Thursday, June 19, 2014

Own your Jewish Karma

Parshat Balak
Bamidbar 22:2 – 25:9
7 Tammuz 5774 / July 4-5, 2014

Own your Jewish Karma  
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Holy Blessings Batman!
When Balak, the King of Moav, enlists the desert dwelling prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelite nation, words of  blessing emerge that become timeless as part of our daily prayer. Balaam is summoned to an overlook where he can see the entire Israelite encampment. He intends to curse the people, but has promised that he will only speak the words that God puts into his mouth. Balaam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and chants these famous words that have found their way into scripture:

ה  מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
ו  כִּנְחָלִים נִטָּיוּ, כְּגַנֹּת עֲלֵי נָהָר; כַּאֲהָלִים נָטַע יְהוָה, כַּאֲרָזִים עֲלֵי-מָיִם.
6 As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters;
ז  יִזַּל-מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו, וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים; וְיָרֹם מֵאֲגַג מַלְכּוֹ, וְתִנַּשֵּׂא מַלְכֻתוֹ.
7 Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
ח  אֵל מוֹצִיאוֹ מִמִּצְרַיִם, כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם לוֹ; יֹאכַל גּוֹיִם צָרָיו, וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶם יְגָרֵם--וְחִצָּיו יִמְחָץ.
8 God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.
ט  כָּרַע שָׁכַב כַּאֲרִי וּכְלָבִיא, מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ; מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ, וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר.
9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.

Balaam’s prophecy is a timeless blessing that includes us, the current generation of Jewish people. Our pluralistic and progressive homes are tents of Jacob and dwelling places of Israel. And so they are good. What is the goodness that this familiar line (verse 5) of prayer is talking about? Perhaps there are clues to be found in the lesser known continuing lines.

How exciting that verses 6 and 7 contain beautiful images from the natural world! “Gardens by the river side,” and “water shall flow from his branches.” Our generation is engaged in the process of exploring the deep bond between Jewish identity and caring for our planet. True to Balaam’s verses, we are discovering that our homes are good places because we do not see them as completely separate from the world outside of our windows. We know that we need to use natural resources responsibly in order for goodness to continue.  

Verses 8 and 9 are less politically correct and so perhaps, a bit harder to digest. The blessing connects our relationship to a God of war and power. Is that what we need God for? To eat up nations and crush their bones?

I want to suggest that we read the end of the blessing as a progression. We began with the need for a God that destroys our enemies (verse 8), but we head towards a relationship whereby we have the power to bestow blessings and curses because of a connection with God within (verse 9).

Stephanie Nash is an actress and meditation teacher that talks about the resonance between two pitchforks. If you strike one pitchfork at the end of a gymnasium, a second pitchfork at the other end of the room will begin to chime in tune. Human relationships are guided by this phenomenon too. When we watch a movie and witness strong and powerful emotions we begin to experience the same feelings. Might the same be true for the blessings and curses that we put out into the world.

Blessed be every one that blesses thee, and cursed be every one that curses thee.” If we choose to see truth in these words, then it is our responsibility to ensure that we act in ways that people will bless us, so we can all (Jews and non-Jews) benefit from increased blessing in the world.  

Grief and Leadership

Parshat Chukat
Bamidbar 19:1 – 22:1
30 Sivan 5774 / June 27 – 28, 2014

Grief and Leadership
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all might be familiar with the sequence of events:

- The Israelites complain for water.
- God tells Moshe to ask a rock to release water.
- Moshe hits the rock and brings forth water.
- God punishes Moshe that he can no longer bring the people into the Promised Land.

This story is shattering in a way. Where is God’s forgiveness? Wasn’t Moshe God’s #1 profit? Could Moshe have screwed up so badly by hitting a rock instead of talking to it?

These are difficult questions to answer, though our sages comment that Moshe hitting the rock in anger displayed a quality that would make him unfit to lead the people into the land.

That might be true, but couldn’t Moshe at least see the land of Israel? Couldn’t he have just taken a little stroll across the Jordan River, picked a pomegranate and enjoyed the view? I want the answer to be, “of course!” But this is not what happened. Moshe’s privilege to step foot into the land was stripped.

I was very struck upon reading the portion that in the narrative Miriam dies right before the people complain and Moshe hits the rock. It gives me a new perspective to understand that Moshe was wrapped in grief at that time. Perhaps his anger was not really about the people, rather he was angry as part of the natural process of grieving the loss of his sister. Remember, Miriam saved Moshe from Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish male babies way back in the beginning of Exodus. She watched over him and made sure nothing bad would befall him.

