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.
The never-ending voice
And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.
Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.
Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?
Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”
Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.
Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.
And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.
Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.
Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.
Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?
The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.
Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.
Memory versus history
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.
Exile is a state of being
In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.
Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.
Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.
Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.
Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?
Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.
Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.
Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.
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