Weekly Davar: Yisro 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

Jethro was one of the very first converts to Judaism. I have been studying with my rabbis the concept of conversion and wanted to share a thought or two on the topic.

Many religions actively try to bring in new recruits. And, in the fervour of doing so, I believe it’s not always easy to distinguish between sincere desire to help another versus personal desire for vindication and validation; a kind of theological safety in numbers.

But Judaism has a very different perspective, and it is a very delicate balance. By nature, Judaism is a challenging religion, requiring adherence to six hundred and thirteen commandments, as well as rabbinical enactments and customs that have arisen over three thousand years. It’s a lot for someone to take on. But, added to that, Jews have suffered anti-Semitism, sometimes in extreme forms throughout our history. So, on the one hand, one wonders why a grounded person, in their right mind, would want to convert? But, on the other hand, we do understand. We would not be following the way of life ourselves if we did not believe it pointed to truth, meaning, values, wisdom, spirituality and, above all, service.

This tension is manifest in the philosophy and process of conversion. On the one hand, we want to welcome and embrace sincere converts who we feel can last the course and become contributing members of an idealistic community. On the other hand, we want to discourage those who have ulterior motives – such as a relationship, or those who might have become enamoured with an ideal that they will struggle to live up to once reality hits.

As I said, Judaism sees itself as a life of service. That service takes the form of living by a set of values; always looking to follow a moral compass. And, in doing so, setting a standard that might inspire others. It is a responsibility. We embrace anyone who is willing to join us in that goal. But we do not want to accept converts who are not interested in the essence of a demanding way of life.

The balance between welcoming and turning away is agonizingly difficult to find. And responsibility for the process of conversion is not undertaken lightly by any rabbi, as a result. The principle is one of ‘draw close with the right hand, whilst pushing away with the left’. Unfortunately, because of the delicacy of such a balance, I do sometimes find that it is the left hand which is drawing close and the right pushing away. That is a shame for those who are genuinely eager to embrace Judaism.

As with anything in life, things that matter are usually subtle and nuanced; shades of grey rather than black and white. It means that we only ever have the resource of our own moment-to-moment wisdom to rely on in making choices. And, as always, I am deeply grateful for the blessing of this resource, without which none of us would be able to live the lives of meaning and service to which we all ultimately aspire.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, joins the Jewish people in the desert, advises Moses on the best way to serve and judge the people – by appointing a hierarchy of intermediaries – and then returns home to Midian. Moses is humble enough to listen to his father in law and the Jewish People benefit greatly from his sound advice.

The main theme, however, of this Torah portion is the Ten Commandments. Whilst most depictions of the tablets show them with rounded tops, the Talmud says that they were actually cubical with the words running right through, from one side to the other, so you could see the words on both sides. This requires two very specific miracles in order to work. I’ll leave it for the scientists among you to figure that one (or rather those two!) out.

Weekly Davar: Beshalach 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

God tells the Jewish People to turn back towards Egypt, that Pharoah would chase after them with his army and then God would finish him off completely. The next verse says that they did so without question. The Medieval commentator, Rashi, says that this is a praise of the Jewish People. Even though they had just left Egypt – and the last direction they wanted to turn was back – they did so at the command of Moses. They trusted Moses.

However…just a few verses later, when Pharaoh does indeed chase with his army, the Torah says that the Jewish People were terrified. But surely, if they trusted Moses to turn back, in full knowledge that Pharaoh would chase them, why did they not trust Moses when he had said that God would save them?

On some level, I think this happens to all of us in life. We have the courage and determination to make a right decision, but when it comes to carrying it out, we lose heart and fall at the first hurdle. The diet that only lasts a few days, even though we felt so strongly about it; the person who gets angry, in a circumstance where he was determined not to. The utterly sincere New Year’s resolution that fails on January 2nd. It happens to the best of us because we are all human. The Torah still praises the Jewish People, however, in spite of their immediate failure – and I believe that our own heartfelt decisions are also precious, even if we don’t ultimately live up to them.

But Rashi is pointing out something further.

Why did they fail? Because they trusted Moses. Not God. They trusted the judgement of a human being, not their own inner truth. Whilst trusting our own inner truth is no guarantee of success, trusting human beings is almost a guarantee that we will fall at the first hurdle.

