Saturday, June 25, 2011


Parshat Chukat
Bamidbar 19:1 – 22:1
Sivan 30 5771 / July 1 – 2 2011

by Laura Taishoff, MH New Orleans

Parashat Chukat was an incredibly interesting Parsha for my first ever D’Var Torah. It includes lessons about how to purify oneself when there has been contact with a dead body, the death of Miriam, and an intense almost revolt against Moses and Aaron.

It was all fascinating but I am choosing to focus on the beginning of the Chapter, which opens with a delineation of the ways in which Jews are required to cleanse themselves after coming into contact with a dead body. In 19:12, there is a description of the red heifer, which is “, faultless, and upon which never came yoke”. The portion says that the heifer must be burned and the ashes will be combined with water to make a purification mixture. On the third day and the seventh day, the individual seeking cleansing will have this purification mixture sprinkled on them and then, he/she would be cleansed.

All of this just for coming into contact with a dead body? Why were such arduous and meticulous orders necessary to warn the Jewish people from coming into contact or hanging around a corpse? I found this kind of warning especially surprising given the various ways in which Jews are required to be empathetic and compassionate towards those who are grieving a loss. It seems to me like mixed messages. If it is so incredibly important that we purify ourselves for merely coming into contact with a dead body, why do those reciting Mourner’s Kiddush stand? It was my understanding that they stand so that they entire community knows that they are grieving and are in need of support. There is also the tradition of brining a home cooked meal to those sitting Shiva.

I came to the conclusion that it is important to recognize the difference in doling out sympathy to those grieving from death and being exposed to death and surrounding yourself with it. Perhaps what the parsah is suggesting is not a lack of compassion for the dead but rather an acknowledgement of life. We support those who are grieving but not at the cost of our own sense of aliveness. If one is constantly surrounded by death and dead bodies, it will be vastly more difficult to fully live and experience all that life has to offer. So, what I am taking away from this portion is the importance of creating boundaries for grieving and mourning, and coupling those with an appreciation for the beautiful, challenging, exhilarating highs and lows that we all experience as a part of LIFE.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Between Life and Death

Parshat KorachBamidbar 16:1 -18:32
23 Sivan  5771 / June 24 – 25, 2011

Between Life and Death
by Zvi Bellin, Ph.D.

This Torah Portion is infamous for the challenge that Korach and his band of rabble-rousers raise against Moshe and the miraculous punishment of the Earth opening its mouth and swallowing these dissenters. On the surface, Korach’s claim is not so strange. He wants to know why Moshe and Aaron are given a higher status of leadership than other people of their own Levite tribe. Upon deeper exploration is seems that Korach’s intentions were not to increase justice, but rather to usurp power.

As the Earth licks its lips after a satisfying meal, there is yet another conflict in the Israelite camp. The entire Jewish people are now scared of Moshe and Aaron, faulting them for the death of Korach’s crew. They assemble against the Dynamic Duo (Moshe and Aaron) and shout with raged fists, “You have killed the people of G-d!” According to the text, their mob mentality strikes up another punishment. This time it is a mysterious plague that begins to spread throughout the camp, killing people instantly (the death toll reached 14,700!). G-d too seems to be infected with the fury virus and is ready to demolish all the Jewish people.

Fear not Israelites, Moshe knows how to stop this plague! He tells Aaron to take incense and burn it amongst the people and atone for them. Aaron does just this and the Torah states beautifully in verse 17:13,

He stood between the dead and between the living and the plague was halted.

I read this verse as saying that Aaron was able to stand between life and death and that his ability to hold these two extremes ended the plague. Aaron is able to dive into the plague -- into the anger, fear, and death -- and bring the remedy, his very own life and presence, and this calms the Divine rage.

We can see the above episode as the people being infected with a rage that is composed of maddening fear and despair. You are in the middle of the harsh desert and a large group of people have suddenly perished. And worse yet, you cannot trust your leaders.  G-d has turned against you. Your world is shattered and your sanity broken. I imagine the people in a hysterical panic, trampling each other, fighting, lashing out, lost. (Think of some recent zombie movies.)

Aaron comes out with the sweet smell of the incense. He immerses into the mob and feels his own pain and hopelessness. He begins to panic, to feel the cold creeping hand of death tightening around his throat. He inhales deeply and smells the incense. The smell pacifies him, reminds him of his purpose and of the spirit which makes all things possible. Aaron rediscovers his own vitality and remains infectiously calm. The raging Israelites draw near to descend on Aaron. They are halted by the smell of incense and become infected with Aaron’s hope and peace of mind. There is no longer room for rage … the plague is halted, though not entirely obliterated.

We still encounter the same plague of hysterical fear and doubt today. We point similar fingers at our leaders, and react in unhealthy ways when our experiences do not make sense. We often react with extreme behaviors that are detrimental to our own and our community’s stability (i.e. addiction, suicide, homicide). Aaron offers one model to help us ignite the spark of life that can temporarily calm this anger and doubt. Using the burnt incense as a tool, which serves as a reminder of the soul and soothes the spirit (just like we do today in the Havdalah ceremony), Aaron was able to reintroduce order into the chaos. This is not an easy task and exemplifies big shoes to fill - a direction to grow in. 

