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing, down to him, This dream made everyone angry at him as his father interpreted it to mean that his whole family is to come bow down to Joseph.

Later in the parsha Joseph finds himself in prison in a strange land. His dream interpretation skills come in handy. Joseph, supposedly acting on behalf of G-d, offers to interpret the chief baker and chief cupbearer’s dreams when he is in prison in Egypt and they come to him. They express a sentiment that the dreamer is not able to interpret his/her own dreams when they say, “We had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them." His interpretations indeed foretell the dreamers’ futures. Interestingly, the chief baker seems only willing to share his dream once he hears Joseph’s favorable interpretation of the royal cupbearer’s dream, signifying the influence such interpretation may hold in determining reality.

We have two ideas of dreams: that they are visions of the future, and windows into our unconscious. In this parsha, dreams are seen to represent the future of the dreamer, but their meaning is hidden to the dreamer and only available to interpretation by an outside observer. These biblical dreams are seen as prophecies. However, are those two ways of seeing dreams so different? Does not the power to affect your future lie in understanding yourself?

Joseph interprets the baker and cupbearer’s dreams; by doing so is he determining their future? We see how Joseph’s brothers’ and fathers’ interpretation of his dreams may directly be determining his own future as they sell him into slavery fueled by their dream-induced anger.

It’s a natural human inclination to want to see clues to our uncertain futures in many things, including dreams. In some ways, it can be harder to handle the idea that we have control over our future, because that means we have the power to make it awesome or screw it up. One can imagine that the pull towards pre-destination was even stronger in biblical days, when so much more in the world was not understood and seemed out of human control.

After the publication of Sigmund Freud’s, The Interpretation of Dreams, many people now see dreams as a window to the unconscious. In that way, the power may lie in knowing yourself. The dreamer who interprets her own dream takes the agency from an outside interpreter and takes control over her own destiny.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Parshat Vayishlach

14 Kislev 5771 / December 9-10, 2011

Genesis 32:4-36:43

MY NAME IS… WHAT? MY NAME IS… WHO?
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Director

What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28

A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his bother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken). Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.

The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.

“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25

This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart. Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing. The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: "What is your name?"

It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight. The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac. This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.”

At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.

The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played. Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day. My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.

Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless. We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”). Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest. Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother. Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable.

Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts. It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward. It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.

What is your name? What does it mean to you? Who are you named for, if anyone?

What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name?

When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?

We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you). We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations. But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.

This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Parshat Va’Yetzeh
Bereshit 28:10 – 32:3
7 Kislev 5772 / December 2-3, 2011

Jacob’s Journey to Find Himself
by David Martin, MH Mexico City

I will approach Parasha Vayetze in a different way, taking two guidelines from the first Pasuk (verse) of the Parasha.

(1) If we look carefully into the text at pasuk 28:13 we will see that G-d literally says to Jacob: "I am HaShem G-d of Abraham, your father, and G-d of Isaac." What could this mean? Isaac was the father of Jacob, not Abraham! Could that mean that Abraham’s relationship with G-d had a certain resemblance to Jacob’s? Or, that in some higher level sense, Abraham was the father of Jacob?

(2) In verse 28:10 the Torah states "...and Jacob stopped on the road because the sun had already set (down) and he slept there...." The pasuk doesn't say where he slept.... all that it says is that he "went out from Be’er Sheva and walked to Jaran". Why does the Torah repeat that he "left Be’er Sheva?" We already know from the previous week that he was there and that his father told him to go to Jaran. If we acknowledge that every word in Torah is used for a specific purpose.... then the pasuk gets very repetitive. So let’s pretend for a minute that the place where he slept and rested is not a physical one, rather a state of mind.

One of my favorite Torah Portions is Lech Lecha. It is an earlier portion about Abraham beginning his own journey away from his birth family to follow the word of G-d. If we translate literally that phrase means "Go for yourself." We could say that the very first thing that G-d asks Abraham is that he has to find himself before G-d could give him any kind of illumination or knowledge... that was the main core of wisdom: find yourself.

The main guidelines or "scripts" from the lives of Abraham and Jacob are similar... both grew up in places that were hostile to their form of spirituality and both of them had to leave their home environments. So maybe what the Torah says when it calls Abraham the father of Jacob is: that he had some connection in the way that G-d was revealed to both of them.

I don’t know for sure, but maybe the place where Jacob “stopped and slept” was more of a state of mind where he was able receive Ruach ha’Kodesh (prophetic spirit). When he left Be’er Sheva, he left his old bad habits and his old rotten environment beyond and at that moment, he finally was able to rest and dream of G-d. He had to leave from Beer Sheeva to Jaran, and also, like Abraham, he had to Lech Lecha.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Evil Twin is Born

Parshat Toldot
Bereshit 25:19 – 28:9
29 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 26 – 26, 2011

An Evil Twin is Born
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).


Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup! Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite an issue!)And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condone a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a G-d in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way to much (www.meaningthroughebing.com) and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person. As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

It’s In the Genes

Parashat Chayei Sarah
22 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 18 – 19, 2011
Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

It’s In the Genes
by Uri Manor (MH Montgomery County Alumni)  

This parsha opens with Abraham coming home to find his wife Sarah is dead.In case you forgot, last week's parsha ends on the joyous note of G-d making His covenant with Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac. I believe that the lesson here is that even Abraham was unable to enjoy constant happiness, and he was the greatest Tzaddik (Righteous person) in our history. Thus, how can we expect (at least relatively) “wicked people” such as ourselves to enjoy constant happiness?

Next, we learn that Abraham went to buy the cave of Machpaila to bury Sarah in.  The Midrash says that this is a cave Abraham discovered when chasing the sacrificial lamb that "replaced" Isaac. This cave is full of the Shechina (Divine Presence), and also happens to be the burial place of Adam and Eve.

Next Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. He meets Rebecca, who demonstrates to us the concept of midda-keneged-midda (measure opposite measure, literally, but it means "what goes around, comes around"). She treats Eliezer kindly and generously, and she is repaid with beautiful gifts from Abraham and is also repaid with Abraham's son as a husband!

One interesting note the Midrash makes is that Rebecca grew up in a wicked town. The lesson is that G-d wanted Isaac's wife to be someone who grew up surrounded by wickedness, but was still able to remain virtuous. That way G-d knew that the descendants of Isaac (e.g. us!) would have the genetic background necessary to do the same throughout the ages, no matter how wicked the world became. It appears to me that G-d was thinking like an evolutionary biologist, or even a molecular biologist that "selects" for the colonies with the properties necessary for the experiment to run as planned. Or maybe it is the other way around? Either way, I think that if we look deeply enough, we can find that there is no contradiction between the theory of evolution and the Torah. After all, is nature not meant to lead us closer to G-d?

In fact, the Midrash says that Abraham discovered G-d through the study of nature. At first, Abraham worshipped the Earth, because its production is that which sustains life, but then he realized the Earth isn't all powerful since it depends on the heavens for rain (let's ignore the irrelevant scientific inaccuracy for a moment), so he worshipped the heavens, or, namely the Sun, since that was what he perceived to be the ruling power of the firmament. But then when the Sun set, he figured that the Moon must be divine, but then he abandoned that thought when he saw that the Moon only shone by night. Finally, by observing the regular rhythm of day/night, the seasons, and all the natural laws, Abraham inferred the presence of a wise creator.

Thus, nature and the study of it, including the wicked "E word", should bring us closer to G-d.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Standing Up

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
15 Cheshvan 5771 / Nov. 11-12, 2011

Standing Up
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Regional Director

 In this week’s Torah portion, we find God seeking to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham negotiating with God as to the number of righteous persons living in the cities needed to justify not destroying them.  Starting at 50, he eventually convinces God to not destroy the cities if there are 10 righteous persons living within them (a minyan).  In the end, the cities could not produce even 10 righteous persons, and they were destroyed.

 Abraham was willing to argue with God to save the lives of people he did not know. 

 While not the lesson traditionally gleaned from this Torah portion, which also includes the well-known story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, there is a powerful lesson with regards to the value and power of community contained within it.

Individual righteous actions are wonderful, but this Torah portion makes it pretty clear that even righteous individuals were not to be spared God’s wrath.  Rather, only if there were at minimum a community of 10 such persons would God resist the temptation to destroy the cities.

We live in an era of hyper-individualization, despite the plethora of tools available to connect with others.  In our society, self-fulfillment is king, and only after we ourselves are content do we begin thinking about the needs of others.  Those of us who do find ways to give back often do so on an individual level, as many of our peers are still in the “self-fulfillment” mode, and are not interested in giving back when we are.

Given the emphasis placed on community in this week’s Torah portion, the question I need to ask is:  What are we doing as a community to be righteous together? 

Are we going out of our way to argue for those who maybe are not in a position to stand up for themselves?

Are we encouraging others to join us when we do acts that are considered righteous, such as community service?

Are we capable of putting aside selfish desires in favor of working towards the betterment of others?

The next time you’re inclined to do community service or a similar selfless activity, invite a large group of friends to join you.  Make community building and communal involvement a central part of your personal Jewish journey.  And never forget that while you are indeed important and special as an individual, you will never be more valued as an individual than when part of a community.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Becoming a Blessings

Parshat Lech Lecha

Bereshit 12:1 – 17:20
8 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 4-5, 2011


Becoming a Blessing

By Sarah Curtin, MHSF

This week’s parsha is when Abram (not yet Abraham) is told by G-d to venture from his father’s country and into a new place that G-d will show him. G-d sends him on this journey before making Abram the father of the Jewish nation. Much has been written about this journey, and the specific command from G-d “Lech Lecha” – go yourself, go into yourself, go with yourself… and how this may mean: become yourself; be true to yourself; get to know yourself; journey into your soul; etc.

