Shabbat shalom, Chodesh Tov, and thank you so much for having me.
Today I’d like to speak about an important topic that gets to the roots of the Torah: EVOLUTION. Now before you start thinking that I am planning to talk about Darwin’s evolution of the species I should explain that I have no intention of addressing the topic of science and religion whatsoever!
Instead, when I say that I’d like to speak about evolution, I mean that I’d like to speak about the ability for each human being to develop, to choose to change, to grow. Meaning that I am not speaking about physical evolution, but rather, spiritual evolution.
Our story begins in Egypt 33 centuries ago. The children of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for over 200 years and by this point the only clear identity they had were ‘avadim – slaves’. They may have dreamed of freedom, but slavery was all they had known for generations.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, Moshe – the ‘prince of Egypt’ – is chosen to be an advocate for their freedom, and he is then asked by God to speak to the people and to tell them that they will be freed.
But as we read in our sedra, the people are unresponsive and unreceptive. As slaves they had learnt to live in the here and now and they had come to reject the possibility that their situation could change. As the Torah explains, the people suffered from Kotzer Ruach (Shemot 6:9) – spiritual myopia – the inability to look towards a greater spiritual future. They simply didn’t think their situation could or would change.
After this unsuccessful speech, God tells Moshe to approach Pharoh to demand the freedom of the Jewish people. But Moshe is reluctant. Having failed to move the people, Moshe doesn’t believe that he can move Pharoh. Moshe describes himself as ‘Aral Sefatayim’ (Shemot 6:12) meaning of blunt lips, and he lacks confidence in his message and in his ability to communicate it.
But over this week’s story and next, something extraordinary takes place. We see the beginning of a spiritual evolution where both Moshe and the people undergo a transformation. Both come to realise that change can occur, and that who you are now isn’t who you can become.
Moshe thinks that he can’t achieve what is needed to be done, and he comes to realise that he was wrong. And the people think that they won’t experience freedom from slavery, and they too learn how wrong they are. And when Moshe leads the people out of Egypt, they leave not only with their freedom, but also with a greater appreciation of their potential to change.
Let us now fastrack 40 years. We’ve left Egypt and we are now standing beside the Jordan river looking towards the Land of Israel. Moshe knows that he will not be joining the people, and he spends the next 5 weeks delivering a series of firm yet inspiring sermons to guide the people in the next chapter of their lives.
The Torah informs us that Moshe begins this lecture series ‘on the first of the 11th month’ (Devarim 1:3), meaning Rosh Chodesh Shevat, and as you may have gathered from the beautiful rendition of Hallel this morning, today is Rosh Chodesh Shevat.
This means that exactly 3290 years ago, Moshe begins his swan song which forms the basis of Sefer Devarim.
And what a difference there is between the speeches of Moshe in Egypt, and those that take place 40 years later!
In Egypt, Moshe felt that he was unable to speak with clarity and confidence, but as he neared the end of his life, he delivered the most exquisite series of sermons.
In Egypt, the people were unable to hear a brief and positive message due to the Kotzer Ruach – their spiritual myopia, while now, near the banks of the River Jordan, the people listened attentively for 5 weeks!
So what happened?
Both Moshe and the people develop and grow and both liberating themselves from their limiting beliefs. To me, this is the ultimate message of the Torah and it is the most inspiring and compelling lesson that we can learn.
Let me share with you a personal story, one which I have not previously told, but one which I believe expresses this point very clearly
When I was younger and increasing my level of Jewish observance, I had a memorable conversation with my grandfather.
I had told him that I was thinking about becoming a Rabbi, and he told me a story that I’d never heard before.
My grandfather was born in Hoxton in 1913 to a not-that-observant family. However, when he was young he attended a cheder where one of his teachers saw talent in him. The teacher approached my grandfather and told him that he thought he could train to be a rabbi. But when my grandfather told his parents about this conversation, they responded by saying that ‘people like us don’t become rabbis’.
My grandfather’s family believed that because they were less observant their son could not develop and become a rabbi. Like the children of Israel, my great-grandparents suffered from spiritual myopia and they were paralysed by their limiting beliefs.
But what they forgot is that the main message of the Torah does not concern the creation of the world, or even the Exodus from Egypt. Instead it is about the growth and transformation of individuals and a people as a whole, who came to realise that they could change their destiny.
There are many great lessons to be learnt from the Exodus narrative, but perhaps the greatest is not to think small of yourself. True faith requires that we believe in ourselves, and true spirituality means that we are prepared to change ourselves and undergo spiritual evolution.
Some people think that to be a Jew is to reflect on events of the past, while others think that it is to celebrate festivals in the present. Personally, I believe that to be a Jew is to learn the lessons from the Torah and to mould our lives in accordance with the spirit of Torah.
As Jews we should spiritually evolve. We should look for opportunities to learn and grow. And by doing so, we will emulate the example of our ancestors as told to us in the Torah