Thursday, April 03, 2014

Consistency v. Creativity

Bonus! This year you got additional prep time for Pesach, compliments of the extra Adar. A Jewish leap year adds a whole extra month just to ensure that Pesach arrives in the correct season. The timing of Pesach is based on the position of the Sun. Seeing as the Jewish calendar follows the Moon, we need the occasional adjustment to keep our holidays where they need to be.
You may find it ironic that the Lunar calendar was introduced by G-d to the Jewish people in the month of Nissan. Nissan is the month that has to suit the seasons, which means that, in the one Jewish month that has to match the solar cycle, G-d presented us with a calendar that follows the Moon. Christians and Muslims seem to have it easier, as their calendars follow the Sun and Moon respectively. Only the Jews would insist on having the best (or the trickiest) of both worlds.
A Jew cannot live without a calendar. We need to know when Shabbos is, when to invite the gantze mishpocha for the Seder and when to book seats for Kol Nidrei. It's no surprise that the first mitzvah our nation was given was to establish a calendar, because without one Jews can't be Jewish.
Seeing as the calendar is so central, the specific design of the calendar must carry a fundamental message for us. The Sun and Moon operate very differently. The Sun is predictable; constant. The Moon looks different every night. Some nights it is large and bright, others it is merely a sliver and there are times when we don't see it at all. The Hebrew word for month, chodesh, is derived from the root "chadash", meaning "new", because we start each month as the Moon starts its cycle afresh.
Life is a Sun/Moon mixture. Some things in life are like the Sun, constant and predictable, others are volatile.
A Jew is a Sun/Moon person. We are expected to have certain reliable Jewish commitments like davening and studying each day, eating kosher or wearing Tefillin. Such consistency keeps us Jewish. But, we also need inspiration and freshness from time to time- an awakening like the New Moon.
Yom Tov offers a chance for that kind of freshness. Yom Tov allows us to become excited again about our Judaism, to inject life into the cycle of observance that can simply become habit. Yom Tov is when we should be at Shul more than usual. It is time to study something we've never explored before. Yom Tov allows us the chance to get a fresh start on elements of our Judaism that may have become staid.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Got talent?

Do you have a talent? Can you juggle? Play a musical instrument? Were you perhaps one of those double-jointed kids who could bend your elbow and twist your tongue? 
 
Maybe your talent is in setting up cracker business deals or sharing empathy with people who have been traumatised. Each of us has talent, be it flashy or subtle, entertaining or uplifting. 
 
Society only celebrates talent once it hits the silver screen or the Top Ten. Idols Runner Up or Wimbledon Quarter Final Champion won't earn you a beeline to stardom. In a society where only the flashiest, fastest and funniest hit the Big Time, most people barely recognise the talents that they have.
 
Your athletic ability could win you a gold medal, your voice a Grammy or your brain a Nobel prize. But there is no major finger-prize for knitting. Besides, if there were one, what would we call it if? The Golden needles? The Yarnies?
 
Ah, but the Jews, only we would celebrate knitting. The Torah celebrates the skills of its crochet team. It's for good reason, though, what these women did has probably never been replicated. While the rest of the original Jews fashioned spectacular golden utensils and hammered together towering cedar boards, a group of needle-able women got to weaving the goat hair hangings that would cover the Mishkan. Nu, so they knitted goat's hair. Big deal. The catch is that they wove these tapestries before removing the hair from the goats. Weaving a tapesty on a moving target takes exceptional skill.
 
You must be wondering why these women chose the most inconvenient way imaginable to produce a tapestry. Their artwork would surely have looked just as good if it had been produced the conventional way. But, these ladies recognised that they had a unique talent, and they figured that if you have a talent, you should use it. Where better to use it, but in the service of G-d? After all, He's the one who had gifted them with this skill in the first place.
 
