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Weekly Parsha: Shemot – Expansion Of Spirit

In this week’s parsha, Shemot, we learn from Moshe’s life story important insights for how we expand our spirits to become greater people

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Parshot/Festivals

CHIEF RABBI WARREN GOLDSTEIN

This is an edited transcript of the Chief Rabbi’s audio podcast which can be found on the CHIEF RABBI’S WEBSITE – where users can also sign up for Rabbi Goldstein’s weekly newsletter and find lots more information.

 

This week’s parsha is Shemot, the first parsha of the book of Exodus, which as we know deals, among other things, with one of the major events of Jewish history: the liberation from Egypt. The central character in the story of the Exodus is Moshe, the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. This week’s parsha deals with the earlier years of Moshe’s life, beginning in Pharaoh’s palace and leading up to his role as the leader of the Jewish people.

Moshe’s life: increasing responsibility

If we track the life story of Moses, we will see an interesting pattern. He starts off as a prince in the palace. Our portion describes how he goes out of the palace and sees the suffering of his brothers. He goes out further and sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave and he intervenes to save the slave. He then separates between two Jews who are fighting with each other. After that he is forced to flee from Egypt and goes to Median, where he defends a group of shepherdesses from shepherds who bully them at the well. These shepherdesses turn out to be the daughters of Yitro, Jethro. He marries Tziporah, one of Yitro’s daughters, and they have two children. He is then appointed by G-d to lead the people out of Egypt and is the instrument through which G-d brings about the liberation. He then becomes their leader and teacher for the next forty years.

 The pattern in Moshe’s life is one of increasing responsibilities. He starts off as a prince, with no responsibilities. A prince is different from a king; a king has privileges but responsibilities as well – he has to govern the country. But a prince has only privileges and no responsibilities. Then he goes out, sees his brothers’ suffering and takes on responsibilities: he helps one person, then another. He helps the daughters of Yitro, then he gets married, then he has children. He then comes back to fight and lobby on behalf of the Jewish people to get them out of Egypt. Then he serves as the conduit through which G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish people and he becomes the teacher – Moshe Rabbeinu – and he leads the people in the desert. He goes through all of these different phases but the common thread is a progression from very limited responsibility to greater responsibility, with each stage in his life.

Greatness of soul necessitates an expansion of self

This pattern of increasing responsibility is a process we must all go through. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, discusses what it means to be a great person.  Conventional wisdom maintains that the many important duties in life such as building a family, looking after a spouse, raising children, earning a living, and contributing to the community, are all noble tasks, no doubt, but also deplete a person’s resources. Of course a person has to develop him or herself as a human being and become a good person, through the commandments – our moral obligations – and through doing our duty in this word; but, says, conventional wisdom, every extra responsibility that we take on actually drains our resources.  Thus, we are constantly in a struggle between self-preservation and taking responsibility for others.

Rav Wolbe says that this conventional wisdom is in fact not true. G-d places a soul in every person for the purpose of developing that soul. The soul, and the human being as the bearer of that soul, has tremendous potential which is actualised throughout a person’s life by doing good in the world, with the goal being that after death the soul returns to G-d in a state of maximum actualisation of the potential that was placed within it. A soul that remains up in the heavens with G-d cannot actualise its potential; it is in a place of perfection, of pure goodness. That is why the soul descends into the physical world, so that it has the opportunity to develop itself.

Actualising our potential by expanding our sphere of influence

The potential inherent in the soul is actualised by taking on more and more responsibilities. As we grow up, our sphere of responsibility expands bit by bit. A baby is conscious only of its own needs: what and when it wants to eat, when it wants to sleep. A baby is not interested in anybody else. As we mature, we start to understand that there are other people in the world. A three- or four-year-old can already begin to comprehend that there are other people and other needs in the world, but still has a selfish streak. If they need something, they need it now and there is no negotiating. Thinking of others doesn’t come naturally to a child. As a child gets older, though, the process of moving from childhood to adulthood is a process of expanding, of becoming a bigger person.

