Thursday, May 21, 2015

The unpopular Jewish holiday

As I'm composing this post, I'm having a fascinating discussion on social media (and expect it will continue later on Chai) about why Shavuos is such an overlooked holiday. Most people seem to think it's because there are no clear rituals associated with it (although, I think cheesecake and blintzes should count for something) and others say it's too short to really grab people's attention.
Either way, it's mighty ironic, considering that Shavuos is when the Torah was given and when we became the Jewish nation. Without those two elements, we'd have no Pesach Seder, Kol Nidrei or breaking of the fast. 
I've always said that the most powerful spiritual opportunities are the ones that are most hidden from view. Someone asked me yesterday what the energy of Shavuos is. You know that the energy of Pesach is liberation and breaking boundaries, the energy of Rosh Hashanah is fresh beginnings, of Yom Kippur forgiveness and so on. 
And Shavuous? 
Your knee-jerk answer would probably be "study", seeing as it is the day when the Torah was given. But, it's really a lot more than that.
Shavuous is about touching G-d's essence. Shavous is when He ripped open the Heavens and revealed his "I" (I am the L-rd, your G-d) to us. And every year on this date, He opens that portal for us again.
How do you connect to the energy? Simple. You come to Shul on Sunday and hear the Ten Commandments.
You can reach lofty spiritual levels (like on Rosh Hashanah) if you put in enough effort. But the essence is is not something we attain, but a gift that He gives us. If we are there at the right moment, we get the gift.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Flight for one

Flying, especially long-hauls, where you are sardined in between two oversize or over-talkative passengers, can be tedious. 

I spent a good few hours in the air last year, and each time started my journey with the modern traveler's prayer: "Dear G-d, please let the seat next to me remain empty". 

I struck it lucky on a few of the flights, even catching a full row on two international trips, but managed nothing like this guy.

Earlier this week, Chris O' Leary almost flew solo to New York, after his flight was seriously delayed. Somehow, all the passengers were re-booked onto other flights, except him. When the plane was eventually prepared to depart, O' Leary tweeted that he had the whole plane to himself, but, just then, a second passenger dashed on-board. 

You have to wonder why Delta would fly a whole 76-seater plane from Cleveland to New York with only two commuters aboard. It turns out, they needed the plane back in New York, passengers or no passengers. 

Which reminded me of we Jews, living "away from home".  One day, we're told, G-d will gather the Jewish people back to Israel and herald in the time of Moshiach. Some of the flights we will take to get there may actually carry only a single passenger. The prophet Isaiah promises, G-d will gather us one by one to take us back home. 

Only, then it won't be because He needs to get a $100 million plane back to base, but because He truly cares about getting each person where they belong. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Don't pussyfoot around evil

I felt absolutely sick on Friday. 

I had just returned from pre-Shabbos grocery shopping at our local kosher supermarket, when I heard about fellow Jews taken hostage while doing just that in Paris.

I didn't only feel sick. I was livid. 

I wasn't only angry at the attackers, but at a world that has allowed extremism to go unchecked. How could terrorists feel so emboldened as to shoot up grocery shoppers in the "City of Love", attack coffee-drinkers in Sydney or butcher worshipers at Shul in Jerusalem?

Ok, we know that a good portion of the world chooses to remain blissfully blind to the tsunami on our doorstep. More concerning is the way world leaders have adopted a non-committal approach to a serious and rapidly-growing threat, for fear of offending people or, worse yet, being perceived as heavy-handed. 

It's a tough one. Non-violence and democracy are where the world wants to go, so how to handle those who exploit our idealism to further the cause of violence and autocratic control? 

Yesterday, Jewish communities read in the Torah about Moses and how he had grown up in Pharaoh's home, sheltered from the suffering of his compatriots. Wanting to witness life under slavery firsthand, Moses steps out of the royal palace and straight into the traumatic scene of an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating an Israelite slave. 

Moses darts a look "this way and that", to "see that there was no man", swiftly kills the bully and buries him in the sand. 

It's the "perfect crime"- no witnesses, no body. 

Or, so it would appear.

On the following day, Moses heads out again. This time he encounters two bickering Israelites. Moses walks in on them, just as the one raises his hand, ready to strike his adversary. 

Moses loudly rebukes him, "Wicked one, why do you strike your friend?". Hand still raised, the perpetrator turns to Moses and says, "So, do you now plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?"


Moses apparently hadn't pulled off the perfect crime after all.

So, here's the problem: Moses had killed a man just one day earlier. Surely he is a hypocrite for calling this guy- who hand't yet landed a blow-  "wicked".

But Moses didn't become G-d's chosen leader and custodian of the Torah because he was an ordinary fellow. And the Torah doesn't just tell us stories for dramatic effect. Moses was a deeply spiritual and insightful man, and the stories about him are meant to teach us lessons for life.

