Balak: Listening to the bird on your shoulder

Bird on Shoulder 1Imagine a person who has a bird on his shoulder he would consult before any doing anything…  Welcome to the world of Balak ben Zippor, or Balak the son of a bird. Midrash explains he was a devoted follower of a form of witchcraft idolatry which saw him pay homage to a bird named ‘Yadua’ – the knowing bird, and the bird would indicate the answer to all of his questions…

He was a man who had little grasp of his own head. He delegated others to do the thinking for him. We meet Balak in this week’s parasha, described as terrified of the Children of Israel, deciding to take them down – not going to war with them but trying to enlist mystical powers to remove their spiritual protection.

The whole episode is strange not least because Balak is from the nation of Moab and the Jewish People had been commanded not to attack them. Commentaries explain that Ruth would later emerge from this nation who would convert and include as one of her descendants, King David. Why then would Balak be so scared to take this action ..?   Didn’t he know there was no reason to be scared?

Yosef_Dov_Halevi_Soloveychik_1a.jpgAny answer is given by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik of Brisk who says the answer can be found in Balak’s thought process – or lack of. 

Although the Jewish People were not to attack  Moab, if Moab attacked them, they were permitted to respond with force. Here is what went through Balak’s mind. ‘The Children of Israel will go around conquering all of the areas around me, and then we will get scared and will attack them from fear,’ then he reasoned, ‘after this, they will respond and attack us’

Balak feared that he wouldn’t manage to hold on to the power of logic when it was tested with fear..

But after we saw how he rarely flexed the muscles in his brain we can start to understand why he lacked confidence in his own thinking. He teaches us, we all ask others to make our decisions for us at different times in our lives… what should I do, where should I go, who should I date, which job should I apply for?  Of course advice can be great, and it has its place – usually after we have first respected ourselves enough to have a good go at thinking things through.

If we find that we are taking ourselves out of the decision making process too much, walking around with a proverbial bird on our shoulder,  we may find ourselves like Balak, not only susceptible to inappropriate advice, but also lacking faith and confidence in our ability to think well at all in the future.

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Shelach: Saying is Believing!

“Whether you say you can or whether you say you can’t…. You’re probably right.” The words of Henry Ford. Yes, I know he was anti Semitic. Maybe even more reason to add a Jewish source to help explain this piece of wisdom.

We determine so much of our lives by how we speak, which impacts strongly on how we think, and act.

If a person wakes up and says, it’d going to be an awful day -this will likely be the prism through which the day pans out and vice-versa.

roping-moon-dream.jpg.480x0_q71_crop-scaleThe Talmud tells of Bar Hedya, a renowned dream interpreter in Jerusalem who would give out a positive interpretation of a dream to those who paid him for this services, and a negative approach to those who didn’t pay. Whatever he said, happened. Two rabbis went to see him. Rav paid him and Abaye didn’t. Rav saw great wealth, was promoted, and had many children, whilst Abaye lost his job, his wife died, you get the picture. Even when Rav had a negative sounding dream, Bar Hedya spun it in an upbeat way, and when Abaya came with a positive dream, Bar Hedya said it only bore more bad news.  Much later, the truth finally surfaced about Bar Hedya’s secret. Dreams always pan out according to how they are interpreted.

Those who had their lives destroyed realise the opposite could have happened to them, had the interpreter said something pleasant.

We see this also beautifully demonstrated in this week’s parasha (in Israel) Shelach where 12 spies tour the land of Israel and come back with differing reports.

spies_02Ten of the spies, return with a bad report, and two come back with a glowing report.
The first group had previously expressed their feeling that conquering the land of Israel was beyond them, and subsequently this mentality never left them. They brought back a negative account of their 40 day expedition, even finding evidence to prove their case, in the form of huge grapes and pomegranates, not to praise the produce of the land, but rather to subtly scare their brothers into imagining the giants who lived there who would eat such fruits.  

