Monday, April 29, 2013

One Body United

Parshat BeHar – Be’Chukotai
Vayikra 25:1 – 27:34

24 Iyar 5773 / May 3-4, 2013

One Body United
by Tanya Gutsol, NY-RSJ Alumni
Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the entire Community of Israel and tell them You must be Holy, for I the L-rd your G-d am Holy.'" [Vayikra 19:1-2].
The Medrash comments on this verse, that it was said to all the Jewish people together. Where as most of the Torah was taught to Moshe, who taught it to Aharon, then to his sons, then to the Elders, then to the rest of the people (Talmud Bavli Eiruvin 54b), here however, Moshe taught this parsha initially in everyone's presence.
What is unique about this parsha? The Medrash answers that this parsha is different because most of the fundamentals of Torah are dependent on this parsha. Simply understood since there are so many mitzvos taught in so few verses, it was said in the presence of everyone.
Behar begins with the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, where the Jewish people are commanded not to plant their fields or tend to them in the seventh year. Also included in this portion are: the ability to redeem land which was sold; to strengthen your fellow Jew when his/her economic means are lacking; not to lend money to your fellow Jew with interest; the laws of indentured servants. The portion ends with the admonition not to make idols, to observe the Shabbat and to revere the Sanctuary. The second portion for this week, Bechukotai, begins with the many blessings we will receive for keeping the commandments of the Torah. It also contains the Tochachah, words of rebuke, "If you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments..." There are seven series of seven punishments each.
Perhaps we can explain this in another fashion as well. 
The Medrash Vayikra Rabbah states that this parsha contains a rephrasing or allusion to each of the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments.
The Medrash links the tenth commandment, Thou shall not covet, with the pasuk "Love your neighbor as yourself." [19:18]
As if there is a positive and negative commandment to "not coveting". Not only don't be jealous but be happy that HE has!
Rabbi Akiva says "Love your neighbor as thy self" is the great rule of Torah! (Toras Kohanim 4:12)
Hillel says: “This is all of Torah, all else is just commentary!”(Talmud Bavli Shabbos 31a)
Perhaps this is why this parsha is so imperative to be said to all at once.....A lesson of happiness for another’s success. If we understand that the Jewish people are one unit, there is no reason for one organ to be jealous of another organ. Rather I should be happy for what my "other organ" has!
As Moishe House residences we open our homes daily to strangers without thinking twice. We provide food, time and hospitality. We create an environment where everyone is welcomed and it’s safe to share failures without being judged or successes followed by cheering. We visit one another in different states or even countries and enjoy seeing nice and cozy houses, successful programs, large communities built by our peers. We don’t feel any competition, more than that we are proud to be a part of a big global family. One unity with the same goal for all: “to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults.”  So as Moses taught this Torah portion to all the Jewish people together, this week let’s try to pass this message on our community members worldwide and remind them that in the compassionate and sensitive way we are required to relate to all humankind - it is not dependent on how we feel today but on the degree of commitment we make to the obligation the mitzvot placed upon us. It is not an easy task, but it will only make us greater and help to repair and enrich the world.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Parshat Emor
Vayikra 21:1 - 24:23
17 Iyar 5773 / April 26 - 27, 2013

Keeping Difficult Decisions Difficult
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ 

How do you go about making tough decisions? What information do you gather? Who do you consult? Where do you go for the clarification of values and ethics that allows you to choose one course of action over another, even when all choices are not perfect? When I read the final section of this week’s Torah portion these questions come to my mind.

Even today, people pay with their lives in response to seeking increased liberties. And each nation’s government has to make a decision if, and how, they should get involved in foreign conflicts. They often respond with military action that includes killing and supporting. The lines between enemy and civilian are blurred. The lines between helping and intruding also become blurred.

What about in our own communities? How do we punish behaviors and what does our reaction say about the kind of community that we are trying to establish? In Chapter 24 in the Book of Vayikrah (verses 10 – 23), we are told a story about a man who publicly curses G-d’s name. The people do not know what to do, so they take him to Moshe who locks him up. Moshe consults G-d who commands that this man must be stoned to death, AND in the same breath God says,

And a man – if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death.” (24:17)    

Now hold it there God. You just told us to kill this guy because he cursed You and now you seem to be saying if we listen to You and put him to death, we will be put to death too. What to do? A tough decision indeed!

This week, I understand this conundrum as saying – There is always a consequence to killing someone. Death will always lead to more death – even if you have a good justified reason to do so. It seems to me that when we make a decision to go to war (figuratively, against one person, or literally, against an entire nation) we think only about the immediate effect of stopping whatever behavior we do not agree with. This story about the blasphemer widens my perspective to think about how violent action will inevitably lead to further violent action. I think history has proven this time and time again. I am not necessarily advocating for complete pacifism. I am offering a reminder that the question to kill should always be a difficult one. If you can so easily agree with bloodshed, it might mean that you have ceased to see the other as a living person, like yourself. If we have lost our ability to recognize humanity, we can never create a humane world.

