Monday, July 22, 2013

Stepping Towards Godliness

Parshat Ekev
Dvarim 7:12 – 11:25
20 Av 5773 / July 26 – 27, 2013

Stepping Towards Godliness
by Emly Oren, Alumni of Moishe House Portland
In Parashat Eikev, the third parshah in the book of Dvarim, Moses continues speaking to the Israelites before entering the Promised Land. He promises that if they fulfill the commandments, they will prosper in the land that is, “Flowing with milk and honey.” Moses also addresses the hardships we went through, such as recalling the worship of the Golden Calf and the rebellion of Korach. The Parshah concludes with the description of manna and the blessings of the seven species.
I noticed the first sentence uses this week’s Parshah, “Eikev”, as a conjunction of “because”: “And it shall come to pass because you heartened and you listened and you obeyed God’s commandments.” As a noun, however, Eikev is defined as a “heel.” For me, this definition gives me more insight. The Israelites have stopped wandering the desert and are about to enter the Promised Land. They have walked long and far and are now grounding themselves with their heels. In this Parshah, heels symbolize our history and the lessons that Moses has taught us. Now the Israelites are entering their new home with their feet forward, knowing that their heel has led them to this very moment. It is up to them to let their toes guide them in the right direction while allowing their heals to be grounded.
Where we put our feet depends on the choices we make and the direction we take is completely up to us. During this week I think it is important to ask ourselves the following questions: Are we walking with our feet towards godliness or away from it? Are we stepping into a place of light or darkness? This week’s portion is teaching us that we have choices to make in life. May we enter this week with the direction of free-will and may our feet guide us to a place of holiness.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Sacrifice of Moishe

Parshat Va’Etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu)
Dvarim 3:23 – 7:11
13 Av 5773 / July 19 – 20, 2013

The Sacrifice of Moishe
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s parsha Moshe orates on his inability to be the leader of the people in the land of Israel. He reviews the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Moshe blames the Israelites’ actions and attitudes at the time of getting the Torah for God’s decision to have Moshe die before he enters the land. What actions is he speaking about? And what is truly the source of Moshe’s flawed leadership skill?

I think the answers to these questions are hinted at in the following Rashi commentary on Chapter 5, verse 24. In the verse, Moshe recounts when, at the time of hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites pleaded with him to be an intermediary between God’s voice and their ears. They feared that hearing God’s voice would kill them. So they said to Moshe, “You speak to us!” And the word for YOU is written in the feminine language. Rashi ponders about this, why refer to Moshe in the feminine? He answers his own question:

And YOU (Moshe) speak to us (Israel): Hebrew וְאַתּ, [the feminine form] - You weakened my strength as that of a female, for I was distressed regarding you, and you weakened me, since I saw that you were not anxious to approach God out of love. Would it not have been preferable for you to learn [directly] from the mouth of the Almighty God, rather than to learn from me?”

First, let’s bypass the blatant chauvinism of Rashi’s statement – (He lived from 1040 – 1105!) It is gross, but meaning-wise – it is explaining the source of Moshe’s ineptitude as the leader for the next generation. When the people asked Moshe to be their go-between he was left, almost as a sacrifice, to come in direct contact with God alone. Their fear was real; the close contact with the Divine was a death sentence for Moshe. He was unable to comprehend the world from a limited perspective now that he had glimpsed reality from the perspective of Eternal Oneness. It may have been that bearing the load of an entire nation was difficult, while acting as sole channel of God was detrimental. The Israelites’ action of asking for an intermediary was a sign that they could not yet share the Divine connection with Moshe. Therefore, Moshe, left to the task alone, was weakened in his ability to relate and could not carry on as leader.

Where does that leave us today? I believe that Jews as a people are continuously in a process of figuring out how to connect with the great mystery that is beyond what the eyes can see. The myriad laws and commandments which come out of Torah are teaspoons of taking God in, in small digestible and sustainable doses. We are all called to task, in our own way, to figure out the correct prescription, from moment-to-moment, to stay attuned to the Divine in our lives. When we are not sure, we might ask a Rabbi, parent, or friend. Ultimately though, we can grow to be our own teachers and leaders in our own unique way.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Don’t Just Do Jewish!

