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Religion

Wake up and smell the coffee

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There’s a well-known adage attributed to the founder of the Chassidic movement that bears reflection. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was a hidden mystic who lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine. Unknown to the world initially, he was taught the mystical and hidden aspect of the Torah by none other than Achiya Hashiloni, the famous teacher of Elijah the prophet.

Reb Yisrael was born into a dark world – the Jewish people’s morale and connection to G-d was at an all-time low – and it seemed that they were at a point of simply dying a natural death brought on by the vicissitudes of exile and immeasurable suffering.

Although he worked undercover at first, Reb Yisrael, who eventually got the title Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), revealed his teachings to the world and through his wisdom and insight, he revived a weary generation of Jews and caused them to flourish.

Today, the Chassidic movement is alive and well, and through principles of serving G-d with joy, seeing the divine hand orchestrating history, and showing genuine care and concern for one’s fellow, a fresh breath of air was blown into the Jewish people.

One of the famous teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that everything you see and hear is a lesson in divine service. This world is interconnected, and G-d is found in everything and everyone. Also, G-d, whose guiding hand directs mankind, speaks through the natural. Humans just need to be perceptive and connect the dots.

We have and still are going through a very dark period in our history, and recent events often stop us in our tracks and beg the question: why? What’s this all about?

Now I’m no mystic, nor seer, but I’m compelled to ask the question: what lesson is there to be learnt from what I see and hear? This world isn’t haphazard, and there is a recurrent message G-d is trying to give to us.

For me, two themes immediately emerge.

The first is, “I can’t breathe”. It was initially sparked off by the cruel handling of George Floyd that cascaded into unprecedented civil unrest, and just more than a week ago, we witnessed the tragic, inexplicable loss of 45 holy Jews on Lag B’Omer, whose lives too were extinguished with the words “I can’t breathe.”

The second is the ravaging fires that we have witnessed locally and internationally. Mass destruction has been wrought on institutions of learning and healing, natural resources charred and burned to the ground. Just google “recent fires”, and you will see the world is burning.

What’s happening here, dear Baal Shem Tov?

We are in the midst of the Jewish year 5781 – the numerical value of 81 in Hebrew is made up of two letters, phey (80) and aleph (1). Together, these two letters spell out the world af. Af is nose in Hebrew, the aperture through which we bring in breath and life into our bodies. Af can also mean wrath, anger – a destructive force that ravages everything in its path.

Our world and its inhabitants are in turmoil. Our selfish greed to dominate has trampled on the inherent right of every human being to be recognised as a valuable part of society.

Peer pressure, politics, and man’s animal cravings has extinguished the privilege of every individual to be respected with tolerance, acceptance, brotherhood, and love. The world is screaming, “I can’t breathe!” Life has been sucked out of us, we have been trampled on, we are doing the trampling, and the world is calling out for help.

What happens when we continue to live life in this manner – when it’s all about me and nothing about you? We unleash the fires of dissention, hatred, and intolerance, and it becomes so loud and so overwhelming, it destroys everything in its path and leaves a world burned and charred.

The Baal Shem Tov, however, wouldn’t leave it at that. This viewpoint just engenders a sense of hopelessness and inertia. Reb Yisrael also teaches that everything in life is good, G-d is good, and one must look beyond the surface and expose the divine.

You can take the word af and reverse it – phey, aleph. That’s an acronym for the Hebrew words pla’ot areinu (I will show you wonders). G-d promises us that there will come a time when we will see wonders, we will merit the birth of a world that is filled with love, healing, and connection. The burnt ground will sprout new shoots, new life, and a promise of a better brighter world.

This isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a simple reversal of letters. It’s a simple change of attitude. It’s a commitment to live life on a higher consciousness where we make space for another and we understand that we are really one.

We translate this into action by performing acts of goodness and kindness and doing mitzvot (commandments of the Torah). Each unadulterated act of selflessness and connection brings G-dly light into this world, and it encourages the growth of new shoots.

This weekend, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Shavuot). This was a wonderous event, where the Jewish people stood humbly at the foot of a mountain and pledged allegiance to G-d and His law. We promised to be faithful servants of the divine and a light unto the nations.

So, the lesson is clear. Let’s douse the fire of wrath in our hearts, let’s stamp out all the faribels we have, big and small, let’s stop trampling on others. Let’s breathe fresh air back into our souls. Let this be the air of a shared common humanity that asks to live in peace with itself, with others, and with G-d!

Come on. Wake up, smell the coffee, a brand-new day is dawning. It’s going to be wonder-full!

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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