Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A World of Blessing

Parshat Naso
2 Sivan 5774 / May 30 – 31, 2014
Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

A World of Blessing
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

'May God bless you and guard you.
'May God shine God’s countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
'May God turn God’s countenance toward you and grant you peace.'" (Bamidbar 6:24-26)

The Jewish practice of blessing is quite audacious. We hold that no matter what kind of person you are, your words hold the spiritual power to shift the way reality unfolds. This is actually not such a hard phenomenon to witness. The next time you take a stroll down the street, or are at a grocery store, see what happens when you greet people with warm words versus speaking coldly to them. You will certainly draw different kinds of responses, and your small encounters will most likely cause ripples of impact in the lives of others.

Today, the Priestly Blessing is an invitation to stop and take notice of the people that surround us. It is also a reminder that how we speak to each other matters. I know for myself, especially through emails, it is easy to get caught up in busy-ness and send out kurt and crude messages. I know that these have had adverse effects on the reader, and I am learning over and over again to be more thoughtful about the content that I send out - written, or spoken.

Perhaps the ultimate gift of the Priestly Blessing is that in order to say it to someone else, there has to be at least a small part of you that knows that the receiver of the blessing is indeed worthy of its praise.  You begin to see people through the eyes of the blessing, and they are transformed. As this happens, you begin to treat them as worthy of blessing, and so the way you act in the world is transformed as well. By this practice, we transcend the idea of a priestly class, into a priestly nation, and further still to a priestly global community. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Everything in its Place?!

Parshat Bamidbar
Bamidbar 1:1 – 4:20
24 Iyar 5774 / May 23 – 24, 2014

Everything in its Place?!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
It is not easy roaming through the desert, especially with such a large group of people. You are susceptible to hunger, to spreading disease, and to attack. And added to this, the Israelites have a pretty serious mission. They have to transport these mystical tablets inscribed with God’s law through the desert to an only envisioned homeland. There is a lot riding on their survival.

The book of Bamidbar shares a strategy for their survival. Each tribe had a specific role and place in the encampment. The East was protected by Yehudah, Issaschar, and Zevulun. The West was covered by Ephraim, Menasheh, and Binyamin. The South was held by Reuven, Shimon, and Gad. And to the North, the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali secured the nation’s safety. (Game of Thrones anyone??) And in the heart of the camp were the Priests and Levites securing the safety of the Ark and Tablets, and all the other instruments of holy work.

This past weekend, at the Moishe House Shavuot Learning Retreat, the participants learned that the holiday of Shavuot is a reminder that every Jewish person has a place in a Torah-based community. No matter your gender, sexual orientation, race, denomination, or conversion status, according to Torah-lore (midrash) YOU were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.  And so YOU, with your unique Jewish identity, is extremely important to the complete narrative of the Jewish people.

It could be so wonderful if, like the Israelites in the desert, we were given a clear role and placement in this community. But we all know that life comes with doubt. And sometimes we can feel so estranged from the surrounding Jewish community. We might disagree with the majority stance on Israel. We might have been told that we cannot love who we love. We might have been barred from leadership roles in our synagogue. We might feel whole-heartedly that Judaism should not exclude our non-Jewish friends and family members. It can be really hard to feel a part of a system that feels so foreign or even harmful.

At these times, I remind myself that Yisrael comes from the root to wrestle. Jacob was renamed Yisrael because he wrestled with God. And in our modern time, Israel, has been translated as the God Wrestlers (by Rabbi Arthur Waskow). And so, sometimes STURGGLE is the role that we play in our Jewish community. We grab hold of the fringes of our faith and tug with all our might to stretch its values to include an even greater expression of truth.
As we head into Shavuot, the holiday where we renew our commitment to greater revelation, I want to offer all of us a blessing that we can feel a part of the Jewish story as a framework that gives our life greater collective meaning. I wish you a healthy balance between certainty and doubt.     

Many blessings!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Well, Bless You Too!

Parshat Bechukotai
Vayikra 26:3 – 27:34
17 Iyar 5774 / May 16 – 17, 2014

Well, Bless You Too!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In Parshat Bechukotai we learn about the rewards and punishments for following or abandoning the laws of the Torah. The picture of God that this portion paints is pretty harsh. “Listen to me, or else!” I continue to wonder why God, THE BEING OF ULTIMATE COMPASSION, would be so hell bent on people following all of God’s dictates. If a system is truly based on love, it follows in my own reasoning, that every little and minute detail is not what counts; rather it’s the relationship and closeness that matters. I think we all know pretty well that closeness cannot be mandated. Love has to be nurtured and cherished in order to be maintained and expanded.

