Monday, October 28, 2013

An Evil Twin is Born

Parshat Toldot
Bereshit 25:19 – 28:9
29 Cheshvan 5774 / Nov. 1 – 2, 2013

An Evil Twin is Born
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).

Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup? Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite a big deal!) And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can sometimes feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condemn a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not an exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a God in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way to much ( and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person.  As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

"I Saw the Sign!"

Parashat Chayei Sarah
22 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 25 – 26, 2013
Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

“I Saw the Sign!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, is sent back to Avraham’s home town to find a wife for Isaac. Avraham wants this bride to be from his very own family. Eliezer arrives at the town’s well and thinks,

Gee! How am I going to find a woman from Avraham’s family? This is tough! I know, I will ask for a sign.

Which he indeed does. The woman who will be for Isaac will be one who draws water for Eliezer and for all his camels. This lady with exceptional kindness will be perfect for Isaac (who often represents restriction). Just as Eliezer finishes asking for this sign, Rebecca comes down to draw water. Eliezer runs to her and asks for water. Rebecca quickly gives him to drink and then says the magic words,

 “I will even get water for your camels to drink.” SCORE!

And what did Eliezer do – he waited and watched with astonishment as Rebecca finished quenching the camels’ thirst. (Chapter 24, verse 21). He did not jump into action immediately after she made the offer; rather he paused and took in the complete fulfillment of his requested prophecy.
The mentioning of Eliezer’s pause caught my attention this week. It reminded me of the countless times when I think that I receive a sign from the universe that things will work out the way I want them to. I get very excited and then when things turn sour, I experience disappointment or hopelessness. Maybe we can learn from Eliezer that when we are witnessing a sign we can pause and consider alternatives as to what it might mean. We can give a little time to pass to see if the sign is actually hinting at what we think, or perhaps not at all. Said simply, I can learn not to rush into narrow interpretations of events.

And also, like Eliezer, after pausing and witnessing, it is okay to make decisions based on a carefully interpreted sign. After the camels completed to drink, he presented Rebecca with gifts and discovered that he indeed found Avraham’s kin and the perfect wife for Isaac.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saying No to God

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
15 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 18-19, 2013

Saying NO to God!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

How do we begin to understand the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Itzhak)? To imagine that Avraham had the “faith” to kill his son is simply terrifying. I get a chill when I read the verse (22:10), “Avraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slaughter his son.”  Was he really planning to kill his son? Was Isaac really just able to hop on an alter to be bound and killed by his father? These questions have been occupying the minds of Torah scholars forever!  Some say that child sacrifice was a common practice back then and that this story displays a defining moment in monotheistic religions. Some say that Avraham actually killed Isaac, and then God brought him back to life! There are so many ways of reading this story and I would like to introduce the idea that in this story, Avraham learned to say NO to God.

When Avraham gets the command to kill his son (22:2) it contains the now familiar phrase: Lech-Lecha (simply translated as, “Go!”). This is the same phrase that Avraham perceived when God told him to leave his father’s house and take his family to Canaan. Perhaps Avraham heard this commandment as a continuation of his original journey. He showed faith in leaving all that he knew behind him and so he will show faith in offering his son to God.

In the plain text reading, as Avraham was about to slit his son’s throat, an angel beckoned from heaven to stay his hand (22:12), “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him…” I really hope that Avraham’s greatness was NOT in hearing the commandment to kill Isaac, but in his ability to hear this opposing call.

Our past actions set up our present behavior. And it is very easy to make choices simply on past decisions. Why vote for one party over another? Because my family votes for this party! Why don’t you like a certain food? Because I tried it once didn’t like it. We can become enslaved by our past and give up our freedom to act authentically in a fresh new moment!

This week we have the opportunity to consider our path through decision making. Do you rely so heavily on your past and so ignore critical new information that is presenting itself to you? Or the opposite, do you immerse yourself so fully into the present moment that you fail to consider the effort that has been put in by others that came before you? How can you be more balanced in your decision making?

Doing for Its Own Sake

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
15 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 18-19, 2013

Doing for Its Own Sake
by Daniel Susser, MH London

Whilst complex and esoteric explanations of the Torah can be interesting, satisfying and creative, often a close look at nothing more than the precise wording of a piece of text can yield deep insight into the intention of the text.

