Monday, March 31, 2014

The Blessing of the Living Bird

Parshat Metzorah
Vayikra 14:1 – 15:33
5 Nisan 5774 / April 4 – 5, 2014

The Blessing of the Living Bird
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I find the ritual for cleaning the person afflicted with Tzara’at simply strange. Essentially, the Kohen takes two birds. He kills one bird and lets the blood drip into a clay pot with water. Then he takes the second still living bird and dips it into the water/blood mixture of the first bird. He sprinkles the blood that is covering the live bird on the newly cleansed person and then sets the live bird free.  

I am not really sure what to make of this. But I wanted to highlight this ritual as I enjoy taking note of some of the bizarre practices that we have at our roots. I sometimes see Yogic community members walking around in orange or yellow robes, with their little bells and thin pony-tails sprouting from the top of their heads, and I think, “Hmmm…That is strange.”

If I was able to time travel back to the days of the Jewish people in the desert, or early Palestine, I would probably shout with fright and feel uneasy with the lavish dressing of the Priests, the uber-posh décor of the Temple, and the bloody worship rituals. It does make me feel less judgmental about other people’s practices when I think how strange Jewish people must have looked (and at times, still look) to outsiders.  

There is something in this ritual though, that I really love. I feel joy when the Torah tells us that the live bird is set free. It is like ourselves and our souls. The live bird has experienced the trauma of witnessing and experiencing pain and suffering. It has been bloodied and shaken by outside forces, yet that was all temporary. It is able to spread its wings again and live on to experience new adventures, new sorrows and new joys.

I would like to bless us with the blessing of this living free bird. May we be able to acknowledge the pain and sorrow of the world and continue to find the strength to spread our wings and soar. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Living into Transitions

Parshat Tazria
VaYikra 12:1-13:59
5774 Adar II 27 / March 28-29, 2014

Living into Transitions
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Our parsha begins with seemingly archaic laws for new mothers:

VaYikra, Chapter 12
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be t’meah seven days; she shall be t’meah as at the time of menstruation. — 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. — 4 She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. 5 If she bears a female, she shall be t’meah two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.

This passage begs a few questions for me:
1. Why should giving birth be something that is t’meah (usually translated as impure)?
2. Why is there a difference between boy and girl babies?
3. What does it mean to purify one’s blood?
4. What is the message for me today?

Let’s see how we do with some answers.

1. T’meah is ususally translated as impure, but when we look at the nuances of being tameh, we see that it is a category that says that someone is experiencing something physical which puts them in between the states of healthy and unhealthy, between life and death. When someone is in that state, the practice in ancient times was to separate them from the community - giving them time for respite and healing. In some cases, it would require soul-searching to consider if the person’s actions brought on the affliction, and for other times, as in childbirth, it was just a separation, with no judgement implied. We can all agree that in ancient times (and today too) having a baby was a great risk to the mother, and some time away from the responsibilities of the community to replenish and heal seems like a good idea.

2. So why the difference between a baby boy and a baby girl. When I read the parsha this time around I was reminded of Early Attachment Theory. The first few weeks of life require great attention from a primary caregiver in order for a baby to develop physically, emotional, mentally, and spiritually. It is amazing how important that early bond is between parent and child. Having space where mom has uninterrupted time with her newborn seems completely wise. In ancient times, community survival depended on the adoption of clear gender roles. In some ways, in modern times, we still depend on clear gender roles, though to an ever lessening extent (Amen!). Given the need for gender role training, and how early newborns begin to pick up on the way their assigned gender is supposed to act, it seems wise for mom to have an extended amount of time with her daughter to steep her new daughter in the presence of womanhood. Boy babies could more quickly join the world of men to begin their gender training.

3. I want to read that blood purification here is the healing that a new mom needs. At childbirth, a new mom experiences blood loss, and her body needs time to rest and regain strength. There is a spiritual teaching that when a baby is born, the mother experiences a spiritual emptiness and time is needed for her to feel a sense of wholeness again. This fits well with the prevalence of postpartum depression that women experience after giving birth. We see a connection between the loss of blood, the birth of the baby, and the need for the new mother to reconfigure to her new role - caring for the baby that is no longer a growing part inside of her body. Perhaps this process of holistic healing is blood purification.

