Monday, March 25, 2013

True Freedom, U Freedom

Shabbat Pesach!
Sh’mot 33:12-34:26
15 Nissan 5772 / April 6 – 7, 2012

True Freedom, U Freedom
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
               On Passover we are told to refrain from eating anything that is leavened, or puffed up. Breads, bagels, muffins, certain cereals, and for some of us, beans and rice, are all placed under this category of food that is called chametz. Most of us know that the reason that we eat Matzah, or flat bread, is to remember that when the Jews were leaving Egypt, they had to rush out and did not have time for their bread to rise, thus they ate un-leavened bread. As Rabbis tend to do, they got concerned that eating seemingly leavened products would lead to eating actual leavened bread, so they created a radical edict to spend the entire holiday not eating anything that even slightly resembles leavened bread (most strictly for Jews from Eastern European descent).
               Another way to understand this practice is to think about what Passover represents and how this special diet might attune our awareness. Before the original Passover, the Jewish people and Jewish identity was stuck in a particular mode – that of slavery. We worked in harsh conditions for the Egyptians, gaining nothing from the sweat of our brow. Our relationship with God was also stagnated, as a Deity of our ancestors whose memory we had to connect through. Suddenly, there came time for a big change. We were going to be shifting, warp-speed, from oppressed workers to an independent nation. If we stopped for a moment to think about that, we probably would lose faith, and say, “Helk no! I ain’t going no-where!” And if you take a peek into the Torah narrative, when the Jews stop to rest in the desert, they begin to complain and yearn for the life that they had in Egypt.
               So matzah represents the Band-Aid (or plaster) that was yanked quickly off the wound of an enslaved identity. When we eat matzah, or more importantly, when we refrain from eating chametz and chametz-related foods, we recreate the obliteration of the usual story and identity that we carry around. All for the purpose, I remind you, of receiving a newer and more liberated sense of self. Thus, we jaggedly cut out all the foods that are “filled with hot air,” and allow our egos to deflate. Of course, quick change does not equal lasting change. For this reason, we begin to count the Omer until Shavuot, which represents a more thoughtful and comprehensive transformation from slave to free-person.
               For some of us, we might not connect with the idea of cutting out bread on Pesach. I would strongly recommend trying out the traditional practice in small doses, but I think there are other ways to enhance this dramatic shift in our inner-selves.
1.       You might try another way of playing with diet. Perhaps Passover is a good time for a juice fast, or cutting out sugars, or other things that make you “high and inflated.”
2.       You can make a list of, “Things I would do if I was truly free,” and then see how close you are to enacting these things. (Perhaps there are a few that you should still refrain from.)
3.       Perhaps there is part of your name that feels unfamiliar to you – for example, your middle name, or Hebrew name. You might spend the week introducing yourself with this name and strengthen your relationship to it.
4.       Maybe there is a new Jewish practice that you want to try out that might enhance the way you live. Meditation, daily prayer, or lighting candles before Shabbat are all tools that free us from our normal way of doing and being.
5.       Play with the seder to make it more meaningful. Introduce your own poems and personal stories of oppression and liberation. According to the Haggadah, you have to at least say the following three words: PESACH, MATZAH, and MARROR. The rest just might be commentary. Try, a great resource to help spice up your seder.

So however we fill our bellies (and hearts and minds) this Pesach, I bless us that we can experience a new and deeper understanding of what it means to be free. And that we should see freedom blossom in those places where freedom seems stifled.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Parshat Tzav
Vayikra 6:1 – 8:36
12 Nissan 5773 / March 22-23, 2013

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, Director of Immersive Learning

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we continue to learn about the responsibilities given to the ancient priests, with particular focus on certain offerings, as well as what the priests were permitted to eat.  We also find the formal inauguration of Aaron (Moses’s brother) and Aaron’s sons as the nation’s priests.  In an elaborate ceremony, complete with anointing, sacrifices, and a 7-day party, the Israelites distinguished a separate priestly class to preside over their interactions with the Divine.

What would it be like to have a 7-day party as an entire nation today?

The closest event I can think of is Spring Break, which while indeed a huge party (for many), is far from something that the entire nation participates in. 

Granted, there were likely fewer than 3 million total Israelites at the time, while in the United States, there are more than 300 million people.

Granted also, that the Israelites were wandering in the desert at the time, and didn’t exactly have to worry about working or losing their jobs the way many would today.

In the United States, what one might assume would be our greatest cause for annual celebration, Independence Day, is limited to a single date on the calendar.  This year, it falls in the middle of the week on Thursday, so there won’t even be a long built-in holiday weekend!

Given our clear shortage of celebratory time, let me propose a weeklong annual celebration, for Jews and anyone else looking for a good excuse to party as well: Passover.

Recognizing our liberation from slavery and the solidification of our identity as a nation by receiving the Torah, not to mention that the holiday falls during the spring when the weather is starting to improve, seems a perfect excuse for a weeklong party.

