The silver lining of Covid

What Positives from the Coronavirus?

A couple of weeks ago, travelling on the underground, I stared in disbelief at the spectacle of a couple of Chinese commuters with masks over their faces, in London, I thought? Absurd!?

Fast forward a few weeks, and commuters, whether in London, New York or Paris are filled with growing anxiety as to how to protect themselves from the potentially deadly spread of the Coronavirus, and sales of face masks are rising steadily.

What began in Wuhan in China, a place that few of us have heard of let alone ever visited, has now earned daily awareness in our lives. With 37,000 people, worldwide affected, and the death toll at over 800 spread to 24 countries across East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America – and it’s still rising, and spreading.

The main strategy to prevent the continued spread is isolation, quarantine, and the curtailment of movement.

This highlights how interconnected we have become. A British businessman managed to pass on the virus to no less than eleven people in two different countries without ever stepping foot in the epicentre in China. From a business conference in Singapore, to tourists while on holiday in the French Alps, to his local Pub on his return home and to the medical staff at his doctor’s surgery when he was eventually diagnosed, and quarantined.

One of the greatest transformations between the world that was, and the world we live in today, is the transformation from living a shtetl existence, isolated and cut off from the world around us, only being affected by and having an effect on those amongst whom we lived. By contrast today we are part of a global village. The coronavirus has put into stark relief the negatives of such a situation, along with the spread of unsavoury political extremes, financial crises and so on. What happens in one country will sooner rather than later impact a population on the other side of the world.

It’s easy to forget the positives of the flip side to this new reality of globalisation.  Businesses can tap worldwide revenue potential, the ability to help more people through charity, technology, religion, medicine, to have greater access to worldwide talent to drive innovations and discoveries forward faster and more successfully, gaining greater understanding of other cultures and so on. This presents us with a tremendous opportunity to have a positive impact and make a lasting contribution and effect on humanity as a whole.

Chris Rosati was diagnosed with ALS in 2010 yet despite the debilitating nature of his illness he was determined to dedicate himself to performing acts of kindness for others.

He was especially fascinated by the butterfly effect, a small occurrence that snowballs and results in larger, unexpected occurrences. Chris tested his theory in real life. Chris headed to a local diner and gave two random girls $50 each, along with the request to do something good with the money. He left the diner and forgot all about it — until he received an email with an attached photo of a village in Africa. In the photo, smiling people held handmade signs that read, “Thanks a lot for spreading kindness, Chris Rosati.” The village had recently become free of the Ebola disease, so the girls decided to pay for a celebration for everyone in the village to enjoy. The butterfly effect had indeed spread across the world. This was just the first of many butterfly initiatives by Chris who remarkably inspired thousands of children to spread kindness around the world.

So, as the spread of the coronavirus gives us a visual reminder as to how small and interconnected we are, remember too that we also have an opportunity now to have a positive and meaningful impact and contribute in a myriad of ways to the human race worldwide.

The Viral Virus

My insights on COVID so far…

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A couple of weeks ago, travelling on the underground, I stared in disbelief at the spectacle of a couple of Chinese commuters with masks over their faces, in London, I thought? Absurd!?

Fast forward a few weeks, and commuters, whether in London, New York or Paris are filled with growing anxiety as to how to protect themselves from the potentially deadly spread of the Coronavirus, and sales of face masks are rising steadily.

What began in Wuhan in China, a place that few of us have heard of let alone ever visited, has now earned daily awareness in our lives. With 37,000 people, worldwide affected, and the death toll at over 800 spread to 24 countries across East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America – and it’s still rising, and spreading.

The main strategy to prevent the continued spread is isolation, quarantine, and the curtailment of movement.

This highlights how interconnected we have become. A British businessman managed to pass on the virus to no less than eleven people in two different countries without ever stepping foot in the epicentre in China. From a business conference in Singapore, to tourists while on holiday in the French Alps, to his local Pub on his return home and to the medical staff at his doctor’s surgery when he was eventually diagnosed, and quarantined.

One of the greatest transformations between the world that was, and the world we live in today, is the transformation from living a shtetl existence, isolated and cut off from the world around us, only being affected by and having an effect on those amongst whom we lived. By contrast today we are part of a global village. The coronavirus has put into stark relief the negatives of such a situation, along with the spread of unsavoury political extremes, financial crises and so on. What happens in one country will sooner rather than later impact a population on the other side of the world.

