Sunday, October 30, 2011

Becoming a Blessings

Parshat Lech Lecha

Bereshit 12:1 – 17:20
8 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 4-5, 2011


Becoming a Blessing

By Sarah Curtin, MHSF

This week’s parsha is when Abram (not yet Abraham) is told by G-d to venture from his father’s country and into a new place that G-d will show him. G-d sends him on this journey before making Abram the father of the Jewish nation. Much has been written about this journey, and the specific command from G-d “Lech Lecha” – go yourself, go into yourself, go with yourself… and how this may mean: become yourself; be true to yourself; get to know yourself; journey into your soul; etc.

I think this is an important piece of the story here because at the start of Lech Lecha, Abram really doesn’t seem like someone worthy of being a blessing and a great father of nations. As you shall see, he comes across as quite selfish, and insensitive, even towards the wellbeing of his wife. It takes him years of suffering, and a lot of soul-searching and growth to be ready for a covenant with G-d. This torah portion comes only weeks after Yom Kippur, and I see a connection between our annual rituals absolving our communities of sin, and Abram’s journey in this week’s parsha.

So, back to the story. Abram hears G-d’s voice, and leaves his homeland as directed. During his subsequent journey, there is a famine in Canaan. As Abram heads towards Egypt for food he stops and asks a favor of his wife. Abram knows that his wife is fair and beautiful, and is worried that out of jealousy or lust the Egyptians may kill him to gain access to Sarai (not yet Sarah). So, Abram asks Sarai to lie and say that she is his sister:

“And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you that they will say: This is his wife… and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive.” “Say, I pray you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me, and that my soul may live because of thee.” (Genesis Chapter 12, verses 12, 13).

Abram is thinking very selfishly at this point, looking out for his own safety and security, and not his wife’s. Although he thinks there is no chance Sarai will be killed by the Egyptians, he must know that because of her great beauty she might be ‘taken’ and married off to another man if she is falsely presented as single. Which, in fact is precisely what happens:

“And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verse 15)

Not only is Sarai taken, but Abram accepts payment in exchange for his wife! Abram is given cattle, camels, and servants, and becomes a rich man. How can a man who will become a blessing to the world, who will make the covenant with G-d, and who is the forefather of the Jewish people, be effectively pimping out his wife? I’m not even a very ardent feminist, but reading this gives me the chills. I’m named after this great Matriarch who became pregnant in her 90s with Isaac, the next man in our people’s shared family tree… and I don’t like thinking that she was traded for goods. Why would Abram do this? And the even bigger questions are why does G-d punish Pharaoh for this and not Abram, and how does this man then change and become his true self?

“And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s Wife.” “And Pharaoh called Abram, and said: ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” “Why did you say: ‘She is my sister?’ Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verses 17, 18).

What is the message here? Why is Abram portrayed in such a negative light?

At this point, Abram isn’t acting with the depth of humility and loving-kindness for all that I’d like to expect of my forefathers or any religious, righteous, Jewish person. In truth, it takes him years, and a lot of suffering, to be ready for a covenant with G-d. Abram lives through the fighting between kingdoms and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, lives through the kidnapping of his brethren, and lives with the sadness of an infertile wife. He doesn’t know if he can believe G-d’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation, because he doesn’t have an heir to inherit even his own accumulated wealth. He fathers Ishmael, but has to suffer the tension between his wife Sarai and her maidservant Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son. What is the message here?

After struggling with this piece of Abram’s history, I’ve come to realize that the Torah shows us that we have a forgiving G-d, we have a G-d that doesn’t expect us to always act as holy, perfect beings. I don’t think that the Torah is condoning the selling of women, or that any crime can be excused, but it does show that even the heroes of great stories are fallible. We need to strive to be the best that we can be, but if and when we fail, and if and when we don’t think about the consequences of what we are doing, we can still get back up and try again. We can go into ourselves (Lech Lecha), and become our better selves. We are not forever ‘evil.’ In G-d’s eyes we can still be a blessing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Let it Rain (Just not too much)!

Parshat Noach
1 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 8-9,2010
Bereshit 6:9 - 11:32

Let it Rain (Just not too much)!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Sukkot is the holiday when we turn our focus to our fields and pray for rain. This is both actual – as we need rain for our food to grow – and symbolic. Water represents the flow of blessing into our lives. So whether you are in need of healing, money, or love, Sukkot is the holiday where we ask for the flood gates of mercy to burst forth. We ask that good fortune will rain down from the heavens and burst forth from the deep wellsprings of the Earth. A week after we pack up our Sukkahs and store them away for next year, we encounter Parshat Noah.

