Monday, July 30, 2012

The Sacrifice of Moishe

Parshat Va’Etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu)
Dvarim 3:23 – 7:11
16 Av 5772 / August 3 – 4, 2012

The Sacrifice of Moishe
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s parsha Moshe orates on his inability to be the leader of the people in the land of Israel. He reviews the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Moshe blames the Israelites’ actions and attitudes at the time of getting the Torah for G-d’s decision to have Moshe die before he enters the land. What actions is he speaking about? And what is truly the source of Moshe’s flawed leadership skill?

I think the answers to these questions are hinted at in the following Rashi commentary on Chapter 5, verse 24. In the verse, Moshe recounts when, at the time of hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites pleaded with him to be an intermediary between G-d’s voice and their ears. They feared that hearing G-d’s voice would kill them. So they said to Moshe, “You speak to us!” And the word for YOU is written in the feminine language. Rashi ponders about this, why refer to Moshe in the feminine? He answers his own question:

“And YOU speak to us: Hebrew וְאַתּ, [the feminine form] - You weakened my strength as that of a female, for I was distressed regarding you, and you weakened me, since I saw that you were not anxious to approach God out of love. Would it not have been preferable for you to learn [directly] from the mouth of the Almighty God, rather than to learn from me?”

First, let’s bypass the blatant chauvinism of Rashi’s statement – (He lived from 1040 – 1105!) It is gross, but meaning-wise – it is explaining the source of Moshe’s ineptitude as the leader for the next generation. When the people asked Moshe to be their go-between he was left, almost as a sacrifice, to come in direct contact with G-d alone. Their fear was real; the close contact with the Divine was a death sentence for Moshe. He was unable to comprehend the world from a limited perspective now that he had glimpsed reality from the perspective of Eternal Oneness. It may have been that bearing the load of an entire nation was difficult, while acting as sole channel of G-d was detrimental. The Israelites’ action of asking for an intermediary was a sign that they could not yet share the Divine connection with Moshe. Therefore, Moshe, left to the task alone, was weakened in his ability to relate and could not carry on as leader.

Where does that leave us today? I believe that Jews as a people are continuously in a process of figuring out how to connect with the great mystery that is beyond what the eyes can see. The myriad laws and commandments which come out of Torah are teaspoons of taking G-d in, in small digestible and sustainable doses. We are all called to task, in our own way, to figure out the correct prescription, from moment-to-moment, to stay attuned to the Divine in our lives. When we are not sure, we might ask a Rabbi, parent, or friend. Ultimately though, we can grow to be our own teachers and leaders in our own unique way.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lookin’ Back

Shabbat Dvarim (Shabbat Chazon)
Dvarim 1:1 – 3:22
7 Av 5772 / July 27-28, 2012

Lookin’ Back
by Tslil Shtulsaft, Moishe House Boston 
Parashat Dvarim, the opening of the fifth and final book of the Torah, sets the stage for the Israelites final moments before entering the Promised Land. The parasha features Moses giving a seemingly long winded narrative to the Israelite nation about past battles, nations, people and moments from the past 40 years. His words are a farewell speech to the Jews before they are to enter the Promised Land under Joshua's leadership. As it turns out, the entire book of Dvarim is an opportunity for Moses to re-tell this story.

In reading the parasha, it struck me as odd that Moses, the epitome of leadership within the Jewish tradition, would be so self-indulgent as to ramble to his people about past events, many of which seem insignificant. Could it be as simple as an aging leader grasping for one final moment in the sun before being removed from power forever? What is the lesson behind his story?

In reflecting, I realized that Moses was doing just that. He was reflecting, and in this process, was teaching. Moses was intentionally passing down knowledge and lessons learned for the benefit of the Israelite nation. He was acutely aware of his audience, a new generation of Israelites who had not been present during the exodus from Egypt, who had never felt the pain of slavery. Moses's history lesson was a deliberate effort to remind, caution and inspire the future of the Israelite nation.

After reflecting upon my own experience at Moishe House, I began to draw parallels between my current situation and the one that Moses found himself in thousands of years ago. In September, I will no longer be living in the Boston Moishe Kavod House. During the next few weeks I will begin a transition period, one that begins to welcome new housemates, and with High Holidays approaching, an injection of new Moishe House participants. As Moishe House residents and leaders of our respective communities, it is up to us to pass along institutional knowledge and best practices to help prepare the next wave of the Moishe House community. Like Moses, we must be strategic in the story that we tell, and above all, trust that those leaders and community members who follow in our footsteps will help to further pave the path that we've created.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Do We Need Destruction?

Shabbat Matot - Masei
Bamidbar 33:1-36:13
2 Av 5772 / July 20 – 21, 201

Do We Need Destruction?by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In 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.”

This commandment to destroy 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 ourselves, 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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rewarded Punishment

Parshat Pichas
Bamidbar 25:10 - 30:1
24 Tammuz 5772 / July 13 – 14, 2012

Rewarded Punishment
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This is a D’var Torah about first impressions. Whenever I meet anyone tall, I immediately think that I cannot have any possible relationship with this person. It is like an automatic trigger in my head – tall person and little me = do not mix. Well, I have been proven wrong many times and have some amazing relationships with people who tower over me. Many of these people, I have actually met through Moishe House ;-) .

This week’s parsha is like a tall person for me. It begins with Pinchas (Aaron’s grandson) who, after killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman in the midst of coitus, is rewarded by God with the eternal gift of priesthood.  The background is that the Israelites meet the Midianites on the way to Israel and the Midianite women lure the Israelite men into a bit of a sex party. Pinchas’ bloody actions, as you might guess, breaks up the fun. The fact that violence is commended and rewarded so highly does not compute in my brain and my reaction is, NOPE – I don’t get it.

I would like to pause from my negative first impression of this story and see if I am missing something that I can relate to.

The text states, in last week’s portion, that as the couple was publically doing the nasty, there was a plague occurring where other Israelites were dropping like flies. This plague claimed 24,000 lives and after Pinchas’ act of zealotry, people stopped dying. This leads me to believe that there was more at stake here than inter-religious baby making. The Israelites were under a spiritual and/or cultural attack. This was no meeting of two peaceful cultures for the sake of expanding wisdom. The Israelites were vulnerable and ungrounded, and if the charge led by this Israelite fornicator would have succeeded, our history might have ended there. Pinchas killed two and saved thousands, and generations to come.

This ultimately does not satisfy me. I do not love Pinchas. Aaron’s lineage is about being a Rodef Shalom (a pursuer of peace) using peaceful means. His grandson seems to bring peace, though falls short in employing peaceful means – so there is a bit of a stain on his reward. The text suggests that God’s feelings towards what happened was not super positive either. First, in the parsha, when Pinchas is first mentioned, his name is spelled with a smaller-than-usual yud ( (י,this might denote a limiting of Divine favor, as yud is a letter in God’s holy name. 

In addition, in the word for Pinchas’ blessing, which the Torah says is a Brit Shalom - ברית שלום -   a covenant of peace – the letter vav (ו )in the word Shalom is broken in the middle. This letter is also a letter in God’s name. To me this says that this covenant of peace has something broken within it.

In the end, my first impression of this story has been somewhat complicated. Sometimes drastic actions are needed in order to save lives – needing to choose the death of a few to save many. Most of us will never make such a decision, but people in positions of national/global leadership do have to make such hard decisions daily. I do feel a little bit better knowing that God does not feel completely whole with the way things turned out. And perhaps – Pinchas is gifted the priesthood in order to tame his passions within the rigid system of priestly life.