I think this is an important piece of the story here because at the start of Lech Lecha, Abram really doesn’t seem like someone worthy of being a blessing and a great father of nations. As you shall see, he comes across as quite selfish, and insensitive, even towards the wellbeing of his wife. It takes him years of suffering, and a lot of soul-searching and growth to be ready for a covenant with G-d. This torah portion comes only weeks after Yom Kippur, and I see a connection between our annual rituals absolving our communities of sin, and Abram’s journey in this week’s parsha.

So, back to the story. Abram hears G-d’s voice, and leaves his homeland as directed. During his subsequent journey, there is a famine in Canaan. As Abram heads towards Egypt for food he stops and asks a favor of his wife. Abram knows that his wife is fair and beautiful, and is worried that out of jealousy or lust the Egyptians may kill him to gain access to Sarai (not yet Sarah). So, Abram asks Sarai to lie and say that she is his sister:

“And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you that they will say: This is his wife… and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive.” “Say, I pray you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me, and that my soul may live because of thee.” (Genesis Chapter 12, verses 12, 13).

Abram is thinking very selfishly at this point, looking out for his own safety and security, and not his wife’s. Although he thinks there is no chance Sarai will be killed by the Egyptians, he must know that because of her great beauty she might be ‘taken’ and married off to another man if she is falsely presented as single. Which, in fact is precisely what happens:

“And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verse 15)

Not only is Sarai taken, but Abram accepts payment in exchange for his wife! Abram is given cattle, camels, and servants, and becomes a rich man. How can a man who will become a blessing to the world, who will make the covenant with G-d, and who is the forefather of the Jewish people, be effectively pimping out his wife? I’m not even a very ardent feminist, but reading this gives me the chills. I’m named after this great Matriarch who became pregnant in her 90s with Isaac, the next man in our people’s shared family tree… and I don’t like thinking that she was traded for goods. Why would Abram do this? And the even bigger questions are why does G-d punish Pharaoh for this and not Abram, and how does this man then change and become his true self?

“And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s Wife.” “And Pharaoh called Abram, and said: ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” “Why did you say: ‘She is my sister?’ Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verses 17, 18).

What is the message here? Why is Abram portrayed in such a negative light?

At this point, Abram isn’t acting with the depth of humility and loving-kindness for all that I’d like to expect of my forefathers or any religious, righteous, Jewish person. In truth, it takes him years, and a lot of suffering, to be ready for a covenant with G-d. Abram lives through the fighting between kingdoms and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, lives through the kidnapping of his brethren, and lives with the sadness of an infertile wife. He doesn’t know if he can believe G-d’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation, because he doesn’t have an heir to inherit even his own accumulated wealth. He fathers Ishmael, but has to suffer the tension between his wife Sarai and her maidservant Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son. What is the message here?

After struggling with this piece of Abram’s history, I’ve come to realize that the Torah shows us that we have a forgiving G-d, we have a G-d that doesn’t expect us to always act as holy, perfect beings. I don’t think that the Torah is condoning the selling of women, or that any crime can be excused, but it does show that even the heroes of great stories are fallible. We need to strive to be the best that we can be, but if and when we fail, and if and when we don’t think about the consequences of what we are doing, we can still get back up and try again. We can go into ourselves (Lech Lecha), and become our better selves. We are not forever ‘evil.’ In G-d’s eyes we can still be a blessing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Let it Rain (Just not too much)!

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

Let it Rain (Just not too much)!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Sukkot is the holiday when we turn our focus to our fields and pray for rain. This is both actual – as we need rain for our food to grow – and symbolic. Water represents the flow of blessing into our lives. So whether you are in need of healing, money, or love, Sukkot is the holiday where we ask for the flood gates of mercy to burst forth. We ask that good fortune will rain down from the heavens and burst forth from the deep wellsprings of the Earth. A week after we pack up our Sukkahs and store them away for next year, we encounter Parshat Noah.

In Parshat Noah, as we are well aware, G-d gets angry with humanity and lets loose all the waters of the sky and ground to destroy every creature that has the breath of life in it. (Except for Noah and his crew of course!) I find these contradictory themes of Sukkot and Noah perfectly Jewish. On Sukkot we pray for rain and blessing to rain on us. In Parshat Noah we are reminded that every blessing is only a blessing in moderation. Too much of a good thing just ain’t that grand!

