Sunday, July 23, 2017

New blog

I've just launched a new blog at Times of Israel.

Please take a look:

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Apparently, our daughter wasn't born


Believe it or not, we were summoned back to Home Affairs today (that's after a few hours' long runaround last week).

I received an SMS asking us to provide supporting documents for our daughter's unabridged birth certificate application. I found that strange. We've applied for unabridged birth certificates for our kids a few times before and have never before needed to provide any supporting docs.

Well, today, they wanted us to prove that she was born.

That's right. They wanted me to prove that the fourteen-year-old girl, standing in front of them holding her regular birth certificate, had been born.

Home Affairs has her ID number on record, which implies that she exists, but no copy of registration of her birth, which implies she wasn't born.

Our family may have one up on the Immaculate Conception.

My wife and I tried reasoning with the officials that we were holding both her abridged birth certificate and the old "full" birth certificate (which is not the same, you should know, as an unabridged birth certificate, because it is handwritten, not computer-generated). To my mind,that should have proven that she was born.

Apparently not.

You should have seen our daughter's face I informed on the way home from school that she exists, but wasn't necessarily born. I'm not sure if she felt special or simply confused...

This week's Parsha describes the Exodus. Jews existed before leaving Egypt. Then we were twelve tribes, usually called the "Bnei (Children of) Israel".

Yet, the prophet Ezekiel notes that, only once we left Egypt, were we "born". You may wonder how a nation can exist, yet not be born. Consider that a baby exists for nine months before being born. During that time, the fetus is well nourished and secure, but unable to function independently. An unborn baby cannot make a difference in the world- and the entire reason we were put here is to make a difference.

Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew) is a state of being. As long as a person doesn't push past their comfort zone and take risks to make the world a better place, they are enslaved by the can't-do mentality of Egypt.

One step into the unknown; one the brave leap into making change equals birth.

Many people exist. A Jew has to constantly be reborn.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Marriage: A tribute

We once asked my grandmother what she believed was the secret to a long, happy marriage. My grandparents were then married sixty years. They went on to enjoy a further eight years of bliss, before passing away this year, within a short three months of each other.

Hollywood sells love as an emotional tsunami and marriage as its natural consequence. Airbrushed on-screen couples who fall in love in a flash and then ride off into a passionate flawless forever have become the fantasy models of many modern couples. Ever hear a groom croon in his wedding speech how he “can’t wait to spend the rest of his life with his bride”? Couples gush how they each “complete each other” and imagine that their rose-tinted view of themselves will endure. 

Sadly, when things don’t pan out in HD glossy technicolour, too many couples rush to the divorce courts, intern in therapy and mould a new “me” to market to their next prospective partner.

My grandparents lived in a different matrix. They were wholly different to each other. She was educated, dignified and prudent, and would update her Oxford dictionary for kicks. He was street-smart, a maverick, who shot from the hip- and he couldn’t spell. No, they did not always see eye to eye. Yes, she did roll her eyes at his intrepid escapades. Of course, they loved each other, deeply.

But theirs wasn’t a gushing public romance, nor was it today’s popular quid pro quo approach of “fulfilling my needs”.

My gran’s secret to a successful marriage was simple: “When you stand under the chupah, you need to realize you’re in it for the long haul.”

Thank G-d, I was blessed to grow up watching a couple who knew that for a relationship to work, you each have to work. Hard. Couples would do well to trade in Silver Screen romance for such real- life role models.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The ultimate summary of everything

You've certainly heard the story, because everyone knows this story. It's the one about the prospective convert who wanted to be taught the entire Torah as he balanced on one foot. Now, that really is an unreasonable expectation. Torah is vast. We have 613 laws, each comprised of reams of details, plus all the philosophy and mysticism, not to mention the history contained in the Torah. Who could reasonably expect that any sage, regardless how talented, could precis that into a 60 second presentation?

The hyper-methodical scholar Shammai showed this presumptuous guest the door. He felt it an insult to Judaism to suggest that it could be whittled down into Dummies form.
But, as we all know, the persistent fellow strode down the street to the next Yeshivah and presented his challenge to the famed Hillel. Hillel was not only patient in his response, he was incisive.

"What you would hate done to you, don't do to others. The rest is commentary".

Hillel's response has been regularly quoted by Jews, misquoted by others and even edited into a core value of other religions. His is a beautiful and uplifting message about how to treat other people.

And it's wholly confusing at the same time.