When I go into a shop with a mask on because the government has told me to do so – and no one else is wearing one – it’s incredibly hard to keep it on. But, when I wear a mask because it makes sense to me to do so, trusting my own judgment inoculates me from the social pressure. If my wife tells me it’s time for my son to go to bed, and I run off to do so like a good husband, it’s not hard for my son to twist me round his little finger and stay up longer. But when I see for myself that he needs to go to bed now, that’s what will happen.

Doing things because others have told us is not necessarily a bad thing – but it’s a weak reason and we will likely fail as soon as the going gets a little bit tough. Doing things, on the other hand, because of our own inner truth and conviction is strong as steel. It’s no absolute guarantee. However, the most likely way for us to follow through on the decisions that we make is to follow what we know in our hearts, not what others tell us to do.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

The Jews leave Egypt. Pharaoh chases. The sea splits. The Jews come out the other side; the Egyptians don’t. God provides mannah for the hungry and complaining Jews. Amalek attacks and is repulsed. It’s all heading towards the big climax next week.

Weekly Davar: Bo 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

I expect some pushback on this one, but my heart tells me to speak my mind.

The issue of abuse has been very much in the minds and hearts of the Orthodox community the past few weeks with a prominent educator in Israel accused of serial sexual abuse and, ultimately, committing suicide.

I have read and listened to numerous opinions and perspectives on the issue and have been saddened by most. There is a lot on my mind, but wanted to limit myself to a point that relates to recent Torah portions.

Firstly, it goes without saying that sex abusers must be held accountable and punished to the full extent of the law. AND society must put in place safeguards to ensure, as much as possible, that they pose no danger once released.

On to my point: a particular rabbi was talking about how to protect one’s children from abuse by adults. He suggested ten precautions. Among them: Never allow a daughter (or son) to sit in the front seat of a car with a male (or female). Only send a child to a therapist if you can be watching from behind a one-way mirror, ideally no sleepovers at friends’ homes, ever. If picking up a babysitter, both parents must come (presumably bringing the children with, otherwise who is going to babysit whilst they pick up the babysitter?)

I see things very differently for many reasons. Let me mention three. Firstly, I believe that there is no end to this logic. Sadly, most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members or friends. If I am going to protect children from strangers, it follows surely that I must also protect them from family friends, their brothers and sisters – and parents for that matter. I should not allow my wife to drive my children on her own lest she abuse them in the car – and vice versa. In fact, perhaps all children should be brought up in a vacuum with no adult contact at all until they are eighteen. That would surely be safest.

Secondly, do I want to teach my children that every adult is a potential threat to them – ‘stranger danger’? I do understand the desire and need to protect our children. But at what cost? At the cost of undermining their belief in the goodness and Godliness of humanity? For me, that is too high a price to pay.

And, finally, and most importantly for me, we human beings grow from adversity, even the type of adversity that, in the moment, seems horrific. We do not seek it; but if it finds us – and we are able to embrace it – we are always better because of it. In recent portions we have been talking of the Jewish slavery in Egypt. It was a nightmare of seemingly endless suffering and sorrow – a two-hundred-year holocaust. And yet, the Torah describes it as a ‘smelting furnace’, a fire into which the Jewish people went as iron… and emerged as steel. God is within us all, the fabric of our souls, and always gives us the strength, wisdom and resilience to overcome the worst of experiences – and develop into better and greater people as a result.

I know, for myself, that the true growth times of my life have been those of adversity. I have not sought them out, like the Jewish People didn’t seek out Egypt; but I have always tried to embrace, rather than reject, adversity – and it has always generously bestowed its blessing.

If we are to shield our children from all possible harm, I don’t believe we will do them a service. Yes, a level of protection is required. I will hold back my child if he is running into the road and vaccinate him to protect from illness. But I believe this rabbi is going too far, way too far. I do not want my children to go through painful experiences. But I can’t lock them in a box either. I believe I must do my best to balance protection with freedom, shielding with education. Extremes always feel more secure – but they come at a price. And the price is usually not worth paying. So, yes, I want to protect my children – but I also want them to live happy and secure childhoods, not afraid of every stranger. I believe such a balance is possible.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This week, we read of the final 3 plagues, culminating in the killing of the firstborn. The Jews leave Egypt at midday. A family of seventy Jews arrived in Egypt and a nation of over 2 million left 200 years later.