May we all be blessed to connect with the resources in this world and within ourselves that strengthen and stabilize us so that we might beneficially face our plagues and find comfort even in the times of utmost chaos. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“An Elephant Never Forgets”

Parshat Shelach
Bamidbar 13:1 – 15:41
16 Sivan 5771 / June 17 – 18, 2011

“An Elephant Never Forgets”
by Rebecca Karp, MH Philadelphia

Parshat Shelach (“Send”) is chock-full of amazing tidbits to riff on. Spies, threats of 40 years of wandering, promise of the death of an entire generation, the mitzvah of challah, liturgy from the high holiday services, and it goes on. So much wisdom, so much to choose from. But, as I write this D’var Torah from Israel, eretz zavat halav u’dvash (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), that the Israelites are almost ready to enter, I chose to touch on the commandment of tzitzit, a commandment to wear and remember.

Chapter 15, Verses 38-39

38. Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue (wool) on the fringe of each corner. 39. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them…

Perhaps the phrase, “an elephant never forgets”, bringing up the image of an elephant with a string tied around its (non-existent) finger, comes from the far reaches of Bamidbar and the concept of tying fringes on your garment to remember the commandments of HaShem. Surely an iconic symbol in Judaism, the fringes on the corners of “your” garment represent far more many things to people than only the commandments. For me, the most prominent image this symbol brings up is huddling under my father’s talit during services because the synagogue was so cold and he would hold me and we would sing the prayers together. What does this image, the image of tzitzit, make you think of? I would venture to say not just, if at all, the concept of remembering the commandments.

When I describe a thin, red string tied around someone’s wrist, what do you think of? Kabbalah, Madonna, women begging at the Western Wall? Or when I mention two golden-colored arches? Fries, the Hamburglar, child obesity, McDonald’s? No matter what you associated these two items with, you would likely be both right and not thinking of what the original creator intended for you to think.

The common thread between tzitzit, the red string and the golden-colored arches are that all of these symbols have come to mean more than their original intentions. The symbol of tzitzit is more rich and expansive for us today than HaShem envisioned during Bamidbar, reminding us not only of the commandments, but of our families, our heritage, the Jewish people around us today and what we can give to the Jewish future. Perhaps the next time you put on a garment with tzitzit, or see them on someone else, you will even think of this D’var Torah and remember all of the great work we’re doing (and fun we’re having) in Moishe House! L’hitraot from Jerusalem!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Presenting … ME!

Parshat Beha’alotcha
Bamidbar 8:1 – 12:16
9 Sivan 5771/ June 10 – 11, 2011

Presenting … ME!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Early in the portion, we learn about the purification and dedication of the Levites for their life of service for the work of the Mishkan (in the desert) and the Temple (in Israel). If you recall from Vayikra, the previous book of the Torah, the Levites have some heavy responsibility, literally. It is their job to lug the pieces of the Mishkan through the desert from site to site. They maintained the order and cleanliness of all ritual items and served a supporting role to the Priests.

As G-d is instructing Moshe about this ritual, G-d states (8:16):

" כי נתונים נתונים לי המה מתוך בני ישראל."

“For presented, presented are they to Me from among the Children of Israel.”

Now the Torah is not a text that is generous with words, and if something is repeated twice, there is probably something to learn. Rashi comments on the double use of the word presented. He says that the Levites were presented for two main jobs – the first is to carry the mishkan and take care of the ritual vessels, the second is to sing. During the Temple times the Levites would take shifts throughout the entire day singing psalms and praises to G-d.

The Parsha goes on to teach that a Levite would work between the ages of 25 – 50. When a Levite would turn 50 years old it was time for retirement. Rashi comments that they would retire from carrying physical loads, but that they would continue to sing praises in shifts.

When I think about myself and how I define myself, how I present myself to the world, there are some labels that are fleeting – like Camp Counselor, or even, Jewish Educator. And there are other identities that seem to stick with me – like Son or Helper. Throughout life we are called to fill certain roles in our communities, and these titles and tasks help us to live with a stable and sustainable sense of meaning.

I find a lesson in the Torah’s words by double-tasking the Levites with something that fades (carrying) and something that persists (singing). In our life we are going to lose and let go of jobs, people, and responsibilities that seem to capture who we are. There is a danger if we completely identify with these things, and think that without them our personal meaning is lost too. This is not so. Our identities are multi-leveled and dynamic. And as our roles shift, our personal meaning is extended and enhanced.

When we experience times when we lose something we thought was essential to our identity (a job or a relationship, for example), we might feel that we have lost every connection to meaning. In these moments, allow the Levites to remind you, that you still have a voice, a persistent form of expression that is lasting, and ultimately a way to connect back with your sense of purpose.