Friday, August 30, 2019

Fear and Calm - Ekev Reay

Image used under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0, Image by
 Ralf Steinberger

On the 26th of July I posted about having felt afraid at an important meeting, and talking too much because I felt anxious (1). This week I met with some of the same people, about the same issues, but I was quite calm and tuned in to the people I was meeting with. In this blog I explore my experience with fear and some of Torah’s wisdom on the topic.

After the meeting, I reflected on the difference between the two meetings I had. In the first I was quite high-energy and my thinking and talking was fast paced, and, on reflection, I was driven by an unprocessed fear of failure, to get the results I was hoping for. In the second meeting, however, my pace and energy level were moderate, or even subdued, and I was completely present to what the people I was meeting with thought, wanted and needed.

One factor that was different was mindfulness. At the second meeting I was aware of my various thoughts and motivations. Another factor was awareness of some Torah wisdom. The Torah calls us to do both what is proper, from the perspective of people, and what is good, from the perspective of God (2). The wording here is precise: while humans are capable of determining proper conduct, by ensuring we follow upright processes (3 ) and contribute the initial inputs to those in an ethical way; only the prescient God knows what outcomes will truly turn out to be truly “good” (4). This lowers the stakes. I don’t need to try to force an outcome. The outcomes are truly out of my hands and, therefore, are not my responsibility.

Another teaching that helped me relax, was the idea that I learned yesterday that if one can put aside selfish motives, then one can be confident of being guided to the right choices (5). So I need to focus on being altruistic in my motives and intentions, and leave the outcomes to God I combine these teachings with the secular idea of working “with” people; rather than trying to bend people to one’s will, which is incompatible with productive collaboration. Thus, I can choose to trust people, who have their own choices to make and their own wisdom in making those decisions; and I need not feel responsible to push for a particular outcome or conclusion.

Another strategy, is to initially embrace the fear, rather than run from it. Once I have accepted that I feel the feelings that I do, I can then open myself to support from others. Moses tells the Israelites in the desert that, ‘if they feel daunted by the challenge of conquering people, who [they estimate to be] more numerous and stronger than themselves, they should not be afraid because God will help them’ (6). Commentary makes the point that it is precisely when you acknowledge your fear and vulnerability, that you can trust God will help you and in this way you're able to put aside your fear. However, if one suffers from hubris and is overconfident, then he should not expect divine assistance, and had better be afraid (7).

2)     Deuteronomy 12:28, as interpreted by Rabbi Akiva in Sifre ad loc.
3)     Gur Aryeh on Deuteronomy 12:28.
4)     Torah Temima on Deuteronomy 12:28, note 113.
5)     I could not recall the source at the time of writing.
6)     Deuteronomy, 7:17-18.
7)     Chida, in Torat Hachida, Ekev, 25 & 26, pages 76-77.

Friday, August 23, 2019

A Palestinian In The Synagogue - God Cares About “Goyim”

Last night Munzer Emad, a Palestinian man told his story at a Sydney synagogue. I felt grateful to be present, because I this was the first time I had seen this dialogue in a Synagogue in my community in St Ives. Munzer spoke from the heart, and his Jewish audience engaged with his story, despite the fact that “it was very difficult to listen to”, as more than one audience member reflected.  

Rabbi Gad Krebs, who initiated this encounter for his community, reflected on his own journey that led to last night. Around the year 2000, the Rabbi, then a much younger man, was, by his own admission, very right wing politically. The Rabbi told us that he was greeted by a stranger with a pronounced Arabic accent, in Hebrew, while watching the Olympics on a big outdoor screen in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The two men engaged in conversation. The Arabic speaking man initially said he was Egyptian, but later told the Rabbi that if he had told him where he was really from that would have been the end of the conversation. He then shared that he was actually a Palestinian from Gaza, and that previously whenever he had disclosed this fact in a conversation with a Jewish person that ended the conversation. Rabbi Krebs did not run away and instead continued the conversation. The two men lost contact, until a recent chance meeting when Rabbi Krebs and Munzer met, and after a while Gad realised that Munzer was the stranger he met in 2002.

