Monday, December 30, 2013

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
3 Shevat 5774 / Jan. 3 - 4, 2014

Pharaoh's Flawed Philosophy of Forgiveness—A Story of Stubbornness
by Jack Cohen, Alumni Moishe House East Bay, CA

Who's younger brother is Pharaoh? Because only a younger brother gets slapped around 7 times and comes back for more, to a greater power, still refusing to admit he's wrong. In this epic story of stubbornness, Parshat Bo relates the 8th, 9th, and the grand finale, go-for-the-(g)oldest 10th plague, along with the first celebration of and instructions for Passover. The parsha begins curiously, with G?d taking responsibility for this stubbornness, for a very specific purpose: to make G?d's existence known and deplore an immoral way of relating to each other. I want to explore this through examining Pharaoh's dubious attempts at forgiveness along the way.

What's odd about Pharaoh's pattern, bearing uncanny resemblance to many a childhood fight between myself and my older or younger brother, is the quick admission each time, as soon as the punishments hail in, of wrong-doing and request for relief. The 8th plague, locusts, arrives, and the Torah tells us, “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened...[and they ate everything] so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt” (10:24). What happens next? Pharaoh rushes (“vaymaher”) to summon Moses and Aaron to plead guilty and beg forgiveness: “I stand guilty before the Lord your G?d and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your G?d that He but remove this death from me” (10:17). No sooner than is the plague gone, we discover, “But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (10:20). And the 9th plague, total darkness, quickly ensues.

A first lesson comes here—we cannot rush the process of real forgiveness. What does real forgiveness require? What is Pharaoh's plea missing, that he might break the cycle of plague-ry? Pharaoh seeks relief from what he is suffering, but never to recognize the immorality of his actions. Had Pharaoh read the brilliant editorial On Forgiveness in the New York Times (2011), perhaps he would have acted otherwise. Philosophy professor Charles Griswold argues therein for the bilateral nature of the ideal forgiveness process, emphasizing the necessity of at least four elements on the part of the perpetrator for real tshuvah (return, at-one-ment) to be possible. He identifies admission of responsibility, recognition of the victim's experience of the wrong-doing, feelings of remorse, and a resolve not to do it again. He has a thing for words that begin with “re”. Of these, Pharaoh might be said to have only the first, and even that is disputable. Professor Griswold argues that the purpose of “forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.”

Is it fair, however, to continue to accuse Pharaoh of immorality when after all, it is now G?d stiffening Pharaoh's heart, no longer happening of Pharaoh's own accord, as in the first five plagues? (See examples at 8:15, vayechezak, 8:29 vayachbed, 9:7 vayichbad.) I am still unsure. My only way of reconciling this is to appreciate how accurately G?d's actions here reflect our reality. Pharaoh is perpetually self-absorbed and in denial; as nice and true a claim as “it's never too late to change” may be, what is more common is that we cultivate habits of heart—virtuous or vile—and they gather momentum until they are driving on their own. It takes tshuvah and real forgiveness to really change this momentum, and G?d is unwilling to reward a feigned request for forgiveness.

This manifests from G?d's first encounter with Moses, when G?d has this all planned out, intent on Egypt's authentic and undeniable recognition of G?d's existence. Again in the first words of this week's parsha, G?d tells Moses explicitly why he's hardened Pharaoh's heart and the heart of his servants: “in order that I may display these My signs among order that you may know that I am the Lord” (10:1). Earlier takeaways help me begin to understand this. If we cannot rush real forgiveness, and in its ideal form it requires participation and understanding of both parties, then this is the role of the victim, G?d, ensuring that the Egyptians have enough time to become really aware of their wrong, and ultimately acknowledge “that I'm G?d” and you, or your idols, are not. While a more sudden awakening to this Fact might have been smoother, the story recognizes the gravity of the offense and presents an appropriately more gradual series of reminders that are unforgettable. This increases the chance of “a moral relation between self and other”; were one people to really recognize the G?dly nature of another, it would be impossible to subjugate them in the future, or treat each other in any less than the most virtuous of ways. Cultivating this happens as a course of habit—that is, of repeated actions—and so it makes sense that G?d's plan would unfold in like manner.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Parshat Va’Era
Sh’mot 6:2 – 9:35
25 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 27 - 28, 2014

