Monday, December 30, 2013

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
3 Shevat 5774 / Jan. 3 - 4, 2014

Pharaoh's Flawed Philosophy of Forgiveness—A Story of Stubbornness
by Jack Cohen, Alumni Moishe House East Bay, CA

Who's younger brother is Pharaoh? Because only a younger brother gets slapped around 7 times and comes back for more, to a greater power, still refusing to admit he's wrong. In this epic story of stubbornness, Parshat Bo relates the 8th, 9th, and the grand finale, go-for-the-(g)oldest 10th plague, along with the first celebration of and instructions for Passover. The parsha begins curiously, with G?d taking responsibility for this stubbornness, for a very specific purpose: to make G?d's existence known and deplore an immoral way of relating to each other. I want to explore this through examining Pharaoh's dubious attempts at forgiveness along the way.

What's odd about Pharaoh's pattern, bearing uncanny resemblance to many a childhood fight between myself and my older or younger brother, is the quick admission each time, as soon as the punishments hail in, of wrong-doing and request for relief. The 8th plague, locusts, arrives, and the Torah tells us, “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened...[and they ate everything] so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt” (10:24). What happens next? Pharaoh rushes (“vaymaher”) to summon Moses and Aaron to plead guilty and beg forgiveness: “I stand guilty before the Lord your G?d and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your G?d that He but remove this death from me” (10:17). No sooner than is the plague gone, we discover, “But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (10:20). And the 9th plague, total darkness, quickly ensues.

A first lesson comes here—we cannot rush the process of real forgiveness. What does real forgiveness require? What is Pharaoh's plea missing, that he might break the cycle of plague-ry? Pharaoh seeks relief from what he is suffering, but never to recognize the immorality of his actions. Had Pharaoh read the brilliant editorial On Forgiveness in the New York Times (2011), perhaps he would have acted otherwise. Philosophy professor Charles Griswold argues therein for the bilateral nature of the ideal forgiveness process, emphasizing the necessity of at least four elements on the part of the perpetrator for real tshuvah (return, at-one-ment) to be possible. He identifies admission of responsibility, recognition of the victim's experience of the wrong-doing, feelings of remorse, and a resolve not to do it again. He has a thing for words that begin with “re”. Of these, Pharaoh might be said to have only the first, and even that is disputable. Professor Griswold argues that the purpose of “forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.”

Is it fair, however, to continue to accuse Pharaoh of immorality when after all, it is now G?d stiffening Pharaoh's heart, no longer happening of Pharaoh's own accord, as in the first five plagues? (See examples at 8:15, vayechezak, 8:29 vayachbed, 9:7 vayichbad.) I am still unsure. My only way of reconciling this is to appreciate how accurately G?d's actions here reflect our reality. Pharaoh is perpetually self-absorbed and in denial; as nice and true a claim as “it's never too late to change” may be, what is more common is that we cultivate habits of heart—virtuous or vile—and they gather momentum until they are driving on their own. It takes tshuvah and real forgiveness to really change this momentum, and G?d is unwilling to reward a feigned request for forgiveness.

This manifests from G?d's first encounter with Moses, when G?d has this all planned out, intent on Egypt's authentic and undeniable recognition of G?d's existence. Again in the first words of this week's parsha, G?d tells Moses explicitly why he's hardened Pharaoh's heart and the heart of his servants: “in order that I may display these My signs among order that you may know that I am the Lord” (10:1). Earlier takeaways help me begin to understand this. If we cannot rush real forgiveness, and in its ideal form it requires participation and understanding of both parties, then this is the role of the victim, G?d, ensuring that the Egyptians have enough time to become really aware of their wrong, and ultimately acknowledge “that I'm G?d” and you, or your idols, are not. While a more sudden awakening to this Fact might have been smoother, the story recognizes the gravity of the offense and presents an appropriately more gradual series of reminders that are unforgettable. This increases the chance of “a moral relation between self and other”; were one people to really recognize the G?dly nature of another, it would be impossible to subjugate them in the future, or treat each other in any less than the most virtuous of ways. Cultivating this happens as a course of habit—that is, of repeated actions—and so it makes sense that G?d's plan would unfold in like manner.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Parshat Va’Era
Sh’mot 6:2 – 9:35
25 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 27 - 28, 2014

Living Liberation from the Inside Out
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

As I read through this week’s Torah portion, I was reminded of a Harry Potter style wizards’ dual. Moshe and Aaron show up at Pharoah’s palace and throw down one magic trick after another – sticks to snakes, water to blood, and frogs from everywhere! After each of these signs Pharoah’s magicians counter by performing the same trick.  Until the lice and so on through the rest of the 10 plagues, where they see that this magic is beyond human ability.

