As a “Spiritual Risk Taker”, I don’t actually need to risk anything.

(15 May 2020 Times of Israel)

Week 9 of lockdown and we are beginning to see certain parts of society ‘unlocking’. People unable to work from home can travel to work, people can now meet outside with one person not from their household (following the 2-metre social distancing rule). In lockdown terms, this is a big breakthrough after being prohibited from leaving the house more than once daily for the last two months.

What is of huge interest to me, is understanding the public reaction to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Ipsos Mori, (UK market research company), released a study at the beginning of the month which highlighted some surprising facts about the British public.

On the one hand, two-thirds of the British people surveyed, say that they would feel comfortable meeting friends and family if the lockdown ended in June. However, in stark contrast, over 60% surveyed said that they would feel uncomfortable going to bars, restaurants and large events.

This got me thinking about my own personal attitude to risk – how do I view risk and what would I be prepared to risk in order to leave lockdown?

People are generally not all that happy about taking risk. Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize winning psychologist) has written, “For most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150.  However, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson, (Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center, Columbia University, Forbes magazine “Danger Where You’d Least Expect It” July, 2013), asserts that it might be more accurate to say that some of us are particularly risk-averse, not because we are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because we tend to see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly. What her research showed was that prevention-focused people generally prefer the conservative option when everything is going according to plan, in order to maintain the status quo; but they will embrace risk when it’s their only shot at returning to status quo.

But that is all very well in relation to physical or economic risk. What about spiritual risk taking? What does our heritage say about the world of the spirit? For me, my Jewish heritage has always asked me to stay open-minded to risk – if it’s for a noble cause. ‘Spiritual risk’ is something we, as Jews, are asked to take every day of our lives. What do I mean by spiritual risk? I’m talking about putting faith in something which we can’t see or touch, like G-d, which enables me to transcend my physical limitations and achieve more by taking that leap of faith.

Three of the biggest risk takers in the Bible are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham was an iconoclast who left behind his family and upbringing for his faith in G-d; Isaac risked his very life to carry out G-d’s commands; and Jacob risked his trusted relationship with his father to acquire the blessings and spiritual mantle of leadership.

On the other end of the spectrum, our commentators on the book of Exodus tell us about Israelites who were opposed to leaving the land in which they had grown up. They were risk-averse and preferred to stay in their comfort zone in the servitude of Egypt. Consequently, they perished in the plague of darkness. They weren’t prepared to venture into the unknown, to follow G-d into a barren desert.  Little did they know or realise that, by taking that leap of faith forwards into the desert, they would take a step to becoming the chosen people and experience Divine revelation.

When I look at my own children, I see many examples of risk-taking. Despite the fact they face the fear of falling over time and again, toddlers are prepared to learn to walk. Children, as they grow, are fearless in the playground and in trying new experiences. Yet, as we grow older, we learn to prefer the comfort of familiarity. Why take a risk, when I can maintain the status quo?

One of the most symbolic images in the Torah is the image of the Cherubs. We know from the books of Kings and Chronicles that, in Solomon’s Temple, the Ark was placed between the two colossal figures of Cherubs, carved in olivewood and plated with gold, ten cubits high. The Gemara in Sukkah states that the two cherubim are described as being human-like figures with wings, one a boy and the other a girl, placed on the opposite ends of the Mercy seat in the inner-sanctum of God’s house. In fact, the Rabbis also teach us that the Cherubs stood at the gates to the Garden of Eden.

For us, therefore, the Cherubs represent the children of G-d and stand as a role-model for us in terms of our approach to life. Be more childlike in our approach to risks. Take risks. And you will be rewarded. In order to come closer to G-d, we will need to take risks to achieve this. In a slightly different context, Lord Sacks states, (The Times 21 July 2012), “civilizations that live… by taking risks never grow old“.

Added to this, there are no downsides in taking a spiritual risk. Mistakes are mandatory in spiritual life – and in fact, we learn most about ourselves from the risks we take spiritually in the way we lead our lives. When we open up to G-d in our lives, there are no risks, only faith. This is most clearly articulated in the Bible by King David. When he is at his lowest ebb, on the run, and with his very existence in danger, he affirms his commitment and faith to the Lord. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David took spiritual risks. He was following the example of the Cherubim, in touch with his risk-taking side. With a life of faith and belief, then there is zero risk.

