Monday, May 27, 2013

“An Elephant Never Forgets”

Parshat Shelach
Bamidbar 13:1 – 15:41
23 Sivan 5773 / May 30 - June 1, 2013

“An Elephant Never Forgets”
by Rebecca Karp, Senior Regional Director

Parshat Shelach (“Send”) is chock-full of amazing tidbits to riff on. Spies, threats of 40 years of wandering, promise of the death of an entire generation, the mitzvah of challah, liturgy from the high holiday services, and it goes on. So much wisdom, so much to choose from. But, as I write this D’var Torah from Israel, eretz zavat halav u’dvash (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), that the Israelites are almost ready to enter, I chose to touch on the commandment of tzitzit, a commandment to wear and remember.

Chapter 15, Verses 38-39
38. Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue (wool) on the fringe of each corner. 39. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them…

Perhaps the phrase, “an elephant never forgets”, bringing up the image of an elephant with a string tied around its (non-existent) finger, comes from the far reaches of Bamidbar and the concept of tying fringes on your garment to remember the commandments of HaShem. Surely an iconic symbol in Judaism, the fringes on the corners of “your” garment represent far more many things to people than only the commandments. For me, the most prominent image this symbol brings up is huddling under my father’s talit during services because the synagogue was so cold and he would hold me and we would sing the prayers together. What does this image, the image of tzitzit, make you think of? I would venture to say not just, if at all, the concept of remembering the commandments.

When I describe a thin, red string tied around someone’s wrist, what do you think of? Kabbalah, Madonna, women begging at the Western Wall? Or when I mention two golden-colored arches? Fries, the Hamburglar, child obesity, McDonald’s? No matter what you associated these two items with, you would likely be both right and not thinking of what the original creator intended for you to think.

The common thread between tzitzit, the red string and the golden-colored arches are that all of these symbols have come to mean more than their original intentions. The symbol of tzitzit is more rich and expansive for us today than HaShem envisioned during Bamidbar, reminding us not only of the commandments, but of our families, our heritage, the Jewish people around us today and what we can give to the Jewish future. Perhaps the next time you put on a garment with tzitzit, or see them on someone else, you will even think of this D’var Torah and remember all of the great work we’re doing (and fun we’re having) in Moishe House!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Presenting … ME!

Parshat Beha’alotcha
Bamidbar 8:1 – 12:16
17 Sivan 5773/ May 24 – 25, 2013
Presenting … ME!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Early in the portion, we learn about the purification and dedication of the Levites for their life of service for the work of the Mishkan (in the desert) and the Temple (in Israel). If you recall from Vayikra, the previous book of the Torah, the Levites have some heavy responsibility, literally. It is their job to lug the pieces of the Mishkan through the desert from site to site. They maintained the order and cleanliness of all ritual items and served a supporting role to the Priests.

As God is instructing Moshe about this ritual, God states (8:16):
" כי נתונים נתונים לי המה מתוך בני ישראל."
“For presented, presented are they to Me from among the Children of Israel.”

Now the Torah is not a text that is generous with words, and if something is repeated twice, there is probably something to learn. Rashi comments on the double use of the word presented. He says that the Levites were presented for two main jobs – the first is to carry the mishkan and take care of the ritual vessels, the second is to sing. During the Temple times the Levites would take shifts throughout the entire day singing psalms and praises to God.

The Parsha goes on to teach that a Levite would work between the ages of 25 – 50. When a Levite would turn 50 years old it was time for retirement. Rashi comments that they would retire from carrying physical loads, but that they would continue to sing praises in shifts.

When I think about myself and how I define myself, how I present myself to the world, there are some labels that are fleeting – like Camp Counselor, or even, Jewish Educator. And there are other identities that seem to stick with me – like Son or Helper. Throughout life we are called to fill certain roles in our communities, and these titles and tasks help us to live with a stable and sustainable sense of meaning.

I find a lesson in the Torah’s words by double-tasking the Levites with something that fades (carrying) and something that persists (singing). In our life we are going to lose and let go of jobs, people, and responsibilities that seem to capture who we are. There is a danger if we completely identify with these things, and think that without them our personal meaning is lost too. This is not so. Our identities are multi-leveled and dynamic. And as our roles shift, our personal meaning is extended and enhanced.

When we experience times when we lose something we thought was essential to our identity (a job or a relationship, for example), we might feel that we have lost every connection to meaning. In these moments, allow the Levites to remind you, that you still have a voice, a persistent form of expression that is lasting, and ultimately a way to connect back with your sense of purpose.     

**For more learning**

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sealed with Peace

Parshat Naso
9 Sivan 5773 / May 17 – 18, 2013
Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

Sealed with Peace
by Joey Yadgar, MH Great Neck

 In Parashath Naso we are introduced to the Priestly Blessing that Aaron and his Sons, and all Kohanim (Jewish Priests) today, are to bless the Jewish people with. The blessing is as follows:

'May G‑d bless you and guard you.
'May G‑d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
'May G‑d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.'" (Bamidbar 6:24-26)

What is the source of this blessing? Is it a blessing from the Kohanim to the Jewish people of Israel?