Amazingly, the holiday already lasts over a week in the U.S.!  For 8 days every year, we have the privilege of celebrating our freedom (drinking a bit more wine than usual), recognizing our ability to help liberate those who are still enslaved around the world, and spending time with loved ones. Could there be a better party?  The fact that the Exodus narrative is one that resonates with people from all backgrounds just makes the party even larger!

There is a tradition that 30 days before Passover begins (Purim!) you start studying the various Passover-specific requirements. We’re well into that window now, with Passover only a few days away. 

This Shabbat, continue planning your ultimate Passover party. 
Who are you going to invite? 
How long will you celebrate? 
What are you going to do together both to celebrate your own freedom and help free those still enchained?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Please Pass the Salt

Parshat Vayikra
Vayikra 1:1 – 5:26 
5 Nissan 5773 / March 15 – 16, 2013

Please Pass the Salt
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

ב:יג  וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ, בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח, וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ; עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ, תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח

2:13 And every meal-offering you shall season with salt; neither should you remove the salt of the covenant of your God from your meal-offering; with all thy offerings you shall offer salt.

Do you know the story about the sad ocean waters who complained that they were too far away from G-d? The Midrash teaches that when the upper waters were separated from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters threw a bit of a hissy fit.

“Why should the upper waters have all the fun, hanging with G-d in heaven? What about us?”

 G-d, being a good listener and problem solver, answered, “Hey beautiful lower waters, don’t fret. In the future there will be a group of people called Israelites, and they will be commanded to worship me through sacrifices. In order to cheer you up, I am going to add on a rule to their sacrifices that the salt that comes from you will be sprinkled on each sacrifice that they put on my alter. So through your salt you will make it up here bit by bit.”

This appeased the waters and all was good and happy.

Rabbi Yaacov Kaminentsky points out that when saltwater is boiled, it is the water that rises and the salt that stays behind. It is as if we are commanded to put the “rejected” part (what is left behind) on the alter. And this is basically what Rabbi Kaminentsky concludes. The salt not only involves the element of water in the sacrificial process, but it also reminds us that every part of this physical world can serve as a prayer to the Divine, even if we think it is something that should be left behind.

When we remember that the Hebrew word for sacrifice (korban) also means to come close, a beautiful teaching emerges. The one thing that was constant in all the sacrifices was the salt. No matter what the reason for the sacrifice, for peace or guilt, sin or celebration, through the salt the Israelites added a piece of themselves that they felt was unworthy to bring close to the Divine. 
This is a transformational process. What I might want to reject about myself is ultimately accepted by God. The pieces of myself that I struggle the most with are ultimately the constant piece of me that ties my whole story together.

I am pretty sure that heaven is not actually above us in outer space somewhere, and I doubt that the message of the salt story is that we are closer to God when we are higher up in the sky. I think the message is that we get closer to the Divine when we allow more of ourselves to come close. We can learn to appreciate that the “rejected” parts of ourselves are also weaved into our lives and are in all of our prayers.       

Monday, March 4, 2013

Lighting up Our Lives

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 
Shmot 38:21 – 40:38 
27 Adar  5773 / March 8 – 9, 2013 

Lighting up Our Lives
by Rachie Lewis, MH Boston

I have always loved the rituals of lighting candles to welcome Shabbat and lighting a fire once again 25 hours later, during havdalah, to bid farewell to the holy day. Our weekly portion, Vayahkel, has caused me to think more deeply about why we bookend this holy day with fire.

The parsha shifts from discussing the obligation of keeping Shabbat to the details of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle, early on. Exodus 35:3 states "you shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day." It is interesting that this is the only Shabbat prohibition mentioned here. In a parsha about holy structures, one of time and one of space, why might the entity of fire be particularly relevant? 

A beautiful midrash, Rabbinic story, in Bereishit Rabbah (taken from Lois Ginzburg's "Legends of the Jews”) states, "an opportunity was given to Adam to learn and appreciate the value of the Sabbath. The celestial light, whereby Adam could survey the world from end to end, should properly have been made to disappear immediately after his sin. But out of consideration for the Sabbath, God had let the light continue to shine...Only with the going out of the Sabbath day the celestial light ceased, to the consternation of Adam, who feared that the serpent would attack him in the dark. But God illuminated his understanding, and he learned to rub two stones against each other and produce light for his needs."  

The source of light in the world seems to dramatically shift in the creation story. This midrash references another that explains the light created on the first day, not as the sun, but as a celestial light that allowed Adam to see from one end of the world to the other. As God removes that light from the world, Adam is forced to create his own to fill it in. 

This midrash seems to be teaching us about work in the world and how we make a bit less of a practical contribution on Shabbat. Yet we still bookend our holy day with our work, with the entity that represents that transition from relying on a Divine source for a needed resource to obtaining it through asserting our own effort and will. 

What we do in the world is holy, but perhaps the Torah says not to start a fire because what exists in between our candles on Friday night and havdalah, is a time in which we do not need to rub stones together, but rather bask in the abundant light of what has been in the previous week and what will be in the one to come. 

Shabbat Shalom!