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.

The only way is up!


The Purim story surround the epic battle between the Jewish people and Haman who attempts to exterminate them. This battle is in fact one chapter in an epic eternal conflict between the Jewish people on the one hand and Haman’s antecedents Amalek on the other.

By understanding the underlying rationale in the original battle and encounter we can arrive at a deeper appreciation as to the celebration of Purim and the relevance and lessons for our own lives.

Amalek’s ability to carry out an initial attack on the Jewish People was borne out of our nation’s spiritual vulnerability. This was manifest in their questioning “is G-d really with us or not?”

The Talmud interestingly in describing this state of uncertainty records that “their hands became weak in their connection to the Torah. The hands symbolise man’s connection to the world, his ability to function within the world. Their hands, their ability to function became disconnected from the Torah and as a result from G-d. (They didn’t see the connection between the development of the physical world and the Divine will.) Thus their recognition of the Divine providence was weakened, enabling Amalek the deniers of Divine providence –to attack.

For this reason when Amalek attacked the Jewish people Moshe lifted his hands pointing heaven wards as a result they were victorious in the battle. The Mishnah explains that it was not Moshe’s raised hands that saved them, but rather when the Jewish people directed their eyes heavenward and subjugated their hearts to Hashem, they overpowered Amalek. The hands of Moshe were a test. Would the people attribute their success to the secondary cause to Moshe hands or would they look beyond the hands to see the Divine providence orchestrating history. 

At the time of the Purim story this mistaken perception was perpetuated by the people’s  refusal to recognise the Divine providence choosing to pin their hopes for salvation on placating Achashverus. For this reason they went against Mordechai’s wishes choosing to attend the Royal banquet which they felt would ensure their position was secure.  In fact this act endangered the Jewish people as it ran contrary to the wishes of Hashem.

In reading the Megillah, we express the fact that history itself testifies to Hashem’s guidance of world events. Behind the mask of the plethora of causes and effects in the world, one can discern the Divine hand orchestrating events toward His goals. One of the requirements of the Megillah is that of sirtut, the Megillah must be scored with lines before the letters are written similar to a Sefer Torah.  Rav Leff suggests that the letters and words of the Torah represent the unfolding of events over the course of history. The almost invisible lines on the parchment upon which these letters are written represent the divine plan, the path that is already extant before those events actually occur.

Reading the Megillah on Purim is a timely reminder of the timeless lesson of the Almighty shaping the contours not just of history but guiding a protecting our every step.





Purim: our 2nd Yom Kippur!


Purim is perhaps one of the most enigmatic yet misconstrued days in the Jewish calendar. A festival of celebration of our nations salvation, as we stood on the brink  of extermination at   the hands of Haman and king achashvereush. Yet it is often misunderstood  as a day of mere merriment and revelry when many lose control of themselves.


Remarkably one of the most fascinating insights concerning Purim is that its “twin” is Yom Kippur.  


This seems baffling at first glance Yom Kippur is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar when we abstain from physical pleasures spending the day in fasting and in repentance. Purim on the other hand is a day of tremendous joy where there is a greater emphasis on physical enjoyment and pleasure reflected in the mitzvoth of the day which are centred around eating and drinking. Never could there be a greater contrast in the mode of  the experience of the two days.


The Vilna Gaon writes that the two are mirror images of each other. Each of our festivals follow a divided format. Half of the festival consists of obligations to G-d (ie prayer etc and the other half is for our  personal enjoyment.)


The Vilna Gaon writes “ Yom Kippur lacks this arrangement in that there is no half set aside for our personal enjoyment. On Yom Kippur we stand before G-d simulating angels, totally putting aside the fulfilment of our bodily pleasures. The activities of Purim are the opposite: Most of the day is devoted in some fashion to physical pleasure.


Rav Hutner develops this idea further Purim and Yom Kippur are mirror images of the other. Each provides the missing half that the other lacks. This is even indicated by their names: Yom Hakippurim is a Day “Ki- Purim similar to Purim”. Together, they constitute one complete festival reflecting the dual aspects of “ half that is for G-d and half that is for man”. In effect they are two halves of one whole. This whole, this unity represents a deep cry, a scream that rises from the Jewish soul-our inner most desire to carry out His will. But we find ourselves being prevented from doing so. Both reasons that prevent the Jewish people from serving G-d fully-the evil inclination and the subjugation of the Jewish people by foreign empires descending from Esau must be rectified. This is the point where Purim and Yom Kippur converge. The combination of these two festivals brings about the elimination of the two barriers.


Yom Kippur has the ability to remedy through abstinence to remedy the first cause of our transgressions: the power of evil as we stand before G-d shunning our physical needs indicating our focus on our spiritual dimension. On Purim the second force from preventing us serving Hashem, enslavement by foreign kingdoms is eliminated through our desire to demonstrate our steadfast will to serve Hashem through the physical world.


Through our enjoyment of the physical world Purim  reveals the hidden potential desire of our people to carry out G-d’s Will.








An Incredible Triathlon Lesson


The summer was dominated with the great spectacle of the Rio Olympics.  An opportunity to see athletes in peak fitness, the very best competed to become crowned as champions.

 Undoubtedly one of the highlights of Rio Olympics was the Triathlon event which was dominated by two brothers from Yorkshire in England, Alistair Brownlee who won the event and his brother Jonny who was silver medallist. This week saw them compete in the Triathlon World series in Mexico. A gruelling  1.5km swim, followed by a 40km cycle and finally a 10km run all under the most hot and humid conditions. The event shouldn’t have made the headlines, and the video of them finishing no one would have expected to go viral, yet it did due to the unprecedented manner in which they completed the race.

