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The wheels of the bus

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Religion

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.

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Religion

Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free

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We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.

Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.

Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:

“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.

“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”

A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.

So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.

One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.

A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.

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Religion

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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