Weekly Davar: Shemos 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

What does one have to do to be remembered?

I visited the disused Rice Lane Cemetery in Liverpool a few months ago. Three of my great grandparents are buried there. Whenever I walk through an older graveyard like this, the above thought occurs to me. Because I start to think that human beings, living, breathing, feeling human beings, just like me, have become nothing more than meaningless names on stones. No one remembers them. No one is interested in them. Gone, as though they never existed. And then I consider that the same fate awaits me.

And yet, when in this week’s portion Moses is born, I see there is another option. Because three thousand, three hundred years later, he is by no means forgotten.

I used to believe that to be remembered you had to write a book – and it had to be a really good one. Or paint a masterpiece. Visiting the Van Gogh immersive experience a few weeks ago reminded me of that. One hundred and thirty years after his death, he is more famous than ever – and will likely never be forgotten. Did you know, by the way, that he painted most of his paintings in the last two years of his life. Hundreds of paintings, that sell for upwards of $100,000,000, he painted in a day and a half each. A reminder of how much productivity is available to us human beings.

Nowadays, however, I think that being remembered can happen in many ways. But, most fundamentally, you must do something that matters – for better or for worse. Hitler will be no less remembered than Churchill, Stalin, no less than Mandela. You must do something that impacts society as a whole. That’s the only way not to become just a name on a gravestone in a forgotten cemetery.

I’ve talked before about the grave of Israel Poznanski in Lodz. A mausoleum larger than my house, of marble, and a mosaic made up of millions of pieces of glass……lies forgotten and decaying, in a forlorn graveyard, bereft of its once vibrant community. It’s deeds that matter, not monuments. And Moses had the deeds – not the monument.

But I want to share something my wife says whenever I share such morbid reflections with her. Do we really want to be remembered? Do we need it? Is it not simply ego and vanity?

Surely, it is the contribution itself that matters? Living in the feeling of life and sharing that with others for as long as we are blessed to do so. What means more than that? That others remember you when you are gone? And then these remembers, themselves, become the same dust that you did? It seems so irrelevant.

So, let Israel Poznanski’s mausoleum crumble to dust. What matters is how he lived his life. What matters is how each of us live our own lives. We get a tiny fraction of a moment to enjoy this world and make our own unique contribution. I, for one, am going to do my best to live my life right now. And, if I am remembered or not, matters not one iota. I’m happy to become a forgotten name in a neglected graveyard.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

Egypt is the prototype for future Jewish settlement in exile. Firstly, the Jews move out to the suburbs, in this case Goshen. Then they become successful. Then they assimilate into Egyptian society and make vast contributions. Then social acceptance and complete integration, right? Not quite. A new Pharaoh arises who decides that Jewish children are far better off swimming at the bottom of the Nile. And so the persecution begins.

A child is born who is to be the saviour of the Jewish nation. Saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, he is brought up as a prince. She names him Moses. He does not forget his origins and when confronted with an Egyptian murdering a Jew, he kills the Egyptian and flees to Ethiopia. Many years later, God appears to him at a burning bush. After some arm-twisting, Moses agrees to return to Egypt to lead the Jewish people to freedom. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh is none too enamoured with the idea of losing his entire unpaid workforce overnight. He decides to put down the potential mutiny before it begins and significantly increases the workload on the Jewish slaves. Again, not surprisingly, the Jews are not too excited with Moses’ efforts so far and the portion ends with him in everyone’s bad books – part and parcel of being a leader, in particular in the Jewish community.

Weekly Davar: Vayechi 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

When Jacob was taken to be buried in Israel, his body was accompanied by a very large retinue of both his family and pretty much every Egyptian dignitary. Large funerals are an interesting concept. But why? The person is gone. Surely, it makes no difference to them what type of send-off they get?

Judaism believes that it does.

The rabbis tell us that eulogies must be said at a funeral. And the purpose of those eulogies is to make people cry.