Amazingly, this epic sorcerers’ battle was sparked by a power that not even God could overturn:
ט  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
9 And Moshe spoke so to the children of Israel; but they could not hear Moshe for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage.

This verse directly precedes Moshe and Aaron coming to Pharoah’s house.  Moshe is first told by God to go to the children of Israel and let them know that God is with them and will deliver them from slavery. As we see from the verse above, they are unable to take in this message. The children of Israel have been beat down so much by years of oppression that the seeds of liberation cannot be planted within them. They are like soil that is too tightly packed in, nothing can penetrate it! It seems that because of this God directs Moshe and Aaron to Pharoah’s palace to destroy the externally imposed bonds of slavery instead. If liberation cannot be actualized from within the people, it must be forced from the outside.

A few things stand out for me as potential learning points. True freedom cannot be imposed on someone else. Even though the Israelites were taken out of Egypt, it took them generations to embrace freedom on the inside. I think Jews are still in this process today (even without our collective Holocaust trauma), so many Jewish rituals remind us of being taken out of Egypt – begging us to contemplate our status as a free people.

Taking this message more internally, the Israelites could not hear Moshe because of impatience of spirit, or literally, shortness of breath.   How often do we refuse to fully accept reality because our anger or fear gets in our way? We can see this physically in our breath which is shortened when we are upset or afraid. Even when good news comes along, we can be so wrapped up in a past story of hurt that we fail to acknowledge the blessing that is coming our way. We cannot breathe in the change!

When Moshe approached the children of Israel, they were unable to breathe in their freedom. Their identity of oppression was too strong to allow any other possibility to seem viable. I want to believe that in some way the plagues on the Egyptians, and the plagues of our own lives, do not have to always happen if we can only see through the cruel bondage with a patient spirit to the tides of change in our lives.   Sometimes, reality is just too harsh and time is needed for our insides to catch up to an outside situation. But other times, and perhaps more often than we think, we can use the wisdom of the breath to teach us that we might be holding ourselves back from moving forward.

Monday, December 16, 2013

“Call me Freedom!”

Parshat Sh’mot
18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013
Sh’mot 1:1 – 6:1

“Call me Freedom!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I have a simple question this week. Why is the name of the second book of the Torah called Sh’mot in Hebrew and Exodus in English? Sh’mot means names and of course, Exodus refers to freedom. As we say in Hebrew, “Mah Hakesher?” What is the connection?
The simple answer is that there is not a real connection. The book begins with the verse, “And these are the NAMES of the Children of Israel…” Thus the first portion of the book is called NAMES, making the book itself titled NAMES. This is standard practice – in Hebrew, each book of the Torah is named after the first portion of that book. In English, we use more thematically oriented names. Thus, this book is about the nation of Israel leaving Egypt in an epic journey, an Exodus in fact! The second book of the Torah is therefore called Exodus. Simple enough.

And of course, there are always deeper levels and connection to look at.

The ancient storytellers of Torah (aka The Rabbis) shared that during the time of slavery, the Israelite nation was steeped in deep assimilation. They were hanging on to their identities by mere threads. These threads though were just enough to keep their faith and connection with God alive, meriting God’s intervention. One of these “threads” was that the nation of Israel kept their Hebrew names passed down generation to generation, reminding them that even though they lived in Egypt and were currently slaves, ultimately they were non-Egyptian free people.

When I was 14 or 15 I left Yeshivah to go to public school. When I was sitting with the guidance counselor at the Yeshivah before I left she said, “Well, with a name like Zvi, you will always remember you are Jewish.” Cheesy, but true. Years later, I am sitting writing a D’var Torah as the Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling of an international Jewish organization. My 15 year old self is completely baffled.

The NAMES of the Israelite people perhaps provided the cultural continuity to not get completely lost amongst the degrading identity imposed by the Egyptians.