Living Liberation from the Inside Out
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

As I read through this week’s Torah portion, I was reminded of a Harry Potter style wizards’ dual. Moshe and Aaron show up at Pharoah’s palace and throw down one magic trick after another – sticks to snakes, water to blood, and frogs from everywhere! After each of these signs Pharoah’s magicians counter by performing the same trick.  Until the lice and so on through the rest of the 10 plagues, where they see that this magic is beyond human ability.

Amazingly, this epic sorcerers’ battle was sparked by a power that not even God could overturn:
ט  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
9 And Moshe spoke so to the children of Israel; but they could not hear Moshe for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage.

This verse directly precedes Moshe and Aaron coming to Pharoah’s house.  Moshe is first told by God to go to the children of Israel and let them know that God is with them and will deliver them from slavery. As we see from the verse above, they are unable to take in this message. The children of Israel have been beat down so much by years of oppression that the seeds of liberation cannot be planted within them. They are like soil that is too tightly packed in, nothing can penetrate it! It seems that because of this God directs Moshe and Aaron to Pharoah’s palace to destroy the externally imposed bonds of slavery instead. If liberation cannot be actualized from within the people, it must be forced from the outside.

A few things stand out for me as potential learning points. True freedom cannot be imposed on someone else. Even though the Israelites were taken out of Egypt, it took them generations to embrace freedom on the inside. I think Jews are still in this process today (even without our collective Holocaust trauma), so many Jewish rituals remind us of being taken out of Egypt – begging us to contemplate our status as a free people.

Taking this message more internally, the Israelites could not hear Moshe because of impatience of spirit, or literally, shortness of breath.   How often do we refuse to fully accept reality because our anger or fear gets in our way? We can see this physically in our breath which is shortened when we are upset or afraid. Even when good news comes along, we can be so wrapped up in a past story of hurt that we fail to acknowledge the blessing that is coming our way. We cannot breathe in the change!

When Moshe approached the children of Israel, they were unable to breathe in their freedom. Their identity of oppression was too strong to allow any other possibility to seem viable. I want to believe that in some way the plagues on the Egyptians, and the plagues of our own lives, do not have to always happen if we can only see through the cruel bondage with a patient spirit to the tides of change in our lives.   Sometimes, reality is just too harsh and time is needed for our insides to catch up to an outside situation. But other times, and perhaps more often than we think, we can use the wisdom of the breath to teach us that we might be holding ourselves back from moving forward.

Monday, December 16, 2013

“Call me Freedom!”

Parshat Sh’mot
18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013
Sh’mot 1:1 – 6:1

“Call me Freedom!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I have a simple question this week. Why is the name of the second book of the Torah called Sh’mot in Hebrew and Exodus in English? Sh’mot means names and of course, Exodus refers to freedom. As we say in Hebrew, “Mah Hakesher?” What is the connection?
The simple answer is that there is not a real connection. The book begins with the verse, “And these are the NAMES of the Children of Israel…” Thus the first portion of the book is called NAMES, making the book itself titled NAMES. This is standard practice – in Hebrew, each book of the Torah is named after the first portion of that book. In English, we use more thematically oriented names. Thus, this book is about the nation of Israel leaving Egypt in an epic journey, an Exodus in fact! The second book of the Torah is therefore called Exodus. Simple enough.

And of course, there are always deeper levels and connection to look at.

The ancient storytellers of Torah (aka The Rabbis) shared that during the time of slavery, the Israelite nation was steeped in deep assimilation. They were hanging on to their identities by mere threads. These threads though were just enough to keep their faith and connection with God alive, meriting God’s intervention. One of these “threads” was that the nation of Israel kept their Hebrew names passed down generation to generation, reminding them that even though they lived in Egypt and were currently slaves, ultimately they were non-Egyptian free people.