Meanwhile the two men who returned with good words to say, Calev and Yehoshua went into the episode with a positive frame of mind. They returned saying “This is a beautiful land,” and “We can do it with G-d’s help!” 

What’s the message, we speak out the lives we will live.

We hold the key to so much, in how we choose to speak about it. The reality we choose to create with our words and frame of mind. 

As King David asked in his book of Psalms,

“Who is a person that desires life?   And the answers he gives, “ a person who loves looking forward to seeing good days.”  If you want to live in a beautiful world, start speaking it into reality. Perhaps it’s not easy to always be staying upbeat and looking forward to seeing good, there are many obstacles, and changing a mindset over night is not easy, but whenever we succeed we give our world a lift.

Just by starting each day with a short list of things to be grateful for and appreciate or a positive statement about the day and what it might bring can have a big impact.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom.

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A story about getting closer

aid408467-v4-728px-Cope-With-Being-a-Social-Outcast-Step-24Danny,  remembered feeling a part of a big group of friends but now that felt pretty distant. A lot of water had passed under the bridge. He had been missed a lot of days of school the previous year for a whole number of reasons, some of them legitimate, but when he did return it wasn’t the same. He had assumed a group was something you could slip in and out of, but increasingly he felt on the outside, and on more than one occasion his frustration had got the better of him. A few lunchtime scuffles didn’t make things any easier.

Mr Reubens had a knack of seeing the bigger picture in the school yard and had noted Danny’s predicament. He had taught him Geography a year earlier when he was more settled with his friends, and had known a successful, bright student, however a brief word with his teachers this year spelled out the opposite. His grades had slipped, his work was poor and he wasn’t participating in class to any of his teacher’s satisfaction.  Taking a few days to think about the situation, came up with a plan.

image-3The school hiking trip was coming up which he knew Danny would be attending –  Mr Reubens was running the trip and before the trip assigned a special role for Danny – it would be his role to stay at the back and collect any lost property that the the other students had dropped along the way. 

Danny, sighed when he was given the job. Although he had not been relishing the idea of three days with the group he had fallen out if sorts with, a small part of him hoped the time together might resolve things. Now he was sure, being left at the back forced to follow behind the other 70 students would just make things worse. 

images.jpegAs the hike began, Mr Reubens, took him aside to give some specific instructions. “Your job is not just to collect all the lost items, it is to work out which item belongs to who and to personally return it to them.” He added sternly, “By the end of each day, I want to see this bag empty with everything returned.”

This is exactly what happened. On the first day alone, as predicted, Danny’s bag filled up, by the end of the afternoon it was brimming with 5 water bottles, 2 sets of headphones, 4 pens, 3 folders, 2 key-rings, a baseball cap, a wallet, two bottles of sun lotion and a phone. Danny got to work, some of things he knew immediately having seen them in the hands of their owners. Some had names on, and others had distinguishing signs, but most made him think hard, whose it could be, how he could be sure, who he would ask. Although still on his own, his mind was filled with the other members of his group, what they had lost, what they were missing and how to return it to them as quickly as possible. All the while he thought about returning these items, more appeared.  

Each time he returned an item, he received a wide smile and profuse thanks, with almost each person asking him how he knew it was theirs. With each item returned he connected another dot in the group, feeling himself increasingly closer to them, on better terms, invested in them. After three days, even though still at the back, he felt very much a part of the group and the feeling in the group towards him had also completely changed.  On return to school, Danny’s entire demeanour lifted and his grades improved.

ravnevenzalIn this week’s parashah, Bamidbar, the Jewish people are counted. In his commentary, Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzal, rabbi of the Old City in Jerusalem, points out that the tribe of Dan are counted last. He brings a midrash to explain the reason why.  They had succumbed to avoda zara- idol worship in Egypt more than the other tribes and felt disconnected to the bigger group. They trailed behind. The midrash explains why they weren’t moved further forward. Wouldn’t that have helped them feel more included? By keeping them trailing behind, the mitzvah of hashavat aveida – returning lost property – fell to them, everything the other tribes dropped, or left behind. Through the process of  thinking and doing for the other tribes, day in, day out, they grew closer and closer to the heart of ‘Klal Yisrael’ the Jewish People.

