This blog is written by the National Director of Together For Humanity Foundation (TFH), Rabbi Zalman Kastel. It explores contemporary social issues as these relate to an Orthodox understanding of the Torah, (the Bible) and other Jewish sources. This blog which shares the personal thoughts and journey of an Australian Jewish man is part of the bridge building work of TFH and is written for readers of many faiths and none. It often references the Sidra, the weekly Torah reading.
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
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
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
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).