It’s easy to forget the positives of the flip side to this new reality of globalisation.  Businesses can tap worldwide revenue potential, the ability to help more people through charity, technology, religion, medicine, to have greater access to worldwide talent to drive innovations and discoveries forward faster and more successfully, gaining greater understanding of other cultures and so on. This presents us with a tremendous opportunity to have a positive impact and make a lasting contribution and effect on humanity as a whole.

Chris Rosati was diagnosed with ALS in 2010 yet despite the debilitating nature of his illness he was determined to dedicate himself to performing acts of kindness for others.

He was especially fascinated by the butterfly effect, a small occurrence that snowballs and results in larger, unexpected occurrences. Chris tested his theory in real life. Chris headed to a local diner and gave two random girls $50 each, along with the request to do something good with the money. He left the diner and forgot all about it — until he received an email with an attached photo of a village in Africa. In the photo, smiling people held handmade signs that read, “Thanks a lot for spreading kindness, Chris Rosati.” The village had recently become free of the Ebola disease, so the girls decided to pay for a celebration for everyone in the village to enjoy. The butterfly effect had indeed spread across the world. This was just the first of many butterfly initiatives by Chris who remarkably inspired thousands of children to spread kindness around the world.

So, as the spread of the coronavirus gives us a visual reminder as to how small and interconnected we are, remember too that we also have an opportunity now to have a positive and meaningful impact and contribute in a myriad of ways to the human race worldwide.

A Papal slap

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Pope Francis had been making his way to the Nativity scene in Vatican City on Tuesday, New Year’s Eve. When he began to walk away from the crowd that had gathered to greet him, video shows a woman grabbing his hand and yanking him toward her.
He became visibly upset, slapping the woman’s hand in an attempt to extricate himself. Footage of the altercation also appears to show him shouting at the woman.
The striking irony was there for all to see as Pope Francis had chosen to use his New Year message to denounce violence against women, hours after slapping a woman’s hand to free himself from her grip.
Shortly before beginning his traditional New Year’s Day address, the Pope apologized for smacking a woman’s hand the previous day, to free himself from her grip.
“I apologize for the poor example yesterday,” he said, going off-script.
This is not the first incident of its kind. In another clip that went viral in 2019, Pope Francis repeatedly yanked his hand away from being kissed as a long queue of people came up to him. The waiting pilgrims had been attempting to kiss his papal ring as part of a tradition, practised by more conservative Catholics, to show respect to the pontiff.
Reflecting on the incident afterwards, the Pope chose to underline the fact he became impatient the same way that we all become impatient from time to time he suggested. While it is true that to quote Alexander Pope “to err is human and to forgive is divine” or to quote King Solomon “ there is no one righteous on earth who does only good and never sins” and therefore we cannot expect any human being to be perfect, that being said we do not judge people by the same standards. Consider a toddler or even a child they may misbehave make a mess interrupt and we make allowances because they are still young and cannot be expected to know better. However our belief is that as a person ages and matures so their middot their character and behaviour should be more refined. Their actions more considered and their words more measured. .The higher the calibre of the individual the more their actions will be held to account to a much higher standard. Moshe our greatest of leaders who reached the loftiest of levels in terms of his character refinement and prophecy. Yet we know that towards the end of his life he was commanded by G-d to take his staff and speak to a rock through which he was promised water that the people so desperately needed would gush forth. Moshe spoke as commanded to the rock without success he then moved on to speak to several other rocks in his attempt to bring forth eventually he lost his patience and resorted in desperation to hitting rather than merely speaking to the rock. Despite having the purest of motives, wishing to provide for the pressing need of the Jewish people this was seen as a grave sin for which Moshe forfeited his right to lead the Jewish people into Israel. Many have wondered what more could or should have Moshe done to avoid this disaster after all despite speaking to the rock water was not emitted and the people were verging on hysteria in their quest for water. One of the suggested answers to this dilemma is that Moshe was expected to have persisted in continuing to speak to the rock and to have been patient and understanding which are the hallmarks of great leadership. If water didn’t come forth immediately then the job of the leader is not to resort to force but to remain calm and keep talking and eventually he would have seen success. The faux pas is when things don’t go the way a leader wishes or expects and to become impatient eventually allowing ones frustrations to boil over.