Shouldering another’s burden

This development of the human being by taking on more and more responsibilities was exhibited by Moses. As part of his development he first needed to see the suffering of others. The Talmud cites the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (6: 6), which says you have to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro, you must carry your friend’s burden. The meaning is not just to help another person, but to shoulder the other’s burden and actually carry it with him. The message that needs to be conveyed to a person who is in a difficult situation is that he is not alone. It’s not just a matter of physically helping others – which of course is very important – but rather that they feel they are not alone, that you are with them.

We can only truly be with the other if we can get outside of ourselves and be aware of the people around us. This is the process of maturing from a self-absorbed child to an adult who is aware of others. And this is the process Moses went through: going out and seeing his brothers’ suffering, helping his brothers, defending the defenceless against oppression, getting married, having children, and coming back to redeem the Jewish people.

Spiritual growing pains

Each stage of development, of expanding responsibilities and becoming more of an inclusive person – a klal mentsch, as we say in Yiddish – comes with pain because the soul is growing and stretching. When the soul comes into the world it is relatively limited, it is contracted; it is filled with potential which hasn’t yet been actualised. The soul has to expand so that the person becomes more inclusive of others. That is why every stage comes with growing pains, because the soul is expanding all the time to include more and more people.

Marriage is about constant expansion of responsibility, thereby actualising the potential within and developing it even further. Marriage requires us to take into account another human being and a whole different set of needs. This is an expansion of soul, an actualisation of potential.

Similarly with raising children – every parent knows the self-sacrifice that is required in order to raise a child properly, as well as the great rewards that come with it. The pain of self-sacrifice is really about the expansion of self to include the child who is now in the parents’ realm of influence. A person goes on a lifelong journey of expansion and fulfilling more and more of their potential, from marriage to children to community, to helping the underprivileged.

Thus, expanding responsibility is not about diminishing the individual. It is about fulfilment in the actualisation of the soul’s potential. It was for this purpose that we were brought into the world. This is the life process that Moses goes through: constant expansion of self. He starts off as a prince who only has to worry about himself, living a life of privilege with everyone looking after him. Then his responsibilities expand and he starts to look at the suffering of his brothers. He is nosei b’ol im chaveiro, as the Talmud describes; he shouldered the burden of his brothers, literally and figuratively. Then he gets married and has children, and then he comes back to get the people out of Egypt. He leads the people, teaches them Torah, looks after them in the desert, constantly expanding his responsibilities. This is the making of a great person.

The ultimate expansion of consciousness:
the soul returning to G-d

The final stage of growth, says Rav Wolbe, is actually death -a very painful process indeed. Even if a person passes away peacefully and after many years, his or her transition to the next world is painful; the transition from a world of constriction to a world of expansion is the ultimate growth.

Rav Wolbe quotes from Rabbeinu Tam, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, who contrasts this world with the next and says that a person living in this world is like someone living in a cave underground who has all his needs taken care of but does not know that there is a world outside the cave. Then one day he comes out and sees a whole big world of blue skies, seas, and trees. The magnificence and the sheer freedom of being in the “real” world, the expanded consciousness that comes with it, is something which could never have been conceived of inside the dark cave.

Rabbeinu Tam says that this world is like a dark, constricted cave. When we make the transition out of the body the soul becomes even more of a klal mentsch, even more inclusive; the soul has finished the process of actualising its potential. It now has a sense of transcendence above self, transcendence above the world, and an appreciation for the ultimate truth.

If a person has lived a good life, then death becomes part of that growth process. Any growth process of a person becoming more expanded is associated with growing pains of the soul being stretched into greater consciousness. Each stage of life becomes more difficult and that is associated with pain. One of the great achievements of life, says Rav Wolbe, is to die well. The pain of death is the ultimate growth process, where the soul has finished its development and is now going back to G-d. As it leaves the physical body it becomes the ultimate klal mentsch; it sees the broader perspective, having transcended beyond self.

Maturity means moving beyond self  

Unfortunately, there are adults who behave like children because they haven’t matured beyond self. This process of development and maturing is not something which happens automatically; it is a process that we have to work on. Thus you may find people who get married – which should be an expanding experience – but because they haven’t developed properly and expanded as human beings, they remain selfish. This in turn damages the marriage, sometimes irreparably. Having children should be an expanding process. Sometimes it is and, sadly, sometimes it isn’t. At each stage of life we have to be constantly developing and expanding who we are, transcending beyond self and being aware of what is going on around us.

