Monday, July 25, 2011

Do We Need Destruction?

Shabbat Masei
Bamidbar 33:1-36:13
28 Tamuz 5771 / July 29 – 30, 2011

Do We Need Destruction?
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s portion, Parshat Masei (Journeys) we are given a recap of a variety of stops made on the way from Egypt to Palestine. Finally, the time has arrived for the Jewish people to end their lives as nomads and become land owners. One problem: Palestine is not an empty land. It is inhabited by people from a variety of nations and in Chapter 33, verses 50-53, the Israelites are instructed to not only take the land of the people dwelling there but to “drive them out,” and “destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; all their high places you shall demolish.”

Reading these verses reminds me of something I have been pondering lately. We are now in a time period in the Jewish calendar called the Three Weeks. It is the time between two fast days that mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The first day is the 17th of Tamuz when the walls of the Temple were breached and the second day is the 9th of Ave, the actual day the Temples were destroyed.

The destruction of the Temples brought a lot of change to the Jewish people and not all of it was bad. We have stopped killing animals for our worship and have become a book-based faith, able to survive anywhere. I wonder about how destruction is sometimes necessary in order for new ideas and understandings to bloom.

In my community I hear a lot about taking the “Buddhist approach” to a situation. Accept change and give up the pain of holding on to something that you will eventually lose anyway. I definitely see the value in this philosophy and with many things try to practice it. The problem though is when we try to judge others through that lens. It is easy to say that the Jews living in the Old City of Jerusalem should have just accepted that life as they knew it was over and a new model was needed. They could have opened the city gates and surrendered – perhaps saving many lives and the Temple itself. Obviously, this is a very difficult statement to make. How can we point back at the past and purport to know what should have been done? How do we really know if things would have turned out better?

The nation of Israel is charged with a responsibility to Wrestle with G-d (the literal translation of Yisra-El). During these Three Weeks I think it is important to wrestle with the following question: What convictions do we want to hold on to, even in the face of destruction? Let’s take this contemplative period of our calendar to consider what are the beliefs about our selves, our community, and G-d that are really worth risking it all for. And similarly what convictions might we be fighting for that are no longer relevant or helpful.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Watching Our Words

Parshat Mattot
Bamidbar 30:2 – 32:42
21 Tamuz 5771 / July 22 – 23, 2011

Watching Our Words
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

The opening of Parshat Mattot hits us with a strong reminder: Words have power!

Verse 30:3 states,

“A person that makes a vow to dedicate something to the Divine, or swears him or herself to a prohibition, must not make her or her words hollow. Everything that comes out of his or her mouth, he or she will do.”

We all know how important words are. Not only do we have to be careful about what we say, but also how we say anything and who we say it to. Things can get even trickier when we move into the world of e-mailing. When we lose visual and auditory cues, it can be impossible to know if our message has reached the perceiver with our original intention.

I recently received a message about a tragic episode that happened in Brooklyn, when the body of a 9-year old religious Jewish boy was found disposed of in a dumpster. I read on and learned that a suspect was identified and that this person pretty much admitted to committing this crime. I began to read some of the comments left by fellow readers and my heart sank even deeper.

A few of the comments used language that I have a lot of trouble with – “Yenakem at Damo” (Avenge his blood.)If we are to take our words and intentions seriously, I think a cry for vengeance is the most dangerous prayer. When a situation calls for nurturing and healing, further destruction seems pretty pointless. Repaying with impulsive punishment does nothing more than provide temporary relief and more likely increases the cycle of guilt and anger.

We are warned in this week’s portion not to make our words hollow. In Hebrew, the verse reads, Lo Yachel Devaro. This can also be translated as: “A person shall not make his or her thing-ness empty.” I would like to suggest the following interpretation: You should protect your internal being (your thing-ness) from becoming jaded, void, and cynical.

The world can hammer upon us with difficult experiences that are scary and harsh. It takes a lot of conscious effort and practice to stay optimistic and connected to joy. A good litmus test to see how you are coping is to pay attention to the words that you use and hear about the things going on around you. If you are quick to make a joke about something, it might mean that you are experiencing discomfort. If you are being aloof, you might be disconnected or confused about a situation. If there is a lot of negative language coming at you, it might be time to close your web browser and take a walk.

If you are simply flinging words out into your environment (virtual or real) without thinking about their impact it might mean that you have lost your attunement to your internal state. Acting as a hollow shell instead of a complex unique and conscious being. This week let’s remember that our words have immense power to transform our world for the worse or, hopefully, for the better.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pinchas: Riots and Resolutions

Parshat Pichas
Bamidbar 25:10 - 30:1
14 Tammuz 5771 / July 15 – 16, 2011

Pinchas: Riots and Resolutions
by Boruch Huberman, MH Vancouver

When chaos threatens to burst the seams of an orderly society, peace between the warring factions can be understood in one of three ways. In the first way, the parties can agree to disagree and live in peaceful compromise. The second notion is one of surrender, where one of the factions, often the losing side, forgoes their battle cry, but does so without accepting the principals of the victorious party. The third and ultimate construct of peace is one where both sides accept a new outlook from which disagreement completely disappears. It is overarching and enlightens both parties.

