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.

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