Shabbat Dvarim (Chazon)
Dvarim 1:1 – 3:22
6 Av 5773 / July 12 - 13, 2013

Don’t Just Do Jewish!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

After each Torah portion, a section of the Prophets is also read, called the Haftorah. During the Three Weeks (leading up to Tisha B’Av) we read specific writings that fit into the themes of despair and punishment. This Shabbat, connected to Parshat Dvarim, we read a famous Haftorah that begins with the words, “Chazon Yishiyahu,” (The vision of Isaiah). Thus, this Shabbat, the week before Tisha B’Av, is called Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision.

Isaiah’s words take us to the final hour. The moral and ethical level of the Jewish people has fallen beyond repair and the only solution is exile. The Holy Land (and God too) will not tolerate inhabitants that offer meaningless sacrifices, judge without righteousness, and ignore the poor and needy. I find it very wise that as we read the opening section to Moshe’s farewell address in Dvarim, we also read about the shortcoming of our community several generations later. Moshe’s speech is given at the boundary of the Land of Israel. He reviews some of the challenges that were had on the way to the Promised Land. Finally, the Israelites can actualize their dream. The promise to Abraham will become manifest! And in a blink of an eye, we read Isaiah’s admonishment, “Woe! O sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evil, destructive children.” (1:4).

Isaiah reminds the people, both our ancestors and us, about what is truly important.  He pleads, “Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.” What good is “doing Jewish” if the world around us is not getting any better. Kashrut, Shabbat, and Torah study are not practices that will inherently improve our communities. They are some of the Jewish tools that have the potential for transformation. The key though is our own intention and how the world is impacted as a result of our engagement with Judaism.  

I often hear and think about this question: So, why be Jewish? You can transform the world as a Buddhist or an atheist. Does it add anything if we do things in a “Jewish way”?

No one should have a really perfect answer to this question, because we should never seek to completely invalidate one life path over another. My “work-in-progress” answer is that having a foundation story to connect with adds a tremendous amount of meaning to our engagement with the world. Our Jewish story fuels our passions, it frames our exploration of certain values and beliefs, and it creates an intimate bond in a sometimes lonely and empty universe. Living a Jewish life enables you to expertly access the specific tools of transformation that are inherent in Jewish practice. In your life, as you wrestle to find your authentic expression of Shabbat and Kashrut, for example, how does this process impact you? To me, this is a question that is worth living into - a question that helps to shape our vision of a world we want to live in.

Have a beautiful week and a meaningful Shabbat.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Do We Need Destruction?

Shabbat Matot - Masei
Bamidbar 33:1-36:13
28 Tamuz 5773 / July 5 – 6, 2013

Do We Need Destruction?
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In Parshat Masei (Journeys) we are given a recap of a variety of stops made on the way from Egypt to Palestine. Finally, the time has arrived for the Jewish people to end their lives as nomads and become land owners. One problem: Palestine is not an empty land. It is inhabited by people from a variety of nations and in Chapter 33, verses 50-53, the Israelites are instructed to not only take the land of the people dwelling there but to “drive them out,” and “destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; all their high places you shall demolish.”

This commandment to destroy reminds me of something I have been pondering lately. We are now in a time period in the Jewish calendar called the Three Weeks. It is the time between two fast days that mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The first day is the 17th of Tamuz when the walls of the Temple were breached and the second day is the 9th of Ave, the actual day the Temples were destroyed.

The destruction of the Temples brought a lot of change to the Jewish people and not all of it was bad. We have stopped killing animals for our worship and have become a book-based faith, able to survive anywhere. I wonder about how destruction is sometimes necessary in order for new ideas and understandings to bloom.

In my community I hear a lot about taking the “Buddhist approach” to a situation. Accept change and give up the pain of holding on to something that you will eventually lose anyway. I definitely see the value in this philosophy and with many things try to practice it. The problem though is when we try to judge others through that lens. It is easy to say that the Jews living in the Old City of Jerusalem should have just accepted that life as they knew it was over and a new model was needed. They could have opened the city gates and surrendered – perhaps saving many lives and the Temple itself. Obviously, this is a very difficult statement to make. How can we point back at the past and purport to know what should have been done? How do we really know if things would have turned out better?

The nation of Israel is charged with a responsibility to Wrestle with G-d (the literal translation of Yisra-El). During these Three Weeks I think it is important to wrestle with the following question: What convictions do we want to hold onto, even in the face of possible destruction?  Let’s take this contemplative period of our calendar to consider what are the beliefs about ourselves, our community, and God that are really worth risking it all for. And similarly what convictions might we be fighting for that are no longer relevant or helpful.