Munzer is a softly spoken man. He argued passionately for connections between people. He argued that, although humans were not meant to fly or swim, we have beaten nature to do both of these things. On the other hand, despite being wired for connectedness, we override our nature in order to be fragmented. He reflected on the way that groups in conflict dismiss each others experiences and deal with the other as an enemy. He shared a surprising anecdote about the time he was around ten years old and Israeli soldiers marched through the street where he was playing; he felt confused and angered by their forceful presence. He threw a soccer ball at an Israeli soldier. The soldier smiled shyly and threw the ball back. A glimpse of the soldiers humanity that did not fit the narrative of this young boy. But a little connection happened anyway.

As a teenager, Munzer was mistaken for one of his brothers who was very active in throwing stones, so Munzer was taken into custody. When Munzer was interrogated, he was blindfolded. He asked his interrogator to remove the blindfold and make eye contact. On Sunday night he got much more than that, his generous spirit was mirrored back to him by his receptive audience.

I don’t think religious texts are key to war or peace, there are other significant drivers that I think are more central, but they are not irrelevant either. The day before Munzer’s talk, I was confronted with a text that seemed to suggest that God does not care about non-Jewish people. Thankfully, there is usually more than one way to read a Torah text.

Moses told the Israelites that “when you look up to the sky, and behold the sun and the moon and the stars must not be lured into ...serving them. These the LORD your God has set aside for all [the other?] nations everywhere under heaven” , but as for you [the Israelites], the LORD took and brought you out of Egypt... to be His very own people (1).

This has been taken to mean that God has set the nations up to worship the stars, and it is only the Jews whose worship is important to God (2). This seems wrong, surely God would not lead people astray (3). As an Assyrian Bishop told me the other night, in his church they don’t pray that God should not lead them into temptation, because surely God would not do that. Instead they pray not to be tested by “trials”.

A story about this text is an early example of the influences of interfaith contact on interpretations of text. A group of Jewish sages were tasked by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah. When they got to this verse they modified the translation to say that God set aside the sun, the moon and the stars to provide light to the nations (4).

Further commentary suggests that the planets are so valuable for all the nations, that they can never be destroyed, and this presents the risk of them being worshipped (5).  Alternatively, the nations of the world might believe in a fragmented concept of the universe, so they see the sun and moon as being more important than earth. However, the Jewish people are invited to think of earth as central, as it is the place where humans worship God (6) and make ethical decisions. Such decisions include to deeply honor and cherish all human beings regardless of ethnic or religious identity. This was the invitation Munzer extended to his audience. It was glorious being part of a room that transcended the divide between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and filled with such warmth and goodwill.

1)    Deuteronomy 4:19.
2)    Talmud, Avoda Zara 55a.
3)    See Torah Temima to Deuteronomy 4:19, notes 41 and 42.
4)    Talmud 9b.  
5)    Chasam Sofer on Vaetchanan.
6)    ibid.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Love of Others and God – Sugar in Milk, Sex Workers and Sinners

A precious life was taken this week in Sydney. Once more, the question of whether this murderer was a Muslim and a terrorist has been taken up.  Most reasonable people already know to avoid premature assumptions and tarring all Muslims with the same brush. This time, I want to focus on the victim, rather than the perpetrator.  One factor that was different this time, is that the murdered person, Michaela Dunn, was a sex worker. Impassioned pleas have been made that we ensure we relate to her as a full human being. This got me thinking about the degree to which we truly value all human beings regardless of differences. Do we really? Or perhaps there is some threshold of similarity that we look for, before we truly embrace someone.

Yesterday, I spent the morning at a religious leader’s forum, held in the boardroom of Sydney’s main Sikh temple. At my table were Hindu, Catholic, Muslim and Zorastrian religious leaders. There, I heard a story about the arrival of Zoroastrians to India. When the Zoroastian or Parsi priestly leaders sought to settle in Gujarat, the local ruler sent them a bowl "brimful" of milk; to signify that the surrounding lands were full, and could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk and sending it back. He implied that the strangers would dissolve into local life, like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but essentially assimilating into it, adopting local customs and language (1).