Now Moshe has lost his sister, his protector. He is torn apart. I think this is one of the most challenging places for a leader to stand in...How do I deal with my own emotional pain, while having to show up with a level head to greet my congregation/participants/students/clients? Moshe simply was unable to hold this dichotomy. When we are dealing with grief, it is almost impossible not to be overpowered with it.

The road to Israel was not a peaceful path. Joshua leads the Israelites into war. It is a tale of violence and loss. Perhaps, God was protecting Moshe from experiencing more loss. The lesson to be learned is that when facing strong emotions like grief, a leader will know when it is time to take a break, or even to step down. A robust system can sustain itself when roles need to shift and when power needs to be reconfigured. Moshe not entering the land was a clear message that it was time for Moshe to step down as the leader - the system needed restructuring. It is a hard lesson, but deep in wisdom. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Between Life and Death

Parshat KorachBamidbar 16:1 -18:3223 Sivan  5774 / June 20 – 21, 2014

Between Life and Death
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This Torah Portion is famous for the challenge that Korach and his band of rabble-rousers raise against Moshe and the miraculous punishment of the Earth opening its mouth and swallowing these dissenters. On the surface, Korach’s claim is not so strange. He wants to know why Moshe and Aaron are given a higher status of leadership than other people of their own Levite tribe. Upon deeper exploration is seems that Korach’s intentions were not to increase justice, but rather to usurp power.
As the Earth licks its lips after a satisfying meal, there is yet another conflict in the Israelite camp. The entire Jewish people are now scared of Moshe and Aaron, faulting them for the death of Korach’s crew. They assemble against the Dynamic Duo (Moshe and Aaron) and shout with raged fists, “You have killed the people of God!” According to the text, their mob mentality strikes up another punishment. This time it is a mysterious plague that begins to spread throughout the camp, killing people instantly (the death toll reached 14,700!). God too seems to be infected with the fury virus and is ready to demolish all the Jewish people.

Fear not Israelites, Moshe knows how to stop this plague! He tells Aaron to take incense and burn it amongst the people and atone for them. Aaron does just this and the Torah states beautifully in verse 17:13,

He stood between the dead and between the living and the plague was halted.

I read this verse as saying that Aaron was able to stand between life and death and that his ability to hold these two extremes ended the plague. Aaron is able to dive into the plague -- into the anger, fear, and death -- and bring the remedy, his very own life and presence, and this calms the Divine rage.
We can see the above episode as the people being infected with a rage that is composed of maddening fear and despair. You are in the middle of the harsh desert and a large group of people have suddenly perished. And worse yet, you cannot trust your leaders.  God has turned against you. Your world is shattered and your sanity broken. I imagine the people in a hysterical panic, trampling each other, fighting, lashing out, lost. (Think of some recent zombie movies.)

Aaron comes out with the sweet smell of the incense. He immerses into the mob and feels his own pain and hopelessness. He begins to panic, to feel the cold creeping hand of death tightening around his throat. He inhales deeply and smells the incense. The smell pacifies him, reminds him of his purpose and of the spirit which makes all things possible. Aaron rediscovers his own vitality and remains infectiously calm. The raging Israelites draw near to descend on Aaron. They are halted by the smell of incense and become infected with Aaron’s hope and peace of mind. There is no longer room for rage … the plague is halted, though not entirely obliterated.

We still encounter the same plague of hysterical fear and doubt today. We point similar fingers at our leaders, and react in unhealthy ways when our experiences do not make sense. We often react with extreme behaviors that are detrimental to our own and our community’s stability (i.e. addiction, suicide, homicide). Aaron offers one model to help us ignite the spark of life that can temporarily calm this anger and doubt. Using the burnt incense as a tool, which serves as a reminder of the soul and soothes the spirit (just like we do today in the Havdalah ceremony), Aaron was able to introduce order into the chaos. This is not an easy task and exemplifies big shoes to fill - a direction to grow in.
May we all be blessed to connect with the resources in this world and within ourselves that strengthen and stabilize us so that we might beneficially face our plagues and find comfort even in the times of utmost chaos.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dealing with Doubt

Parshat Shelach
Bamidbar 13:1 – 15:41
16 Sivan 5774 / June 13 -14, 2014

Dealing with Doubt
by Zvi Bellin, Moishe House Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

This Torah portion opens with the ominous words, “And God spoke to Moshe saying, Shelach Lecha (Send, for yourself).” These words usher in the well-known story of the 12 spies that are sent to check out the land of milk and honey before the entire nation will enter the land. 10 spies come back with reports shattering faith in God. God delivers a punishment - the generation that left Egypt must die in the desert before their children can inherit the land. 40 years of wandering ensues.

