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India! Why India?

India! Why India?

As you may have seen promoted in our emails, Karen is leading a group of women to India in conjunction with Justifi – a Jewish organization that has been taking college students to far off countries like Thailand and India. They have just started to take JWRP/Momentum graduates as well and this is their first trip of women going to India.

As we have been preparing for the trip – and there are a lot more logistical issues visiting India compared to Israel as you can well imagine – the reactions we have received have been very interesting and telling. When people first hear of it there are very strong feelings one way or another. It isn’t like telling someone you are visiting Cincinnati where the response is pretty pareve. “Cincinnati? Oh that’s nice, enjoy… whatever”. No, when it comes to India people are either, “India?! Gross. I would never go there. I hear it is so dirty and smelly. Good luck but not for me!” Or, “India?! Wow that is so cool. I have always wanted to visit. Totally on my bucket list!”

I find myself having to (understandably) explain why a Jewish organization is spending the time and effort on such things and why have the wife lead such an expedition? Well for one thing, Karen belongs to the later of those two groups. Growing up in the UK with its large Indian population and being of Persian decent, which is somewhat in the same neighbourhood, has made her feel a lot closer to Indian culture than most.

But as the tag line for Justifi says, it is Adventure with Purpose and the name of the organization conveys exactly that. That name is made up of Just If I, implying I can make a difference in the world. As they state on their website, “Be a traveler and not just a tourist. Learn some of the local culture, traditions, and customs, taste the local food and see the bustling cities and breath-taking nature. Balance all this by gaining a real insight into the issues facing the country from some of the inspirational people working there to make a real change.” It is meant to be a real Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World experience.

When I spoke to the 20 participants at their first meeting a couple weeks ago, I wanted to express a couple ideas to them about how their trip dovetails with Jewish tradition.

When we open the Torah and start from the beginning (as we shall do in a few short weeks from now on Simchat Torah), we see that it is not exclusively about the Jewish people. Granted most of the Torah is, but we don’t hear about the first Jew, Avraham until week 3 of the Torah readings. We first hear about Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah and a host of many others who are not our co-religionists. The Torah begins not about us but about all humans. I would venture to say that no other central book of any other religion speaks in such universal terms and focuses on anyone other than their particular religious group. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out, “Judaism is unique. On the one hand, the God of Abraham is, we believe, the God of everyone. We are all – Jew and non-Jew alike – made in God’s image and likeness.” And so in Judaism, we begin with a recognition of all peoples of the earth.

But then the Mishna takes it a step further. There is a famous line in the Mishna (Oral Tradition) of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, describing how one attains wisdom: “Who is wise? One who learns מכל אדם – mikol adam from every person.” It is very telling about the wording that is employed – from every “adam” i.e. human. Not Jew but human. The lesson being that we are able to learn from everyone – no matter what their religion, background, experience or creed. Every person on the face of the planet has some experience or insight that we do not have and that we can learn from. The Talmud says that while there might not be “Torah” among the gentiles, wisdom there certainly is.

This is very much in line with the comment on the verse where Adam is told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Before he receives that command, however, he is told that he is permitted to eat from every other tree of the garden. The fact that a double language “to eat” is used – אכל תאכל “you must certainly eat” – hints to the notion that he and Eve were not just permitted but actually obligated to eat from all the other trees. God insists that they must enjoy every type of fruit He made available to them. And from here the Jerusalem Talmud says that God takes us to task for restraining ourselves from the joys of the world that God has made available for us to have, and that a person is supposed to enjoy every permitted pleasure in God’s glorious universe.

So certainly we are enjoined to visit and experience the wonders and places that He has created. This is especially so in our day and age where technology and travel make it is so easy to do so. Indeed Maimonides says that one of the paths to achieve the lofty mitzvah of Love of God is through appreciating and experiencing the amazing world God has created.

This universal view, where we embrace all nations and people, gets it final denouement in a verse from Isaiah which is recited often during the Selichot services we say during this time of year as well as on the High Holidays themselves. When speaking of the time of the Mashiach, Isaiah prophesies in God’s name, “And I shall bring them to my Holy Mountain. And I will make them joyful in My House of Prayer… for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.” We get a glimpse of this today when one visits the Kotel and sees so many people from all over the world coming to pray with us.

So when all is said and done, we learn from everyone, we see Godliness in every nation, and they in turn come to us and experience the Godliness that we have to offer them.

So my wish and bracha is that Karen and her ladies have a great time and an eye-opening experience in India next month that opens their hearts and souls to the wonders of God’s creations. And one last thing, just remember to remove the red dot from your forehead before you return.


God I love the sweet taste of India

Lingers on the tip of my tongue

Gotta love the sweet taste of India

Blame it on the beat of the drum


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