The Torah was given at Mount Sinai when the Jewish People were Ish Echad K’lev echad – like one person with one heart. Our rabbis teach, there is no greater vessel for receiving bracha – blessing  – than seeing the world from the perspective of others.  However distant we feel in life, to the people around us, the communities around us, thinking about what others lack and doing kindness will always take us a step closer.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom 

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A Story for Shabbat: Counting the Omer

The walls in Dana’s office were bright white and empty, except for the giant poster sitting behind her desk.  The words, emblazoned in thick black ink read, simply “Be what you want to be.”
careerproblems_400.jpgA day earlier, Oded had returned from yet another walk around the park, the third of that afternoon alone. It was the only way he knew to calm his nerves while he waited for the phone to ring, still hoping the last of the interviews he had been invited to would yield his first job since graduating. When the phone finally rang it was not good news. “They said they would keep my resume on file,” he told his mother, looking down feeling the burden of another knock back. It was the fifth rejection in a matter of two months.

“Do you think it’s worth seeing a coach,” his mother asked gently. “It could be, they might have some good advice?”   Without any good reason why not, Oded had agreed to an initial meeting.

“That’s the key,” Dana said, pointing to the words jumping out from the wall, that seemed, somehow to fill the room. “So tell me,” she fired at him, “What is it you want to be?”  

Slightly taken aback, at her directness, he stammered, “A sports writer.”  Looking straight at him, as if searching his soul, she shot back her reply, “How much?”  Oded shuffled in his seat preparing his answer.

“This is the first step,” she continued, “Building up your desire for the things that you want. Every day you need to tell yourself over and over again, how much you want this, why you want this, what it means to you and what you will do with it.” She continued, “You need to do this so much that becomes alive in you,”  Oded listened intently, “The Second step, is about becoming that which you desire so strongly to be, but that,” she added, “will come later.”

Over the course of the following two weeks, Oded spent five minutes each day talking to himself aloud, awakening and strengthening his desire to find his perfect job. Soon his face began to shine with the glow of a person living with a purpose so real he could almost taste. As he continued to visualise what it would be like to be working in his dream job, he began to feel like he was already a successful sports writer, it felt it was getting closer.

As his next coaching session approached Oded called Dana, happy to relate that he wouldn’t need to attend after all. He had just received an offer from the leading sports news service in Boston. 

These few weeks in the Jewish year are weeks of ‘desire and the ‘will to make change’’ or in Hebrew ‘ratzon.’ This is encompassed in the mitzvah of the Counting of the Omer, which began on the second day of Pesach and continues through Shavuout.

abacus_0.jpgThe daily count up is meant to instill into our deepest essence, an empassioned desire for the gift of the Torah that awaits us – and was given on Shavuot at Mount Sinai. The more we want it, the more likely we are to acquire our portion in it. We learn here, profoundly that the yearning for something, is a prerequisite for receiving it.

Perhaps we can say, when bracha comes into the world, we have to have open hands and be ready to receive it.

sapphire.jpgThe Maggid of Koznitz, one of the great Hasidic leaders of Poland from the 18th century explained that the words given in the Torah ‘Usphartem lechem’ – count for yourselves – can also be read, -’and explain to yourselves,’ with the word ‘lispor’ – to count,  spelt with same letters as the word l’saper meaning to explain. and closely connected to ‘sapir’ meaning a sapphire. Here’s his message:

The more you explain something, the brighter the idea becomes until it shines like a sapphire.