4. Message for me today - Reflecting on the themes above gives me new insight and inquiry into the needs of new parents. Does our society create the proper space needed for new parents to successfully move from expecting parents to actual parents? Also, do I give myself the space needed to step into new stages of life - new jobs, new relationships, deaths, births? Every transition, even happy ones like childbirth, contain a vulnerable period that can be navigated with attention and compassion in order to step into that next stage of life with greater hope and clarity.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Shadow of Spiritual Practice

Parshat Shemini
22 Adar 2 5774 / March 21 – 22, 2014
Vayikra 9:1 – 11:40

The Shadow of Spiritual Practice

This is the portion of 8. In Jewish mysticism 8 is the number that represents the realm beyond the natural order. 7 days in the weeks, culminating in Shabbat, and then 8 – there is always more than meets the eye.

This portion has a disturbing tale. The sons of Aaron are newly consecrated Priests. They make an offering to God and are killed for it. The basic understanding of this is that they worshipped in their way, not in the way God wanted from the nation. That is a big no-no.

This reminds me of  an article I read a year or two ago about a couple that took a multi-year vow of silence within a spiritual community. For certain reasons, they were ousted from the community. They were in the middle of the desert, with no resources. Instead of breaking their vow of silence and heading back to civilization, they remained in the desert until, eventually, one of them died.

Spiritual practice has a shadow side. It can be dangerous. If you ever took a Yoga class, you might remember a time you pushed past your limit to injury. Or on a larger scale, take note how conflicts and wars result from religious idealism. In spite of these dangers, I appreciate two Jewish values that seem to protect us from harm:

1.       Above all things – do not put your life in danger.
2.       Stay connected to community.

With Pesach liberation only 4 weeks away, we can weigh these two values seriously as our first steps to building a safe and supportive environment for all.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Parshat Tzav (Zachor)
Vayikra 6:1 – 8:36
15 Adar 2 5774 / March 14-15, 2014

Hi MH’ers!

Hope you are ready for a blast-off week. In this week’s parsha we continue to learn about the sacrificial offerings and we hear the tale of the 7 day ritual which establishes Aaron and his sons as the Priests of the community. In traditional synagogues a special portion will also be read, Parshat Zachor – the Portion of Rememberance, which relates the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek. Funny isn’t it, to be commanded to remember to forget something! 

Parshat Zachor fits neatly into the theme of Purim, as Haman is metaphorically associated with Amalek. Reminder, the Fast of Esther is this Thursday and Purim is this Sat. night and Sunday. Read on for some thoughts about Purim.

Many blessings!

May the Real Purim Please Stand Up!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Here is comes again! Purim. The holiday that celebrates Esther and Mordechai’s brave acts that seemed to turn fate on its head so that the Jewish people were saved and the evil people (Haman and his family) were hanged. Of course, as a side note, a simple reading of the Scroll of Esther also shares that many other people died as a result, soldiers who were just following orders. (Note to self: Do not do things that are just following orders.)

How do we celebrate this holiday? We give money to the poor and food to our friends. We dress up in costumes. And oh yes, we get drunk, so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, between evil and good.

At a certain point in time, this seemed really cool to me. A holiday where we celebrate by getting sloshed! Can there be anything better? When I consider some of the deeper messages of this holiday, I actually do think so. I am not sure that the way that I learned to drink is really getting at what the Rabbis wanted when they decreed, “Ad d’lo Yada,” Drink until you do not know the difference between good and evil.

Here are some underlying themes of the Purim story that can easily get lost when I am on the special sauce –
1.      God is not mentioned in the story of Esther at all! The world where the story takes place is the closest to our experience of the world today, more than any other holiday narrative. Life seems to happen at random and it can be quite a scary reality to live in.

2.      It is really difficult to stick your neck out for a greater good. The enticement of personal safety is so strong, though it must be risked, especially when your family (or any minority group) is being threatened.

3.      There is nothing in this world that is purely good or purely bad. In fact, these terms might be completely arbitrary in this world. When we look back at life’s events, we see horrendous tragedies feed into amazing advancements and joyous celebrations. We only know joy, because we know sorrow.