This is a great week to think about your name and contemplate its roots. Does your name spark a memory of a beloved family member? An interesting story? Do you not feel very connected to the meaning of your name? Perhaps it’s time for a name adjustment or some deeper exploration.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Moving Past Family Drama

Parashat Vayechi11 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 13-14, 2013
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26

Moving Past Family Drama
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’yechi (And he Lived), we find a very beautiful blessing that Jacob gives to the two sons of Joseph, Efraim and Menasheh. This blessing is sung today in a soulful melody in many Jewish communities, so its power has a lot of vibration from Jacob’s lips to our very own. Here are the words from Chapter 48:

טז  הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.
16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.'

What I find so profound about this blessing is that it brings an end to a vicious cycle in the Torah where siblings are pitted against one another. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Generation upon generation of inherited conflict. Until we get to Efraim and Menashe. They were raised in a foreign land, in Egypt, beyond the cultural narrative of their heritage. Jacob blesses them together. There is room in this world for both of these boys to be great in their way. And even as Jacob blesses the younger son with his right hand (a sign of greater greatness), there is no complaint from the older. Perhaps Menashe, the older son, does not need to rely solely on this blessing to affirm his greatness. Perhaps he thought the his brother’s greatness will only serve to increase his own anyway. Some how, I imagine, that he was able to rise above a possible perceived discrepancy and remain aware of the truth of the situation - “My grandfather is dying, my father is aging, and I am living my own journey.”

It is so easy to get tangled up in family drama - to cut people out of our lives that have wronged us, or to run away when we feel we have hurt someone else. I want to invite us to take a note from Menashe this week - We do not have to be stuck in our inherited family roles.  We can have positive relationships with our families (which is not the same as perfect relationships). Most importantly, it only takes one person to act differently to create change in a relationship.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Who’s Your Daddy!

Parashat VaYigash
4 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 6 – 7, 2013
44:18 – 47:27

Who’s Your Daddy!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Parasha we have the meeting of two national super-giants. The great Emperor of Egypt, Paroah becomes acquainted with Jacob, the Patriarch of the Jewish people. I imagine some high drama at this gathering. Jacob, who has thought his son was dead, goes to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph who is #2 to the ruler of Egypt. The excitement, fear, joy, confusion, and disbelief could only have been overwhelming. Then the moment comes, for Jacob to stand face-to-face with the man that saved Joseph’s life. Paroah nurtured Joseph, clothed and fed him, and gave him a status level that Jacob could never have offered.

What might have Jacob felt looking into the eyes of the man who became the stand-in father for his most beloved son. This man, Paroah, was able to protect and elevate him. Under Jacob’s watch, Joseph was cast-off and sold into slavery.  

The Torah tells us that when Jacob and Paroah meet, Jacob blesses Paroah two times – once upon introduction and the second upon their parting. Rashi (1040 – 1105) comments that this was in the natural way of people who greet royalty. Though he goes on to quote a Midrash (interpretive story) that Jacob blessed Paroah that the Nile River will rise up to meet him whenever he approached it. And the blessings came true. When Paroah would approach the Nile the waters would rise, enabling their crops to be irrigated.

It seems that in offering this power blessing to Paroah, Jacob was reminding everyone (and perhaps himself too) that the source of Joseph’s success was not only the physical gifts and prestige bestowed on him from Paroah, but rather the spiritual gifts that suffuses Jacob’s blood line. One way of looking at Jacob’s blessings is a statement of power – “Hey Paroah! You think you’re such a hot potato! Take this.” In this instance (and with Paroah’s willingness) Jacob was able to re-establish his place as the head of his family, and the father of his beloved and praised son, Joseph.

What is the message in this for us today? I feel that in the U.S. we have to be very careful how we appreciate our Jewishness. “It is great to be Jewish, but not greater than any other religion.” (I wonder how it is for you outside of the U.S.) I think that keeping a level-headedness about our Jewish heritage is necessary. At the same time, I recommend taking some time to realize the gift of being Jewish. The rich history and blessing that is part of our story and our blood. Being Jewish engraves practices and ethics like Shabbat, charity giving, and community support into our daily lives. I believe that we should not shy away from honoring our beautiful traditions.