For those of us that have been privileged to have visited some of our great Torah leaders one is struck by the long lines of people from all backgrounds each seeking their wise counsel and support. The pressures and demands on their shoulders can be tremendous, yet when in their presence one feels a sense of inner calm and tranquillity that transcends the room. One is made to feel when they speak to you as if you are the most important person in the whole world. This is the patience borne out of a tremendous love and care and concern that our leaders have for each and every one of the thousands that visit them for advice.

Being a leader is seen by many as the highest calling, serving the needs of the masses comforting and supporting as well as offering inspiration. Yet it is accompanied inevitably with tremendous pressures of their followers all who are vying for the time and attention of their leader which can sometime be intense even overwhelming. We can all relate with the challenge of becoming impatient as experienced by the Pope in attempting to withdraw his hand from the determined grasp of the lady in the crowd. Nevertheless our ancient wisdom demands us all to attempt to the best of our abilities to overcome our failings and iron out the floors we all have in our characters. Being pontiff and a leader as he himself expressed does not stop him being a human with the failings we all struggle with, but in the lofty position as pontiff, having failings cannot be used time and again as an excuse but rather opportunity knocks for him to lead in the future by example in overcoming and perfecting that virtue of impatience. The Pontiff may not succeed in always being a saint but he must strive to have the patience of a saint!

Shopping and finding the perfect gift

For many in this country it’s an exciting time of year and  I am told only 10 shopping days to go for the non jewish world to prepare themselves and make sure they have done all the shopping

Yet many feel tremendous pressure to ensure that they succeed in buying something for everyone in the lead up. And of course more and more people are relying on Amazon to save them the hassles and time and even get it delivered directly to the relatives or friends home

Around this time of year there is always have fierce  competition  millions are spent to create the most outstanding  Christmas commercial and always there are tremendous expectations to see what they have come up with especially from John Lewis –we all recall with fondness the man on the moon a tear jerker followed by buster the boxer- with a dog dancing on a trampoline.

But for me the favourite must be the 2011 long wait advert which really was setting the gold standard in Christmas adverts and was a very hard act for even John Lewis to follow.

It shows the young boy who is counting down to the big day and one is led to believe  that he is naturally tremendously excited as he looks forward to getting the present of his dreams, the twist at the end is that his excitement is not about getting  but giving a present to his parents.

In fact the idea of giving in general is central to Judaism so much so Rabbi Dessler a great Jewish thinker points out that the word for love in Hebrew  is “ahava” and the root  of that word is “hav” to give- because you love where you give and you give where you love  . The  more that we give to others the more that we invest ourselves in the other and that creates a real and deep connection and therefore in the Jewish sense presents are a means to present ourselves and therefore the act of giving is far more important than what one gives. But that act of giving has to be genuine and real not tit for tat or matter of reciprocating but a genuine sincere desire to share something of oneself with the other and that creates a bond. Of course, one can give with a present but more meaningful and deeper giving comes from a willingness to be giving in ones approach to the other person, are we willing to compromise are we willing to share our emotions our innermost thoughts and feelings

There is no greater investment that investing in another person, presents comes and go and usually break but true giving is eternal.

Freedom of expression as a basic right in society

This week we witnessed the horrendous abuse directed towards Anna Soubry MP during the course of a live TV interview. Shouts of Nazi drowned out her interview and she was subsequently harassed and her path blocked as she attempted to walk into Parliament in full gaze of the Police who chose not to intervene. There was public outcry over the prevalence of such incidents towards MPS and journalists. This was not an isolated incident quite the opposite the harassment and intimidation has become de rigeur for many MPs as they walk to and from Parliament   as the Brexit issue continues to dominate the public discourse. 

It is recognised by all that protest and campaigning are the bedrock of any democracy, standing outside parliament making your point known as MPs enter and leave Parliament is a fundamental right but as Anna Soubry pointed out “the line is very clear between when it is a peaceful, lawful protest and when it is clearly intimidating and it’s designed to intimidate and shut down democracy, shut up MPs, shut up broadcasters.”