One of the things which has inspired me, during this lockdown phase, is the amount of people who have opened themselves up to new vistas of growth. From my own community, I have witnessed people taking opportunities to learn more and grow spiritually with both hands. People are using technology to overcome their perceived vulnerability and tune into a shiur, or a talk, or participate in a for example, a challah baking class online. Where it was previously too much for people to physically go out to a shiur, people now use technology to engage in learning and take that ‘spiritual risk’.

This is a time of opportunity. We must grab it with both hands. In the spiritual world, there is no such thing as fear of failure. Only by taking spiritual risks and emerging from our places of comfort, can we begin to experience spiritual growth.

VE Day – A lesson for us in winning our current battle

Photo by Pixabay on

(Times of Israel 8 May 2020)

Friday marks the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory of Europe) Day. After 6 bloody years of war raging in Europe, the allied forces formally announced the surrender of Nazi forces   and brought the curtain down on the second world war in Europe. The war against Japan raged on for until August 1945.  Britain has paid an exceptionally heavy price for this victory; it is estimated that some 450,000 British citizens had made the ultimate sacrifice both at home and on the battlefield. From having a colonial empire that stretched across the world it faced financial ruins.

The day after the first VE Day in Europe huge crowds gathered to celebrate and thousands attended thanksgiving services at St Pauls Cathedral.

In his VE Day announcement, Winston Churchill announced to the nation “we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”. So, it was the very day after the jubilant celebrations, the generation that had endured such hardship fought another battle to rebuild Britain and went on to establish the NHS

This year on the 75th anniversary of VE the celebrations will be muted, as we find ourselves and our nation immersed in another life and death battle, this time it is against an invisible and indiscriminate enemy. Coronavirus may not drop bombs, but it is nonetheless a hidden killer. Britain has been one of the country’s worst hit in its fight against coronavirus resulting in some 28,000 people having lost their lives.

After a month of lockdown many are war weary. The isolation by those living on their own and the vulnerable, has wreaked havoc on the mental health and well being of so many. There is no end in sight to the lockdown for those that are deemed vulnerable. Depression, anxiety have risen significantly and poses a real threat to their lives. We may wonder how over the coming months will we and they get through these exceptionally challenging times.

I have reminded me of the episode in the Torah concerning   our forefather Jacob, who on his deathbed wishes to reveal the end of the exile to his children.  It was precisely   at that moment that the Divine presence departed him.   The unknowing is an integral element to the exile and darkness of this world and for that reason we cannot always have certainty in our lives. Similarly, in the battle against Covid, there is the uncertainty for us all as to when life will return to normal, when it will be safe for us all to leave our homes and to venture out to shops and restaurant. When oh when will our children be able to return to schools. The unknowing is leading to frustration by the less vulnerable members of society who are itching to return to normality and dejection by the more vulnerable members of society who cannot see light at the end of the virus tunnel.

Even as the numbers of fatalities fall and Britain gradually starts to win the battle against the covid enemy, any thoughts of having cause for celebration this VE Day of our war would be presumptuous and premature. The battle may be won for now but the war against Covid will rage for some time.

So, it is worth utilising the anniversary to remember what it was that took Britain from the brink of defeat and despair to victory in 1945.  Churchill famously said “this is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.”

The iron will, that permeated   the British people   often referred to as the “Dunkirk spirit” during the war, coupled with a strong spirit of unity were the keys to the success then and now.  The Covid war will require our determination as we will have to be prepared to endure lengthy restrictions and limitations to the freedoms to life that we have come to enjoy and take for granted. The impatience and frustrations from the inconveniences and upheaval caused by the fight against the pandemic must be overcome if we wish to vanquish this invisible enemy. In addition, there was   during the war a sense of unity and being in it together, that same spirit must be invoked now. Over the coming weeks and months many of   the restrictions imposed by the authorities will be gradually relaxed. This will enable many of us to normalise our lives again. During this virus there has developed a sense of collective responsibility and concern   for the other. People have volunteered up and down the country to support in any which way they can those in their neighbourhood and beyond who may be more vulnerable and are   unable to venture out of their homes. The challenge will be once most of us   are given the green light to return to work and leave our homes how we will return to normality. Will the selfless spirit and concern for the other linger or will we return to the old normal with us being more blinkered in our vision and attention?