In Parshat Noah, as we are well aware, G-d gets angry with humanity and lets loose all the waters of the sky and ground to destroy every creature that has the breath of life in it. (Except for Noah and his crew of course!) I find these contradictory themes of Sukkot and Noah perfectly Jewish. On Sukkot we pray for rain and blessing to rain on us. In Parshat Noah we are reminded that every blessing is only a blessing in moderation. Too much of a good thing just ain’t that grand!

When I think over the Torah portions from the past several weeks there is a rhythmic warning about the corruption that is inherent in having too much bounty. With the world’s economy hanging in the balance of transition, I feel particularly attuned to this message. It may very well be that the imperfect systems of Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism are being wiped out by the tidal wave force of the current international outcry for change. Maybe the tent villages sprouting around the globe are likened to Noah’s arks, carrying a light of hope that beyond the decay of society there exists a more sustainable alternative. Kein Yehi Ratzon! (May it be willed as such!)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Parshat Bereshit
24 Tishrei 5772 / Oct. 21 – 22, 2011
Bereshit 1:1 – 6:8

Living with Intention
by Aviva Tabachnik, MH West-Coast Regional Director

In the first book of the Torah, Bereshit, G-d created the world and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, were given the gift of life and the gifts of the garden. But perhaps, the ultimate gift was of intelligence, curiosity and free will as well.

Eve disobeyed G-d and ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Often the disobedience of Adam and Eve is seen as an act worthy of punishment. It is used as an explanation for the difficulty women have had in childbirth and it is said that humankind's struggles in life could have been averted if only Adam and Eve had not disobeyed G-d.

And yet, curiosity is a major component of intelligence and demonstrates that truly the human animal created by G-D is unique among the other inhabitants of the garden. Maybe this is meant to be seen as the first lesson for future generations to learn from. G-d said, "Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad…”.

Personally I view this as a gift of consciousness rather than as punishment. In exercising their free will, Adam and Eve have given us the gift by example of taking each step in our lives with intention.
As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we reflect our actions over the past year and wait to see if our fate is sealed in the Book of Life. We examine our lives and take responsibility for those actions not in keeping with our best intentions. We acknowledge our free will and meditate on our behavior and actions.

A long time ago the Tree of Knowledge provided us with abstract reasoning and emotion, and now it is our time to reflect and evaluate whether we have stepped with our best foot forward or have given into our anger, fears or greed. Have you been living like Adam and Eve, before they ate from the tree, naive about your surroundings? Or have you been living an intentional life?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sukkot 2011

Dvar Torah
Sukkot 2011
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, Mid-West Regional Director

“Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt." -- Leviticus 23:42-43

The Torah tells us that after leaving Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before finally being granted access to the Promised Land. Aside from Moses likely not asking for directions due to being a man, we’re taught that God wanted the generation of slaves to pass away, and to have their children, who had been born free, be the ones to conquer and possess the land. During their years of wandering, the Israelites constructed temporary dwelling booths, known as “sukkot” (“sukkah” in the singular). Food and drink were provided in the form of manna (and eventually quail) and streams of water. Thus, despite living in temporary structures, the Israelites were well taken care of during their time in the desert, with their basic food, clothing and shelter needs met.

There are many Americans who do not have the ability to sleep under the same roof each night, and many who do not know where their shelter will come from on any given night. There are many more at risk: according to a recent DSNews.com article, in addition to those already making up the homeless population in this country, one in three Americans would be unable to make their rent or mortgage payment for more than one month if they lost their jobs. (http://www.dsnews.com/articles/job-loss-could-put-one-in-three-homeowners-out-of-their-home-2011-09-30) While there is no question that a number of those who are homeless suffer from mental illness, resulting in more complicated situations, many of those who are homeless have been knocked down, and are fighting to get back up.

These struggles are not limited to Americans. Over 250,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv in August to protest the lack of affordable housing options in the country – a precursor to homelessness.

Are we grateful enough for the shelter we’re blessed to have?

Are there ways we can work towards helping others who are shelter-insecure?

There are organizations out there working with faith-based groups to help shelter the homeless, as well as provide career training and self-care resources, that crave volunteers and community organizers. For example, check out http://www.southoaklandshelter.org/.

