Monday, 24 August 2015

Dvar Torah on Journeys

I said this at Hakol Olin in London on a Shabbat morning: 

"Have you ever surprised yourself?
I have
In fact, I’m really surprised to be standing here right now.
I’m here today as the result of a journey I’ve been on
It all started when I realized I had never spoken in public before
I had always hated speaking in public and so I never did it
Not ever
So I set myself a little challenge
To speak in public
So four months ago I agreed to speak in Assif one Shabbat morning on Maimonides
Whom I love
I spent the whole of my summer holiday thinking about what I was going to say
And my voice shook as I clutched my notes
But I survived
No one stoned me which is my sole criterion for success
Then I did it again
My voice didn’t shake but I still clutched my notes
Then I did it again
And again
So I thank you very much for allowing me to speak today
It’s still only the fourth time I have spoken in public
And I hope my voice doesn’t shake and that you don’t stone me
But I have learned that anything is possible when you start to see yourself differently
I’ve also learned baby steps are fine as long as you keep going forward
In the portion today the Israelites are moving forward too
Very slowly
They have left Egypt and after so many years of slavery, they have acquired some self-limiting beliefs of their own
That they take can’t find their own food or make their own way.
They are unwilling to see themselves as self-reliant.   
Although they are marching out of Egypt physically, the Israelites are still stuck emotionally.
They aren’t children anymore and yet they don’t see themselves as adults responsible for their own sustenance.
Like moody teenagers
All they do is moan about the water supply, the food and the unknown dangers.
It made me think of a story I had just read in the Talmud, in Berachot 10a about King David’s five stages in life and what you see at each stage.
The first stage of life is in the womb when you see are all can become
The second stage is when you are born and you peep out and are amazed at the stars.
The third is when you see your mother’s breast as the source of your survival
The fourth stage is adulthood when you see the downfall of the wicked
and the fifth stage is the day of your death.
The line that describes adulthood is puzzling. Why is adulthood about seeing the downfall of the wicked?

Now I’ve just started learning the Talmud, and one thing I’ve seen already, is that the sages are extremely wise, and no line is there by accident.
The fourth stage if David’s five stages of man is illuminated by the last line of psalm 104. It says: He (ie David) saw the downfall of the wicked and sang “Let the sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more”
Beruriah makes her first appearance in the Talmud and interprets this line as saying:  It’s how we see ourselves that matters. Teshuva is an act of changing a belief about oneself and returning to understanding the innate goodness of yourself.
So maybe it’s saying, in adulthood David confronts his own wickedness.  He sees more and he does better.

The truth is there’s no manna from heaven in real-life. There’s no free ride.  And It’s hard fending for yourself in real life isn’t it? In real life, to make a living you have to compete for limited resources, work hard and make judgements.  In real life, no one is handing it to you on a plate.  
And yes, it’s easier to make more money with less ethical choices.
Yes, you can be a bandit in Babylon and hold people up for money.
Yes, you can be a Satmar slumlord in Brooklyn and exploit the non-Jewish poor.
Yes, South Africa is free now, but corruption is spreading wider too.
It doesn’t have to be like that. And it shouldn’t be like that.
It’s easy to be innocent as a child, but it’s only when we grow up and take responsibility, do we get real freedom to make moral choices.
It’s only when we grow up, that we get the choice to act ethically, not out of fear of punishment, and the hope of a reward but because it’s the right thing to do.
And best of all, it’s only when we grow up can we go only very occasionally from fear of god to moments of love of god. And that’s the real reward.

The long walk to freedom begun by the Israelites thousands of years ago is a challenge we all walk moment to moment until this moment here now.  We need to keep moving forward, even if they’re baby steps. Luckily none of us are walking alone. But it all starts with a willingness to see yourself differently."

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