Jacob was not allowed to reveal the length that the darkness would plague his children. He did however offer an allusion to one of the keys to overcoming that darkness. The immortal key that Jacob handed to   his children was to ensure they always stood united.

Like Jacob we cannot foretell when light will prevail over the darkness of this virus we are experiencing. But   the sense of unity and fraternity that has entered our society and personal  lives during the pandemic is the key to ensuring our more  vulnerable neighbours  together with our selves feel supported and are able to  come though this together as we have done some seventy five years ago. If we do so, then that will be something we can really celebrate and perhaps even her Majesty may dance in the streets the way she danced as a girl on the original VE Day.

Physical, cognitive or spiritual herd immunity – which will help us survive?

Published Times of Israel 04 May 2020

Spiritual herd immunity’ has redeemed our nation for thousands of years – these values haven’t disappeared in the current crisis.

With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that part of the solution to COVID-19 will include some level of “herd immunity,” acquired over time. However, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor, at least 60 percent of the population would need to contract COVID-19 and become immune for “herd immunity” to work effectively. As a tactic in fighting a pandemic with no vaccine, this solution, some argue, is alarming. Relying on people getting a disease in order to save lives also raises complex and difficult moral questions.

However, as time marches on, the number of tested confirmed cases grows (161,000 in the United Kingdom at the time of writing). What we don’t know is how many people have been exposed to the disease already and survived. As someone who has personally battled the virus earlier this month and survived, my statistics are not included as I wasn’t tested and battled this ruthless virus following government guidelines at home, self-isolating and this is likely to be a common situation. Therefore, establishing whether 60% is immune will be difficult.

Thomas Friedman, the 3-time Pulitzer prize winning journalist in the New York Times last weekend wrote “We Need Herd Immunity from Trump and the Coronavirus” and raised a fascinating question about cognitive immunity, as opposed to physical immunity. “Cognitive immunity” represents our ability to filter out science from quackery and facts from fabrications.

This got me thinking about my own Jewish heritage. For me, it’s not herd or cognitive immunity alone which has brought me to this point in my life, but also ‘spiritual herd immunity’ which I’ve gained from my Jewish background.

I think we, as Jews, have gained innate, fundamental ‘spiritual herd immunity’ in our Jewish lives, which has been passed down through generations and affects how we approach our current circumstances.

Firstly, our ‘spiritual herd immunity’ begins with inclusivity and protection against loneliness. The final book of the Torah, Devarim, teaches us about community and neighbourliness. G-d insists that our economic and social lives must be organized to ensure the wellbeing of widows, orphans and immigrants. “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice. You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember you were a slave in Egypt” (Devraim, 24:7).

We currently live in an Instagram and Tik-tok culture of individualism, but Judaism has always insisted on redemption via the community, and, specifically, that no one is left behind. Solitude is likely to be a reality at present; however, loneliness is optional. We have an inbuilt sense of belonging. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes, in “Covenant and Conversation” on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, community brings “a sense of common purpose, of helping to bring something into being that was greater than anyone could achieve alone. Communities build; they do not destroy.”

Secondly, Judaism teaches me purpose in my life – giving me ‘spiritual immunity’ from wandering the Earth purposelessly; shelter from the meaningless storm. The word “Torah” means “instruction”. From the moment we open our eyes to the end of the day, the Torah provides clear direction about what to do and how to do it. It lays down for us a clear structure to our lives. The whole purpose of us leaving Egypt and becoming free was to enable us to receive the Torah. When we became a nation after leaving Egypt, we immediately travelled in the direction of Mount Sinai. The whole purpose of our freedom was in order to serve G-d. My Jewish heritage provides me with a clear structure of commands mitzvot and a purpose in life.

Victor Frankl in his bestselling (over 10 million global copies sold) book “Man’s Search for Meaning” famously said “those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” Despite the adversity that we face, be it being locked down confined to our homes or even when we have faced our darkest of hours, having a purpose and goals in life keeps us going. As the Psalmist wrote, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me”.

Finally, our ‘spiritual immunity’ is learning to trust in something bigger than ourselves. In Judaism, faith is not an abstract concept, but a living, breathing and practical behaviour. We have faith that G-d is intricately involved in the world and in each of our lives. This means that, whilst we are expected to give 100% in all situations, and to recognise our responsibility to play our role in life, we have the knowledge that we are only expected to give our best. After that point, we hand over the reins to G-d, who will decide on the outcome Striking a delicate balance between our “hishtadlut”, “our efforts”, and the “emunah”, “faith”, is exceptionally liberating. I am the master of my efforts, my attitude and my approach to living. G-d is the master of my destiny. I don’t have to sweat the “big stuff”; I can focus on my part in life, and trust that the rest is in G-d’s hands.

