Monday, April 28, 2014

Parshat Emor
Vayikra 21:1 - 24:23
3 Iyar 5774 / May 2 - 3, 2014

Keeping Difficult Decisions Difficult
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

How do you go about making tough decisions? What information do you gather? Who do you consult? Where do you go for the clarification of values and ethics that allows you to choose one course of action over another, even when all choices are not perfect? When I read the final section of this week’s Torah portion these questions come to my mind.

Even today, people pay with their lives in response to seeking increased liberties. And each nation’s government has to make a decision if, and how, they should get involved in foreign conflicts. They often respond with military action that includes killing and supporting. The lines between enemy and civilian are blurred. The lines between helping and intruding also become blurred.

What about in our own communities? How do we punish behaviors and what does our reaction say about the kind of community that we are trying to establish? In Chapter 24 in the Book of Vayikrah (verses 10 – 23), we are told a story about a man who publicly curses God’s name. The people do not know what to do, so they take him to Moshe who locks him up. Moshe consults God who commands that this man must be stoned to death, AND in the same breath God says,

And a man – if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death.” (24:17)    

Now hold it there God. You just told us to kill this guy because he cursed You and now you seem to be saying if we listen to You and put him to death, we will be put to death too. What to do? A tough decision indeed!

This week, I understand this conundrum as saying: There is always a consequence to perpetuating violence. Death will always lead to more death – even if you have a good justified reason to do so. It seems to me that when we make a decision to go to war (figuratively, against ourselves, or another person, or literally, against an entire nation) we think only about the immediate effect of stopping whatever behavior we do not agree with. This story about the blasphemer widens my perspective to think about how violent action will inevitably lead to further violent action. I think history has proven this time and time again. I am not necessarily advocating for complete pacifism. I think this Portion is offering a reminder that the question to kill should always be a difficult one. If you can so easily agree with bloodshed, it might mean that you have ceased to see the other as a living person, like yourself. If we have lost our ability to recognize humanity, we can never create a humane world.

I hope that while the governments and armies of the globe are keeping peace within the model that is currently functioning, we Moisheniks – people living all over the world – are doing our part to educate against stereotypes, are learning deeply about the real issues from the perspective of the people facing them, and are innovating models of working for peace through peaceful means.

Monday, April 14, 2014

True Freedom, U Freedom

Shabbat PesachSh’mot 33:12 – 34:26
19 Nissan 5774 / April 18 – 19, 2014
Pesach begins tonight! And tomorrow night we start to count the Omer. On Shabbat Pesach, we take a break from the regular Parshiot cycle to read a portion that is more thematically in tune with the holiday. This weekend we jump backward in the Bible, to the book of Sh’mot. The Israelites have just committed the sin of the Golden Calf (oops!) and we find Moshe on Mt. Sinai pleading with God for a deeper personal revelation and for communal repentance. I  think the Parsha lends to thinking about the deeper meaning of Pesach, and that is what my D’var Torah below is about. Read on for further learning.
Many blessings!
True Freedom, U Freedomby Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

    On Passover we are told to refrain from eating anything that is leavened, or puffed up. Breads, bagels, muffins, certain cereals, and for some of us, beans and rice, are all placed under this category of food that is called chametz. Most of us know that the reason that we eat Matzah, or flat bread, is to remember that when the Jews were leaving Egypt, they had to rush out and did not have time for their bread to rise, thus they ate un-leavened bread. As Rabbis tend to do, they got concerned that eating seemingly leavened products would lead to eating actual leavened bread, so they created a radical edict to spend the entire holiday not eating anything that even slightly resembles leavened bread.
               Another way to understand this practice is to think about what Passover represents and how this special diet might help the attunement of our awareness. Before the original Passover, the Jewish people and Jewish identity was stuck in a particular mode – that of slavery. We worked in harsh conditions for the Egyptians, gaining nothing from the sweat of our brow. Our relationship with God was also stagnated as the Deity of individual ancestors whose memory we had to connect through. Suddenly, there came time for a big change. We were going to be shifting, warp-speed, from oppressed workers to a boundless independent nation. If we stopped for a moment to think about that, we probably would lose faith, and say, “Helk no! I ain’t going nowhere!” And if you take a peek into the Torah narrative, when the Jews stop to rest in the desert, they begin to complain for the life they had in Egypt.
               So matzah represents the Band-Aid (or plaster) that was yanked quickly off the wound of an enslaved identity. When we eat matzah, or more importantly, when we refrain from eating chametz and chametz-related foods, we are symbolically recreating this obliteration of the usual story and identity that we carry around. All for the purpose, I remind you, of receiving a newer and more liberated sense of self. Thus, we jaggedly cut out all the foods that are “filled with hot air,” and allow our egos to deflate. Of course, quick change does not equal lasting change. For this reason, we begin to count the Omer until Shavuot, which represents a more thoughtful and comprehensive transformation from slave to free-person.
               For some of us, we might not connect with the idea of cutting out bread on Pesach. I would strongly recommend trying out the traditional practice in small doses, but I think there are other ways to enhance this dramatic shift in our inner-selves.
1.       You might try another way of playing with diet. Perhaps Passover is a good time for a juice fast, or cutting out sugars, or other things that make you “high and inflated.”
2.       You can make a list of, “Things I would do if I was truly free,” and then see how close you are to enacting these things. Perhaps there are a few that you should still refrain from.
3.       Perhaps there is part of your name that you do not identify with – your middle name, or Hebrew name. You might spend the week introducing yourself with a new name and reclaiming your relationship with it.
4.       Maybe there is a new Jewish practice that you want to try out that might enhance the way you live. Meditation, daily prayer, or lighting candles on Shabbat are all tools that free us from our normal way of doing and being.
5.       Play with the seder to make it more meaningful. Introduce your own poems and personal stories of oppression and liberation. According to the Haggadah, you have to say the following three words: PESACH, MATZAH, and MARROR. The rest just might be commentary.
So however we fill our bellies (and hearts and minds) this Pesach, I bless us that we can experience a new and deeper understanding of what it means to be free. And that we should see freedom blossom in those places where freedom seems stifled.

