Sunday, September 25, 2011

Where’s your Source

Parshat Ha’azinu
D’varim 32:1 – 52
3 Tishrei 5772 / Sept. 1, 2011

Where’s your Source
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s parsha Moshe tells a story about a nation that reaches a state of such high prosperity that they ultimately become corrupt and turn away from the source of their blessing. Enough said for a powerful teaching from the Torah. Don’t you think?

This story can be seen in many different areas of bounty. The immensity of resources that the Earth has provided have been reaped to the point of depletion. Our advanced intellectual concepts of rules and regulations have been used to control and oppress. A rich global market has come to support child and abusive labor practices. Moshe definitely knew what he was talking about. And such disconnection and injustice, according to Moshe, can only breed further dis-integration.

The nation that Moshe is talking about is named Yeshurun. And it is a lesser known nickname for Israel. They both start with the same three letters – Yud (י), Shin/Sin (ש), and Reish (ר). These are the route letters for the word forward or straight. Also upright, as in upright action, meaning moral or righteous – in line with certain values. Here is my take on the name difference. In Yisrael we are Yashar with El – Straight with G-d, or maybe the Upright of G-d. In Yeshurun we are Yashar with ?? – We have lost connection with the source of our blessing. We hold our heads up high with pride with nothing to counterbalance us towards humbleness.

One of the main themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is remembering that G-d is king over the universe. I do not really connect with this image. To me G-d as an external ruler simply does not compute. What does speak to me though is a reminder that there is something greater than my personal limited self. This holiday season we can coronate social, global, and spiritual responsibility.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Choose Life

Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelech
D’varim  29:9 – 31:30
25 Elul 5771 / September 23-24

Choose Life
by Laura W, MH London Alumni

'Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family....But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin? (Film: 'Trainspotting' Danny Boyle1996)

In this week’s parshah, Moses told the Israelites "I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil; in that I command you this day to love G-d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments... Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life."

But how do we choose life? How do we let go of unhealthy addictions which distract us and take us further away from G-d. What is our personal 'Heroin' which is holding us back? 

According to the Talmud the first human was created on Rosh Hashana and it is here that we find a hint to the answer in the name Adam. The word Adam is made up of Aleph (א) the value of one, and Dam (דם) which means blood. G-d is One but our challenge as humans is that we are constantly being pulled in two directions upwards by the Aleph towards the infinite/ spiritual (Life) and downwards by the physical/ limited (Death).

Addiction can be described as 'continued involvement with a substance or activity despite the negative consequences associated with it' (Wikipedia). There are many things that start out easy but can trap us when we reach a point where it is no longer a choice. This can range from something that is seemingly trivial and subtle as not recycling efficiently to an extreme, as in Renton's case from Trainspotting, a potentially fatal drug habit.

Elul is the time to let go of our addictions. My blessing to everyone is to be able to take the opportunity of Rosh Hashana to develop healthier habits as individuals and as communities. I hope that this year we can take a big global humanitarian step towards G-d and bless ourselves with the choice of life.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Protecting the Blind

Parshat Ki Tavo
D’varim 26:1 – 29:8
18 Elul 5771 / September 16-17

Protecting the Blind
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Regional Director and Chaplain

“Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on his way.” 
Devarim 27:18

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Children of Israel learn of the various blessings and curses that await them (depending on their commitment to God) as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  One of these curses, shared above, involves taking advantage of the blind.  The Torah often goes out of its way to mention the blind when listing those peoples potentially oppressed by the greater community.  For example, in Leviticus 19:14, in the portion of Kedoshim, we learn that one shall not “place a stumbling block before the blind.”

How do we treat those in our society who are blind? Are we taking adequate steps to ensure that those who are unable to see are capable of functioning as fully autonomous individuals?  My travels to Australia made me question some of the institutional stumbling blocks we take for granted.  In America, all of our bills are the same size – whether they are worth $1 or $100.  There is no way for those who happen to be blind to distinguish between the bills they are carrying.  In Australia, the bills are sized differently based on their value, allowing those who are blind to more comfortably navigate financial transactions, without fear of being taken advantage of.  This is but one example of a small change that would make a world of difference for our blind brethren.  Can you think of others?  Can you spare a few minutes and share them with your friends, family, Congressperson?

Given the Torah’s demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), such commandments to not misdirect or place a stumbling block in front of the blind might at first glance seem a bit superfluous.  However, the ancient rabbis interpreted blindness as not only literal blindness, but figurative blindness as well.  For example, for the ancient rabbis, knowingly giving someone who has asked you for directions a wrong answer would be an example of the “misdirecting” the Torah warns about.  So too would knowingly offering a beer to an alcoholic, or smoking a cigarette in front of someone trying to quit.  As we approach the High Holidays, take a moment and reflect on those in your life you might have led astray by virtue of their figurative blindness, how you can best go about apologizing to them, and how you can resolve to be more conscious of such actions in the future and seek to avoid them (because believe me, we have all slipped up in this way).

Our tradition teaches us that as human beings, we all possess a divine spark, regardless of any disabilities we may face.  We have the power to create a community, country and world in which the dignity of all human beings is respected, and we must strive to do so.  Small changes in the way we approach those who are literally and/or figuratively blind are an essential first step.

Shabbat shalom

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cross Dressings and Momma Birds?!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s parsha I would like to consider why two scenarios are presented next to each other. The verses from Parshat Ki Teitzei are pasted below from Chapter 22. The first case is a prohibition about cross dressing and the second is an obscure law about sending a mother bird away before taking the young birds or eggs. The later mitzvah is known as Shiluach HaKen (שלוח הקן) Sending from the Nest.

5 A woman shall not wear that which pertains unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whosoever does these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}
ה  לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.  {פ}
6 If you happen upon a bird's nest on the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the mother with the young;
ו  כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן-צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל-עֵץ אוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים, וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל-הָאֶפְרֹחִים, אוֹ עַל-הַבֵּיצִים--לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים.
7 thou shalt let the mother go, but the young thou may take unto thyself; that it may be well with you, and that thou may prolong your days. {S}
ז  שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים. 

What might the Torah possibly be teaching us by juxtaposing these two commandments together? I would like to suggest that these two cases can provoke a discussion about the qualities of human empathy and compassion. In the first verse we are prohibited from dressing up like the other gender. Rashi commented that this is purely in the case where dressing up like the other gender is for the purpose of sexual deviance. For example, dressing up like a woman to sneak into the Women’s locker room for “voyeuristic sexcapades.” This is very different from a woman wearing pants or a transgender male to female wearing lipstick. The ability to assume another’s role or experience is rooted in the expression of empathy. While empathy is one key to human connectivity, complete enmeshment can be harmful. Thus, there are limitations to “walking in another shoes” that seems to be a good protective measure for a just society.  

Similarly, shooing away a mother bird and stealing her eggs is not an example of compassion at first glance. But when we consider what a fox might do who happens upon a bird’s nest – goodbye momma bird and so long chickies! Perhaps this commandment gives us pause to recognize our base-animal tendencies and also our ability to act against them. Thus, shooing away momma is perhaps not better then leaving the chicks alone, but it forces us to think about compassionate and respectful involvement in the chain of life. 

Many Blessings!