Throughout our Biblical heritage, we learn of Jewish people who put their faith in G-d, when in existential crisis. Most famously, Abraham trusts in something bigger than himself when asked to sacrifice his son. Moses trusts in G-d, when he is asked to lead the redemption of Israelites from the Egyptians. And Jeremiah puts his faith in G-d, when he is asked to speak out against the sins of Judah. As Stephen Covey puts it in “The Speed of Trust” Trust is equal parts character and competence… “You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.”

Whether ‘spiritual’ or ‘physical’ herd immunity (or ‘cognitive’ for that matter) – each of these survival methods demands that we commune together as one. The policy of self-isolation, whilst effective during a crisis, can’t become the long-term solution to the aftermath of COVID-19. We will need to come back together as communities and as a society. Our skills which we have learnt at home – teaching our children, connecting with our loved-ones, and taking the time to reflect – will become valuable commodities in the world of ‘New Normal’. As Jews, these values lie at the heart of our traditions – from our Biblical heroes to our Halachic laws – and it is incumbent on us to demonstrate to the world (along with other religions), now more than ever, what community, purpose and faith really mean.

Published in Times of Israel (4.05.20)

Trump’s Communication: Intimate or disconnected?

Perhaps the most startling aspect of President Trump’s leadership both as Republican nominee in the election and even more so as President was the pointed and often offensive tweets that Trump chose to share with the world at large. The advantage of tweeting if of course the ability to disseminate one’s opinion and message instantaneously. He  no longer needs to be beholden to the overtures of the media and press. If anything they have all but become an irrelevance as he castigated them for hiding the truth.

Besides the controversial content of some of his statements, the very behaviour of the President has chosen to adopt utilising  Twitter to communicate raises interesting questions as the way he and we choose to communicate and to interact with other people in general. There seems to be a psyche of the necessity to respond instantly, it seems more important to respond rather than the quality of those responses. One cannot leave an email for twenty-four hours without some type of response. One may wonder where the thinking time has gone. The time to contemplate and give due care and consideration to the consequences of the options on the table.

The Gemorah in Megillah describes and incident in the Purim story. The tells us that after Vashti’s rebellion in defying Ahasuerus orders and refusing to appear at the party, a counsel was convened of seven wise men so as to advise the King what he should do with Vashti for failing to obey his command.

Rav Kamenetsky observes that Haman was the last name in that list indicating he was of the lowest stature of all the advisors. Yet he was the one who jumped up first and gave advice before anyone else. The Maharal explains that the reason those of lower stature blurt out their opinions is not that they wish to show off their brilliance, it is due to the fact they simply cannot contain their impulses.

I remember when I was growing up my father being a lawyer would share on countless occasions that he had written an important letter but had  purposely left it on his desk so that he could consider over night whether he was content to send it or not. After all once words are said they can never be retracted.

In late Chief Rabbi  Lord Jacobovitz, posed the question as to why when  we are about to start the Amidah we are required to  first take three steps back before taking three steps forward and commencing the Amidah. He explained that before one can expect to move forwards in life one first has to take three steps back to gain a true perspective of where one is so one can know where one is heading.

In the aftermath of the Chilcot enquiry, the former prime minster Tony Blair expressed his “deep regret and sorry over the invasion of Iraq” decisions that are made in the heat of the moment when under tremendous pressure so often lead to catastrophic consequences and a life of regret

In our own lives despite more and more means of communication we seem to struggle to connect in relationships. Arguably part of the issue must lay at the frenetic pace of life and the  impulsive and knee jerk means of communicating which we all resort to.

Taking those three steps back and having less but more qualitative interactions may enable us to become a more thoughtful generation.

Lecture – Heinz Dilemma: His money or her life?

Living by ethical priniciples in an imperfect world tests a person’s character.
How do we resolve tensions when moral principles conflict?
Lawrence Kohlberg presented the following dilemma:

1.In Europe, a woman was near death from a specialkind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what it cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and to try every legal means, but he could only get together about $2000, which is half of what it cost. He asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So, having tried every legal means, Heinze gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal thedrug for his wife. Should Heinz steal the drug?!