After looking one Pasuk further in the Torah, we find our answer. The Pasuk says, They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.’ We find that the blessing is directly from Hashem, and the Kohanim are the agents through which the blessing is given.

Why doesn’t Hashem bless us directly rather than through Kohanim? We will find our answer after we further look into the meaning of these three Pasukim.
One of the most well-known commentaries to the Torah is Rashi. He gives a brief explanation about the meaning of these three verses above.

Rashi explains that in the first Pasuk, 'May G‑d bless you and guard you.’ is a blessing asking Hashem to bless and protect all of our possessions as Hashem is the provider of all of our possessions. The blessing continues with, 'May G‑d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.’ Here the Kohanim ask Hashem to show us a pleasant and radiant countenance upon our faces, and to show favor to us. Finally, the blessing concludes with, 'May G‑d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.’ Rashi explains this verse as a request to Hashem to suppress his wrath, and for Hashem to grant us peace.

It is the ending, ‘…and grant you peace,’ where we find the essence of the entire blessing; without peace, we would not be able to enjoy all of Hashem’s other blessings.
The Kohanim are reminded of the importance of peace in the introductory blessing recited by the Kohanim before the Priestly Blessing; this introductory blessing ends with the words “… to bless His nation Israel with love." Hashem is teaching the Kohanim and the Jewish People of Israel an important lesson; that only when we are united through peace and love, the Kohanim will be able to act as agents between Hashem and the entire Jewish Nation, and as a result we will all be able to receive Hashem’s blessings. Therefore, in order to convey this message, Hashem decides to not bless us directly, but rather use the Kohanim to give us the Priestly Blessing.

Rabbi Eli Mansour of Brooklyn goes on to explain that the Priestly Blessing consists of fifteen words. The first fourteen words correspond to the fourteen joints in the hands of the Kohanim with which they hold outstretched when performing the Priestly Blessing. (It is no coincidence that the numerical value for the Hebrew word for hand, Yad, is fourteen)

What does the fifteenth word, “Peace” correspond to? Rabbi Mansour explains that the word peace corresponds to the palm of the hand. It is through the palm that we are able to make peace through the common gesture of a handshake. Additionally, without the palm, the hand is unable to hold anything, and it is therefore needed to receive all of Hashem’s blessings.

May the Priestly Blessing be a constant reminder for the entire Jewish nation to be united with love and peace so that we can continue to receive Hashem’s infinite blessings, and may we all celebrate the coming of Mashiach in Jerusalem speedily in our days!

Shabbat Shalom.

Sources used: ,, Rabbi Alex Israel, Hakham Ya’aqob Menashe, and Rabbi Eli Mansour

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Everything in its Place?!

Parshat Bamidbar
Bamidbar 1:1 – 4:20
2 Sivan 5773 / May 10 – 11, 2013

Everything in its Place?!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
It is not easy roaming through the desert, especially with such a large group of people. You are susceptible to hunger, to spreading disease, and to attack. And added to this, the Israelites have a pretty serious mission. They have to transport these mystical tablets inscribed with God’s law through the desert to an only envisioned homeland. There is a lot riding on their survival.

The book of Bamidbar shares a strategy for their survival. Each tribe had a specific role and place in the encampment. The East was protected by Yehudah, Issaschar, and Zevulun. The West was covered by Ephraim, Menasheh, and Binyamin. The South was held by Reuven, Shimon, and Gad. And to the North, the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali secured the nation’s safety. (Game of Thrones anyone??) And in the heart of the camp were the Priests and Levites securing the safety of the Ark and Tablets, and all the other instruments of holy work.

According to Torah-lore (midrash) YOU were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. No matter your gender, sexual orientation, race, denomination, or conversion status, And so YOU, with your unique Jewish identity, is extremely important to the complete narrative of the Jewish people. Everyone has a place in our community!

It could be so wonderful if, like the Israelites in the desert, we were given a clear role and placement in this community. But we all know that life comes with doubt. And sometimes we can feel so estranged from the surrounding Jewish community. We might disagree with the majority stance on Israel. We might have been told that we cannot love who we love. We might have been barred from leadership roles in our synagogue. We might feel whole-heartedly that Judaism should not exclude our non-Jewish friends and family members. It can be really hard to feel a part of a system that feels so foreign or even harmful.

At these times, I remind myself that Yisrael comes from the root to wrestle. Jacob was renamed Yisrael because he wrestled with God. And in our modern time, Israel, has been translated as the God Wrestlers (by Rabbi Arthur Waskow). And so, sometimes STURGGLE is the role that we play in our Jewish community. We grab hold of the fringes of our faith and tug with all our might to stretch its values to include an even greater expression of truth.
As we head into Shavuot, the holiday where we renew our commitment to greater revelation, I want to offer all of us a blessing that we can feel a part of the Jewish story as a framework that gives our life greater collective meaning. I wish you a healthy balance between certainty and doubt.