Monday, January 31, 2011

Dwelling in All

Parshat Terumah
Shmot 25:1 – 27:19
1 Adar 1 5771 / Feb. 4 – 5, 2011

Dwelling in All
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Torah portion we are commanded by G-d to build a collapsible and portable structure for worship space in the desert. It seems strange to me that G-d would want a physical structure, especially one made of the finest materials,

“… gold, silver, and copper; and turquoise, purple and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins, tachash skins, acacia wood; oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense; shoham stones and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and the Breastplate. (verses 25:3-7)”

It seems counterintuitive that the Almighty Being that cannot be contained in language, time, or space, would want to designate one structure as a place to be “more holy” than another place. There is one verse that seems to address this theological conundrum.

“They shall make a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell in them.” (25:8)

Contrary to idolatry, where holiness is bound up in a specified object, the Mishkan was more of a center piece that served to uplift the entire community of Israel. The holiness of the Mishkan stemmed from the meaning that the Israelites gave to it and not something attributed to any intrinsic nature. When they called the Mishkan holy, they were able to self-identify as holy because they were doing the naming. Thus the physical act of donating one’s own materials and using one’s own craft to create this holy space, served as a cultural reminder – Holiness is inside of you.

What does it mean for a person to be holy? I want to define it as a choice that an individual makes to live life in an authentic way that allows others to do the same. The key though is the choice that is made to elevate one thing over another. The holiness is in the choosing, not in the thing itself.

The challenge for me in these portions is to understand G-d beyond a separate Being in the sky that rules over us. If G-d is more of a collective consciousness, or universal unifying factor, then the request for a house did not pop out of nowhere in G-d’s imagination. Perhaps the opulent commandment was a co-creative exercise between the people and the Creator. Another good example of partnering with G-d to create a better world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Parshat Mishpatim
Shmot 21:1-24:18
24 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 28 – 29, 2011

Hashem is Takin’ Care of Bizness
by Leana Jelen, MH Montgomery County, MD

This week’s parsha, mishpatim, is essentially a list of rules given to the Jews. Rather than a nice story about Moses hitting a rock or sailing the Nile in his basket note, God is giving, one after another a list of rules: BAM! (example 1). BAM! (example 2), one after another without elaboration. Now, later in the torah, in Bamidbar, the same rules are given in greater detail, but to understand the rules in this parsha, we use a combination of the sagely insights of the commentators and our brains.

Two verses that jumped out at me when learning with Zvi state:

יב. מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת מוֹת יוּמָת:

12. One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.

יג. וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱ־לֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה:

13. But one who did not stalk [him], but God brought [it] about into his hand, I will make a place for you to which he shall flee.

So if someone murders someone accidentally, he can go to a safe place. This is widely understood to be referring to the Levite camp, or later, when the Jews live in Israel, the safe places are known as arei miklat or safe cities, also under Levite control. Someone who kills on purpose, on the other hand, is killed immediately, even if he is holding onto the altar; essentially, even if he has thrown himself on the altar and is crying hysterically, we peel him off and send him to the electric chair.

The first technicality critical to mention is that we are not exactly sure what type of accidental killing is meant. Often the word beshogeg is translated as accidentally, but this word actually has a meaning closer to “having been done without knowledge that is was wrong.” Everyone knows that murder is wrong, so in this case it might apply to an insanity case; one in which a mental impairment—be it something chronic like a mental illness, or something momentary like blacking out due to rage or a seizure—is the cause of the killing.

So here’s the scenario: Shmulke and Zalman are bickering over Zalman’s goat who is always in Shmulke’s daisy field eating up the flowers, and things get out of hand, Shmulke blacks out, comes to, Zalman and the goat are dead, and is holding his dagger. We let a guy like this just go and hang out with the priests for a while? It hardly seems fair at first glance. So let’s take a look and see what good old Rashi has to say.

Rashi picks up on the phrase וְהָאֱ־לֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ And the Lord forced his hand and proposes that Shmulke is actually an agent for Hashem’s plan , and goes even further to say that Zalman may have committed a crime worthy of the death penalty earlier in his life, and had not yet been punished for it.

Me: Um, hello? With all due respect, Rashi, why involve Shmulke at all? Why not just strike Zalman down with lightning if Hashem wants him to die?

Rashi: Well, maybe Shmulke, too, had committed a crime earlier in his life that had gone unpunished, and this forced murder evens things out.

Unfortunately, I’m still not satisfied, and it brings up the question of why do bad things happen to good people—hardly an issue I’m interested in facing. But why send Shmulke to hang out with the Levites? One answer is to quarantine them so that someone prone to murderous blackouts isn’t just mingling with regular society, and another reason is that the Levites were those responsible for the holy work of the temple, involving sacrifices and the daily spiritual needs of the general public. Being around such holy people could only be a positive influence on these people who needed to learn better self-control.

Finally, what is the duration of the sentence? Is there some kind of scale based on how accidental the murder really was? Do blackout murderers get 25 years, but schizophrenics who were just following “instructions” get 10? Interestingly, for all those sent to a city of refuge, the sentence ends when the current kohein gadol (high priest) dies. This is incredibly powerful and truly appropriate. For whatever God’s reason may have been, God decides that Zalman needs to die, and then God decides how long Shmulke needs to hide before he can reintegrate within the community.