One of the greatest challenges facing those who happen to be homeless is securing gainful employment. One reason for the challenge is the lack of appropriate wardrobe. Check out the National Suit Drive put on by Men’s Warehouse as a way to help those who don’t have interview-appropriate clothing: http://www.menswearhouse.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ContentAttachmentView_-1_10601_10051__10709_10684_AbtNationalSuitDriveMain.html

The homeless are also more likely to be malnourished than the general population. Ensuring that no one goes hungry is our obligation as Jews, and as human beings. Consider initiating a canned food drive, and donate the items received to your local kosher food bank. For a large-scale endeavor, consider getting involved with MAZON -- http://mazon.org/.

As we enter the Sukkot holiday, the Festival of Booths, let us remember that while we are asked to dwell in these temporary structures for only one week, there are many people out there who have no permanent home to speak of, much like our ancestors wandering in the desert. Make it a priority to play a part in helping those who happen to be homeless: volunteer your time, donate clothing, allow none to go hungry, and do whatever you can to ensure that those in our community will always have a place to safely rest their heads.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Granting Permission

Shabbat Yom Kippur
10 Tishrei 5772 / October 7 - 8, 2011

Granting Permission
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

As I walked the streets of Mexico City, I noticed something quite amazing. On countless occasions, as I caught the passing eyes of restaurant waiters of street caf├ęs, taxi drivers waiting for their next fare, or security guards casing the crowded streets, I was offered an enthusiastic, “Buenos Dias!” (or Tardes, or Noches – depending on the time of day). The people of Mexico City seemed primed to offer a blessing to any passerby. It gave me a feeling that no matter what political and/or economic turmoil is at play (and in Mexico there is plenty) the fact remains that each person has the power to uplift and support another. I tested this phenomenon out multiple times. Passing someone from behind, or as they were looking down, I would say, “Buenos dias!” And without fail, like a spring release catapult, a gregarious reply of “Buenos!” came flying back at me. I think it is a challenge to always be primed to offer goodness to another, especially when we are feeling lonely or disconnected. Mexican people have tons of problems, yet they are able to snap out of their own limited stories to create an uplifting connection with another soul. I felt that there was a sense of family pulsing through the city like I have never experienced.

On Yom Kippur we are called together to spend a day in prayer and introspection. We take a break from eating, wear white, and wear similar footwear. Even between different Jewish groups (Sefardi and Ashkenazi, for example) where specific liturgy might vary, we commit to the same flow of prayer service. It is our sacred duty on Yom Kippur to help each other remember how connected the human community is to each other and with the world around us. On Rosh Hashana we crown G-d as king, and on Yom Kippur we crown each other as agents of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world #Sarah Lesser).

We are taught that we take on excessive devotional practices so we might resemble angles and be closer to G-d. So what is an angel? One perspective is that angels are messengers that pass energy from the Source of Life to all manifestations of life. This is like the bio-electric charge that bounds neurons to activate our physical body. On Yom Kippur, when we take time to intend towards a more perfect world and inspire each other to do so, we are elevated to the status of angels. It is said that an angel has only one task to accomplish. Is it not true that no matter what dress our life story wears, underneath we are always tasked with the service of making the world around us better in some way?

During our daily Morning Prayer services (Shabbat and Holiday included), right before the Sh’ma we proclaim that the angels “give permission, one to the other to sanctify their Creator.” How perfect a metaphor for us this Yom Kippur to show up to synagogue, not only to pray for a good and successful year, but to give permission to each other to engage in our life purpose for the next year that has just begun!

Every Moishe House, no matter what flavor of Jew you are or language you speak, is creating an environment for people to be Jewish in a way that feels meaningful and important to them. Our participants use the access we offer to this piece of their identity to feel more connected and empowered in their lives. I learned this past week in Mexico City that there are many young Jews that are invisible to the organized Jewish community. They do not connect to the Judaism of their families and are in a way like religious orphans. This phenomenon is for the most part not acknowledged by the mainstream Jewish community. Paul, David, Rene, and Nadia are serving those that have no Jewish home to belong to.

Like the angels do, I want to personally give all of us permission to be inspired by each other to continue to do this important work of service to the Jewish community – and by extension to serve all people and the world.

Shana Tova U’Metuka and G’mar Chatimah Tova!