Like those proficient women of the Bible, each of us a unique talent. G-d gave it to us so that we would use it. And, once we're using it, it would only be right to use it also to serve His purpose, His temple and His people.
 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Living on the edge

Old-fashioned fashion isn't likely to catch your eye. It's even less likely that you'd imagine you could learn a life-lesson from ancient clothing.
Well, everything in the Torah is meant to be a lesson for us. If it had no take-home message, the Torah would not have mentioned it.
You have to wonder, then, what could you learn from the uniforms that the kohanim used to wear in the Temple. The whole Torah portion this week focuses on the four garments that a simple kohen wore and the eight that the high priest wore.
Big deal. I mean, you may find the blue tunic or sparkling breastplate interesting, but the real question remains: "Will knowing how long the kohen's belt was really make me a better person?"
Let's look at one item from the chief kohen's wardrobe and the real-life lesson that it shares. When the kohen gadol wore his special garments, he represented the entire Jewish people, not only as their spokesperson, but even by wearing clothes that represented different types of Jews. One garment that the kohen gadol had to wear was called the "me'il", a long blue cloak that had bells and pomegranates on its hem. The designs at the bottom of that cloak, millimetres off the ground, represent the Jews on the fringe- the disaffected, disenchanted and the disiniterested.
We may sometimes feel tempted to write off or criticise the Jews who are "empty" of Judaism. Yet, the Talmud insists that even the most "empty" Jew is full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds. The pomegranates dangling from the edge of the high priest's clothes remind us that there are no "empty" Jews- and that every Jew comes into the Holy of Holies somehow.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Don't stay out of trouble!

"Hey, at least I didn't do what HE did" or "Well, I haven't hurt anyone" or "It's not like I've joined another religion". Our minds procure a colourful range of explanations for why it's good enough to just do nothing wrong. When you live in a country with daily headlines about high-level corruption and violent crime, it becomes tempting to believe that you are good person simply because you haven't done much wrong.
I've often heard people use the argument- usually while trying to convince someone to become more religious- that a non-religious person is really quite religious, just without knowing it. "Have you served an idol today? Murdered anyone? Practiced witchcraft?" they'll say, following quickly with, "Nu, see how many mitzvos you already do!"
Life isn't really about how much depravation you dodge. We're meant to be proactive, to add light to the world, not only to avoid darkness.
Living a life of trouble-avoidance is a safe bet, but doesn't earn us much. G-d says that if we don't serve idols, He will bless us with goodness. You know how it is, sometimes blessings don't work, sometimes we don'teven see them when they hit us.
Dynamic doing good requires more focus and effort, but it reaps greater rewards. When talking about the active performance of mitzvos, G-dpromises us protection, health and succees. That's no longer just a blessing, that's an assurance from the one Being who you can rely upon to keep a promise.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Stop publishing matric results

The 2013 matric results were released today and were available in various newspapers and online. Perhaps in the 60's people need to scour the papers to discover their matric results. But, we're living in the 21st century, people, and there are now at least half a dozen tech-savvy, private ways to find your marks. I don't get why the tradition remains for the national papers to splash the names of every matriculant who made it. 

I finished Grade 12 before the age of SMS and websites, yet I remember feeling uncomfortable at having everyone's results published for all the yentas to see. It's not that I was afraid of people seeing my maths or history results, because I was headed to the rabbinate regardless. But, I winced at some of my peers having their "just passed" news broadcast for all to see.

In those days, I felt for the guys who weren't the academics, but would be judged against a yardstick that they weren't wired to achieve. Some of them graduated school mentsch cum laude, but there was no column in the papers for that.


Last week, I raised this issue on my radio show, in person and on social media. I fielded a wide spectrum of opinions- from those who feel that publishing marks motivates students (in that case, we should surely publish the results of medical and law school as well, no?) to those who felt it placed undue pressure on kids who aren't top academics. I'm with the second group. 

I have some serious reservations about the matric-mark-madness that steals front page news and radio headlines. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for celebrating achievement. Students who sweat blood for two years and crack top grades deserve their piece of limelight as much as their parents deserve the nachas. But, what about the kids who don't make it? And are marks the only measure of school achievement that we should celebrate?

Firstly, getting good marks doesn't guarantee that you've gained knowledge and much less so that you've learned invaluable skills like critical thinking. I know people who burned their textbooks after each exam, which made a clear statement that no school rote-learning would accompany them into adulthood. My matric class produced some great religious leaders, businessmen and even a rocket scientist. Most of us didn't use the matric syllabus to get us there. 