Certainly this brings up the annoying “free-will vs. predetermination” conundrum, but for me it really is reassuring that God has a plan. It’s difficult to tell someone suffering the deepest of struggles that it will get better one day and that Hashem loves him, but certainly we can begin by integrating this on a smaller scale. I rode the metro all the way to Virginia, excited to be taking a West African dance class for the first time in nine months, walked 6 blocks in freezing cold, only to discover that the transit website had led me astray. The studio was in the opposite direction. I could have cursed the world and stomped around, but instead I found a nice coffee shop, plunked myself down, and wrote the dvar torah that was way overdue. God was telling me that West African Dance was not in the cards for me this week, but maybe next week.

There are small things I do in my everyday life to remind myself of this, and I personally try to start with the small things we often take for granted: I try to kiss the mezuzah when I enter a room to remind myself that God is present with me, even in my mundane activities. When I remember, I write ב"ה (for Baruch Hashem—thank God) at the top of papers (yes, even my grad school assignments), and when I exit the ladies room, I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that my body functions more or less the way it should and that if at any moment God should decide to stop paying attention, I would not be able to remain standing, even for a moment. The feeling that I am so finite and that I cannot understand the master plan is vast and overwhelming at times, but (and maybe this is just because I enjoy being taken care of) it’s comforting to know that something bigger, smarter, and better than I am is taking the reins and has my back.

Good Shabbos, fellow moishe house-niks! I love you all and can’t wait to meet each of you in person!

Please come visit us at our new location! We have plenty of space for sleepers, just give us a little notice and I’ll make you butternut squash pie.



(Moishe House MoCo)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Beyond Expectations

Parshat Yitro
Shmot 18:1 – 20:23
17 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 21 – 22, 2011

Beyond Expectations
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I would like to open this Dvar Torah by correcting an often mistranslated word. We usually refer to the 10 G-dly pronouncements in this portion as the, “TEN COMMANDMENTS.” In truth, they are never referred to as commandments in the Hebrew text, but rather simply called statements. “G-d spoke all these statements, saying: (20:1)”. (Also, there are many statements made and not just 10.) I think it is important to be specific about this translation because I do not think that these ten guidelines for living really need to be commanded, nor do they have to be specifically Jewish. It is pretty clear from any ethical standpoint that in almost any situation, killing someone is wrong. Jealousy does not serve anyone for the good. And whether you do it Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, a day of rest is great for a personal and communal well-being. This means that the core of Divine ethical behavior should correspond quite nicely with human ethical behavior.

There is a part of me that reads this great revelatory passage of the Jews receiving Torah – with the great lights and loud noises – with a bit of a sigh. My mind’s inner voice asks, “Duh! What is so amazing about these statements?” The 10 Commandments are not a recipe from a worry-free life, or a prosperous life. Following them will hopefully grant someone a simple neutral existence.

I think I expect far too much from G-d. I chose to be religious because I was experiencing unhappiness and did not see any other answers written for how to make my life better. I figured I would give religion a shot. Several years later, I recognize that my life has not magically transcended all negative occurrences. I still get upset from time-to-time, and things certainly do not work out the way that I want. What I have gained though is a Mary Poppin’s purse sized toolbox on how to deal with life’s challenges AND I am engaged in a daily proactive practice of personal integration. (With some Yoga and meditation thrown into the mix too!)

Perhaps that is what I should expect from Torah, not an answer to my problems, but a way to engage with the entire spectrum of life experience – the ups and the downs.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sabbath of Song

Parshat Beshalach (Shabbat Shira)
Exodus 13:17-17:16
15 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 14 – 15, 2011

A Sabbath of Song
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s portion the Jewish people sing a song of praise and a song of remembrance of the miracle that occurred with the splitting of the sea. When I was younger I imagined a countless group of people skipping and hopping as they joyfully belted out the verses recorded in the Torah. The women grabbing drums and timbrels, their beats exploding into a trance mayhem.

As I read the Torah portion this week, I get a very different sense of the purpose of the song and about the Egyptians drowning in general. The text clearly tells us that the Egyptians have received the message of G-d’s greatness loud and clear. They are divinely forced to chase after the Israelites even as their deepest intuitions scream to leave them alone. The walk on the sea floor and see that they will not make it through and exclaim that they should go back home because they cannot win this battle. If I was an enslaved Jew for 200 years, I would probably want my oppressors to be smashed by the waves and die with severe cruelty. But I am not, and I consider that 10 awful plagues, culminating with the death of every male first-born, is punishment enough. The plagues, plus the miraculous sea splitting seems enough as a testament to G-d’s awesome power. So I ask,

“G-d? Hello there. Did the Egyptians really have to die? Do you really have to be known as a Master of War (25:3)?”