Only last year Jo Cox Labour MP was murdered by a member of the far right for her pro remain views. Rather than being a wakeup call for the rhetoric to be toned down and for both MPs and members of the public to engage in a more respectful debate, if anything the discourse has become more aggressive in its nature and content by all concerned.

We take pride in the fact in Britain we are able to freely express our opinions and disagree with others in all spheres of society and life. It resonates with us particularly as Jews after all from time immemorial rather than stifle debate and disagreement Judaism has encouraged and celebrated the difference of opinions as reflected by the debates of our Oral Torah from the likes of Hillel and Shamai. Yet always the disagreement and debate that takes place is with the proviso that it is carried out with mutual respect for the other party and in a constructive fashion always in search of the ultimate truth.

One of the greatest places for societal and political debate has traditionally been on college campus yet as many students will attest the ability to publicly hold different perspectives and opinions in particular about Israel has become more and more challenging. We must hope that in the same fashion that it has been taken on board that MPs’ and journalists should not be intimidated or harassed deserving security and protection so it is hoped that Jewish students and Jsocs up and down the country should be able to hold events and express their views freely without living in fear and intimidation

Shavuot- Bringing heaven down to earth

The festival of Shavuot commemorates the most momentous event in history of mankind, the torah was given to the Jewish people who stood at the foot of sinai. They experienced first hand the Almighty speak to each and everyone of them.  At that moment the nation declared in unison “ we will do and listen” their unequivocal commitment to the fulfill the Divine laws for all time.

What is baffling and surprising  is the fact that whilst on the other festivals it is permitted to spend the entire day on spiritual pursuits when it comes to Shavuot it is imperative there is also physical pleasure. Surely the sacrosanct nature of the Torah should not be sullied by the mundane physical activities and yet our sages are urging the reverse?

The answer to this conundrum can be found in a story related in the Talmud Shabbat 88b in a debate that occurred prior to the giving of the Torah. The Talmud relates that when Moses ascended to receive the Torah, the angels refused to surrender this priceless treasure into his care. Moshe retorted that the torah was irrelevant to them. “Have you any business dealings with each other? He followed this with “are you prone to pangs of jealousy?” and “Do you have to confront the evil inclination every day?” When Moshe remonstrated “ If so why do you need the Torah? Surley it is more relevant to us humans who are subject to such circumstances all the time.”

This dialogue sheds light on the essence of the purpose of the Torah. Contrary to popular misconceptions, our Torah is not merely  an academic work to be studied by scholars  in the study halls. Likewise  it is not a form of theology, containing the thoughts of man on things Divine. Torah embodies the thoughts of Hashem on man and all his activities. It informs us how to regulate and perfect ourselves and improve our interpersonal relationships and how to control our physical propensities. It teaches us to infuse all aspects of our daily lives with spirituality . In short, The torah doesn’t tell us how things look in heaven, rather it guides us how they should look in our hearts and lives in this  earthly world. This was Moshe rejoinder to the celestial beings.

With this large preface we can now appreciate the emphasis on the festival of the Giving of the Torah on ensuring there is an aspect of physical pleasure and enjhoyment

On Shavuot especially we must devote at least part of the Yom Tov to ordinary secular matters, otherwise we will have missed the point of the Revelation. The Torah we received is the blue print for us to be able to infuse sanctity in all aspects of lives.  The Sinaic experience was not intended ot be a  one off event in history. Rather each time we infuse this world with G-dliness through honesty in business, consideration in the way we treat every person, and eat and drink in the way the torah directs us we elevate this world . This is something to savour when we eat the cheese cake this Shavuot

What is baffling and surprising  is the fact that whilst on the other festivals it is permitted to spend the entire day on spiritual pursuits when it comes to Shavuot it is imperative there is also physical pleasure. Surely the sacrosanct nature of the Torah should not be sullied by the mundane physical activities and yet our sages are urging the reverse?

The answer to this conundrum can be found in a story related in the Talmud Shabbat 88b in a debate that occurred prior to the giving of the Torah. The Talmud relates that when Moses ascended to receive the Torah, the angels refused to surrender this priceless treasure into his care. Moshe retorted that the torah was irrelevant to them. “Have you any business dealings with each other? He followed this with “are you prone to pangs of jealousy?” and “Do you have to confront the evil inclination every day?” When Moshe remonstrated “ If so why do you need the Torah? Surley it is more relevant to us humans who are subject to such circumstances all the time.”