As I listened to the story, I wondered to myself about assimilation - or the 'melting pot' - as a strategy for managing difference. This story can be understood as supporting an assimilationist argument. Of course, it could be interpreted as simply integrating into society - not disappearing entirely. However, for me, the image of the bowl of milk looking exactly the same afterwards, despite the arrival of the new element, was disturbing.

I unexpectedly woke up at five am this morning. I had a lot on my mind and I didn't feel like going back to sleep for just another hour. As I often do, once I was awake I thought of my great grandfather. Whenever he woke up in the middle of the night, rather than going back to sleep, he would study Torah. So I read a few passages from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, a book that is generally associated with a different community to my own. What I read seemed to contradict the teachings of my Chabad tradition, to value people regardless of the level of their observance. A tradition which had me spend time with recovering drug addicts and convicted criminals as a teenager. Yet, this text suggested that the way to come to love Jews less religious than oneself, is to first influence them to become like oneself. I found it very surprising to see such an interpretation in a Chasidic work.

Essentially, the argument put forward by this author - whose material I usually love, by the way -  is that the way to fulfil the commandment to love your God with all your heart, is by becoming more like God (2). “As He is merciful, and gracious, so should you be merciful and gracious… and one should seek to be as similar to God as one can”. (3) Once we become more similar to God, we will be drawn to love Him. In the same way, with the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself (4), the advice is to influence one’s fellow so that she  “becomes more similar to oneself” (5), which then enables one to love their neighbour.

I am very pleased that my tradition is very different to this. While we are also called to seek to influence our fellow Jews to obey God, our love for every person, including those who sin, is entirely independent of this aim and is even an end in itself! (6).

1)      I have told the story as I heard it ; a variation of the story can be found at
2)      Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Vaetchanan 5, p. 619.
3)      Rambam, Hilchot Deot, chapter 1, halachah 6.
4)      Leviticus 19:18.
5)      Toldot Yaakov Yosef, ibid.
6)      Tanya chapter 32.  A motif throughout the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Journeys of Failure and Anger, Determination and Vision - Maasei

“You are always so happy”, the smiling bald Christian man with the glasses said to me. While it is true that I generally tend to be cheerful and even joyous, I also often struggle with feelings of sadness, anger and fear, though I did not tell him that . As I reflect on that, I remind myself that these feelings are an integral part of journeys toward realizing bold visions.  

These thoughts were sparked by a poem titled ‘What am I for?’, by a thoughtful Poet named Mirriam Hechtman, that was presented at the Social Justice summit at Bondi beach (1). Her question inspired me to articulate what it was that I was 'for', instead of the default angry expression of what I might be against. However, what she was inviting us to do was more complex than that; she told us how she tapped into her anger, but turned it around to articulate a vision of what “she was for”, as part of an “Australia reMADE” project (2). Her anger is part of the fuel for her inspiring vision.

In my own work, my anger motivates me alongside my hope . I am angry about how Muslims are demonised. I was disturbed to read a Muslim mother write “When a seven year old boy in my son’s class tells him doesn’t belong in Australia because he is Muslim, it breaks my heart to see the confusion and pain on his face” (3). Hatred and demonisation of Jews also makes me angry, as do other forms of bigotry. Ill conceived decisions that detract from school student’s ability to learn to reject prejudice frustrate me. All this anger can sometimes drain me, but like Mirriam, I usually turn it around so that it energises me instead. The first step in compassion is to be present with the pain, the second is to take action to alleviate the pain of others, or oneself (4). 

At the same social justice summit, I heard from Andrew Kuper. Andy founded LeapFrog Investments in 2007. Now, in 2019, LeapFrog’s companies serve 157.4 million people across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with products such as a service to send money overseas at a cost of 2% instead of over 15% and quality pharmacies. They also support 122,518 jobs (5). He told us that, in his experience, failures were the most productive times, that galvanised his team, and that times success were the most dangerous. With Together For Humanity recently having been awarded a $2.2 million dollars by the Australian Government, it is time for me to be a little afraid about the risks of opportunity, and then to turn that fear into carefully considered action.