When I was 14 or 15 I left Yeshivah to go to public school. When I was sitting with the guidance counselor at the Yeshivah before I left she said, “Well, with a name like Zvi, you will always remember you are Jewish.” Cheesy, but true. Years later, I am sitting writing a D’var Torah as the Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling of an international Jewish organization. My 15 year old self is completely baffled.

The NAMES of the Israelite people perhaps provided the cultural continuity to not get completely lost amongst the degrading identity imposed by the Egyptians.

This is a great week to think about your name and contemplate its roots. Does your name spark a memory of a beloved family member? An interesting story? Do you not feel very connected to the meaning of your name? Perhaps it’s time for a name adjustment or some deeper exploration.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Moving Past Family Drama

Parashat Vayechi11 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 13-14, 2013
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26

Moving Past Family Drama
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’yechi (And he Lived), we find a very beautiful blessing that Jacob gives to the two sons of Joseph, Efraim and Menasheh. This blessing is sung today in a soulful melody in many Jewish communities, so its power has a lot of vibration from Jacob’s lips to our very own. Here are the words from Chapter 48:

טז  הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.
16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.'

What I find so profound about this blessing is that it brings an end to a vicious cycle in the Torah where siblings are pitted against one another. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Generation upon generation of inherited conflict. Until we get to Efraim and Menashe. They were raised in a foreign land, in Egypt, beyond the cultural narrative of their heritage. Jacob blesses them together. There is room in this world for both of these boys to be great in their way. And even as Jacob blesses the younger son with his right hand (a sign of greater greatness), there is no complaint from the older. Perhaps Menashe, the older son, does not need to rely solely on this blessing to affirm his greatness. Perhaps he thought the his brother’s greatness will only serve to increase his own anyway. Some how, I imagine, that he was able to rise above a possible perceived discrepancy and remain aware of the truth of the situation - “My grandfather is dying, my father is aging, and I am living my own journey.”

It is so easy to get tangled up in family drama - to cut people out of our lives that have wronged us, or to run away when we feel we have hurt someone else. I want to invite us to take a note from Menashe this week - We do not have to be stuck in our inherited family roles.  We can have positive relationships with our families (which is not the same as perfect relationships). Most importantly, it only takes one person to act differently to create change in a relationship.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Who’s Your Daddy!

Parashat VaYigash
4 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 6 – 7, 2013
44:18 – 47:27

Who’s Your Daddy!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Parasha we have the meeting of two national super-giants. The great Emperor of Egypt, Paroah becomes acquainted with Jacob, the Patriarch of the Jewish people. I imagine some high drama at this gathering. Jacob, who has thought his son was dead, goes to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph who is #2 to the ruler of Egypt. The excitement, fear, joy, confusion, and disbelief could only have been overwhelming. Then the moment comes, for Jacob to stand face-to-face with the man that saved Joseph’s life. Paroah nurtured Joseph, clothed and fed him, and gave him a status level that Jacob could never have offered.

What might have Jacob felt looking into the eyes of the man who became the stand-in father for his most beloved son. This man, Paroah, was able to protect and elevate him. Under Jacob’s watch, Joseph was cast-off and sold into slavery.  

The Torah tells us that when Jacob and Paroah meet, Jacob blesses Paroah two times – once upon introduction and the second upon their parting. Rashi (1040 – 1105) comments that this was in the natural way of people who greet royalty. Though he goes on to quote a Midrash (interpretive story) that Jacob blessed Paroah that the Nile River will rise up to meet him whenever he approached it. And the blessings came true. When Paroah would approach the Nile the waters would rise, enabling their crops to be irrigated.