The Maggid of Koznitz explains that this is the key to reaching any kind of goal – is to increase your will and desire for it, by ‘telling it to yourself’, again and again and again.  To make it so real that it actually starts to shine bright in you.  Once this desire for something has such energy, he adds, it is only a matter of time before the goal you are dreaming of, like  a magnet, is drawn to you and starts to take shape.

download (8).jpegDuring this process of increasing our ‘ratzon’- our will, we have to get over a number of obstacles. These can be doubts of our own ability or inability, self worth and challenging the things we have subconsciously already placed into the realm of the impossible.  In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav ‘A person is where they are thinking about being,’ when that light is strong, its starts to guide the way.

This also explains why the Torah commands that we count 50 days, whereas in reality we only actually count 49.  The 50th day, our rabbis explain is finished up for us by some divine assistance – which teaches us we can reach our goals when we put in our maximum effort and t
ruly desire something that is for the sake of heaven. Then these efforts will be blessed and the shortfall made up.  

As we count up toward the Omer, we all have an opportunity to increase the desire within ourselves for the things that we want, or want to become. It all starts with ‘telling ourselves’ repeatedly until it starts to feel real, and before we know, with help from shamayim, Bezrat Hashem we are already halfway there.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.  

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Doctor orders: Counting the Omer

Hodaya overcoming her disability to become a doctorEarlier this year, 27 year old, Hodaya Oliel became Israel’s first doctor to graduate with Cerebral Palsy. Overcoming huge odds and showing dogged persistence, she realised a childhood dream having been inspired by her own many stays in hospital as a child where she underwent multiple operations. The department opposite hers always caught her eye, and as she looked on, sometimes for weeks at a time in wonder, she vowed to herself  that she too wanted to become a pediatric neurologist. Now she is well on her way.

screenshot-2019-05-10-at-1.55.43-am-e1557442703500.pngIn a moving ceremony this week, she was honored with lighting one of 12 torches for Yom Haatzmaut, chosen for her tenacity, drive and power to overcome adversity. She dedicated her honor to all those living with special needs as well as their families and friends, paying tribute to her own parents who kept believing in her.  

There is no doubt Hodaya will inspire many people in Israel and beyond, and her story is particularly poignant at this time, as we find ourselves mid way through counting the Omer, where we are all trying to get somewhere….

Seeing someone else achieve something incredible, helps us all get a little closer to realising the things we can often decide are way out of reach. It can help us get over certain glass ceilings we place for ourselves.  When we actually feel that something could be possible it unlocks us to mobilise ourselves a little more into action.

CountingOmerThe mitzvah of counting the omer is all about self growth, our own development, seeing what it is we want to become, how we can better ourselves – and then making it happen, but first comes, pausing to really feel the vision, and be clear where it is we want to go.

I know after hearing myself say I want to change or develop in a certain way for so many years, I stop taking myself seriously, and the words can be more lip-service than a meaningful attempt at change. It’s frustrating, and maybe there is a good reason to rethink my approach before just jumping back into the ring. Everyone is wrestling with one thing or another.


It is not only true about character development, but about all areas of our lives that we are looking to grow, to develop and to progress in – the ability to actually believe it is possible, to see it, to own it, is perhaps a precondition we have to master first before we start counting up to achieving our goal.

The journey from Pesach to Shavout, one of freedom from Egypt on Pesach to the heights of Mount Sinai starts with our us tasting the epic freedom from the world’s most powerful tyranny, which can give us the confidence to start our own journey with vision.

May we all be blessed for vision, clarity and an extra dose of self belief.