With 700m to the finish line disaster struck Jonny who was on the verge of winning the race. He was totally dehydrated due to the intensity of the 33 degree heat and suffering from exhaustion. His legs started to wobble so much so that it became clear he simply couldn’t carry on. His brother Alistair together with the other runners were catching him up and Jonny was frozen to the spot his legs wouldn’t move.  His brother Alistair was faced with a moral dilemma and had to make a split decision. Should he continue to race past his struggling brother to the finish line, there were medical staff on hand to assist him and thereby win the race or to give up on his personal ambition and   help his brother finish the race. Despite training and preparing for the last year to win and being intensely competitive it wasn’t a question in Alistair’s mind as he recounted later. He put his brother’s arm around his neck and arm in arm he carried his brother over the finish line, enabling them to finish second and third respectively. The cameras and the world’s media clambered around them as they collapsed to the ground ignoring the new champion. This was something unprecedented, there was even an unsuccessful appeal to have Jonny disqualified for having an unfair advantage at being helped by his brother.

Reflecting from his hospital bed after the race Jonny Brownlee said ““Alistair had the chance to win but threw that away to help me out, I’ll be thankful for the rest of my life.

“Obviously it takes a very strong and good person to do that. Sometimes in sport we talk about winning being the most important thing in the world. A lot of times it is, but maybe helping a brother out was more important.”

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, it is a welcome opportunity for reflection and introspection on the lives we lead. The long blast of the Shofar symbolises that drive and ambition to achieve and accomplish our potential our goals and dreams. But whilst doing so it is punctured by the Teruah the broken crying sound, symbolising the cry for help and assistance from others. It is crucial for us to consider as we approach Rosh Hashanah whether we have struck the right balance in our lives. The balance between the Tekiah and Teruah between focusing on self -achievement and stopping along that path of personal accomplishment to assist others to hear their cry for help. Ensuring that we both are driven to achieve and grow spiritually in the year as well as giving a helping hand to supporting others will ensure as a nation we are all winners this coming year.

This article  was first published on

Vayera-Freewill runs the gauntlet

Published Daf Hashavua – 2010


Hashem strengthened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken to Moshe (9:13)

One of the most basic axioms in human existence is that of freewill the ability to be able to make conscious decisions and to decide to some extent our fate. The entire principle of reward and punishment, for the choices we make hinges on this principle. Yet  the hardening of Pharaohs heart by Hashem seems to undermine and call into question not only the principle of freewill but in addition the ability we have at any point in time to do teshuva, to repent from our misdeeds which as a result of Hashem intervention pharaoh seems to have forgone.

Rambam (1135-1204) avers that at the outset man is free to choose any path or action he so desires. He is afforded equal opportunity to do good or evil. But as soon as he has made his first choice, then the opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced. The more he persists in the first path of his choosing, shall we say the evil path, the harder it will become for him to revert to the good path even though his essential freedom of choice is unfettered. In other words, it is not the Almighty who has hampered his freedom, and made the path of repentance difficult. He has, by his own choice and persistence in evil, placed obstacles in the way leading back to reformation.G-d had built this response as it were into man’s make-up. The more he chooses to err and sin the more his sins act as a barrier between him and repentance.

It is not just pharaoh that felt a compulsion to continue his wickedness in enslavement of our people to the bitter end, in our own society so many youngsters have turned to life of crime with a sense that they have no other options open to them as a result the downward spiral continues. It is incumbent on government and society to ensure no matter how far one has veered there is always an opportunity of reformation and reintegration as a member of society.

Yom Kippur -Jonah

The book of Jonah is perhaps the focal point of the afternoon of Yom Kippur . The story is one we are all familiar with.  The prophet Jonah is instructed by G-d to  warn the people to turn back from their evil ways but his calls to them went unheeded and he attempts to flee from his Divine mission/higher calling .   He finds himself on a boat that is caught up in a fierce storm that  was raging unabated.   On introspection he realises G-d is calling him from on High and he insists on being thrown into the sea.

The Yalkut Shimoni( 13 century Medrash) offers a deep and profound insight into this fascinating story in Yonahs life which can be applied to us all.

   The Vilna Gaon teaches that Jonah’s journey symbolises the journey we all make. We are born with a subconscious realisation of the fact we have a mission . Often we seek to escape , because our mission is one that we are afraid to attempt.

In the text of the story the places Jonah sought were Yaffo and Tarshish.  Rebbetzen Heller,  a contemporary lecturer,  observes that the literal meaning of the names of these cities are beauty and wealth.  We comfort ourselves externally by escaping from our inner knowledge of our mission in life through the pursuit of wealth and surrounding ourselves with beauty. Our bodies are compared to Jonah ‘s ship in the rough waves  of  the challenges that life throws at us,   for example illness The sailors on the ship symbolise  the talents and capacities that serve us. as with Jonah who is cast into the sea, we realise they too cannot save us from our futile desire to escape ourselves.

It is on Yom Kippur afternoon when we are weak from fasting and at our most vulnerable that the judgement  and fate for us and our people comes to a close as it is precisely in such a fragile state that we are able to finally transcend our ego, surrendering our desire to control life and submitting at last to accepting our mission whatever it is.

(published the JC 7.09.11)