Now that’s an interesting concept, particularly in this country. The aim at most funerals that I seem to go to is for everyone, including the mourners, to ‘be strong’ and NOT cry. The Jewish concept, however, is very much to cry. And the goal of a eulogy is to help with that. Because crying honours the person who has gone. When people cry, it means they cared about the person; it matters to them that the person is no longer here; they feel a hole in their lives that this person once filled. That honours the person – they made a difference in the world. More meaningfully than even the most eloquent words could express, crying demonstrates clearly that the person made their mark in the world. And public crying is the most powerful demonstration of that – because it says that I have been so touched by this person, they mattered so much to me, their loss is so keenly felt – that my inhibitions break down and I express my vulnerability for all to see.

That’s crying and it’s a beautiful thing at a funeral and a shiva (Jewish house of mourning). It’s natural, normal and deeply respectful to cry for someone we love. It always amazes me that people would want to repress something so touching and so beautiful. Personally, I loved crying for my parents and my wife when they passed – and still do.

But still, why show respect for someone who has gone? It makes no difference to them.

I have two thoughts on this. One works even for an atheist, the other is for someone who believes in God.

Firstly, we cry in respect for the feeling of love that we had for the person. It is not for the person; it is for us. We honour the beautiful and meaningful relationship that we had with this person. We are grateful to life for sharing this special human being with us and we express that feeling of gratitude best through tears. There is an underlying joy in such mourning, but it remains mourning.

But the second point is my main one. It is my firm belief that a soul, whilst departing this realm of existence, does not die. It is still alive in a purely spiritual realm (and you can try to conceive of how that might work as much as you like but you still won’t have any more understanding than I have, i.e. none of the details). As such, I believe that a soul is somehow still aware of us, even if we are not aware of it. I don’t mean that it looks down on us from on high, or in heaven. I think that is all metaphorical. I think that it retains some sort of spiritual connection with our own spiritual experience. It is something (I don’t want to use a particular verb, such as comforting, pleasurable, beneficial….. because that would be presumptuous of me, but fill in your own blank if you like) for that soul to know that we care, that it is beloved and missed. And hence, I believe that crying, or rather the deep and passionate feeling that accompanies it, honours the soul of the person that we have loved in this world and will love, more fully than ever before, once reunited after we have also left this world.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This portion tells the story of Jacob’s final blessing to his children, his demise and his burial. In his final moments of prophetic vision, Jacob is able to discern the time of the Messianic Era. He wishes to reveal the details to his children, but is prevented from doing so by God.

Jacob dies and is mummified for the journey to Israel. He is taken to Hebron and buried with full Egyptian honours.

Weekly Davar: Vayigash 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

During the 22-year disappearance of Joseph, Jacob fell into what I can only describe as a depression. The Rabbis tell us that as a result, he lost his ability to receive prophecy. Prophecy, in Judaism, is a connection to the spiritual world such that one has access to concealed truths. The rabbis tell us that in contrast to Jacob, Isaac, his father, did not lose his prophecy and hence knew that Joseph was alive and well in Egypt. Jacob’s depression blinded him to reality – as depression often does. Were he not depressed, he would have seen that there was actually nothing to be depressed about because Joseph was not actually dead! But that’s true with each and every depression. It is the state of mind shaping the perception of reality rather than the reality shaping the state of mind.

The Rabbis tell us, as a general rule, that one cannot access prophecy when depressed. Because connection to God is only available in a state of joy. Misery drags us down such that we lose our connection to the spiritual world and then all seems lost. In a certain way, misery is a self fulfilling prophecy. Life looks no good to us; so we feel hopeless and lost; so we don’t invest in life; and life without investment produces no fruits.

Joy is also self fulfilling. We feel uplifted and elated. So we are eager to invest and engage in life. And a life invested and engaged in produces the goodness that satisfies us.