It seems that in offering this power blessing to Paroah, Jacob was reminding everyone (and perhaps himself too) that the source of Joseph’s success was not only the physical gifts and prestige bestowed on him from Paroah, but rather the spiritual gifts that suffuses Jacob’s blood line. One way of looking at Jacob’s blessings is a statement of power – “Hey Paroah! You think you’re such a hot potato! Take this.” In this instance (and with Paroah’s willingness) Jacob was able to re-establish his place as the head of his family, and the father of his beloved and praised son, Joseph.

What is the message in this for us today? I feel that in the U.S. we have to be very careful how we appreciate our Jewishness. “It is great to be Jewish, but not greater than any other religion.” (I wonder how it is for you outside of the U.S.) I think that keeping a level-headedness about our Jewish heritage is necessary. At the same time, I recommend taking some time to realize the gift of being Jewish. The rich history and blessing that is part of our story and our blood. Being Jewish engraves practices and ethics like Shabbat, charity giving, and community support into our daily lives. I believe that we should not shy away from honoring our beautiful traditions.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Lesson in Caring

Parshat Miketz
26 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 29 – 30, 2013
Bereshit 41:1 – 44:17

A Lesson in Caring
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all know the story. Pharoah has two dreams – fat things are eaten by famished things and they do not get any healthier. He calls together his magicians and dream casters for advice. No one can give Pharoah a satisfying interpretation. One of the king’s ministers recalls a prisoner that he once met who interpreted his dream quite accurately and Yosef is brought before Pharoah to interpret the royal dreams. Yosef listens to the dreams and promises an interpretation only as far as God will reveal to him. From the dreams Yosef understands that 7 years of plenty are on their way. The abundance will be followed by a treacherous famine, the likes of which have never been seen before. While this seems like a complete interpretation, he adds, (41:33-36)

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.'

Perhaps this was part of the Divine insight that Yosef had about the dream, or maybe he was just capitalizing on a chance to make a huge social status vault from prisoner to Second-in-Command. I am unsure. What I do notice though is that Yosef delivers terrible news to the King with a viable solution without skipping a beat. When I think about how news is delivered to me in the U.S., it is often just a dropped bomb with an attitude of, “Here you go. You are on your own.” The world of media charges itself with delivering some version of the truth, but seems unconcerned with the consequences of its message. Gay teens are bullied. Unemployment is on the rise. War and unrest in many parts of the world. Messages delivered, media retreats.

I do not expect the media to have all the answers (or any answers). The folks in front of and behind the camera are just as clueless as anyone else. I do think though that the fissure between delivery of news and caring about the consequences is a symptom of a society that does not act from a place of compassion. And our generation has the potential to learn to create a more caring society by taking this teaching into the personal sphere.

Think about some times in your life when you had to deliver news that was not the greatest. Did you adopt a just the facts attitude in your telling, or did you consider how you might nurture the person as they are impacted by your news? When I interned as a counselor in the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, I had to guide families through a process of identifying their loved ones who had died. I had to learn to pay attention to every word that was uttered, body language, and breathing patterns. My goal was to bring some sense of order to arguably the most chaotic time in someone’s life. This is not feasible for every conversation, though it provides some context for being a caring and compassionate informant.
When Pharoah hears Yosef’s words he elevates him to be his prime advisor and changes his name to Tsafnat Paneach (41:45). Scholars can only guess at the meaning of this name. And one interpretation is given by Onkelus (c.35-120 CE) as “The Man to Whom All Secrets are Illuminated.” Yosef did not simply bring awareness to the coming disaster, but delivered the message with concern for its after-effects.

As Adam Sandler reminds us, “Channukah is the Festival of Lights!” (Celebrated everywhere this year from the evening of Nov. 27 to Dec. 5th.) Metaphorically, we celebrate this holiday to remember that even in the darkest times, there is always light. The light of Channukah is hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s potential when no alternative is in sight. It’s presence in the midst of utter confusion. This year, I want to challenge myself and our community to not just bring awareness of what is happening in our communities, but to act, like Yosef, as total Illuminators – increasing care and compassion.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Learning from the Pit

Parshat VaYeshev
20 Kislev 5774 / November 22-23, 2013
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23