When Moses looks "this way and that and sees there is no man", he isn't looking to ensure that nobody is watching what he. At that moment, he looks deep into the Egyptian to see if "in the man" there might remain something of value, a spark of potential goodness that might warrant sparing his life. 

Moses finds none. This man is pure evil, a rare specimen with no chance of redemption. Such a person will only harm society, so such a person needs to be removed from society.

Moses reminds us that evil cannot be tolerated, or analyzed, or understood, or contextualized. It needs to be eradicated.

Against evil you act decisively and efficiently. You don't worry who may be watching or what they may say about you, because eliminating evil is noble and moral and something others should emulate.

The tough question is how to identify evil. 

Nobody wants to lash out indiscriminately nor sink to the depravity of our enemies. To remove evil, you need to remain objective and clinical. 

Moses teaches us that lesson in his second Egypt encounter. 

It sounds like Moses was hotheaded to accuse a man of "wickedness" before he had so much as hit his opponent. It's dangerous to judge people based on our perception of their intentions, without facts to support them. 

On the other hand, waiting for the criminal to commit a crime before confronting him is more dangerous.

Moses reminds us that we live for a purpose. Our purpose is to serve G-d by making the world a better, kinder, more generous and more holy place. 

Everything that G-d gives us- our health, talents, finances and so on- is to be used to achieve higher purpose for ourselves and our world. 

G-d gives you a hand so that you can help an old lady across the road, share a coin with a beggar or wave at someone to make them feel worthwhile. 

Should you imagine that your hand is meant to be a tool for violence, you've missed the point. Imagining that you live to harm others is rebellion against G-d. 

No matter the rationalization, an ideology that encourages violence is evil. Standing up firmly and unapologetically against such evil is noble. 

Those who dedicate their lives to destruction should be destroyed. 

Those who dedicate their lives to fighting evil should never hesitate to act.

Perhaps world leaders and law-enforcement officials would do well to study yesterday's Torah portion.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Get off Facebook!!

"OMG!", as they say these days. This whole King David vice headboy story has gotten completely out of control and it's all our fault! I mean he was completely out of line, and his behaviour raises serious questions about the education that our children are getting. But, we, the ordinary members of the Jewish community, are the ones who splashed that kaffiyeh photo- accompanied by rantings and accusations- all over the internet. We alerted the media and we baited our detractors.
We need to pause- as we stand in the virtual ruins- to reflect. Everything a Jew sees or hears is meant to be a lesson, according to the Baal Shem Tov. What a whole group of Jews does, especially just before the most introspective time of the year, certainly must teach us something important.
For a start, we don't all appreciate the power of social media. Someone once asked the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe what spiritual lesson one could learn from a telephone. He responded: "What is said in one place will be heard in another". Chassidim always said that the spoken word is impactful, but the printed word is eternal. Social media is irretractable.
In plain English, once you've posted something, it's everywhere, forever in your name.
One of Judaism's greatest spiritual principles is that the mind must guide and control the heart. Most online postings are emotion-based, which leaves them wide open to being misguided, misplaced or misinterpreted. We've all blurted things out and regretted them afterwards. Unintended insults or faux pas can be corrected face to face, but written (or actually typed) words will often read differently to the reader than they did to the writer.
Think before you post. Is your motivation to make a difference or to release frustration? If it's the latter, rather put it in an email to your like-minded friends. Rabbi Akivah taught that the buffer of wisdom is silence.
If you post, think about who you are posting to or about. We were all seventeen once. We all did hotheaded things that we thought were smart at the time, but now hope nobody will ever uncover.
Luckily for us, we didn't have social media to expose and eternally shame us in those days. Real haters out there, like public figures who have called for death to the Jews, deserve to be exposed, discredited and dragged through the appropriate legal procedures. But, young (and naive) idealists should be allowed the dignity of discretion, and disciplined by the appropriate bodies. Mass-attacking a teen whose ideologies don't match yours is more likely to alienate than to rehabilitate him.
Even if a public figure says stupid (not inciting) things, we gain nothing by attacking them. Public personalities receive criticising mails all day long. Best case scenario, yours will be lost in the crowd and will achieve nothing. Worst case, your target will villify you publicly. Unless you have rapport with someone, don't attempt to attack them. Certainly don't be disappointed if they don't change their views because of your pestering. The Torah says only rebuke someone who you believe may listen to you.
Our biggest failing as a community is broader than these technicalities.
We are reactionary. Someone provokes us, we take the bait. We respond and they blow our response out of proportion. Then we either fuel more anti- senitiment or simply look stupid.
This week's parsha tells us that the first setp towards decline is not standing proud of who we are. We need to be proactive and get our story out there. We need to remind the world of G-d's promise of Israel to the Jews. We underestimate how many people believe that the Bible is true. We need to remind them of that truth, because they do consider it more compelling than CNN. We need to be proud of our heritage, the morality and compassion that is part of our DNA. We need not be ashamed to call evil by its name. And we need to be proud of our people, our country and its army, who are not perfect, but are way ahead of the curve.
Jewish history is a repetitive refrain of Jews empowering their enemies by reacting rashly, rather than by following the guidance of our timeless Torah. We have an opportunity to act differently at this time. Please G-d, our appropriate behaviour will draw down His blessings for the world to wake up to reality.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why does G-d make it difficult?