Shabbat Shalom

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A story for Parashat Kedoshim

Tips-from-an-Administrator-Improve-Your-Lesson-Plan-with-Questions-1024x512Two teenage boys are brought before Rabbi Levy, the headteacher of their school after teasing a deaf student in the playground. Sitting them down in his office, he paces around in front of them silently for a few long moments, before telling them, “I know, that boy couldn’t hear you. In fact, I saw what happened from the window in my office, and he didn’t even see you teasing him.”  They raise their faces towards him, “All that considered,” he pauses, “Maybe we should say that no harm was done?” They both look a little confused, expecting at least a detention, as the rabbi pulls a book from his shelf and turns the pages. “The Torah addresses this precisely and it’s worth us learning what it has to say,” he says, joining them at the desk.

bookswp“Did you know, there is a mitzvah not to curse a deaf person,” he continues, showing them the words to read. “Do you know the reason our rabbis give for this?” he asks, as they shake their heads, in response. “It’s not to tell us the hurt they will cause him,” he says sternly, “that’s obvious,” he adding gently, “can you imagine how he would have felt,” then lowering his voice to a whisper he continues  “It’s taught in this way, precisely this way, to emphasize the damage we do to ourselves by cursing him. This is the Torah’s message. Everything we say and do, affects our most inner core. We are what we say, our words can either raise us, or the opposite. They have a deep impact on who we become.”

Indeed this is a theme of this week’s parasha, Kedoshim dedicated to achieving holiness, which includes several laws dedicated to teaching the holistic nature of living, and the way we are encouraged to see the intertwined relationship between body and soul. 

Another similar example is given of a farmer who, seeing his friend has fallen on hard times but sensing he will not take kindly to receiving a donation, instead hatches a plan.  sheep-16-390x285Knowing the Torah’s punishment for stealing animals is to return them along with a fine,  he visits his rabbi to get approval for his benevolent strategy to steal one of his friend’s sheep. “It is totally forbidden,” the rabbi says without a thought. “Your intentions are pure,” he says, “but the Torah will not sanction a Jew to inflict his soul with the crime of theft,” adding, “It makes an terrible imprint on your inner core.”

Both of these laws, and many others about the sensitivity we need to have for ourselves are taught precisely in this Torah portion dedicated to attaining holiness. Essentially, any external act, can have an internal ramification.  The way we speak, and the way we act impact us deeply inside, perhaps even in ways we may not even be aware of. The Torah’s message is to live holistically, with great care and see the body as a gateway to the soul.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom 🙂

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Saying thank you for the little things

barleyOn Pesach we bring a barley offering, and seven weeks later we bring a wheat offering. Barley grows two months quicker than wheat, it’s easier to grow, and although is used a lot in food production for human consumption it is far more a staple part of an animal’s diet than wheat.

images (13)The journey from Pesach through Shavuot is a journey of growth from the animal raw side of us, to the elevated human. Our Jewish ancestors in Egypt left as slaves and required these seven weeks to internalise the message that they were free, should respect themselves as such, and set themselves higher goals to strive for.

The mitzvah to count the omer, instructs us to count the days of the barley offering all the way through Shavuot. There are many explanations for this command which we perform every night from the second night of Pesach onwards, and many of them have to do with character perfection necessary in the build up to Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.

I would like to share one idea on this theme that particularly resonates with me:

06-4-col-malting_barley-copy1Precisely because barley is wheat’s cheaper brother, we disregard it far more. Although we may not be farmers, we have barley’s  equivalent in our lives, the things that are minor in our eyes, that we perhaps take for granted. Here we are told to take those things in mind, appreciate them, and thank Hashem for the little things as much as for the bigger things.

The Jewish People have just left Egypt, plagues, fireworks, sea splitting its a major event and the next big epic adventure is in seven weeks time. It’s so easy to only focus on the big events and just wish away the days in between looking forward to the next hit of pleasure, excitement or adrenalin. Weddings, births and birthdays, holidays, vacations, major milestones and promotions these are the events that can so easily punctuate our lives and what happens in between is a blur. The mitzva to count the barley offering reminds, instructs and brings back into proper focus the value of every day and every moment. Each one is a gem to pick up and make the most of. By doing this we can merit to lives of gratitude, heightened appreciation and enjoyment as we savor even the minor details of life.

Chag Sameach!

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