When I think over the Torah portions from the past several weeks there is a rhythmic warning about the corruption that is inherent in having too much bounty. With the world’s economy hanging in the balance of transition, I feel particularly attuned to this message. It may very well be that the imperfect systems of Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism are being wiped out by the tidal wave force of the current international outcry for change. Maybe the tent villages sprouting around the globe are likened to Noah’s arks, carrying a light of hope that beyond the decay of society there exists a more sustainable alternative. Kein Yehi Ratzon! (May it be willed as such!)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Parshat Bereshit
24 Tishrei 5772 / Oct. 21 – 22, 2011
Bereshit 1:1 – 6:8

Living with Intention
by Aviva Tabachnik, MH West-Coast Regional Director

In the first book of the Torah, Bereshit, G-d created the world and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, were given the gift of life and the gifts of the garden. But perhaps, the ultimate gift was of intelligence, curiosity and free will as well.

Eve disobeyed G-d and ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Often the disobedience of Adam and Eve is seen as an act worthy of punishment. It is used as an explanation for the difficulty women have had in childbirth and it is said that humankind's struggles in life could have been averted if only Adam and Eve had not disobeyed G-d.

And yet, curiosity is a major component of intelligence and demonstrates that truly the human animal created by G-D is unique among the other inhabitants of the garden. Maybe this is meant to be seen as the first lesson for future generations to learn from. G-d said, "Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad…”.

Personally I view this as a gift of consciousness rather than as punishment. In exercising their free will, Adam and Eve have given us the gift by example of taking each step in our lives with intention.
As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we reflect our actions over the past year and wait to see if our fate is sealed in the Book of Life. We examine our lives and take responsibility for those actions not in keeping with our best intentions. We acknowledge our free will and meditate on our behavior and actions.

A long time ago the Tree of Knowledge provided us with abstract reasoning and emotion, and now it is our time to reflect and evaluate whether we have stepped with our best foot forward or have given into our anger, fears or greed. Have you been living like Adam and Eve, before they ate from the tree, naive about your surroundings? Or have you been living an intentional life?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sukkot 2011

Dvar Torah
Sukkot 2011
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, Mid-West Regional Director

“Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt." -- Leviticus 23:42-43

The Torah tells us that after leaving Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before finally being granted access to the Promised Land. Aside from Moses likely not asking for directions due to being a man, we’re taught that God wanted the generation of slaves to pass away, and to have their children, who had been born free, be the ones to conquer and possess the land. During their years of wandering, the Israelites constructed temporary dwelling booths, known as “sukkot” (“sukkah” in the singular). Food and drink were provided in the form of manna (and eventually quail) and streams of water. Thus, despite living in temporary structures, the Israelites were well taken care of during their time in the desert, with their basic food, clothing and shelter needs met.

There are many Americans who do not have the ability to sleep under the same roof each night, and many who do not know where their shelter will come from on any given night. There are many more at risk: according to a recent DSNews.com article, in addition to those already making up the homeless population in this country, one in three Americans would be unable to make their rent or mortgage payment for more than one month if they lost their jobs. (http://www.dsnews.com/articles/job-loss-could-put-one-in-three-homeowners-out-of-their-home-2011-09-30) While there is no question that a number of those who are homeless suffer from mental illness, resulting in more complicated situations, many of those who are homeless have been knocked down, and are fighting to get back up.

These struggles are not limited to Americans. Over 250,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv in August to protest the lack of affordable housing options in the country – a precursor to homelessness.

Are we grateful enough for the shelter we’re blessed to have?

Are there ways we can work towards helping others who are shelter-insecure?

There are organizations out there working with faith-based groups to help shelter the homeless, as well as provide career training and self-care resources, that crave volunteers and community organizers. For example, check out http://www.southoaklandshelter.org/.

One of the greatest challenges facing those who happen to be homeless is securing gainful employment. One reason for the challenge is the lack of appropriate wardrobe. Check out the National Suit Drive put on by Men’s Warehouse as a way to help those who don’t have interview-appropriate clothing: http://www.menswearhouse.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ContentAttachmentView_-1_10601_10051__10709_10684_AbtNationalSuitDriveMain.html

The homeless are also more likely to be malnourished than the general population. Ensuring that no one goes hungry is our obligation as Jews, and as human beings. Consider initiating a canned food drive, and donate the items received to your local kosher food bank. For a large-scale endeavor, consider getting involved with MAZON -- http://mazon.org/.

As we enter the Sukkot holiday, the Festival of Booths, let us remember that while we are asked to dwell in these temporary structures for only one week, there are many people out there who have no permanent home to speak of, much like our ancestors wandering in the desert. Make it a priority to play a part in helping those who happen to be homeless: volunteer your time, donate clothing, allow none to go hungry, and do whatever you can to ensure that those in our community will always have a place to safely rest their heads.