Learning from the Pit
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Yosef, the beloved son of Yaacov hits rock bottom this week. Literally! His dad gives him a beautiful coat which hails tremendous jealousy from his brothers. Not to mention Yosef’s dreams about his brothers and parents worshipping him do not help. His brothers are so fed up with their younger brother’s antics that they toss him into a pit and sell him into slavery.
“When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped him of his ornamented cloak and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:23-24)
Channukah begins next week (Nov. 27) and I am wondering how Yosef’s descent into this empty pit relates to the holiday of lights (Chag Ha’Urim).
One spiritual message of Channukah is that light is to be found even in the darkest night. This can be a metaphor for so many things, including that hope and possibility are always present in the midst of despair and doubt. I think this is what Yosef teaches us. He is in the pit of despair – shunned by his family and stripped of his radiant coat. The world was looking pretty amazing until this moment in his life. And like so many moments that occur, his world and his identity are turned upside down. Who can he trust? Where is he going? How will he survive this very painful moment? Yosef in the pit can represent the curve ball that life throws that we see in death, loss, and doubt.
The message of Channukah is to sit in the pit, because you have no other choice but to accept reality. At first you will look around and say that this moment is empty – I am alone. We see that all the experiences of our life, all the blessings of our life, have not adequately prepared us to deal with this amount of struggle – There is not even water here!
Very slowly though, as we light the first light of Channukah which over time becomes the radiance of eight shining flames, we discover inner and outer resources that we were originally blind to. Yosef discovers his faith and the power of his dreams. For some of us, in difficult times we might encounter a compassionate waiting community or a wellspring of dormant creativity. Our eyes and our lives adjust to the darkness of the pit until we see that there is a whole world to explore. A world that is more radiant with meaning and connection then we could have ever imagined.     
Wishing all of us a Chag Channukah Sameach. A joyous Channukah Celebration!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Dvar Torah Vayishlach
13 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 15-16, 2013
Genesis 32:4-36:43

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Director

What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28

A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his bother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken).  Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.

The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.

“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25

This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart.  Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing.  The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: 

"What is your name?"

It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight.  The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac.  This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.”

At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.

The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played.  Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day.  My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.

Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless.  We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”).  Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest.  Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother.  Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable.

Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts.  It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward.  It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.

What is your name?  What does it mean to you?  Who are you named for, if anyone?

What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name?

When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?

We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you).  We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations.  But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.

This week, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Digging for Love

Shabbat VaYetzeh
Bereishit 28:10 – 32:3
6 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 8 – 9, 2013

Digging for Loveby Zvi Bellin, Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

Welcome back to the well. Two weeks ago, Rebecca, Yitzhak’s wife, is discovered by the well in Avraham’s old home town. This time, it is Yitzhak’s son, Yaacov that will meet his future beloved, Rachel by the well, it seems in the very same town. The Torah loves to pair the hanging out by the well with finding one’s soul mate. A well is a place where one must dig deep in order to discover and draw forth water – the life blood of the Earth. As we enter into the month of Kislev, the month of sleep, we focus internally – a hibernation process – to discover our own life blood. This can be a process to prepare for bringing love into our life.

Water is often seen as a symbol for Torah. Just as water sustains life, so too Torah sustains life by creating a path and practice for how one might live his or her life. Just as water can be found by digging deep into the Earth, Torah, the authentic path of how we should live our lives, can be found by digging deep inside ourselves. We move past self-doubts that hold us back, and limiting thoughts that degrade us. We let go of false restrictions that we place upon ourselves, and refine our beliefs and attitudes. And awaiting us, in these depths is the pintaleh yid, the Divine spark, that reminds us how holy and beloved each person is.

It might be so that our soul mate is the person who recognizes the inner Divine spark and helps us to live up to our highest potential. This can work in the normative models of one-to-one partnership, and it also is relevant between close friends, family relationships, and even chance and limited encounters.

May we all be blessed with many people in our lives who can easily see how unique and holy we are.