When we are feeling down, it’s easy to blame life and circumstance. But that’s never the case. It’s simply that upset thinking about life is causing us to withdraw and as we withdraw, life starts to unravel. But the great thing about this is that it’s never a problem to ravel it up again. As soon as we stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start to engage again, life gets back on its feet. It’s a beautiful world in that way – we get out of it whatever we invest into it. There is always fruit to our labour, as long as we are patient. If we withdraw, life indeed, has nothing to offer. If we engage, life offers us bounty beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This portion is packed with emotion and intrigue. We left off last week with Joseph’s pronouncement that he was keeping Benjamin as a slave. Judah steps forward to challenge the decision and offers himself instead. The two most powerful brothers each stand their ground. With neither willing to give an inch, the tension is palpable. Finally, Joseph, overcome with emotion, can hold out no longer. He clears the room and reveals his identity to his brothers. They are, understandably, quite shocked. Joseph sends a message to his father who leaves immediately to be reunited with is favourite son.

Jacob meets Pharaoh and settles with his family in the Goshen district of Egypt, the first Jewish ghetto – in suburbia of course! As the famine continues, Joseph buys up all of the property in Egypt for Pharaoh in return for grain.

Weekly Davar: Vayeshev 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

The ultimate test that Joseph faced, considered perhaps the greatest challenge faced by anyone in the entire Bible, was that of Potiphar’s wife.

A quick reminder of the story…..

Joseph is a teenage slave in Egypt. Cut off from his family, he has no support system. His master’s wife is the most beautiful woman in all of Egypt and has married for position, not love. And this stereotypical, unloved Mrs Robinson of antiquity, falls head over heels for the handsome young slave in her home; and will stop at nothing to have him. It’s surely worthy of a Netflix Original.

Repeatedly, Joseph rebuts her advances. Until, finally, she contrives for them to be alone in the house together and she literally throws herself at him….a teenager, away from family, friends and all means of support. He could so easily have fallen into her arms and got away with it. And yet, he said ‘no’. But the Rabbis do tell us that had it not been for a vision of Joseph’s father, Jacob, appearing before him, he would have succumbed. At the end of the day, we are all human after all.

As an aside, I say that he could have ‘got away with it’ but that would only have been in his own mind. I’ve been around long enough to realise that one never ‘gets away with it’. Relationships are always much more complicated than sex alone and I’ve seen so many times that the chickens always, ALWAYS come home to roost in the end.

It’s interesting to me, though, that the Torah sees the most challenging of all tests to be in the area of sexual relations. I guess maybe it’s not surprising, because each of us very well knows the power of the animal that exists inside of us. But it’s interesting, nevertheless, that the Torah points it out. Not an existential challenge of faith, not suffering, not honesty or integrity….but the base animalistic challenge of sex can often be the greatest challenge of all. For even the most enlightened of human beings.

That should humble us, firstly, lest we believe that we have risen so far above our fellow creatures in this world. We most certainly have not. Over and over again, the most likely circumstance to bring down politicians, clergy and businesspeople, monarchs and great lords alike, as well as the ‘simple man’ on the street, is sex, the basest of animal instincts.

I could easily wax lyrical with puritanism, over here, most especially as it might be expected of an Orthodox rabbi, but I actually want to take the reverse perspective.

Given that even Joseph, the only man in the Bible accoladed as ‘the righteous’, would have succumbed without external intervention, I think we need to be very understanding of human frailty. I’m not trying to justify the mistakes that people make – most especially when others are hurt in the process. However, we need to be careful not to be so quick to judge those who make mistakes that we may well make ourselves in similar circumstances. As the ‘Good Book’ says, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. I, for one, do my best to remember that I am very human. And that others are just like me. I make mistakes and so does everyone else. I get lost in the face of life’s challenges and so does everyone else. And, so, I’m all for giving people a chance to take responsibility for their mistakes and move past them, rather than condemning them unconditionally, even if only in the courtroom of my own mind.

To be clear, I’m not saying anything that is wrong is anything other than wrong. I’m saying that people do wrong things and when we give them a chance to take responsibility for what they have done and pick themselves up, rather than condemning them, they usually do better than when we come down harshly with self-righteous puritanical ‘values’.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This is the famous story of Joseph and his brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. Favouritism, jealousy, passion, lust and betrayal. It’s all in there with much, much more. Well worth a read. This week’s portion and the next are my absolute favourites.

Welcome to Tikun!

Before you take a look around… treat your soul and subscribe to the Weekly Davar - a dose of meaningful Jewish thought, new podcast episodes and general newsletter.