The more responsibility we take on and the more we reach out to those around us, the more we are developing the soul within us. As such there isn’t tension between “my” interests and “your” needs, between self and others. We expand and develop ourselves by getting involved with others and putting their needs before ours.

Growing inside, expanding outward

This is the model of Moses’ life: it starts constricted, turned inward, and then expands, turning outward. The impetus for that growth from the inside out comes from everything that G-d has given us – the Torah and the Talmud, which give us the guidance, the light and the energy to be able to expand outward. Our direct connection to G-d is the starting point, from which we can then move out to become greater and greater people. 

This is the lesson gleaned from Moses’ life story. Greatness is the expansion of self, when we are filled inside with a direct connection to G-d and then expand outward to include others, increasing our responsibilities and becoming klal mentschen.

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Parshot/Festivals

Purim: a four-point plan for embracing uncertainty

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As we approach Purim this year, it’s hard to escape the feeling of disappointment. This is the second Purim since the beginning of the pandemic, and the world remains upside down. Our lives at the moment seem reduced, our Purim celebrations muted.

But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe this is the year for a Purim like no other.

Think about what we are all grappling with at the moment – the pervading sense we have is of living in a world of uncertainty.

Purim is all about embracing uncertainty. In fact, the very word “Purim” means “lots”, referring to the lots Haman cast randomly to select the day to carry out his genocidal plan.

In a world so full of threats and danger, Purim gives us a game plan. In fact, the four mitzvot of Purim constitute the perfect formula for coping with an uncertain world.

First, the mitzvah to hear the reading of the Megillah in the night and again on the day of Purim teaches us about faith. The Megillah inspires us to see Hashem’s presence everywhere, even when it isn’t obvious. The name Esther – the Megillah’s chief protagonist – comes from the word hester, meaning “hidden”, a hint at G-d’s hidden presence in the world (Talmud, Chulin 139b). Famously, the Megillah, which relates the miraculous story of how the Jewish people were saved from annihilation, doesn’t mention Hashem’s name once. Even when we cannot see Him, we are reminded that He is there, looking out for us every moment of every day.

He was in ancient Persia when Haman rose up against us, and He is here with us in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can take comfort in knowing we are in His loving embrace, and that everything He does is ultimately for our best.

The third mitzvah of Purim – matanot l’evyonim (Esther 9:22), giving money to those in need on the day – reminds us of the power of giving. There are many who have been hit financially by COVID-19. Our incredible institutions, too, are buckling under the strain. This year in particular, when so many of us are vulnerable, we need to reach out and give according to our means.

Then there’s mishloach manot (Esther 9:22) – sending gifts of food to our friends and family on Purim. Now is the time to invest in our relationships. We need them more than ever. We need to lean on one another. Our relationships feed us, giving us the strength and emotional well-being to withstand these difficult times. At a time of isolation and dislocation, mishloach manot remind us to fortify our connections to the people around us as we draw strength from them and they draw strength from us.

Finally, there is the seudat Purim, the celebratory meal on Purim day. The Purim seudah is a feast of gratitude and thanksgiving. We are grateful to Hashem for our miraculous deliverance on Purim, and it reminds us to offer thanks to Him also for the daily miracles we all experience, to truly savour the divine blessings we have in our lives, and to live with gratitude.

And so, as the world gradually moves to the next phase of this great global health struggle, let’s embrace Purim. Not with big gatherings, but with immersive engagement in the four mitzvot of the day which, together, provide a game plan for living in a world of uncertainty, guiding us to the four things we need right now: faith, kindness, love, and gratitude.

May we all merit the “light and joy and celebration and glory” (Esther 8:16) which the Megillah tells us filled their world after the miracles of Purim, and may these divine blessings flow into our lives and into our world.

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Parshot/Festivals

Valiant heroes and dark villians – why Purim is like COVID-19

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We all love fairy tales. Beautiful, clever heroes who use their charm to bring frightening dramas to a quick denouement after which everybody lives happily ever after.