Purim is not just a simple story that calls for an over-the-top celebration of Jewish survival. It is an acknowledgment, and perhaps an uncomfortable one, that the world we live in makes no sense. Living a just life comes through immense sacrifice. Whether you believe in God or not, there is no guidebook for a happy peaceful existence, and maybe the point of existence is not even peace and happiness. These are scary facts to face, and often lead people toward abusing alcohol, since it is much easier to be drunk than to face these scary facts.

When the Rabbis were inviting us to get drunk, their intention was to engage us in a transcendent encounter with these facts. Similar to a dream state, where it is easier to process our difficult emotions, when we are drunk it is easier to deal with the harsh truths of this world in order to integrate them into how we approach living day-to-day. But it depends on how your drink. I learned to drink to forget and purge, not to encounter and accept. I experienced this kind of drinking before, when I was living in a Yeshivah in Brooklyn. Everyone was drinking around a table and singing songs with full passion. Dancing ensued, faster and faster and more ecstatic. Suddenly, a Rabbi pulled me over for an intimate conversation and gave me a blessing that I was on the right spiritual path. He spoke of the courage he saw in me and empowered me to continue to live my Jewish life authentically.

So I think Purim is a time when we embrace the doubt that we see in the world, in our communities, and in ourselves. We dress up and get playful because nothing is as it seems, and this is what we got, so let’s celebrate it. We drink, just enough, so we can more easily feel connected to each other, so we can throw our arms around each other and share blessings of beauty, strength, and comfort. If you can do this without drinking and with more presence, amazing! And then we do the real mitzvoth of Purim, Sending Food and Gifts to the Poor - we share what we have so that everyone will have food to eat, shelter to live under, clothing to dress in, and love and care to be nurtured.   

Have a Truly Happy Purim! 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Please Pass the Salt

Parshat Vayikra
Vayikra 1:1 – 5:26
6 Adar 2 5774 / March 7 – 8, 2014

Please Pass the Salt
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

ב:יג  וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ, בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח, וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ; עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ, תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח.

2:13 And every meal-offering you shall season with salt; neither should you remove the salt of the covenant of your God from your meal-offering; with all thy offerings you shall offer salt.

Do you know the story about the sad ocean waters who complained that they were too far away from God? The Midrash (stories about the Torah) teaches that when the upper waters were separated from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters threw a bit of a hissy fit.

“Why should the upper waters have all the fun, hanging with God in heaven? What about us?”

God, being a good listener and problem solver, answered, “Hey beautiful lower waters, don’t fret. In the future there will be a group of people called Israelites, and they will be commanded to worship me through sacrifices. In order to cheer you up, I am going to add on a rule to their sacrifices that the salt that comes from you will be sprinkled on each sacrifice that they put on my alter. So through your salt you will make it up here bit by bit.”

This appeased the waters and all was good and happy.

Rabbi Yaacov Kaminentsky points out that when salt water is boiled, it is the water that rises and the salt that stays behind. It is as if we are commanded to put the “rejected” part of the water on the alter. And this is basically what Rabbi Kaminentsky concludes. The salt not only involves the element of water in the sacrificial process, but it also reminds us that every part of this physical world can serve as a prayer to the Divine.

When we remember that the Hebrew word for sacrifice (korban) also means to come close, a beautiful teaching emerges. The one thing that was constant in all the sacrifices was the salt. No matter what the reason for the sacrifice, for peace or guilt, sin or celebration, through the salt the Israelites added a piece of themselves that they felt was unworthy to bring close to the Divine.
This is a transformational process. What I might want to reject about myself is ultimately accepted by God. In our modern times, we still perform sacrifices, though not by slaughtering animals. Rather, we draw close using out words during moments prayer, both formal and informal.

I am pretty sure that heaven is not actually above us in outer space somewhere, and I doubt that the message of the salt story is that we are closer to God when we are higher up in the sky. I think the message is that we get closer to the Divine when we allow more of ourselves to come close. This point of awareness should be weaved into our lives in all of our prayers.