Ok, here's one of the oldest questions ever: Why does it have to be so tough? Yes, I know that they say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but why do we have things that almost kill us, just to "make us stronger". Surely, G-d, in His infinite kindness could find softer, sweeter ways to send us blessings or means of personal growth?
All those tests and challenges we face in life are called "nisyonos" in Judaism. Some are the obstacles that interfere with us living a happy, comfortable life. Others are the challenges that stymie our efforts to become better people; things like temptation or character flaws.
Before living on earth, our souls didn't have to face off with the nonsense that we deal with daily down here. Our souls basked in Divine radiance and generally led a happy, spiritually aware life. Jewish mysticism teaches us, though, that the Divine access our souls enjoy is limited. It belongs to the hieararchy of spiritual flow, where each level of existence gets a calibrated dose of spiritual light- and nothing more. True, in heaven there's more light than in Joburg, but it's a fixed rate of energy that can't be changed.
Living as humans (with all our foibles), however, presents both challenge and opportunity. The challenges result from the lack of Divine awareness in our world. But, G-d undertakes to help us with our spiritual progress. In heaven, where spiritual growth comes easy, He doesn't invest too much to help us, because we don't need much help.
On the daily uphill of trying to be a decent person in a less than decent world, G-d has to "pull out" extra spiritual boosters to help us along. While in Heaven, the spiritual backup available is predermined and static, on Earth, it is relative to our efforts and can range way up, beyond what's available in heaven.
Simply put, G-d throws challenges at us, because they force us to dig deep and uncover resources that we wouldn't have known we have. When we dig within, He then boosts us with some hidden resources of His own, allowing us to access Divine energy that's way over our pray-grade. G-d doesn't send us challenges to stump us, but to spur us on.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Get (a) life!

If you ever thought that chicken-swinging at kapporas was bizarre, the Talmud says that the Parah Adumah- or Red Heifer- is the most bizarre of all Jewish rituals. It involves finding a perfectly red cow; more than two black hairs on it would disqualify it. No sooner do you find this cow, you burn it (and, trust me, its ashes don't come out red, so what difference did the colour make anyway?). Then you would have mixed some of those ashes into water and you would have had the only concoction that could have been used in Temple times to purify a person from the impurity contracted through contact with a dead body.
Funny thing, though, the kohen who sprinkled the ash-water would then become impure and would have to undergo a purification process of his own. Even King Solomon, known as the smartest person to ever have lived, said that he was stymied by the Parah Adumah. The only person to whom G-d ever offered a glimpse into the meaning behind this process was Moses. And he never shared what he was told.
Clearly, Moshe and the Red Heifer had a special relationship. He had to prepare the first one ever used. Tradition has it that some of the original ashes that Moshe had processed had to be preserved and recycled into the ashes of every subsequent Parah Adumah. The Torah even says that the Parah Adumah will always be named after Moshe.
So, what's Moshe's special connection with this weird mitzvah?
Moshe was perplexed by death. He couldn't fathom how Hashem would allow such an irreversible negative energy into His world. But, when Hashem introduced Moshe to the Red Heifer, he came to realise that even death can be "cured". Sure, in those days, it was only the person contaminated by contact with death who was cured, but the process carries the promise that one day death will be permanently undone. And that was very important to Moshe, because he represented life, endurance and eternity.
The Mishkan that Moshe built was never destroyed, only hidden away before the Temple was built. The ashes that Moshe prepared for the original Parah Adumah were kept for all future generations, in keeping with his attitude of enduring contribution. Moshe's teachings have been studied globally by religious people, not only Jews, forever. The Talmud even suggests that Moshe did not die, but relocated to serve G-d on another plane. So, Moshe would naturally resonate with a process that defies death, because his aim was to do just that- hence, his special affinity for the Red Heifer.
Next week is Gimmel Tammuz, the day when we commemorate the Rebbe's yarzteit. Back in 1994 the bets were on that Chabad would wither and become insignificant without a Rebbe who could give rousing public addresses and mail responses to letters seeking guidance and blessing. Chabad's meteoric growth in the last twenty years has defied the death that the experts foretold for it. But, that is also no surprise, considering that the Rebbe was fixated with Moshiach, who will bring death to its knees. Like Moshe's, the Rebbe's teachings and deeds live on and will endure all the way until they achieve their purpose of "swallowing death into eternal life" with the imminent arrival of Moshiach.