The wheels of the bus
I’m sure many of you remember the childhood song, “The wheels of the bus go round and round, round and round”? It’s one of my favourite tunes, and I still sing it with my grandchildren. It has the beat of repetition. Its tune elicits a sense of predictability, a trust that, come what may, the “wheels will go round and round, the door will open and shut, and the bus driver will say, ‘Move along, please’”. I smile because isn’t this a song about life? In fact, the analogy is unbelievably relevant.
While most of us perceive that our life is linear, that we start off in one place and land in another, in truth, it has a more cyclical quality to it. We are born and then we die, we come into this world, and then we leave, and in between that space of 120 years, we cycle through life events. More so, Judaism strongly believes in reincarnation, and so we cycle in and out of lives too. What is the purpose of the wheel going round and round? Some might even ask: is there a purpose?
Chassidic philosophy teaches us that we come into the world to make a dwelling place for G-d – meaning that we transition through this crass, materialistic world in order to find the sparks of G-dliness embedded in it and release them back to their source. We are miners, so to speak, on a mission. Our lives on this planet are transient, we’re merely passing through. But in that journey, we seek to find that which is eternal, that which has lost its way, and return it back to its rightful owner – G-d. It’s not only about returning the world back to a G-dly existence, it’s also about returning ourselves to who we really are – a chelek elokai mima’al mamosh (a veritable part of the divine).
So, our motion on earth is cyclical – we measure our progress at every birthday. How did we grow, what did we become? What did we achieve? We also experience it at every Jewish holiday. Every year, we revisit the same time and space, the same energy, and we ask ourselves, did I take the yom tov message to heart, and did I grow? Did I change myself, and did I effect my sphere of influence?
Even more, this experience isn’t a solo one, it’s a collaboration of many people, places, and times. We aren’t alone when we board the bus. There are many passengers, each on their own ride, going to a place unique to them. Remember – “The babies on the bus go ‘waa waa waa’, the mommies on the bus go ‘shh shh shh’.” What’s important, though, is that they are all on the same bus, and for everyone, the wheels of the bus go round and round.
We’ve just closed a wheel – the month of Adar – a time for joy when we were taught to serve G-d from a space of positivity and gratitude. Each day, we tried to look at this world through a positive lens and see how G-d does good and bestows so much blessing in our life. Simply put, we were challenged to practice the art of focusing on the glass half full not half empty.
And now that this wheel has closed its cycle and we have internalised that lesson, we enter the month of Nissan and the energy of freedom beckons to be discovered. Now is the time to work on freeing ourselves from the shackles of our idol worship. No, no. I’m not delusional in thinking we live in biblical times and are bowing down to molten, graven images! You see, we have even cycled through the annals of history. We now have developed into “sophisticated”, 21st-century idol worshippers – we worship fashion, status, money, and the pursuit of honour. We worship our egos, our selfish inclinations, and the incessant need to be something.
Comes the month of Nissan when we celebrate our nation’s release from the shackles of Pharaoh, and we are challenged to get out of our personal Egypt, to move beyond that which is shackling and holding us back from who we can truly be.
The one – most important – key, though, is to understand that true freedom doesn’t mean an abrogation of your responsibilities. It sadly doesn’t mean just lying on a beach with a pina colada watching as the world goes by (though it sounds unbelievably tempting when contemplating the cooking and cleaning we need to do before the holiday starts). True freedom is throwing off the shackles of self-imprisonment and reuniting ourselves with our true existence – a connection to G-d and his world.
This past year, more so than other years, we have been in bondage, physically and socially distanced, quarantined, and isolated. It’s undeniable that Mrs COVID-19 has been a very harsh taskmaster to us all. But at the same time, we have started to taste a deeper, truer level of freedom. We have been challenged to throw off the shackles of peer pressure, of keeping up with the Joneses, or was it the Cohens? We have been pushed to look inside and ask very real and relevant questions about our purpose, who we are, and why are we here. We’ve questioned our lifestyles, our modes of work, the style of education we offer our kids, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
This year, our bus certainly went on a detour into uncharted territory, but the journey showed us that there is more to life than wandering around aimlessly accumulating things and living empty lives. The bus driver on high is chiding us with a “move along please, move along please”. No, we are not going back to “normal!” Let’s seize the energy of redemption, and start living redeemed! Let’s reconnect to our original selves, take on a good resolution in the realm of spirituality, another small mitzvah which will add to the goodness and kindness the world so desperately needs. You’ll then be able to start seeing the enormous change this life cycle has brought, and you’ll be on the bus that will bring this world to its final destination, with the arrival of moshiach and a world filled with health, happiness, peace, and prosperity. Wishing you all a redemptive Pesach and a chag sameach.
- Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host, and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times.
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.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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