Rashi, French Guru of Torah commentary,   is curious about the opening words, “Send, for yourself.” Why not just, “God told Moshe to send spies”? Rashi learns from the words, “for yourself,” that God was not actually commanding that spies should be sent. Rather, if Moshe and the people wished to scout the land, they were more than welcome to do so. It seems that this was more of a test for the people. If there was doubt in their hearts about God’s plan, it will surface in the report of the spies. And indeed, this is what occurred.

Perhaps there is a message here about how we can deal with doubt in our own lives. We all have certain life trajectories (small scale and/or large scale) that we choose to put our faith into. Joining programs of education and experience, for example, which promise certain outcomes that will benefit us in the future. Of course, with any plan, comes some degree of uncertainty. Will point A really lead me to point B? I have definitely had experiences where things did not turn out as planned. I needed to take a detour, backtrack, or just let go of where I thought I was headed. These types of occasions leave me with a constant wondering, how can I really know that I am on the right path?

I think the story of the spies can teach us about embracing and confronting doubt rather than trying to ignore it. The spies, and really the entire nation, had sincere doubts about God’s promises. In the desert, the doubt caused the Israelites to complain a lot, and to ignore all the miracles of salvation that kept occurring in the desert. Finally, their doubt got the best of them, forcing a complete meltdown when confronted by the negative report of the 10 spies.

Perhaps a better way is to make room to acknowledge doubt along the path. What if we learned in the Torah that God and Moshe created a space in daily community life for people to voice their fears and have them be affirmed. I would like to believe that the spies accounting would have had a lot less power in that moment.

For us today, what if we were able to see doubt for what it is - just one part of an internal guidance system that is ultimately sourced in caring? In my day to day, I feel like it is almost taboo to voice doubt. Listeners are quick to change the subject, trivialize the doubt, or try to solve a problem. Ultimately, this just feeds the doubt. There is no space to air it out, balance, and disarm it.

So, I’d like this week’s Torah portion to serve as a reminder that doubt exists and that it is not a bad thing. When I am confronted by doubt, either internally or from someone else, maybe  I can try to honor it a bit before running away from it. Acknowledge uncertainty without having to immediately act upon it. Ultimately, this strategy can lead me to make healthier choices and lessen the chances of being blindsided when I am so close to reaching a goal. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Presenting … ME!

Parshat Beha’alotcha
Bamidbar 8:1 – 12:16
9 Sivan 5774/ June 6 – 7, 2014

Presenting … ME!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
Early in the portion, we learn about the purification and dedication of the Levites for their life of service for the work of the Mishkan (in the desert) and the Temple (in Israel). If you recall from Vayikra, the previous book of the Torah, the Levites have some heavy responsibility, literally. It is their job to lug the pieces of the Mishkan through the desert from site to site. They maintained the order and cleanliness of all ritual items and served a supporting role to the Priests.

As God is instructing Moshe about this ritual, God states (8:16):
" כי נתונים נתונים לי המה מתוך בני ישראל."
“For presented, presented are they to Me from among the Children of Israel.”

Now the Torah is not a text that is generous with words, and if something is repeated twice, there is probably something to learn. Rashi comments on the double use of the word presented. He says that the Levites were presented for two main jobs – the first is to carry the mishkan (including physical labor in the Temple upon entering Israel) and take care of the ritual vessels, the second is to sing. During the Temple times the Levites would take shifts throughout the entire day singing psalms and praises to God.

The Parsha goes on to teach that a Levite would work between the ages of 25 – 50. When a Levite would turn 50 years old it was time for retirement. Rashi comments that they would retire from carrying physical loads, but that they would continue to sing praises in shifts.

When I think about myself and how I define myself, how I present myself to the world, there are some labels that are fleeting – like Camp Counselor, or even, Jewish Educator. And there are other identities that seem to stick with me – like Son or Helper. Throughout life we are called to fill certain roles in our communities, and these titles and tasks help us to live with a stable and sustainable sense of meaning.

I find a lesson in the Torah’s words by double-tasking the Levites with something that fades (carrying) and something that persists (singing). In our life we are going to lose and let go of jobs, people, and responsibilities that seem to capture who we are. There is a danger if we completely identify with these things, and think that without them our personal meaning is lost too. This is not so. Our identities are multi-leveled and dynamic. And as our roles shift, our personal meaning can be extended, clarified, and enhanced.

When we experience times when we lose something we thought was essential to our identity (a job or a relationship, for example), we might feel that we have lost every connection to meaning. In these moments, allow the Levites to remind you, that you still have a voice, a persistent form of expression that is lasting, and ultimately a way to connect back with your sense of purpose.