From nursery school, this is how the story of Purim has been told to us by well-meaning educators: gorgeous young Esther, blessed to have won an empire-wide beauty contest to become the new Queen of Persia, lives in wedded bliss with the King. As soon as a threat is levelled against her people, she manages to sweet-talk her husband, Achashverosh, to nullify the plan. And they all live happily ever after.

I apologise in advance if I’m spoiling a childhood dream. A thorough reading of the Book of Esther, aided by the commentary found in Talmud Megillah, shows each of the statements in the above paragraph to be untrue. Esther was neither young, gorgeous, nor happy. She was dragged, against her will, to join the King’s harem. Though she secured the role of spouse, she still lived a miserable double life, and had to vie for the monarch’s attention against many rivals.

By the time she heard of Haman’s evil plan, she hadn’t seen the King for more than a month. And here’s a little challenge: for an audience with the King, you need to be invited. Nobody, even Achashverosh’s wife, simply marches into the throne room and says, “Howzit!”, as Mordechai expected Esther to do. Trespassers are executed!

Esther’s approach to the King could only have disastrous consequences for her. At worst, she would lose her life for her breach of royal protocol. At best, the King would extend his golden sceptre to her, signifying forgiveness for her breach (which, as we all know, is what happened). This outcome would actually be far from pretty. But first let me introduce you to another fact you are unlikely to have been taught by your nursery – or even primary – school teacher.

As per the Talmud, prior to her abduction to the harem, Mordechai and Esther were husband and wife. For years, she lived a double life, halachically married to one man while prisoner to another’s whims. Yet, from the moment she volunteered to approach the King and seduce him into saving her people, her marriage to Mordechai would have to end by Jewish law (which tragically is precisely what happened).

Mordechai’s request of Esther was to make an ultimate sacrifice for both of them. It involved pain and deprivation for individuals for the sake of the entire nation. A sacrifice Esther took upon herself, with the famous words, “Thus I will come to the King, contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther, Chapter 4). A verse heavily loaded with double meaning. “Contrary to the law” – Persia’s or G-d’s? “I perish, I perish” – in this world or in the world to come.

The past year has been no fairy tale, just like the Purim story. But these magic stories often involve villains and heroes. Here the parallel applies.

The hero and heroine of Purim are Mordechai and Esther, a couple prepared to make huge personal sacrifices (hers far greater than his, of course) for the benefit of a community.

So many heroes have emerged in the past year and a half. These are good men and women, giving up what’s precious to them for the common good. Tribute has been paid to the angels of Hatzolah and to frontline health workers who have worked tirelessly under horrid conditions to save lives and minimise pain. In my position of chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, I also want to make mention of the heroic efforts of my colleagues to give spiritual guidance and hope to our community, this with our sanctuaries shuttered for the greater part of the past year.

The real hero is each one of us, in our own personal life, who has made and continues to make huge personal sacrifices for the good of the wider community. The many of us who stay home, cut down on socialising, give up on parties, glamourous weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs, and other life-cycle celebrations, and have radically modified our lifestyle to save others’ lives. Not to mention the wretched mask wearing, an altruistic act, according to experts, who say that most of the benefit is for those around us. The cost to this year’s Purim observance has been huge, accustomed as we are to large, merry gatherings.

The mortal danger in the Purim story took close to a year to disappear. To be exact, from Pesach to Purim. (Haman’s edict was promulgated on the Eve of Passover; the threat ceased about 11 months later, on 14 Adar, later to become Purim.) That’s the precise timeline of the current peril we are facing. We pray for Hashem to give us another Purim miracle, with total and complete deliverance from the current danger. As we read in the Book of Esther (Chapter 9), may we experience “transformation from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity”.

Purim sameach!

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Less is more: friendship is the essence of mishloach manot

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Purim is easily one of our most social and communal holidays. The festivities begin at nightfall, and flow through to the following day. There is dress-up, a seudah (festive meal), and our communal web is activated as people send mishloach manot (food parcels) to friends near and far.

With so much socialising as well as giving and receiving, Purim is often a day to acknowledge one’s connection to people and feel grateful for community.

