Sunday, April 24, 2011

Loving You is Easy Cause I’m Beautiful

by Josh Buchin, Guest Writer

This parsha, Kedoshim, instructs us how to be holy. We are given a comprehensive list of dos and don'ts that cover a wide range of topics: sacrifices, business dealings, dress codes, sexual relations, ethics, and even interactions with ghosts. At the heart of all of these seemingly disconnected rules is the verse,

"and you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord" (Exodus 19:18).

This verse encapsulates all of the other laws mentioned in this week's parsha. The central question posed by this Torah portion is: how can we be holy? What does God want from us?

Although this parsha contains many rules, the answer comes from this one verse. The answer is that God wants us to "love your fellow as yourself." God wants us to treat others fairly and with respect, recognizing the Divinity within them. This verse is not only key to understanding this portion, but is crucial to understanding all of the Torah, as well as all of Judaism. Rashi, quoting Rabbi Akiva, said that "this is the fundamental principle of the Torah."

The Torah, and Judaism, both want us to be our best selves, and to live in harmony with the Divine, the natural world and with those around us. Our tradition provides us with a wide range of instructions for how to do this; keep Shabbat, observe the dietary laws, celebrate the holidays. But at the heart of all of these commandments is the phrase, "love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord."

Unequivocally, we are told to love everyone. Regardless of what they've done to us - or haven't done for us - we have an obligation to treat everyone with respect, kindness and compassion, and to love them in the deepest religious sense of the term. The second part of this phrase is even more specific: we shouldn't just love them, we should love them like we love ourselves. We should remember, in all of our interactions, what is often referred to as The Golden Rule: namely, the ethic of reciprocity, the desire to treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated.

But how do we do this? How do we put this mantra into action? Is it even possible to love others like we love ourselves? It's often hard to connect with other people on a basic level, let alone to show them true and deep love the way we love ourselves. According to the Sefas Emes, a 19th century Biblical and Talmudic commentary, the way that we are to accomplish this monumental task is through the help of God.

"It is not easy to carry out the commandment 'and you shall love your fellow as yourself' in the fullest sense of its meaning. Therefore, immediately after this command, God declares: 'I am the Lord' - I, God, stand ready to help you to fulfill My commandment provided that you sincerely wish to keep it."

If we are willing to be in partnership with God, and to live in harmony with the Divine, God will hold up God's side of the agreement, and will help support us as well.

Elsewhere, the Sefas Emes said,

"One of the greatest religious problems is that people fear having a relationship with God and consequently distance themselves from Him."

We shouldn't be afraid of this connection. Rather, we should be eager to embrace it and to live in partnership with the Divine. Through this partnership, we can become our best selves and help strive for a better, perfected world. This is true holiness, and this is what parshat Kedoshim is instructing us. Being holy means remembering that we're not alone: it means remembering others, and treating them with kindness and respect. And it means remembering God, who has never forgotten us either.

Monday, April 18, 2011

True Freedom, U Freedom

Shabbat Pesach
Sh’mot 33:12 – 34:26
19 Nissan 5771 / April 22 – 23, 2011
True Freedom, U Freedomby Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
                On Passover we are told to refrain from eating anything that is leavened, or puffed up. Breads, bagels, muffins, certain cereals, and for some of us, beans and rice, are all placed under this category of food that is called chametz. Most of us know that the reason that we eat Matzah, or flat bread, is to remember that when the Jews were leaving Egypt, they had to rush out and did not have time for their bread to rise, thus they ate un-leavened bread. As Rabbis tend to do, they got concerned that eating seemingly leavened products would lead to eating actual leavened bread, so they created a radical edict to spend the entire holiday not eating anything that even slightly resembles leavened bread (most strictly for Jews from Eastern European descent).
                Another way to understand this practice is to think about what Passover represents and how this special diet might help the attunement of our awareness. Before the original Passover, the Jewish people and Jewish identity was stuck in a particular mode – that of slavery. We worked in harsh conditions for the Egyptians, gaining nothing from the sweat of our brow. Our relationship with G-d was also stagnated as the Deity of individual ancestors whose memory we had to connect through. Suddenly, there came time for a big change. We were going to be shifting, warp-speed, from oppressed workers to a boundless independent nation. If we stopped for a moment to think about that, we probably would lose faith, and say, “Helk no! I ain’t going no-where!” And if you take a peek into the Torah narrative, when the Jews stop to rest in the desert, they begin to complain for the life they had in Egypt.
                So matzah represents the Band-Aid (or plaster) that was yanked quickly off the wound of an enslaved identity. When we eat matzah, or more importantly, when we refrain from eating chametz and chametz-related foods, we are symbolically recreating this obliteration of the usual story and identity that we carry around. All for the purpose, I remind you, of receiving a newer and more liberated sense of self. Thus, we jaggedly cut out all the foods that are “filled with hot air,” and allow our egos to deflate. Of course, quick change does not equal lasting change. For this reason, we begin to count the Omer until Shavuot, which represents a more thoughtful and comprehensive transformation from slave to free-person.
                For some of us, we might not connect with the idea of cutting out bread on Pesach. I would strongly recommend trying out the traditional practice in small doses, but I think there are other ways to enhance this dramatic shift in our inner-selves.
1.       You might try another way of playing with diet. Perhaps Passover is a good time for a juice fast, or cutting out sugars, or other things that make you “high and inflated.”
2.       You can make a list of, “Things I would do if I was truly free,” and then see how close you are to enacting these things. Perhaps there are a few that you should still refrain from.
3.       Perhaps there is part of your name that you do not identify with – your middle name, or Hebrew name. You might spend the week introducing yourself with a new name and reclaiming your relationship with it.
4.       Maybe there is a new Jewish practice that you want to try out that might enhance the way you live. Meditation, daily prayer, or lighting candles on Shabbat are all tools that free us from our normal way of doing and being.
5.       Play with the seder to make it more meaningful. Introduce your own poems and personal stories of oppression and liberation. According to the Haggadah, you have to at least say the following three words: PESACH, MATZAH, and MARROR. The rest just might be commentary.