Last week, one fellow shared how he had failed an exam because his answers, although correct, didn't match the way they had been set out in the lecturer's notes. Now, there's a sound educational tactic.

I was schooled on the Talmudic model, which is open-season for questions and debates and nothing is so just because it says so. We were encouraged to challenge our teachers and spent most of the day studying in pairs, which means we argued over just about every line of the information we studied. We weren't taught information; we were taught thinking.

I'm afraid that making the goal at school the marks you get might undermine the point of education. If a student knows how to present the "required answers" (thanks to having worked on "past papers" and having been coached in answering styles that address "what the examiner is looking for"), we don't yet know whether or not the student knows how to use her brain.

And, even if we assume that the system does get the students to think, is that the end-goal of education?

Education that motivate youngsters to achieve good marks teaches them nothing at all. I have no doubt that there have been abusive husbands, dishonest stockbrokers and infamous criminals who achieved excellent marks at school. Schools are surely meant to cultivate minds, actually, cultivate people, not to push results. 

Education isn't intended for just for brains, but for humans. At the end of an educational process, the whole person should emerge improved, not only their intellect. Parents and teachers should partner to instill in children values, respect, tolerance and kindness at the same time that they share information with them. Schools that churn out academic stars who don't look up from their smartphones to greet their parents, have no clear definition of integrity and have not been trained to share with or tolerate others (like the less "smart" members of their own class) have failed.

I hope that next year sees the matric results limited to student-number-protected access on the Education Ministry's website. Let the papers find something else to sell in early January. And how refreshing it would be to have schools boast about graduates who have been personally enriched, who are socially responsible and balanced people, rather than just showcasing sharp-minds. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Card fraud

The text-notification from our bank immediately caught my eye. "No, I had not withdrawn cash from an ATM 30km from my house at midnight," I told the agent on the fraud hotline. 

Apparently the checkout-lady at a store my wife frequents decided to ring up her own end-of-year bonus by skimming some of the cards she had run. Most were probably credit cards, but ours is a debit card with a strict daily limit, thank G-d.

After a string of attempts at the ATM, the card thieves only managed to squeeze out petty cash from our account. I'm guessing they were frustrated at their meager-pickings, but stealing from a rabbi doesn't often net a large haul.

We had to immediately cancel our cards, and endure the process of getting new ones and changing PINs and passwords. 

Posting the incident on social media, I was horrified to discover just how many of my friends around the world have fallen prey to this kind of fraud. I have felt the sting of violent crime before, so I am relieved to have been passively relieved of my cash in this instance. 

What probably happened is: My wife was at the till, one staff helping her offload her groceries and re-pack them, the teller ringing up her purchases. In a blink, while my wife was duly distracted, the seasoned criminals must have zipped her card through a skimming device. 

Boom! Your card is cloned without you noticing anything untoward. 

Thank G-d, my bank texts transaction notifications. Thank G-d, I actually read the text that exposed the fraud, as soon as I received it. Overlooking that notification could have been an expensive error.

Minor life events often reveal insight into the bigger picture of life. And we always need to be alert to read the messages when they arrive.

Each of us comes to Life with a purpose to fulfill. As we go along, we're meant to stock up on goodness, kindness, study and personal growth and fill our soul's "bank account". Should we lose focus, for even a moment, we could lose much of what we've spent time achieving. There is no "stagnant" in life- if you pause from growing, you can expect to lose something.

Victims of card fraud (like the victims of any theft) often feel incensed at the injustice of how someone so easily nabbed your hard-earned cash. It's unfair that you should invest time and energy, only to have your earnings picked effortlessly by a miscreant.

It's not only money we have to work hard to achieve. We need to work at least as hard to develop our character and healthy traits, and to get in touch with our souls. It may be tempting to find someone we admire and just try to clone their attitudes, philosophies and ideals. We could regurgitate their sayings, mimic their gestures and lecture about their worldview. But, there is no value in copycat personal growth. The only meaningful way to develop into a better, more sensitive, more spiritual person is to slog through your own personal journey, with its victories and failures until you become the only person you are expected to be: You, at your best.