The recent riot in Vancouver following their game 7 Stanley cup loss to the Boston Bruins resonates with the story recounted at the end of Parshat Balak and beginning of Parshat Pinchas.

Chaos ensues when the Jews, on the verge of entering Israel, engage in illicit sexual relationships with the daughters of Moab and worship the Moabite idols. Their behavior angers G-d, who kills 24,000 of the participants. The story culminates in Pinchas’s vengeful slaying of the Jewish leader Zimri, and the Moabite princess, Cosby, who were engaged in sexual conduct.  Pinchas’s unsanctioned decision to murder Zimri and Cosby had the effect of reverting society back to normalcy. As such, the act was considered supra-legal not illegal.  For demonstrating nerve in carrying out G-d’s wish for a moral society, Pinchas was rewarded with a “Brit Shalom”, an agreement for Peace with G-d, and the honor of having the Cohenic lineage descend from him.

The death of 24,000 and the arrest of hundreds at the end of the riots of ancient Israel and modern Vancouver respectively, were not optimal resolutions. Therefore, Pinchas is rewarded with a Brit Shalom, the ability to resolve conflict, not with murder or arrests, but with education and enlightenment. On the sobering morning following the riots, citizens had gathered to write notes of love on the remnants of destroyed storefronts. If only these notes had been written before hand, perhaps the riots would never have happened in the first place.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Own your Jewish Karma

Parshat Balak
Bamidbar 22:2 – 25:9
7 Tammuz 5771 / July 1-2, 2011

Own your Jewish Karma  
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Holy Blessings Batman!

When Balak, the King of Moav, enlists the desert dwelling prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelite nation, words of  blessing emerge that become timeless as part of our daily prayer. Balaam is brought to an overlook where he can see the entire Israelite encampment. He intends to curse the people, but has promised that he will only speak the words that G-d puts into his mouth. Balaam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and chants these famous words that have found their way into scripture:

  מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
ו  כִּנְחָלִים נִטָּיוּ, כְּגַנֹּת עֲלֵי נָהָר; כַּאֲהָלִים נָטַע יְהוָה, כַּאֲרָזִים עֲלֵי-מָיִם.
6 As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters;
ז  יִזַּל-מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו, וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים; וְיָרֹם מֵאֲגַג מַלְכּוֹ, וְתִנַּשֵּׂא מַלְכֻתוֹ.
7 Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
ח  אֵל מוֹצִיאוֹ מִמִּצְרַיִם, כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם לוֹ; יֹאכַל גּוֹיִם צָרָיו, וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶם יְגָרֵם--וְחִצָּיו יִמְחָץ.
8 God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.
ט  כָּרַע שָׁכַב כַּאֲרִי וּכְלָבִיא, מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ; מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ, וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר.
9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.

Balaam’s prophecy is a timeless blessing that includes us, the current generation of Jewish people. Our pluralistic and progressive homes are tents of Jacob and dwelling places of Israel. And so they are good. What is the goodness that this familiar line (verse 5) of prayer is talking about? Perhaps there are clues to be found in the lesser known continuing lines.

How exciting that verses 6 and 7 contain beautiful images from the natural world! “Gardens by the river side,” and “water shall flow from his branches.” Our generation is engaged in the process of exploring the deep bond between Jewish identity and caring for our planet. True to Balaam’s verses, we are discovering that our homes are good places because we do not see them as completely separate from the world outside of our windows. We know that we need to use natural resources responsibly in order for goodness to continue.  

Verses 8 and 9 are less politically correct and so perhaps, a bit harder to digest. The blessing connects our relationship to a G-d of war and power. Is that what we need G-d for? To eat up nations and crush their bones?

I want to suggest that we read the end of the blessing as a progression. We began with the need for a G-d that destroys our enemies (verse 8), but we head towards a relationship whereby we have the power to bestow blessings and curses because of a connection with G-d within (verse 9).

Stephanie Nash is an actress and meditation teacher that talks about the resonance between two pitchforks. If you strike one pitchfork at the end of a gymnasium, a second pitchfork at the other end of the room will begin to chime in tune. Human relationships are guided by this phenomenon too. When we watch a movie and witness strong and powerful emotions we begin to experience the same feelings. Might the same be true for the blessings and curses that we put out into the world.
Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.” If we choose to see truth in these words, then it is our responsibility to ensure that we act in ways that people will bless us, so we can all (Jews and non-Jews) benefit from increased blessing in the world