Yet, a group of Jewish doctors issued a caution recently about mishloach manot, saying that the circulating of these food parcels isn’t a good idea during a pandemic. These doctors advised keeping the mitzvah to its minimum, which is to send mishloach manot, (a minimum of two items of food), to one person.

Should we resign ourselves to saying Purim is yet another holiday suppressed by the pandemic, or might there be something valuable, even deeply connecting in reducing the mitzvah to its minimum requirements?

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, we are told that Rabba, an impoverished yet highly esteemed Amoraic Sage who became head of the Yeshiva at Pumpedita, would send a sack of dates and a cup of roasted flour with Abayei to the esteemed exilarch Marei, the son of Mar. Abayei the student of Rabba, functions as a kind of quirky commentator.

Appraising the dates and the flour he says, “When Marei the exilarch sees this, he will say, ‘Even when the farmer becomes the king, the basket doesn’t hang low.’” In other words, when Abayei looks at the modest package, he thinks that Marei, an exilarch, might find it a little … spare.

Marei the exilarch then sent Rabba in return a sackful of ginger and a cupful of long peppers, an eminently more expensive gift. At this point, Abayei comments, “Rabba will say, ‘I sent him a sweet treat, and now he has sent me pungents in return.’” In other words, Rabba will say, he has sent me something smelly!

This humorous anecdote relaying an exchange between a rosh yeshiva and an exilarch touches on the underbelly of mishloach manot: sending food parcels to your friends on Purim can be complicated.

Who would have thought that bag of Fritos and that almost stale hamantaschen actually touches on complex socio-economic issues, class stratifications, egos, and interpersonal sensitivities? Purim is a day where dates and flour might be misconstrued as a little frugal, where ginger and peppers might be received as a subtle insult.

Indeed, sometimes a mitzvah can become entangled in other stuff: how many mishloach manot did I receive? Am I popular? Do I have money to send fancy mishloach manot? Is my mishloach manot as nice as the one I’m receiving from others? Did we receive from so and so? So and so delivered to us, but we hadn’t prepared any for them.

Mishloach manot is almost akin to getting likes on Facebook. You feel loved when you get lots of them. What’s more, the very next day, you find yourself sitting with a pile of confectionery that you want to give away. Between longing to receive it and then giving it all away, what’s the point?

As doctors advise us to return to the minimum practice of the mitzvah, perhaps it’s also a chance to return to the essence and meaning of the mitzvah. The words in the Megillah tell us “mishloach manot ish le’rei’eihu” (food parcels from one person to his/her friend). If this is about sending a gift to your friends, perhaps Purim is a day to consider where we are in terms of our friends and friendship. What does it mean to truly give and receive as a friend? What does it take to recognise the true needs of your friends, and to offer yourself without over-reaching or under-reaching.

Perhaps this focus on reaching out to your friend is because the story of Esther is really about failed relationships. On a micro level, Achashverosh isn’t a guy who has deep and meaningful relationships! He gets rid of Vashti when she challenges him, he doesn’t summon Esther for days on end, and his relationship with Haman is based on power and flattery. The failed interpersonal relationships have ramifications for the wider level of society. As Vashti is punished, all women in Persia are further subjugated, and as Haman hates Mordechai, he seeks to kill all Jews.

So this Purim, as we adhere to our doctors’ orders and prepare mishloach manot for one or maybe two people, let’s return to an examination of friendship and consider the ways in which bonds have been strained through social distancing.

Let’s offer our reduced mishloach manot with simplicity and genuineness, a nourishing yet humble gift to a friend who could do with it, and receive what’s offered without judgement or expectation. But more than a food parcel, let’s remember how to be a friend, and how to cultivate friendship.

If Rabba and Marei’s mishloach manot manoeuvres were complicated, the Talmud in Megillah ends with a meaningful and touching tale about two other rabbis. We are told that Abayei bar Avin and  Rabbi Chaninah bar Avin would simply exchange their meals with each other, thus fulfilling their mishloach manot obligation.

The Talmud seems to tell us that through this simple, humble, and uncomplicated exchange, without fanfare or ceremony, they were satisfied and complete, and all obligations were fulfilled. They understood the essence of the mitzvah.

  • Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and teaches Tanach to adults.

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