Monday, June 25, 2012

Parshat Chukat
Bamidbar 19:1 – 22:1
10 Tammuz 5772 / June 29 – 30, 2012

Moishniks Making Meaning…Mmmm good!
by Jordan Fruchtman, MH CPO, MHHQ

Parshah Chukkat contains a few short yet powerful stories. In this week’s portion we read of yet another instance of kvetching through the desert; the Israelites are thirsty and there is no water, so they complain. Moses is commanded to ask a rock for water, instead he strikes it, and though water begins to flow, Moses now will not be allowed into the promise land. Later we also learn of the death of Aaron, the erection of a giant serpent statue, and the lyrics to an ode to water wells. But there is one more story contained within this portion about the “red heifer” that I found to particularly interesting.

The portion goes into the details on the purification rituals one must practice after touching a dead body. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that it involves some very particular ways to spread a cow’s ashes on someone who is deemed “ritually impure.” I am less interested in the details of the ritual, and much more fascinated on how little sense the law actually makes.

This parsha gets it’s name, Chukkat, from the term chukkim, or decrees, which actually refer to an entire series of mitzvoth that have little rhyme or reason. One interpretation suggests that the chukkim are beyond our understanding and highlight the importance of faith and trust in the divine. I don’t want to pick on the chukkim themselves, but rather the notion of having laws and traditions we just don’t understand.

I would argue that following traditions with no understanding, or that provide no meaning in our lives, could be worse than not following traditions at all. To phrase in the positive, I appreciate people who take the time and care to create their own thoughtful, and meaningful traditions. Working at Moishe House is a source of constant inspiration for me. On a daily basis I have the opportunity to witness and learn about young adults who are molding, reinventing, remixing, and morphing our ancient traditions to fit their passions and beliefs.

To me, our traditions and laws are valuable to the extent they can inform our lives in a positive way. Judaism has a unique appreciation for trying to understand ancient customs and texts in a modern context. While major Jewish institutions often struggle with making Judaism relevant to our generation, Moishe House residents are finding unique, powerful, and successful ways to do this every day.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Between Life and Death

Parshat KorachBamidbar 16:1 -18:32
3 Tammuz 5772 / June 22 – 23, 2012

Shalom Moishniks,

Welcome to the new and exciting week with Parshat Korach! This parsha is a doozy! G-d helps Moshe to defend his title and honor against a rowdy bunch of Levites who seek to usurp his and Aaron’s power. There are a lot of social justice themes in this week’s portion related to the role and responsibility of leadership. Please read below for my thoughts on the Parasha.

Many blessings!

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 it 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.

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. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Mistake of the Spies

Parshat Shelach
Bamidbar 13:1 – 15:41
16 Sivan 5772 / June 15 – 16, 2012

The Mistake of the Spies
by Joshua Avraham Einstein, MH (Greater) Hoboken (Area)
Parshat Shelach is the story of how our people’s pro-longed sojourn in the desert came to be. Moses is told by god to send spies from all the tribes to Canaan to find out the strength and numbers of the peoples, the size and fortifications of their cities, and the types of crops grown there. Though the spies are sent to scout the land, it is tactical information they are after - where and how to conquer not whether they can, for God has guaranteed them victory. Yet, despite God’s statement that “I got this”, when the spies returned, all but two (Joshua and Caleb), convince the Israelites that Canaan is too strong to conquer. God is convinced by Mosses not to kill the Israelites but does kill the spies (save for Joshua and Caleb) and makes the Israelites wander in the desert until that generation dies off (again except for Josh and Cal).

The lesson of the parsha seems to be one of blind faith. Believe that god will give you the land - have faith - or else. Whether in the professional world or our social circles we’ve all been in situations where we have been asked to “tow the party line” or been asked to say something we didn’t really agree with “for the team”. Sometimes we put our moral reservations aside, chalking them up to over cautiousness and other times our conscience prevents us. The spies paid with their lives but even if the stakes are lower we know that in every case actions have consequences. Considering the spies went through the Ten Plagues, splitting of the sea, and through the infamous golden calf incident/receiving of the Torah, they were well aware that their god was sometimes a vengeful one. While there is no doubt they died with the courage of their convictions the question remains over whether they were right in their actions.

The parsha says in two places that the spies gave a report. The first report was given to Moses and the entire people, it included their positive evaluation of the crops and the negative evaluation they had being able to conquer the land. The second report wasn’t given as much as it was “spread”. Moreover the report was more of an attempt to convince the people that they should not go into Canaan:

"The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature.”

Clearly the spies, after fulfilling their duties of reporting back to the people were trying to influence their decision. God, understandably annoyed, tells Moses he is thinking of killing all of the Israelites because they do not trust him. But putting aside the fact that the spies should have known God had no problems killing people (as he would do to them), were the spies right to do try to persuade the people not to invade the land of Canaan?

The answer is a resounding no. The spies were commissioned as an agent of the government, God and Moses, to ferret out and gather information. They did that job and did so well, but by attempting to influence the people they were trying to change government policy. This is analogous to the civilian military relationship in our country. The military higher ups exist to give advice to and follow the orders of the President, not to attempt to influence political decisions. When they do so, we get rid of them so did God with the spies. Shabbat Shalom! 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Presenting … ME!

Parshat Beha’alotcha
Bamidbar 8:1 – 12:16
19 Sivan 5772/ June 8 – 9, 2012
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.