Monday, January 28, 2013

Beyond Expectations

Parshat Yitro
Shmot 18:1 – 20:23
22 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 1 – 2, 2013

Beyond Expectations
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I would like to open this Dvar Torah by correcting an often mistranslated word. We usually refer to the 10 G-dly pronouncements in this portion as the, “TEN COMMANDMENTS.” In truth, they are never referred to as commandments in the Hebrew text, but rather simply called statements. “G-d spoke all these statements, saying: (20:1)”.  (Also, there are many statements made and not just 10.) I think it is important to be specific about this translation because I do not think that these ten guidelines for living really need to be commanded, nor do they have to be specifically Jewish.  It is pretty clear from any ethical standpoint that in almost any situation, killing someone is wrong. Jealousy does not serve anyone for the good. And whether you do it Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, a day of rest is great for a personal and communal well-being. This means that the core of Divine ethical behavior should correspond quite nicely with human ethical behavior.

There is a part of me that reads this great revelatory passage of the Jews receiving Torah – with the great lights and loud noises – with a bit of a sigh. My mind’s inner voice asks, “Duh! What is so amazing about these statements?” The 10 Commandments are not a recipe from a worry-free life, or a prosperous life. Following them will hopefully grant someone a simple neutral existence.

I think I expect far too much from G-d.  Several years ago I chose to explore a traditionally observant path because I was experiencing unhappiness and did not see any other answers written for how to make my life better. I figured I would give the Jewish religion a shot. A few years later, I recognized that my life had not magically transcended all negative occurrences. I still get upset from time-to-time, and things certainly do not work out the way that I want. Maybe my focus was a bit misguided. What I have gained though is a Mary Poppin’s purse sized toolbox on how to deal with life’s challenges AND I am engaged in a daily proactive practice of personal integration.

Perhaps that is what I should expect from Torah, not an answer to my problems, but a way to engage with the entire spectrum of life experience – the ups and the downs.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Singing in the Face of Fear

Parshat B’shalach (Shabbat Shira)
Exodus 13:17-17:16
15 Shevat 5773 / Jan. 25 – 26, 2013
Singing in the Face of Fear
by Ariel Root Wolpe (MH East Bay)

Parshat B'Shalach is filled with miracles. Pillars of cloud and fire guide the Isrealites from Egypt; the Sea of Reeds splits to reveal dry ground; mana appears on the desert floor; water becomes sweet from a tree and springs from a rock when Moses strikes it. Amongst all these miracles, the image of the Israelites singing after they cross the sea gives the parsha its second name, “Shabbat Shira.” Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto Hashem, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto Hashem, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)

The lines of the song are beautiful and poetic, although the celebration over death quite disturbing. The parsha says that as the Hebrews saw the Egyptians dying, they feared God, va’aminu ba’adonai. After witnessing so many miracles, and one that results in drowning an army, who would not be afraid of such a powerful source? Even though these miracles protect the Hebrews and bring them freedom, we know it will not always be so.

In our daily lives, and in the wider world, we face awful and joyful events that we struggle to explain, that remind us how uncertain our personal and collective future is and how little we actually control.  It is not difficult to fear the forces that turn the days and change us. There are passages in the Torah that encourage a cowering awe of God, but I think it is telling that when the Israelites are faced with their fear, everyone’s immediate reaction is to sing, God is my strength and song. This teaches that everything we witness can also be our strength. We need only take the horrible and the beautiful and pour it into the song of our story.

What better way to realize our own power, to feel the safety of unity, than communally quench our fear with celebratory song?

Monday, January 14, 2013

TOTAFOT Explained!

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
8 Shevat 5773 / Jan. 18 - 19, 2013

TOTAFOT Explained! 
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

You might be familiar with the word TEFILIN – the black boxes attached to leather straps that are traditionally bound to one’s arm and forehead during morning prayer, Sunday through Friday. (Here is a photo of Barbie rocking her tefilin: In the past though, men wore tefilin throughout the day, taking them off only in the evening. There are still some people that maintain this practice as a way to keep a constant reminder that God is present. 

You will not find the word tefilin in the Torah, rather we have two words that are used. The first is the word OT (אות), this translates to sign or symbol. As in, “a sign upon your hand.” The second word, which is more baffling, is the word TOTAFOT (טוטפות). It has no direct or easy translation into modern Hebrew. Yet it appears at the very end of this week’s Torah portion (13:16):

“These words shall be a sign on your hand and for TOTAFOT between your eyes, for with a strong hand YHVH brought us out of Egypt.”

We see from this verse that the TOTAFOT refers specifically to the part of the tefilin that goes on one’s forehead. Rashi, the most well-known Torah commentator, teaches that the word TOTAFOT is actually a contraction of two words that come from two different ancient languages.

“Since they consist of four compartments they are called TOTAFOT. TAT in the Kathphi language is two, PAT in the Afriki language is two.”

Now indeed, the head tefilin we have today are comprised of four separate compartments, each containing a single scroll with the words of one short section of Torah that talks about tefilin and the exodus from Egypt. (Learn more at:
It is amazing to me and also a good reminder that sometimes we have to look outside of our own culture in order to understand ourselves. Languages generally develop in a chain and biblical Hebrew has its roots in other languages that we often do not think about.

In this week’s portion Moshe refuses to leave Egypt without every man, woman, child, goat, and sheep that was part of the Israelite family. The reason being is that every single being has a role to play in the great festival that the Israelites want to celebrate in the desert. When I read about the meaning of the word TOTAFOT, I get a sense that our religion should not be seen as existing in a vacuum either. Every culture has a purpose and is part of LIFE which is the ultimate Divine celebration.

Rashi goes on to record that the word TOTAFOT also has Hebrew roots related to an obscure word that is translated as speaking. He concludes his interpretation by stating that whoever sees the TOTAFOT on someone else’s forehead will remember the great miracles of the Exodus and will speak about it.
How often do we notice something miraculous occur and then overlook it or write it off as nothing special at all! An airplane flies overhead. A colony of ants invades our cupboard. A baby laughs. Just because something can be scientifically explained does not make it less awesome and wonderful! In our world today, where many of us do not see TOTAFOT, and if we do, we do not generally associate it with anything miraculous, let’s tune in to the many signs and wonders all around us within our own culture and in the other cultures  that we encounter daily. There are moment to moment miracles that occur in the four compartments of human experience – body, mind, heart, soul. Let us learn that when we come across something that reminds us of the amazement of life that we should share it with others in order to spread the wonder of being alive. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Parshat Va’Era
Sh’mot 6:2 – 9:35
1 Shevat 5773 / Jan 11 - 12, 2013

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 in 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 of 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.