Many blessings,

Monday, April 7, 2014

Choose Life Itself!

Acharei Mot (Shabbat Hagadol)Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30
12 Nisan 5774 / April 11-12, 2014

Choose Life Itself!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This portion is named Acharei Mot, meaning After Death, and it takes us back to, “the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” (Vayikra, 16:1). God teaches the children of Israel the proper way in which the High Priest, Aaron at the time, can draw close to the Lord without dying. The ritual is complex, with specific vestments, time frames, sacrifices, and intentions. Ultimately, for the Judaism of today, the ritual presented in this portion becomes the basis for our Yom Kippur service. We no longer carry out the specific ritual mentioned, though we draw from the reverence and responsibility that was given to the High Priest’s actions on that specific day.

As I reflect on this, the name of this portion, After Death, rings out to me. Our (mystical) tradition has a lot to say about what happens after we die - heaven & hell (gehenom), reincarnated souls, the Messianic world to come - but the Torah itself is generally silent about this (post) existential topic. Is there some teaching here for us about after we die? Is there a connection with the Yom Kippur ritual? And, since Pesach is right around the corner, how does this teaching connect to the themes of liberation?

There are similarities between the process of dying and the Yom Kippur ritual described in this portion. The process of the Priest washing his body and dressing in white linen clothing. And the fact that Aaron must carry out this ritual all by himself - a reminder that ultimately we are responsible for our own lives and that we die alone. This is a trepidatious moment in the text and in our lives, though the text continues. Aaron steps behind the veil of the sanctuary, perhaps a metaphor for stepping behind the veil of the life. What does Aaron do in the sanctuary? He performs his greatest act of service. He atones for the entire community of Israel, wiping clean any shortcomings that may have become evident over the course of the year. It is as if Aaron is given the power to turn back time, returning the Israelites to a state of absolute purity.       

Looking at Aaron’s journey on Yom Kippur as a metaphor for after death, I get to ask the question, What if? What if the Torah is hinting to us that our work in the world does not end with our physical bodies? What if the work we do when we are alive is nothing in comparison to the impact we have after we die? I think about Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah Senesh, Rosa Parks, Abraham Joshua Heschel. People whose legacies last beyond a single lifetime. It greatly mattered who these people were in their lives, and the work they did daily, because they created the possibility to continue to transform the world without their physical presence. Similarly, Aaron’s crucial daily role in the community as the High Priest, enabled him to have such tremendous influence beyond the veil on Yom Kippur.

Today the Torah is reminding me that being alive is about setting the stage for how I influence and inspire others in this lifetime and beyond this lifetime.  Perhaps it is not so important to understand what happens to my individual consciousness when I die, but it is important to consider how my life will continue to impact the world even after I die. The Torah teaches me that I cannot separate living for today from today’s influence on eternity.
How does this connect with Pesach and the theme of liberation? Freedom is manifested in our choice to be responsible for the lives that we live. If everyone was free to just do whatever they wanted, there would be no room for actual freedom. Considering the after death teaching of Yom Kippur - that I live with the intention of impacting the world beyond my individual life - creates a greater sense of freedom. I am not bound by my physical body in terms of my service and purpose of being alive. My essence is not narrowly constricted between one breath to the next.  Also, there is ultimate freedom in being able to choose an infinite amount of responsibility to life itself, rather than one life, or even to several generations of life. Considering the choice to be responsible to life itself creates a clear sense of freedom for me. How about for  you?