I hope that while the governments and armies of the globe are keeping peace within the model that is currently functioning, we Moisheniks – people living all over the world – are doing our part to educate against stereotypes, are learning deeply about the real issues from the perspective of the people facing them, and are innovating models of working for peace through peaceful means.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jewish Communal Purity

Acharei Mot- KedoshimVayikrah 16:1-20:2710 Iyar 5773 / April 12-!3, 2013

Jewish Communal Purity
by Joel Kramer, MH San Diego
This week we read two separate parshiot which are linked by the concept of the purity of the Jewish nation. The teaching begins as G-d demonstrated the repercussion for becoming impure, as Aaron's two sons are punished with death. However, this soon follows with a method for renewal, through sacrifice, bathing, and other rituals. Through a series of commandments and anecdotes, the portion ensures that the land, people, and laws of Israel will remain pure.
While the Israelites have left the terrors of Egypt behind them, their current conditions in the desert are dire. In comparison, they approach the land of Israel, a bountiful land of milk and honey (20:24) which can sustain the Hebrew Nation. By sustaining the teachings of the torah and remaining morally forthright, the land will continue to provide for the people. However, the parsha warns that by defiling oneself, one defiles the land.
In a land parched with thirst, water is the element which best represents sustenance. In the parsha, it cleanses and purifies after wrongdoing. Without water there is no life, and for people and animals, blood carries that essential water. Blood serves as the natural connection that binds the people of Israel to one another, and to the land. By remaining loyal to one another, Jews maintain the purity of their connection. A theme of blood flows throughout these parshiot, as referenced in laws of kashrut, sexual relations, and the concept of bloodguilt. Kosher animals must be drained of blood, while consuming blood is related to superstition and self-mutilation. Disrespect to one's parents, adultery, and theft (19:16) are even defined as "bloodguilt".
The same sex marriage debate finds relevance in Aharei Mot. If purity is meant to keep the nation of Israel strong, then one would imagine that members of the society would be encouraged to contribute and partake equally. However, parts of the parsha seem to be extreme against certain members of society, especially in regard to sexuality. For example, having sex while one’s own wife is menstruating was cause for the couple to excommunicated (20:18). Similarly, homosexual relations are described as an abhorrence and are outlawed.
I will not attempt to judge whether homosexual activity was inappropriate for the Jewish people as they redefined themselves during their struggle for survival through the desert. However today, our situation is not as dire. Including all members of our society strengthens our future. In today's democracy, giving someone a place at the table and equal treatment also expects them to contribute equally. Rather than comparing homosexuality to having sex with beasts, as the Torah does, we should appreciate that Jewish LGBT's and other minorities have more to contribute as fully accepted members of the Jewish people to which they belong. The parsha reminds us that to be hospitable to strangers because we were mistreated in Egypt, but estranging members of our own community seems to me impure and sinful.
We can see that by providing a framework of laws to protect the Jewish people and their connection to G-d, the Nation of Israel is better equipped to care for the land of Israel which sustains them. However, how do the laws affect people who live outside of the land of Israel, as most Jews do today? The parsha relates that peoples' sins are given to an Azazel goat which is sent away, into the desert. The people of Israel were granted the land of Canaan, but today the Negev includes parts of Edom, where such a sin-adorned goat may have wandered. Is that land impure? And is the diaspora a dartboard for disrespect, without need for any moral standing simply because it is not the Land of Israel? Ultimately, poor choices degrade the morality of the people who live there, and so the land itself. And as G-d warns, the consequences for the Canaanites for treating the land irresponsibly was eviction and slaughter. By caring for the people around us and the land upon which we reside, we carry the Torah forward and maintain its purity in new realms.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Blessing of the Living Bird

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah
Leviticus 12:1-15:33
5773 Iyar 3 / April 12 - 13, 2013

The Blessing of the Living Bird
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
I find the ritual for cleaning the person afflicted with Tzara’at simply strange. Essentially, the Kohen takes two birds. He kills one bird and lets the blood drip into a clay pot with water. Then he takes the second bird and dips it into the water/blood mixture of the first bird. He sprinkles the blood that is covering the live bird on the newly cleansed person and then sets the live bird free.  

I am not really sure what to make of this. But I wanted to highlight this ritual as I enjoy taking note of some of the bizarre practices that we have at our roots. I sometimes see Yogic community members walking around in orange or yellow robes, with their little bells and thin pony-tails sprouting from the top of their heads, and I think, “Hmmm…That is strange.”

If I was able to time travel back to the days of the Jewish people in the desert, or early Palestine, I would probably shout with fright and feel uneasy with the lavish dressing of the Priests, the uber-posh d├ęcor of the Temple, and the bloody worship rituals. It does make me feel less judgmental about other people’s practices when I think how strange Jewish people must have looked (and at times, still look) to outsiders.  

There is something in this ritual though, that I really love. I feel joy when the Torah tells us that the live bird is set free. It is like ourselves and our souls. The live bird has experienced the trauma of witnessing and experiencing pain and suffering. It has been bloodied and shaken by outside forces, yet that was all temporary. It is able to spread its wings again and live on to experience new adventures, new sorrows and new joys.

I would like to bless us with the blessing of this living free bird. May we be able to accept the pain and sorrow of the world and continue to find the strength to spread our wings and soar.