Weekly Davar: Pesach 2022

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Davar Thought

I spoke last week about slavery to negativity. It’s so easy for us to fall into pessimism about our lives and the world as a whole. I have seen a lot of it in some of my own family members recently, as they survey the war in Ukraine and their own thinking paints for them ever more frightening scenarios. It’s so tempting to do. And then, of course it turns into a cycle of miserable thinking begetting miserable feelings, which make the world look even worse than it looked already.

And, of course, this cycle gives birth to other slaveries also. People innocently seek to escape the pain of their own miserable thinking through eating, shopping, gambling, alcohol or drugs – and the list is much longer than that.

This slavery to our own negative thinking, followed by innocently escaping the bad feeling through addiction is the process to look to see beyond on Passover.

The antidote to it all, of course, is gratitude. And, hence, gratitude is the essence of our Passover seders.

Slavery and addiction are just not possible in a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude is the great human emancipator. Because when we value, feel and live life’s goodness, there is no need to escape into something else. The sentence, ‘life is good’, ends with a full-stop. There is nothing beyond it. No need to smoke too much; no unhealthy relationship with alcohol; no desperate drive for honour and success; we don’t even need to check our smartphones every few moments. Every few hours will do instead. Simply said, when life is good, we don’t need to run away from it.

So, in the Seder, again and again, we say thank you to God for the life he has given us – a life of meaning and purpose; a life of challenge and opportunity; a life of struggle that will help us attain greatness; a life of goodness without end. If we keep on looking in that direction, persistently, we might just remember it – and find lasting freedom from our self-imposed slaveries that we would all dearly love to achieve.

Shabbat Shalom and Good Yom Tov

Weekly Davar: Metzorah 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

I’m continuing on the theme of freedom prior to Passover. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. The letters at the root of the word mean ‘boundaries’ and that’s very much what slavery is about. It’s about boundaries, always chosen by ourselves. Whilst slavery inflicted by others does exist, it is always superficial. Ultimately, the fight for freedom is an internal struggle. It is the struggle to see beyond our self-imposed ‘is’ to a ‘could be’ that is filled with hope and possibility.

At the graduation for my rabbis this week, I spoke of optimism. Because pessimism is a form of slavery. It is a bad habit of looking away from potential and possibility, towards fear and limitation; those ‘boundaries’ of Egypt. Pessimists, as I can be at times, are slaves to their own beliefs, certainties even, about the inevitability of impending change for the worse. It inhibits, even prevents, growth and development.

Optimism, on the other hand, is a spiritual quality. And, whilst you will hear it said (by pessimists themselves) that pessimists are realists, I believe that the opposite is true. It is the optimists who are the realists – for two reasons.

Firstly, if you look at the trajectory of humanity over the past couple of thousand years, it has been inexorably upwards. Yes, there have been glitches along the way, times during which the pessimists might be looking to raise the flag of I-told-you-so. But always, always, the human race has ultimately overcome its challenges and moved onwards…and upwards. This is blatantly true in a material sense. But it is also true in a spiritual sense and in a moral sense. A hundred years ago, our lives were so much better than a hundred years before. And today, a hundred years later, our lives are so much better again. The same will be true in a hundred years’ time, despite the certainty of stormy waters along the way.

The second reason that optimism is rooted in reality is because we are, ultimately, spiritual beings. We are not animals with no vision or potential, living only from day to day, with no way to create a better future. Our spiritual nature makes us pure potential. We have within ourselves both the will and the wisdom, hence the power, to improve our lives, the lives of those around us and the lives of future generations. And, credit to us, we always do. Ultimately. As a whole. Even if there are individuals along the way who do not.

As my wife has taught me, and this was my message for the graduating rabbis, optimism is the quality of true leadership. Volodymyr Zelensky is a shining example. He exudes a feeling of hope and possibility. And such a feeling is magnetic. Because it resonates. Dictators lead though force. True leaders, and they are rare, lead through their tangible vision of a better future. Churchill, King, Mandela. And dare I add Thatcher or Rabin without getting my head chopped off?