2.In order to save his life during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, a man, under pressure from the SS, revealed the location of his brother’s hidden wealth. Should he have doneso? Both brothers survived the war and live in Israel. Must the man now compensate his brother for the losses he caused? May a person steal medication or money or food in order to save his life?

May a person steal medication or money or food in order to save his life?
Are moral dictates inviolate ? if not when can they be breached?
3. Regina v. Dudley & Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC, where four shipwrecked sailors were cast adrift in a small boat without provisions. To save themselves, the three strongest decided to eat the fourth, the 17 year-old cabin boy. The court ruled that cannibalising the boy was not urgently necessary. Even though the cabin boy would almost certainly have died of natural causes, the sailors killed the boy intentionally and were guilty of murder. There was some degree of necessity arising from the threat of starvation but, at any moment, a ship could have sailed over the horizon to save them as, indeed, the three were rescued. Since they could never be sure that the killing was actually necessary from one minute to the next, the defence was denied. Cannibalism itself is not an offence so long as the death occurs naturally.
4. Philosopher Lord Francis Bacon took this prinicple to its extreme, stating
“If a man steals viands {food] to satisfy his present hunger, there is no felony or larceny.”
5. Baba Kamma 60b
King David consulted the Sanhedrin as to whetherhis army was permitted to destroy private property that the Philistines were using as camouflage in order to attack it.
The answer they dispatched to him was: [Generallyspeaking] it is forbidden to rescue oneself through the destruction of another’s property; you, however, are King, and a king may break [through fields belonging to private persons] to make a way [for his army], and
nobody is entitled to prevent him [from doing so].

  1. Bava Kama 79b
    Reb Yehudah and Reb Yosi were walking together when a ravenous hunger seized Reb Yehudah. He seized a shepherd and devoured his bread. Reb Yosi said to him “ You have robbed the shepherd.
  2. Raavad Hilchot Chivel Umazik 8:4
    The Rambam said that if someone coerces you to pass him someone else’s property under the threat you must do so to save your life and you must pay back the loss. Nothing stands in the way of saving life and therefore once one is obligated to save life one would be exempt from repayment.
  3. Sanhedrin 74a
    For Rava said: If a man was pursuing after his fellow(to slay him) and broke some utensils, whether of the pursued or of some other person,he (the pursuer) is free from liability. Why so? He is liable to be killed
    (kim Lei) receives more severe of punishments
    If the pursued broke utensils, if they belonged to the pursuer,he is not liable for them, if to someone else he is liable. If they belonged to the pursuer he is not liable because (the pursuer’s) property is not more precious than (the pursuer’s life( which the pursued is allowed to take in self defense). If they belonged to someone else he is liable because he saved himself at his neighbours expense

So third approach may take anothers property to save life but must compensate the owner.
The Talmud then goes on to discuss the situation of the good Samaritan

But if one pursuer (a third party) was pursuing a pursuer to save the victims life and broke some utensils whether of the pursuer or the pursued or any other person he is not liable for them.

  1. Yad Ramah

Saving oneself with another’s property is permissible at the time since he doesn’t have access to his own funds to save life since has obligation to save life and no alternative he is permitted to use the others money to save life
But after successful rescue he will have access to his personal resources and no longer under duress and thus the temporary exemption from paying disappears

Exodus – ‘Shemot’: Please remove your shoes

The first encounter with the Almighty by Moshe is one we are all familiar with. Moshe finds himself alone in the desert and noticing an extraordinary phenomena of a Bush burning yet not being consumed by the fire he turns aside to examine this remarkable occurrence. On drawing closer Hashem commands Moshe to remove his shoes because it is “admat kodesh”  hallowed ground.

Rav Yosef Salant raises the question as to what was the significance of Moshe being asked to remove his shoes. He quotes a statement from the siddur of the Shlah that the blessing that we recite every morning at the start of shacharit  service “ Sheasi li kol tzarki”  is a blessing we recite on wearing shoes. King David observed that there is a hierarchical structure to creation with four levels starting with inanimate objects the next level up is foliage a higher level still is animal kingdom and the climax of creation is humans.