A passage of Torah can be notable by the repeated phrases, words or sequences of letters present therein. The first passage of Parashat Vayeira reads as follows:

And God appeared (vaYeRA) to him (Abraham) on the plains of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day. And he lifted his eyes and saw (vaYaRe), and behold, there were three men standing over him! And he saw (vaYaRE) and he ran to greet them from the entrance to the tent and he bowed to the ground and he said ''My lord, if now I have found favour in your sight, pass (tAVoR) not away, I pray thee, from your servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and satisfy your heart; after that you shall pass on (tAVoRu); for this have you come to your servant.' And they said: 'So do, as you have said'.

I have placed in brackets the Hebrew transliteration of some of the words with the root letters capitalised. The root 'YRA' meaning 'to see' appears three times in quick succession and in fact that parasha takes its name from the first instance. The root 'to pass' - 'AVR' appears twice in quick succession and is not the most obvious choice for the meaning of the sentences. The Torah is hinting to us.

This famous episode is more than an instance of spontaneous hospitality and an announcement of a future pregnancy. Abraham sees an opportunity to do kindness and though fleeting and temporary it may have been, he responds. He reflects on the temporal nature of this opportunity in his emphasis of 'pass on'. He knows that the good he will do will not last, it will not create anything permanent and it will not benefit him but for Abraham doing good does not need to result in any of these things. The difference you can make in doing a small action is its own justification and Abraham responds - count the instances of the root 'MHR' and 'RTz' meaning to hurry and to run in the story!
Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 7, 2013

God in All Things

Shabbat Lech-Lecha
8 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 11 – 12, 2013
Bereshit 12:1 – 17:27

God in All Things
Zvi Bellin, MH Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

What grabbed my attention in this week’s portion is the use of the word נפש (NEFESH) in three different places. Let me list the verses and then talk about the meaning of the word נפש .

In Chapter 12, verse 5, we read that Abram took all his belongings, including his kinsmen, with him when he left his father’s house. The verse lists that he took his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, all of their stuff, and the נפש  that they all made. The word נפש  here is generally interpreted as slaves and/or people that signed on to the Monotheistic way of life.

Later in the chapter, verse 13, Abram and Sarai are on their way to Egypt to escape a disastrous famine in the Canaan. Abram instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptians that she is Abram’s sister in order that, “it will go well with me, and my נפש  will be saved for your sake.” Abram assumed that if the Egyptians knew Sarai was his wife, he would be killed so that Pharaoh can have marry this rare beauty. In this context, נפש, refers to Abram’s life.

The last use of נפש  that I wish to call attention to is in Chapter 14, verse 21 in which Abram and his warriors vanquished the army of an alliance of kings who were living in Canaan. These kings were warring against another set of kings. The vanquished kings made the mistake of taking Lot, Abram’s nephew, captive – and nobody messes with Abram’s family. Thus, Abram helped the one set of kings (who among them was the King of Sodom) defeat the other group of kings. After all the fighting, the spoils of war belonged to Abram – after all, he lead the charge of victory. The King of Sodom approached Abram and asked him for his נפש  back. This is traditionally interpreted as wanting back his people that were originally captured by the enemy. Abram obliges and declares that he will not take anything that originally belonged to the King of Sodom.

Though נפש  is used here as meaning people or life, there is another mystical meaning. In Jewish thought there are at least 5 levels of soul. The “lowest” of which is called נפש . This level of soul refers to the base physical desires that are present in all living beings – for example, the need for sex and hunger.

I believe that the use of the word נפש  in this part of Abraham’s journey is teaching us about the unique revelation that he lived his life disseminating: Even the most base, physical experiences of the human being stem from the highest spiritual connection. In my understanding of Judaism, believing in one God means that there can be as much holiness in going to the bathroom as there is in fasting on Yom Kippur!

In the first verse, when Abram takes his נפש  with him, it can be a reference to him “taking” the understanding of how intimately the physical and spiritual are connected. After he goes to Egypt (in Hebrew מצרים  (Mitrayim), literally the Place of Constriction) to escape the famine. Here Abram needs help to hold on to his insight and it is Sarai who saves the unique revelation of oneness. And in the third verse, the King of Sodom, asks for his נפש  to be returned. Perhaps he is not ready for that level of Divine integration. It is a scary thought to believe that God is in our shit. Abram does not resist King Sodom’s request to return his נפש, because Abram does not need others to think like him in order to feel justified.

To sum things up, I think this is what we can learn from our Grand Papa Abraham:

1.       As Lauryn Hill said, “Everything is Everything!” Or, everything in this reality is a gateway to spiritual connectedness, even the un-pleasantries that we rather deny.
2.       We do not have to push ourselves to believe in anything new. We do have to live in a way that protects our revelations and perspectives, though.
3.       Differing beliefs and understandings do not mean that you are wrong. There are multiple levels and comforts when thinking about God in the world.