While I fully believe in the statement above, I have to be honest. My decision to begin an observant Jewish practice began, in part, when I came across a verse from this portion. Verse 26:19 states the following punishment:

I will make your heaven like iron and your land like copper.

When I read this verse about 11 years ago, I looked at the sky and at the ground and I considered how the culture that I lived in was so obsessed with precious metals. Do we still see the sky and earth anymore, or do they just exist as potential resources or problems of production? My awareness of environmental maladies (drought, famine, ozone depletion) was growing, and I began to wonder if the Biblical curse had indeed manifested.

I also looked at my personal life. I was feeling confused about my life direction and basically down about who I was and the world around me. I felt like I had tried the traditional Western path of “dog eat dog” and found no peace. I decided at this point to try out the path of Torah and see how that would impact my life and the world around me.

It has been 11 years of ebb and flow Jewish practice. At times I feel more in line with Torah Judaism and at times I feel more distant. I continue to stay engaged in Jewish values and a Jewish way of being in the world. Part of my journey is a continuous refinement of how I can authentically live within the story that we call Judaism. Of course, after all the mitzvoth and prayers, the world is still obsessed with making money and there is still political unrest. The world outside of me has certainly not reached perfection, though I certainly have changed for the better.

While my first entry into Jewish practice might have been motivated by a threat and by fear, I am reaching more towards the approach of Love that I expect from this God of ours. We cannot start our spiritual life from the top of the mountain – with a perfect world, perfect self and perfect God. If this were the case, who would need spiritual engagement anyway? Religion does not make bad things disappear; however, I can change my attitude towards harsh reality through my religious  and spiritual involvement.

I tend to adopt the opinion that in the desert, the Jewish people were, in a way, like children. They needed a present and sometimes strict God to tell them what was right and good. In our own lives, we never fully outgrow this phase. There are times, especially in trying times, when it is very helpful to have an exact procedure to follow. And, just as true, as we mature, we need to take more personal ownership of our life path and be allowed to do things our own way and to even make mistakes. The curses and the blessings were probably awesome for Jews in the desert, and are probably helpful for Jews like us, though only sometimes.    

Today, when I look to the heavens, I see the beauty of the clouds and the majesty of the stars. The expansive land that supports me is diverse and naturally breathtaking. May we only need to see the world as a place of blessing and never as a curse.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Value beyond Money

Parshat BeHar
Vayikra 25:1 – 26:2
10 Iyar 5774 / May 9-10, 2014

In Parshat Behar we are not only told to rest on the seventh day of the week, but according to this week’s Torah Portion, Behar, we have to let the land rest every seven years. We also learn about a 50 year cycle where all bets are off and all contracts cancelled. Read on for some more thoughts on this week's Torah portion.

Many blessings!

Value beyond Money
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week's Torah portion we dive deeper into the concept of Shabbat. The Torah commands that every seventh year will be a year of rest for the land. This means that farmers take a whole year where they do not actively work their land, and basically, everything that grows wild is for the use of whoever might pass by. The bounty of the land cannot be collected and sold for monetary gains, rather the produce is considered above monetary value. All who are hungry and are in need of food, can come and eat. This seventh year is called the Shmita Year, and you can learn more about it and its relevance to life today at the following site: http://hazon.org/shmita-project/overview/

What I am thinking about is how awesome it is to translate the Shmita concept to the world of work today and the power of volunteering. Imagine you were asked to spend a full year at your current job (whether you are in a job, or spending time preparing for one in school) not getting paid, but rather volunteering. People would still benefit from the fruits of your labor, though you would not receive a paycheck. In this little exercise, let's say you were able to save up for your basic needs from the year before. My question is, what would motivate you to do your current job if it was not for the paycheck (or for the expected paycheck if you are in school/preparation phase?) Would passion drive you? A sense of self-worth? Community? Fun? Would you find nothing rewarding beyond a paycheck, and take off?

The concept of Shmita reminds me that there is no objective monetary value on the fruits of my labor. It pushes me to consider what I really value about my work in the world, and if that is fullfilling beyond a way to make money. Making money is great, though it is not enough to buy sustaining happiness. My grandmother always says, "Money isn't everything, but it's 50% of everything." This week, I invite you to contemplate that other 50% in what you do.