Humankind eat and benefit from everything in the world and therefore when a person takes the skin of an animal and makes shoes to tread on with his feet  it symbolises and demonstrates his dominion over the rest of creation. Therefore the blessing of sheasa li kol tzarki is recognition of the fact we as humans should act in a fashion that highlights that we are above all other aspects of creation. By contrast when Moshe was standing in the presence of the Almighty it was a time he was required not to recall dominion over creation but to recognise the need to subjugate himself in the presence of Hashem. It was for that reason Moshe was told to remove his shoes signalling that he would be willing to completely subjugate himself in the eyes of Hashem without any separation.

Rav Salant sees in the wearing and removal of Moshe’s shoes  here two facets to  mankind , on the one hand an awareness that we are expected to  transcend  our physical selves and constantly be vigilant to ensure we do not lower ourselves to act in an animalistic fashion. Secondly to be mindful to remove any vestige of pride or self- worth in the service of Hashem represented by the shoes

Rav Dessler develops this approach further by suggesting that the command to Moshe to remove his shoes hinted to the notion of removing the covering which is hiding your character defects and faults from yourself. Only then says Rav Dessler will the “place you are standing “be “holy ground” and from there you begin your spiritual ascent.

This idea challenges us to strike a balance between recognising the greatness of humankind that should be manifest in the way we act in contrast to the rest of creation, but at the same time we should have a sense of humility and modesty being cognisant that we stand in the presence of the Almighty.

Genesis – ‘Vayeshev’: Standing strong in the face of evil

And how can I perpetrate this great evil and sin against G-d?

Yosef   resists the advances of his master Potiphar’s wife.  He rebuts her stating that it was improper for him, on two counts firstly when bearing in mind the debt of gratitude that he owed Potiphar”. Secondly it would be a terrible sin against G-d in committing adultery.

Rav Gifter  raises an interesting question   why  when responding to Potiphar’s wife’s advances did he not  tell her why it was wrong and inappropriate for her rather than him to commit such an act? Rashi quotes a Talmudic statement that even before the torah was given, non-Jews were commanded against immorality.

Rav Gifter suggests that Yosef sensing the severity of the test, felt that he was partially responsible for the situation at hand due to some shortcoming in his own personality. If he had been living on the high level of sanctity befitting the favoured son of Yaakov, Potiphar’s wife would never have imagined that she could sway the mind of such a tsaddik, and she would thus not have tried to do so.

Yosef’s greatness here is highlighted in his open admission that the situation he found himself in was not merely a victim of circumstance but it was a gradual and subtle lowering of his own guard which resulted in him finding himself in the testing situation presented by Potiphar’s wife.

This has relevance to us as individuals and as members of society, the response and excuse that people are just victims of circumstance and therefore had little or no choice in their unethical and immoral behaviour and personal conduct is.Yosef’s response to the overtures of Potiphar’s wife is insightful in how we should react .find ourselves in challenging circumstances that tempt and test our spiritual and ethical values, we should reflect on our past conduct and will realise in a similar vein to Yosef that we are only finding the circumstance a challenge due to our failure to enact the appropriate boundaries and fences to protect and pre-empt such a situation ever developing in the first place.

Genesis -‘Vayeitzei’: The Artists Way

Hashem is the ultimate Artist. During our lifetime, we see one fragment of the master piece

milky way, human, lake

Yaakov awakens from his prophetic vision  and made a vow “ ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי והיה ד לי לאלוקים ”-  and I will return in peace to my father’s house and Hashem will be a G-d to me..

Rashi on this posuk comments  that His name will rest upon me from beginning to end.

The medrash  states  that Hakadosh Baruch Hu took the discussions of the Avos and  transformed  them into the key for  the geulah of his children. Said Hakadosh Baruch Hu “You (Yaakov) stated : והיה ד לי לאלוקים” by your life all the tovos and brachos and nechamos that I give to your children I will only give in this language…. And it will be on that day that  the great shofar will be blown.

The Sefas Emes offers a majestic explanation of this cryptic medrash. In reality any nechama that is in the hands of mankind is not a true consolation since its main purpose it to ensure that the tzarah should be merely forgotten,  Hashem on the other hand is the Baal Hanechamos . The reason for this is that in regards to Hashem nechama, consolation is something radically different in that He is able to console the individual by holding up a mirror and showing retrospectively that there never was a tzarah in the first place. What appeared at the time as a tzarah was in fact for the individuals ultimate benefit this is a true nechama. In the future when we will usher in the Geulah Sheleimah the  final redemption it will be revealed in  the eyes of all of humanity that  the catalogue of tragedies and persecution our darkest moments that have  beset our nation in exile  over the course of the millennia, were in fact for our ultimate benefit. In the future it will be clarified for us that Hashem never left our side and all the tzaros which appeared as bad were in reality for our long term benefit.