While I am awaiting an answer, I want to suggest that the Israelites’ Song of the Sea, which follows the death of Egypt, is a way to express all of their complex emotions. Of course, they were happy to be free, but they were also witness to mass destruction and a terrible power that exists in their world. I can almost picture the verses of the song (beginning with Exodus 25:1) being chanted slowly by a huddled mass of people, grabbing hold of one another and trembling. Eyes wide open, hearts racing, shallow breaths – perhaps like the haunting sounds of ghosts, almost an unperceivable moan. Then, (verse 20) Miriam the Prophet breaks the spell with a drum beat as the women stomp out the grief, the terror, the shock of the entire nation.

On Jan 9th, 2011 Debbie Friedman, a Jewish song and spiritual leader died. You are probably very familiar with Debbie’s havdalah tune sang Saturday nights across denominational and cultural lines. Debbie did not only create songs for summer camp circles, her music was her access to being a healer. Singing in our faith is an essential way that we record powerful transitional moments. We sing to express joys and fears, our hopes and weaknesses. We sing to acknowledge our confusion and doubts about G-d, our past, and our future.

May the soul of Debbie Friedman find a true place of rest and may we continue to sing our lives through the joy and the pain.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
3 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 7 - 8, 2011

Pharaoh's Flawed Philosophy of Forgiveness—A Story of Stubbornness
by Jack Cohen, Moishe House East Bay, CA

Who's younger brother is Pharaoh? Because only a younger brother gets slapped around 7 times and comes back for more, to a greater power, still refusing to admit he's wrong. In this epic story of stubbornness, Parshat Bo relates the 8th, 9th, and the grand finale, go-for-the-(g)oldest 10th plague, along with the first celebration of and instructions for Passover. The parsha begins curiously, with G?d taking responsibility for this stubbornness, for a very specific purpose: to make G?d's existence known and deplore an immoral way of relating to each other. I want to explore this through examining Pharaoh's dubious attempts at forgiveness along the way.

What's odd about Pharaoh's pattern, bearing uncanny resemblance to many a childhood fight between myself and my older or younger brother, is the quick admission each time, as soon as the punishments hail in, of wrong-doing and request for relief. The 8th plague, locusts, arrives, and the Torah tells us, “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened...[and they ate everything] so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt” (10:24). What happens next? Pharaoh rushes (“vaymaher”) to summon Moses and Aaron to plead guilty and beg forgiveness: “I stand guilty before the Lord your G?d and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your G?d that He but remove this death from me” (10:17). No sooner than is the plague gone, we discover, “But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (10:20). And the 9th plague, total darkness, quickly ensues.

A first lesson comes here—we cannot rush the process of real forgiveness. What does real forgiveness require? What is Pharaoh's plea missing, that he might break the cycle of plague-ry? Pharaoh seeks relief from what he is suffering, but never to recognize the immorality of his actions. Had Pharaoh read last week the brilliant editorial On Forgiveness in the New York Times, perhaps this week he would have acted otherwise. Philosophy professor Charles Griswold argues therein for the bilateral nature of the ideal forgiveness process, emphasizing the necessity of at least four elements on the part of the perpetrator for real tshuvah (return, at-one-ment) to be possible. He identifies admission of responsibility, recognition of the victim's experience of the wrong-doing, feelings of remorse, and a resolve not to do it again. He has a thing for words that begin with “re”. Of these, Pharaoh might be said to have only the first, and even that is disputable. Professor Griswold argues that the purpose of “forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.”

Is it fair, however, to continue to accuse Pharaoh of immorality when after all, it is now G?d stiffening Pharaoh's heart, no longer happening of Pharaoh's own accord, as in the first five plagues? (See examples at 8:15, vayechezak, 8:29 vayachbed, 9:7 vayichbad.) I am still unsure. My only way of reconciling this is to appreciate how accurately G?d's actions here reflect our reality. Pharaoh is perpetually self-absorbed and in denial; as nice and true a claim as “it's never too late to change” may be, what is more common is that we cultivate habits of heart—virtuous or vile—and they gather momentum until they are driving on their own. It takes tshuvah and real forgiveness to really change this momentum, and G?d is unwilling to reward a feigned request for forgiveness.

This manifests from G?d's first encounter with Moses, when G?d has this all planned out, intent on Egypt's authentic and undeniable recognition of G?d's existence. Again in the first words of this week's parsha, G?d tells Moses explicitly why he's hardened Pharaoh's heart and the heart of his servants: “in order that I may display these My signs among order that you may know that I am the Lord” (10:1). Earlier takeaways help me begin to understand this. If we cannot rush real forgiveness, and in its ideal form it requires participation and understanding of both parties, then this is the role of the victim, G?d, ensuring that the Egyptians have enough time to become really aware of their wrong, and ultimately acknowledge “that I'm G?d” and you, or your idols, are not. While a more sudden awakening to this Fact might have been smoother, the story recognizes the gravity of the offense and presents an appropriately more gradual series of reminders that are unforgettable. This increases the chance of “a moral relation between self and other”; were one people to really recognize the G?dly nature of another, it would be impossible to subjugate them in the future, or treat each other in any less than the most virtuous of ways. Cultivating this happens as a course of habit—that is, of repeated actions—and so it makes sense that G?d's plan would unfold in like manner.