Monday, November 25, 2013

A Lesson in Caring

Parshat Miketz
26 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 29 – 30, 2013
Bereshit 41:1 – 44:17

A Lesson in Caring
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all know the story. Pharoah has two dreams – fat things are eaten by famished things and they do not get any healthier. He calls together his magicians and dream casters for advice. No one can give Pharoah a satisfying interpretation. One of the king’s ministers recalls a prisoner that he once met who interpreted his dream quite accurately and Yosef is brought before Pharoah to interpret the royal dreams. Yosef listens to the dreams and promises an interpretation only as far as God will reveal to him. From the dreams Yosef understands that 7 years of plenty are on their way. The abundance will be followed by a treacherous famine, the likes of which have never been seen before. While this seems like a complete interpretation, he adds, (41:33-36)

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.'

Perhaps this was part of the Divine insight that Yosef had about the dream, or maybe he was just capitalizing on a chance to make a huge social status vault from prisoner to Second-in-Command. I am unsure. What I do notice though is that Yosef delivers terrible news to the King with a viable solution without skipping a beat. When I think about how news is delivered to me in the U.S., it is often just a dropped bomb with an attitude of, “Here you go. You are on your own.” The world of media charges itself with delivering some version of the truth, but seems unconcerned with the consequences of its message. Gay teens are bullied. Unemployment is on the rise. War and unrest in many parts of the world. Messages delivered, media retreats.

I do not expect the media to have all the answers (or any answers). The folks in front of and behind the camera are just as clueless as anyone else. I do think though that the fissure between delivery of news and caring about the consequences is a symptom of a society that does not act from a place of compassion. And our generation has the potential to learn to create a more caring society by taking this teaching into the personal sphere.

Think about some times in your life when you had to deliver news that was not the greatest. Did you adopt a just the facts attitude in your telling, or did you consider how you might nurture the person as they are impacted by your news? When I interned as a counselor in the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, I had to guide families through a process of identifying their loved ones who had died. I had to learn to pay attention to every word that was uttered, body language, and breathing patterns. My goal was to bring some sense of order to arguably the most chaotic time in someone’s life. This is not feasible for every conversation, though it provides some context for being a caring and compassionate informant.
When Pharoah hears Yosef’s words he elevates him to be his prime advisor and changes his name to Tsafnat Paneach (41:45). Scholars can only guess at the meaning of this name. And one interpretation is given by Onkelus (c.35-120 CE) as “The Man to Whom All Secrets are Illuminated.” Yosef did not simply bring awareness to the coming disaster, but delivered the message with concern for its after-effects.

As Adam Sandler reminds us, “Channukah is the Festival of Lights!” (Celebrated everywhere this year from the evening of Nov. 27 to Dec. 5th.) Metaphorically, we celebrate this holiday to remember that even in the darkest times, there is always light. The light of Channukah is hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s potential when no alternative is in sight. It’s presence in the midst of utter confusion. This year, I want to challenge myself and our community to not just bring awareness of what is happening in our communities, but to act, like Yosef, as total Illuminators – increasing care and compassion.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Learning from the Pit

Parshat VaYeshev
20 Kislev 5774 / November 22-23, 2013
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23

Learning from the Pit
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Yosef, the beloved son of Yaacov hits rock bottom this week. Literally! His dad gives him a beautiful coat which hails tremendous jealousy from his brothers. Not to mention Yosef’s dreams about his brothers and parents worshipping him do not help. His brothers are so fed up with their younger brother’s antics that they toss him into a pit and sell him into slavery.
“When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped him of his ornamented cloak and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:23-24)
Channukah begins next week (Nov. 27) and I am wondering how Yosef’s descent into this empty pit relates to the holiday of lights (Chag Ha’Urim).
One spiritual message of Channukah is that light is to be found even in the darkest night. This can be a metaphor for so many things, including that hope and possibility are always present in the midst of despair and doubt. I think this is what Yosef teaches us. He is in the pit of despair – shunned by his family and stripped of his radiant coat. The world was looking pretty amazing until this moment in his life. And like so many moments that occur, his world and his identity are turned upside down. Who can he trust? Where is he going? How will he survive this very painful moment? Yosef in the pit can represent the curve ball that life throws that we see in death, loss, and doubt.
The message of Channukah is to sit in the pit, because you have no other choice but to accept reality. At first you will look around and say that this moment is empty – I am alone. We see that all the experiences of our life, all the blessings of our life, have not adequately prepared us to deal with this amount of struggle – There is not even water here!
Very slowly though, as we light the first light of Channukah which over time becomes the radiance of eight shining flames, we discover inner and outer resources that we were originally blind to. Yosef discovers his faith and the power of his dreams. For some of us, in difficult times we might encounter a compassionate waiting community or a wellspring of dormant creativity. Our eyes and our lives adjust to the darkness of the pit until we see that there is a whole world to explore. A world that is more radiant with meaning and connection then we could have ever imagined.     
Wishing all of us a Chag Channukah Sameach. A joyous Channukah Celebration!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Dvar Torah Vayishlach
13 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 15-16, 2013
Genesis 32:4-36:43

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Director

What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28

A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his bother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken).  Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.

The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.

“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25

This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart.  Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing.  The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: 

"What is your name?"

It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight.  The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac.  This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.”

At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.

The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played.  Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day.  My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.

Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless.  We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”).  Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest.  Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother.  Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable.

Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts.  It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward.  It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.

What is your name?  What does it mean to you?  Who are you named for, if anyone?

What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name?

When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?

We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you).  We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations.  But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.

This week, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Digging for Love

Shabbat VaYetzeh
Bereishit 28:10 – 32:3
6 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 8 – 9, 2013

Digging for Loveby Zvi Bellin, Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

Welcome back to the well. Two weeks ago, Rebecca, Yitzhak’s wife, is discovered by the well in Avraham’s old home town. This time, it is Yitzhak’s son, Yaacov that will meet his future beloved, Rachel by the well, it seems in the very same town. The Torah loves to pair the hanging out by the well with finding one’s soul mate. A well is a place where one must dig deep in order to discover and draw forth water – the life blood of the Earth. As we enter into the month of Kislev, the month of sleep, we focus internally – a hibernation process – to discover our own life blood. This can be a process to prepare for bringing love into our life.

Water is often seen as a symbol for Torah. Just as water sustains life, so too Torah sustains life by creating a path and practice for how one might live his or her life. Just as water can be found by digging deep into the Earth, Torah, the authentic path of how we should live our lives, can be found by digging deep inside ourselves. We move past self-doubts that hold us back, and limiting thoughts that degrade us. We let go of false restrictions that we place upon ourselves, and refine our beliefs and attitudes. And awaiting us, in these depths is the pintaleh yid, the Divine spark, that reminds us how holy and beloved each person is.

It might be so that our soul mate is the person who recognizes the inner Divine spark and helps us to live up to our highest potential. This can work in the normative models of one-to-one partnership, and it also is relevant between close friends, family relationships, and even chance and limited encounters.

May we all be blessed with many people in our lives who can easily see how unique and holy we are.