Rav Gedaliah Schorr avers that this notion is hinted to in the very first word that Yaakov stated in his vow. The word  והיה, the root   being “היה” refers to the past, yet with the letter vav preceding it,  the word is transformed from past to the future and therefore all the prophecies concerning the redemption are written in this form since at the time of the  future redemption it will be revealed to us the sorrow of golus was truly for our benefit.

With this remarkable insight we can understand the posuk in In Devarim ( 4/)  ki mi goy gadol asher lo elokim kerovim elav  kehahsem elokenu  bechol karenu elav- for which is  a great nation that has a G-d close to it as is Hashem our G-d  whenever we call to Him. In describing the close relationship enjoyed between the klal yisrael  and Hahsem, the posuk employs the term Elokim which is middas hadin the  attribute of strict justice, thereby  underscoring  the fact that even when Hashem is forced to exercise His attribute of strict justice in relation to our people He is still close to us and we are close to Him. It is all performed for our ultimate benefit and underlying the attribute of justice is Hashem really acting in a compassionate and merciful manner towards us despite appearances to the contrary at the time we experience the hardship. For this reason we find it expressed in Tehillim that retrospectively at the time of the redemption we will see everything in the correct perspective and appreciate it was all for our benefit and thus the idea that we suffered in exile will be reappraised and  determined as “hayinu kecholmim” it was like a dream something that is unreal that had no basis.

This principle to recognise that we are only seeing and experiencing one fragment in the cosmic  picture  being painted and cannot expect to comprehend the true chesed that Hashem performs in every aspect of our lives is reflected in an idea from Shmuel.  The  posuk says  איו צור כאלוקנו- Rashi famously commented  אין צייר כאלוקנו  there is no artist like Hashem.

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz- explained the idea of Hashem being an Artist by way of a moshul There was once a king who commissioned the greatest artist alive to create a master piece for him. The artist agreed on condition that during the six months that he would be working no one was permitted to view the canvas. After two months the king became impatient and in the middle of the night the king secretly viewed the picture but to his shock and horror it looked a mess with smudges of paint across it .The next day furious  he called in the artist and demanded an explanation. The artist explained that a true masterpiece has different shades and textures and one cannot appreciate it until it is completed. After six months the king was invited to a viewing and was amazed at its beauty he now was able to see the colours in the correct perspective and appreciate that what had appeared earlier as smudges were in fact shadows from the beautiful sun shining down on the trees and now he was able to see a true master piece in all its glory.

This is the meaning of Hashem being the ultimate Artist, we view during our lifetime’s one fragment of the master piece being created over six thousand years and like the king in the moshol we become frustrated at not understanding it.

May we be zocheh to experience the geulah shelemah when we will appreciate that Hashem is the Baal Hanechamos.

Never just a number


Stories, rather than numbers, are where we can find rich meaning in life.

The UK’s death toll has reached over 10,000 – in a little over 5 weeks. The sheer enormity of these numbers overwhelms each personal tragedy.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Bergen Belsen who had survived the horrors of the camps and witnessed the murder of countless people, wondered about the popularity of Anne Frank’s Diary. Later he came to understand.  It is the story of an individual. Learning about individuals and their own stories transforms the numeric horror of uncountable deaths into an identification with one name, from a statistic, to a person, with a life lived, and leaving people who miss them.

“Let us attempt to hear the individual stories of some of those who have become victims to help bring meaning in a time of crisis.”

Jews are forbidden to count people. During a census in Biblical times, a person was counted through the contribution of a half shekel. The Torah was clear, we count by the individual contribution that person makes to society. Treating people as a total number devalues them and devalues human life.

In the coming days it is expected that the numbers will rise as the virus peaks in this country. Rather than obsessing around the numbers and statistics let us attempt to hear the individual stories of some of those who have become victims to this horrendous pandemic, it won’t diminish the sorrow, but it will allow a life lost to have meaning and provide inspiration for the nation as a whole.