This dialogue sheds light on the essence of the purpose of the Torah. Contrary to popular misconceptions, our Torah is not merely  an academic work to be studied by scholars  in the study halls. Likewise  it is not a form of theology, containing the thoughts of man on things Divine. Torah embodies the thoughts of Hashem on man and all his activities. It informs us how to regulate and perfect ourselves and improve our interpersonal relationships and how to control our physical propensities. It teaches us to infuse all aspects of our daily lives with spirituality . In short, The torah doesn’t tell us how things look in heaven, rather it guides us how they should look in our hearts and lives in this  earthly world. This was Moshe rejoinder to the celestial beings.

With this large preface we can now appreciate the emphasis on the festival of the Giving of the Torah on ensuring there is an aspect of physical pleasure and enjhoyment

On Shavuot especially we must devote at least part of the Yom Tov to ordinary secular matters, otherwise we will have missed the point of the Revelation. The Torah we received is the blue print for us to be able to infuse sanctity in all aspects of lives.  The Sinaic experience was not intended ot be a  one off event in history. Rather each time we infuse this world with G-dliness through honesty in business, consideration in the way we treat every person, and eat and drink in the way the torah directs us we elevate this world . This is something to savour when we eat the cheese cake this Shavuot

Parashat Vayeshev: Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are there to protect us. Let’s start putting some into our lives.

bamboo, barrier, screen fence

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 . We 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

The Music of Human Dignity

The Pianist & The Music of Human Dignity 
The Pianist is the remarkable true story of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Half crazed and half starved, having lived through the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi occupation, in 1944 Szpilman was facing the ominous prospect of being sent to a concentration camp to be killed like the rest of his family. He crawled into a house in Warsaw, where he expected to die. Yet his salvation came from a most unlikely source. Wilm Hosenfeld, bearer of the Iron Cross for gallantry in the First World War, was a Nazi officer who, in that shell-pocked house, forgot the Fuehrer he once idolised and the regime he promised to serve faithfully until his death. Discovering the talented pianist, Hosenfeld rediscovered his humanity and concern for the dignity of mankind and hid and fed him, thus saving his life.

This week’s sidrah records the audaciousness displayed by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam in flagrantly disregarding the clear advice offered by God not to attempt to curse His people (Bemidbar). Why did God attempt to dissuade the wicked Bilam from attempting to curse the Israelites? Surely He knew that He would later intervene to turn those attempted curses into blessings!

Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar (known as the Ohr Hachaim, d.1743) avers that despite Bilam clearly choosing a path of evil against the Divine Will and casting himself as the enemy of His people, God nevertheless remained concerned for Bilam’s human dignity. This was why God tried to initially dissuade him, even though, had He been successful, those blessings would never have been said.

God’s concern for Bilam’s dignity emerges again later in the sidrah. God rebuked Bilam through the wonders of his talking she-donkey. This was a miraculous display of Divine will. A less known postscript to the story is detailed by Rashi (d.1105). He relates a Midrash that, whilst Bilam survived this encounter, the donkey was actually killed by the angel, lest people see the donkey and be prompted to mock Bilam, saying “this is the donkey that overcame Bilam” (ibid 22:33).

For Bilam’s donkey to have remained alive would have constituted a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. It would have been living testimony to God’s creation and control of the universe. The humiliation that Bilam would have suffered would itself be honouring God’s Name. Yet, the dignity of a human being, even of the wicked, is so valuable that God preferred His own honour being set aside rather than a human being suffering a degradation and humiliation.

Hosenfeld’s transformation into becoming an unlikely hero and saviour of countless Jewish lives began in earnest up on discovering the pianist Szpilman. Hearing Szpilman play Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor rekindled Hosenfeld’s own humanity, care and concern for the dignity of others.

Both Bilam’s story and the example of Hosenfeld are timely reminders that we are enjoined to emulate God in all of His ways, including a genuine concern and sensitivity for the wellbeing for humanity as a whole. The concern for human dignity transcends borders and divisions, and behoves us to attempt to prevent the unwarranted humiliation of friend and foe alike.