Going From I-llness to We-llness
Pesach is again here. Another yom tov under the confines of the pandemic, though this time, baruch Hashem, the end is in sight. We are on the cusp of healing and wellness. This Pesach can be an inspirational boost for our morale. Let’s cast away our troubles, and rejoice!
G-d took the Jews out of Egypt 3 333 years ago, and ever since then, we are in the process of removing Egypt from ourselves. As thinking, feeling humans, we still struggle with an inner slavery, whose components include materialistic challenges, emotional disappointments, or spiritual setbacks.
Freedom is an expression of our unbridled soul. Poverty, illness, or prison walls, can restrict our ability to express the soul’s organic freedom. So, too, with internal confinement. A person experiencing depression, loneliness, or feelings of futility, can feel equally shackled in spite of having no external restraints.
One of the rebbe’s famous campaigns was his call to remember the “fifth son” at the seder. We are all aware of the four children mentioned: the wise, wicked, simple, and the one who doesn’t know to ask. Yet there’s a fifth one, the one who doesn’t know or care enough even to show up. It’s our task to ensure that this lost Jew also attends a seder.
Yom tov this year is unique as it starts immediately on the heels of the departing Shabbos, a rather uncommon set up. Interestingly, this configuration is how it was the very first year after the original exodus, which meant that the Korban Pesach offering was prepared earlier in the day, while it was still Shabbos.
Ordinarily, in the Temple, only communal sacrifices were offered on Shabbos, not personal ones. Although the Pesach sacrifice is considered a personal, individual offering, it also contained an element of community, since everyone was doing the same thing simultaneously.
It reminds us that the individual and the community need to work together. Our beautiful community is made up of individuals who may be different from each other in many ways, but when we all come together, we form something far greater than just individuals.
As the population is vaccinated and life gradually resumes, let’s make sure that everyone is remembered. Nobody should be allowed to fall through the cracks. This year, we need to take extra care that there are no people who are alone, that social distancing doesn’t result in more “fifth sons” who don’t feel worthy of a seder. That even those unable to participate should feel cared for, and those celebrating alone still not feel lonely. We must look out for one another. The focus must pivot from I-illness to WE-wellness.
In the Zohar, matzah is called michla d’mehaymnusa (food of faith) and michlah d’asvasa (food of healing). It reminds us of the faith in G-d that our ancestors had at the time of exodus. They were prepared to go into a barren wilderness without knowing how they would survive. When we eat matzah, it’s like injecting “a jab of faith”.
So, while we anticipate the means of freedom from the pandemic, we should also consider the feelings of others, and that they achieve inner liberation from worry and constraint.
Let’s pray that when we sit down at our seders and eat matzah, we’ll discover spiritual healing within ourselves fortifying our faith in G-d, and that faith will bring freedom, healing, and salvation to the entire world.
Mother nature’s gifts
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”
Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.
I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.
Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.
We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.
We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.
We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
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