So however we fill our bellies (and hearts and minds) this Pesach, I bless us that we can experience a new and deeper understanding of what it means to be free. And that we should see freedom blossom in those places where freedom seems stifled. 

Many blessings,

Monday, April 11, 2011

Horror with a Message?

Parshat Achrei Mot (Shabbat Hagadol)
Vayikrah 16:1-18:30
12 Nisan 5771 / April 15 – 16, 2011

Horror with a Message?
Laura W., Moishe House London
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion the priests in the sanctuary/Temple are commanded by H-shem to,
“…go out unto the altar that is before H-shem and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. (verse 18 )”
It seems very strange that the most Compassionate Being that values loving kindness so highly would command such a seemingly cruel and quite frankly horrific act as part of the highest form of service. It seems being a vegetarian cohen was not an option - and you needed a very strong stomach to perform the sacred work in the Temple. However the Temple is meant to be the centre of light and peace for the whole world: a house for H-shem to dwell in as a G-d whose attributes we are meant to emulate
“Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth; Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses” (Shemot 34:6-7)
What is going on? To understand these two contradictory ideas we have to read a little further to the fifth Aliya where it commands us not to eat blood.
‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.’
What does 'by reason of the life' mean? And what does it mean for a spiritually sensitive person to have to kill in this way? How did Aaron, who is so closely connected to the attribute of peace, feel when he had to 'lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat' knowing that it would soon be sacrificed?
The truth that an innocent animal lovingly created by G-d is being killed in place of an individual or a group is perhaps meant to shock us back to reality and hit home the gravity of what we have done. The feeling that according to absolute judgment it 'should really have been me', and direct contact with the animal as its life force is being drained, seeing the fear in its eyes is, I would hope, enough to bring anyone back to the right path.
What is the message we can apply today? That if we really understood the consequences of our actions we would not sin, so we better know what we are doing. We have to educate ourselves enough not to end up causing suffering to ourselves and others, physically or spiritually. The temple sacrifices seem to be a necessary evil to awaken us from our apathy, a sort of institutionalized tikun (healing). According to the Torah, there was a brief utopia in the Garden of Eden before the first sin, when there was no murder or need to kill. Humanity lived in harmony with H-shem and Creation, a state we can all aspire to bring about in our days.
However here lies the real challenge for me. Sin appears an ambiguous subject in contemporary society often crossing the line between the subjective and objective because although the commands are explicit, it is up to the individual to interpret them within their particular framework. One person’s sin can be another’s mitzvah as it is sometimes hard to be completely aware of our exact point of free will and what is appropriate for us individually. The title of this parsha is Achrei Mot which means ‘after the death’ referring to Nadav and Avihu in parshat Shmini and I still have trouble with why their enthusiasm was so harshly punished. So I look to the Sages who define sin as ‘missing the mark’ in the sense of an archer shooting an arrow and missing the target. By studying Torah perhaps we can see the target more clearly, strengthen ourselves and focus our aim and avoid such violent consequences.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Blessing of the Living Bird

Parshat Metzorah
Vayikra 14:1 – 15:33
5 Nisan 5771 / April 8 – 9, 2011

The Blessing of the Living Bird
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I find the ritual for cleaning the person afflicted with Tzara’at simply strange. Essentially, the Kohen takes two birds. He kills one bird and lets the blood drip into a clay pot with water. Then he takes the second bird and dips it into the water/blood mixture of the first bird. He sprinkles the blood that is covering the live bird on the newly cleansed person and then sets the live bird free.

I am not really sure what to make of this. But I wanted to highlight this ritual as I enjoy taking note of some of the bizarre practices that we have at our roots. I sometimes see Yogic community members walking around in orange or yellow robes, with their little bells and thin pony-tails sprouting from the top of their heads, and I think, “Hmmm…That is strange.”

If I was able to time travel back to the days of the Jewish people in the desert, or early Palestine, I would probably shout with fright and feel uneasy with the lavish dressing of the Priests, the uber-posh d├ęcor of the Temple, and the bloody worship rituals. It does make me feel less judgmental about other people’s practices when I think how strange Jewish people must have looked (and at times, still look) to outsiders.

There is something in this ritual though, that I really love. I feel joy when the Torah tells us that the live bird is set free. It is like ourselves and our souls. The live bird has experienced the trauma of witnessing and experiencing pain and suffering. It has been bloodied and shaken by outside forces, yet that was all temporary. It is able to spread its wings again and live on to experience new adventures, new sorrows and new joys.

I would like to bless us with the blessing of this living free bird. May we be able to accept the pain and sorrow of the world and continue to find the strength to spread our wings and soar.