Hope drives us to a better future. Pessimism enslaves us in what we have right now. It makes progress impossible and people will never follow a pessimist unless they are forced to do so. In certain ways Hitler was an optimist – an evil and misguided optimist, but an optimist. His vision of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer’ was understandably attractive to German society. And so, they needed no cardboard cut-outs at his Nuremberg rallies.

Passover is a time for freedom. Personally, one place I’m going to look to be freer this Passover is from my pessimism. Because it is at the root of so much of what holds us back as individuals, as societies, as nations and as a human race.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This week’s portion continues with the mystical affliction of tzaraas, in particular the purification process for someone thus afflicted. It also talks about tzaraas in houses and its purification. They are long and complex procedures and the Rabbis draw an analogy. Since tzaraas generally afflicts someone who has spoken badly about others, the process of purification is very complex and this is akin to the mistake itself. Undoing hurt that we cause others when we speak badly about them is likened to trying to gather together all the feathers from a down pillow – after they have been cast to the wind!

Weekly Davar: Tazria 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

With Pesach coming up, I’d like to talk about the idea of freedom.

It has always interested me that in many ways, we human beings don’t do so well with freedom.

The ‘freedom’ that ensued after the French revolution descended to violent anarchy. Russian serfs, for centuries desperate for freedom from the czars, did not create the best of societies once they achieved it. Power and the immense freedom that accompanies it, has led almost every historical empire to decadence and decline. Going all the way back, the Jewish People moaned, complained, and even wanted to return to Egypt once they had been freed.

Freedom seems much more attainable as an ideal, than in actual reality.

In contemplating a reason for this, I believe the following.

The fight for freedom is an incredibly meaningful endeavour. However, once the goal has been achieved, the accomplishment leaves a vacuum. We human beings thrive on meaning. But without it, we lose motivation and drive. We need vision and purpose to get us out of bed in the morning. Freedom without purpose is ultimately empty. Its pleasure is short lived. And, I would be so bold as to suggest, that perhaps the attainment of freedom for freedom’s sake is not even worth it. Freedom is only valuable if the free person or society uses that freedom to work towards a new and greater dream. Freedom is a platform, but not an end. It is a ladder to a greater good, but if the ladder is not climbed, the freedom is worth little. Worse, the years of struggle will seem to have achieved nothing. And that is incredibly deflating and discouraging.

This is why the rabbis tell us that, ‘there is no free person other than one who involves him or herself in Torah’. For the Jewish People, Torah is a direction, a goal, a purpose; it is the building of a good and moral society, a striving towards Godliness. It is climbing the ladder of freedom. Without direction, they are saying, there is no satisfaction in freedom. It doesn’t need to be Torah, it can be any meaningful goal, but ultimately freedom comes with a price tag. And it’s not just the price tag of the initial struggle to be free. Once freedom is attained, the struggle is by no means over. Indeed, I would suggest that the struggle has just begun. Because with freedom comes responsibility. Human beings can use their freedom to build for themselves and others a better world. Or they can slip into the decadence that freedom can provide. And find themselves in a world that is no better, perhaps even worse, than the slavery they came from.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

The focus of this portion is tzoras, a physical disease that would afflict a person who transgressed the laws of speech. It would progressively afflict home, clothes and skin. It is often mistranslated as ‘leprosy’, but that’s clearly incorrect as leprosy only affects the body and the symptoms are very different.

Freedom!

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This is the time of year that we are searching for chometz . Chometz represents slavery, not just physical, but spiritual – the inability to make the decisions that we want to make because we are held back by what we feel like doing. A smoker is not free. A drug addict is not free. A compulsive eater is not free. Now freedom doesn’t necessarily mean never again eating chocolate cake. It means being able not to do so when you are on a diet. 

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Passover and My Phone Addiction

Reading Time: 5 minutes

My first meaningful Jewish experience at seventeen was a Passover Seder. At the time, I was living with an addict. He would freebase heroin, ‘chasing the dragon’, as it was known, pretty much every day, and I regularly would come home from High School and find him sitting on our couch with eyes wide open, only the whites visible. Sadly, though almost inevitably, he eventually died of an overdose. 

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