Monday, October 28, 2013

An Evil Twin is Born

Parshat Toldot
Bereshit 25:19 – 28:9
29 Cheshvan 5774 / Nov. 1 – 2, 2013

An Evil Twin is Born
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).

Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup? Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite a big deal!) And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can sometimes feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condemn a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not an exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a God in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way to much ( and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person.  As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

"I Saw the Sign!"

Parashat Chayei Sarah
22 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 25 – 26, 2013
Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

“I Saw the Sign!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, is sent back to Avraham’s home town to find a wife for Isaac. Avraham wants this bride to be from his very own family. Eliezer arrives at the town’s well and thinks,

Gee! How am I going to find a woman from Avraham’s family? This is tough! I know, I will ask for a sign.

Which he indeed does. The woman who will be for Isaac will be one who draws water for Eliezer and for all his camels. This lady with exceptional kindness will be perfect for Isaac (who often represents restriction). Just as Eliezer finishes asking for this sign, Rebecca comes down to draw water. Eliezer runs to her and asks for water. Rebecca quickly gives him to drink and then says the magic words,

 “I will even get water for your camels to drink.” SCORE!

And what did Eliezer do – he waited and watched with astonishment as Rebecca finished quenching the camels’ thirst. (Chapter 24, verse 21). He did not jump into action immediately after she made the offer; rather he paused and took in the complete fulfillment of his requested prophecy.
The mentioning of Eliezer’s pause caught my attention this week. It reminded me of the countless times when I think that I receive a sign from the universe that things will work out the way I want them to. I get very excited and then when things turn sour, I experience disappointment or hopelessness. Maybe we can learn from Eliezer that when we are witnessing a sign we can pause and consider alternatives as to what it might mean. We can give a little time to pass to see if the sign is actually hinting at what we think, or perhaps not at all. Said simply, I can learn not to rush into narrow interpretations of events.

And also, like Eliezer, after pausing and witnessing, it is okay to make decisions based on a carefully interpreted sign. After the camels completed to drink, he presented Rebecca with gifts and discovered that he indeed found Avraham’s kin and the perfect wife for Isaac.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saying No to God

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
15 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 18-19, 2013

Saying NO to God!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

How do we begin to understand the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Itzhak)? To imagine that Avraham had the “faith” to kill his son is simply terrifying. I get a chill when I read the verse (22:10), “Avraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slaughter his son.”  Was he really planning to kill his son? Was Isaac really just able to hop on an alter to be bound and killed by his father? These questions have been occupying the minds of Torah scholars forever!  Some say that child sacrifice was a common practice back then and that this story displays a defining moment in monotheistic religions. Some say that Avraham actually killed Isaac, and then God brought him back to life! There are so many ways of reading this story and I would like to introduce the idea that in this story, Avraham learned to say NO to God.

When Avraham gets the command to kill his son (22:2) it contains the now familiar phrase: Lech-Lecha (simply translated as, “Go!”). This is the same phrase that Avraham perceived when God told him to leave his father’s house and take his family to Canaan. Perhaps Avraham heard this commandment as a continuation of his original journey. He showed faith in leaving all that he knew behind him and so he will show faith in offering his son to God.

In the plain text reading, as Avraham was about to slit his son’s throat, an angel beckoned from heaven to stay his hand (22:12), “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him…” I really hope that Avraham’s greatness was NOT in hearing the commandment to kill Isaac, but in his ability to hear this opposing call.

Our past actions set up our present behavior. And it is very easy to make choices simply on past decisions. Why vote for one party over another? Because my family votes for this party! Why don’t you like a certain food? Because I tried it once didn’t like it. We can become enslaved by our past and give up our freedom to act authentically in a fresh new moment!

This week we have the opportunity to consider our path through decision making. Do you rely so heavily on your past and so ignore critical new information that is presenting itself to you? Or the opposite, do you immerse yourself so fully into the present moment that you fail to consider the effort that has been put in by others that came before you? How can you be more balanced in your decision making?