Two Young Men Who Blazed Their Own Trails [Parshat Lech Lecha by Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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And your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (Gen 17:5)

The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it
— Woodrow T. Wilson

William Kamkwamba is a fascinating young man from Africa whose story is documented in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” This is an inspirational true story of one individual who had the strength and determination to defy all the peer pressure, poverty and circumstance to improve the world around him.

At the age of 14 William was forced to quit school because his family could no longer afford the $80-a-year fees. He returned to his parents’ small plot of farmland in Malawi, just north of Zimbabwe, where he helped them farm the land. Times were tough, and they had just undergone a severe drought. Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, most have no running water at all.

William was a bright young man and spent time in the local “library” which held a few ragged old books, where one particular book piqued his interest – a science book with pictures of a working windmill. The caption read “Windmills generate electricity and pump water,” and William began to dream. He dreamed of bringing electricity and running water to his village, deprived in so many ways, and he began to experiment. When not helping his family farm maize, he worked away at his prototype, often late into the nights.

Many, including my mother, thought I was going crazy,” he recalls. “They had never heard of a windmill before.” Neighbours saw him searching through rubbish tips and either thought he was crazy or up to no good. He had no support, just scepticism and negativity.

Like all good inventors, William ignored the comments and naysayers and eventually managed to build a turbine from bicycle parts, a tractor fan blade and a shock absorber. He then made the blades by flattening plastic pipes, made a circuit breaker from nails and speaker magnets and crafted a light switch from bicycle spokes and flip-flop rubber.

Amazingly it worked – and he soon had electricity in his own home. Before long, visitors were traipsing from miles around to see the magetsi a mphepo – “electric wind” and to charge their cellphones. Following this, and a little fame and international support, he built a solar powered water pump to help irrigate the land. Now he is very famous, with a book and a movie telling his story – the story of a teenager who refused to listen when everyone around him said he was wrong.

When I read this story I was reminded of the Torah reading this week, about another young man who blazed his own trail – the story of our forefather Avraham (Abraham). From when he was just a young child Avraham defied peer pressure to make the world a better and more spiritual place.

Avraham was born in Ur – modern day Iraq – over 3800 years ago, in the Hebrew year 1948. He was surrounded by pagans and idolaters. His own father was in retail – selling idols! They worshipped gods of wood, stone and precious metals; every single person Avraham knew believed fervently in the powers of their pantheon of gods. Yet this young man was able to forge his own path, to diverge from those around him and depart from conventional wisdom. Not only did Avraham believe in a single, invisible yet omnipotent G-d, he shared that belief with others around him. Billions of people in the world today believe in One G-d as a result.

As descendants of Avraham, and as members of the Jewish people, we must tread that same path, doing what is right even when the world around us is doing the opposite. In every generation Jews have lived among cultures and civilisations which clash with our own. Different laws and customs, morals and ethics, yet we must act like Avraham — standing proud and doing what is right in a world that often disagrees so strongly.

It is never easy for us to stand out from the crowd, to be different from our peers in society. Most of us prefer to conform and to keep our heads well below the parapet. The message of Lech Lecha, of Avraham and Sarah is that if we have a strong conviction about what is right and good, we should never allow that to be repressed or silenced.

Human history is tragically filled with subjugation and oppression, with control of others’ thoughts and actions. We are living now in unique times, where stone walls and iron curtains have fallen, many dictators and despots have fled or been killed and others fear the same fate. Thank G-d we live in a society where we are free to practice our faith without repercussions, to proclaim our faith in the G-d of Avraham and to live our lives in accordance with His desires. We are free to pray openly in synagogues, to immerse in a mikvah, to enrol our children in Jewish schools and to walk the streets as proud members of our faith. Whether we do or not … is up to us. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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