My thoughts are drawn to the Torah reading this week that records all of the 42 journeys of the Jewish people through the desert (6). The text opens with a statement that “these are the journeys of the Israelites as they left [slavery in] Egypt”. It then mentions each place twice, eg. "they travelled from Livna and camped in Risa. [Then] they travelled from Risa and camped in K’hailata" (7). The verses consist of what appears to be a mind numbing list of trips. Yet, I think it offers some wisdom about our own journeys of affirming and working toward a vision.

The repetition of the names of the places they stopped reflects the reality that the journey to success is iterative, as Andy Kuper argued in his talk. The stops along the way are therefore also journeys in their own right (8). Each place is not just a stop along the way, but both the destination of the last journey and the start of the next. Every time we got delayed in the desert can be thought of as a “journey” like all failures and setbacks that can take us a step closer to where we seek to go.
Another approach to setbacks along our journeys is to appreciate any support we are fortunate to receive. I know some people battle alone, so I give thanks for the many who have helped me in a wide range of ways, advice, a listening ear and practical support like donations.

One explanation of the listing of all the journeys compares this recount to the reminiscing of a father whose child had been ill and had to be taken to a far away place for treatment. On their way back the father would point out to his child what happened on their way, here your head hurt etc. (9). The religious purpose of this list is to draw the attention of the Jew to the expressions of fatherly love shown to us during these journeys and this will lead to wholehearted worship of God (10). Gratitude for past support, from humans or from God, can also strengthen our resolve in our service to our fellow man.

Another perspective relates less to the greatness of God and more to the virtue of the people. God wanted all the journeys to be recorded in order to praise the Jewish people, who had followed him blindly out of their familiar surroundings, through the desert where nothing grew (11). This is also relevant to our remembering our own past courage and how we have tackled the obstacles behind us as we consider those still ahead of us.

It is written that our future march toward redemption, perhaps in our own time, will mirror these ancient miraculous journeys, as history is repeated, and we make our way in the modern “deserts” and difficult contexts (12). A metaphoric interpretation of the stations of these life journeys include going from “Marah” (13) (literally 'bitter [waters]'), which represents destructive misinterpretation of sacred texts. The subsequent journey from there to a place with twelve springs and seventy palm trees”, symbolises a shift towards correct understandings, which quench our spiritual thirst (14). The journey from “refidim” (15) represents moving away from laziness and a slackening of determination, on to Sinai, representing the Torah (16). Another journey is from a place called “Graves of Lust” to “Courtyards” (17), which represents a shift away from lust, to an attitude that sees our mortal lives as less important and temporary forecourts, in comparison to eternity and the afterlife (18).  The sheer quantity of journeys necessary to get from the lowly state of Egypt to the elevated situation of the promised land is significant. To shift our consciousness is not so much a once off leap to a higher plane, but a series of steps and changes (19).

3)     Jones, K, (2018), Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within, Busybird Publishing, Victoria, Australia, p. 9.
4)     Gilbert, P. and Choden, (2013), Mindful Compassion, Robinson, London, p.xxv.
6)     Numbers 33:1.
7)     Numbers 33:21-22.
8)     The Chida, Nachal Kedumim, cited in Torat Hachida, parshat Maase, 2, p. 244. See also Likkutei Sichos Vol. 2, p. 348.
9)     Rashi on Numbers 33:1.
10)  Gur Aryeh ad loc.
11)  Seforno and Alshich (who goes into far more detail than Seforno)  on Numbers 33:1.
12)  Micah 7:9, כימי צאתך מארץ מצרים אראנו נפלאות, Abarbanel who adds the phrase the “desert of nations”, Bris Avarham, cited in Chida, p. 226, 6.
13)  Numbers 33:9.
14)  The Baal Shem Tov in Degel Machne Ephraim.
15) Numbers 33:15.
16)  Rabbi Klonymos Kalman Halevi Epstein, (student of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk) in Maor VShemesh (?), interpreting רפידים as hinting to ריפוי ידים.
17)  Numbers 33:17.
18) Chasam Sofer on Maasei with an allusion to Pirkey Avot 4:16,  and Maor Vshemesh (?).
19)  R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, in Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Maasei, p. 424.