How could Hillel suggest that the entire Torah is a commentary on social conduct? How does putting up a mezuzah, salting meat before eating it or wearing tzitzis help you understand how to treat people?

Hillel's point, and why it captures the essence of Judaism so perfectly, is that the way we treat people reflects how we see the world. If our worldview is focused on what meets the eye, we struggle to treat others well. When our perspective matures to see beyond the obvious, we find the tools to respect everyone.

Humans by default only see the obvious; the physical. When we look at each other, we read faces, hairstyles, fashion and a little body language. We typically miss emotion, potential and, almost always, spiritual greatness.

Torah's lifestyle is designed to tune us in to experiencing what lies beyond the surface. If a piece of parchment can become a conduit for Divine blessing, kosher meat a vehicle for spiritual connection and wool a garment of G-dly protection, then a person can become a beacon of light and an expression of G-d.

As we do more mitzvos and study more Torah, we become more aware of the value of the spiritual and the depth of the soul. This helps us see the next person not as a separate being who might steal my opportunities, interfere with my dreams or make demands on my time. Instead, I see others as souls masquerading as bodies. I appreciate that all souls are connected and the way I treat that person is effectively the way I treat myself.

Hillel encapsulated the two vital signs of healthy Judaism into one statement: You will only treat others properly if you pursue G-d's life-plan. And you only succeed at following G-d's programme when you see that you treat others altogether better.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

There are only two kinds of Jews...

We're about to celebrate Pesach. That's when the Jews left Egypt. 

All of them. 

Well, actually, only 20% of the Israelites made it out. A full 80% remained behind and perished in Egypt. 

Shh, don't tell anyone.We prefer to keep this uncomfortable info "in the tribe".

Who would have imagined that Moses would have such a poor response to his "Let My People Go"? We get it that Pharaoh didn't get it, but you'd think the Israelites would have jumped at the chance to join a leader who could turn the Nile to blood and shut off the Sun for a week. Moses should have had a cult following. 

It's the old 80/20 rule and it offers a stark insight into our people. 

There are only two kinds of Jews: Those who leave Egypt and those who don't. Pesach challenges us to confront which kind of Jew we are. 

Egypt represents every bad habit that we can't seem to shake and every unhealthy mindset we have cemented over time. Pharaoh's voice reverberates in ours head as self-doubt. We want to break out and shift gears, but we find it easier to flop back into the well-trodden path of past mistakes. 

There are only two kinds of Jews: Those who break out and those who don't.

No Moses, regardless of how compelling his presentation is, can rescue us from Egypt. Moses cannot make us let go. He can show us opportunity, he can redirect our focus, but only we can take the daunting step to change. Moses cannot take anyone out of Egypt until they are ready to leave. 

There are only two kinds of Jews: Those who take a step to leave Egypt and those who wistfully plan to one day leaving Egypt, when the circumstances are favourable. 

We can only flee Egypt when we recognize that only we can take us out of Egypt. 

In truth, there is actually only one kind of Jew. 

Jacob's great-grandchildren who lived in Egypt were not yet Jewish. Jews only came about once the Torah had been given, which was only to happen after the Exodus. Those Israelites who remained in Egypt were genetically linked to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but could choose to opt out of their spiritual connection to their ancestors. 

Most did opt out. They never became Jewish. 

Every single Jew left Egypt. Had they not left Egypt, they would not have stood at Sinai and would not have become Jews. 

Every Jew leaves Egypt. Nobody gets stuck. 

Pesach reminds us that it is our destiny to escape. Pesach challenges us to make the inevitable move sooner, rather than later. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Did you get my message?

We are so busy, just so very busy.
Psychologists now even have a term for it. They say we suffer from "time poverty". In English, that means that we don't believe we have enough time to accommodate all the things that we want to do. 
Ironic, isn't it? In the 30's they predicted that by now we'd only work about three hours a day, because technology would take care of the rest. As right as they were, they were wrong. Technology swallows up the spare time that technology was meant to provide. 
So, we're all really hectic. That hectic that we may miss breakfast. So insane that we can't even reply to each other's messages. 
At least, I assume that's the reason so few people respond to each other. It surely can't be because people are outright rude, so it must be because we're all so busy.
The thing is, it feels disrespectful to the person on the other side of the Whatsapp. If they can tell that you're online or have read their message, and they get no response, they will be obviously feel offended. Someone captured it perfectly online: "It is easy to say 'busy' when someone needs you, but it is painful to hear 'busy' when you need someone".
Hillel used to say, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary". 
The great irony is that it's really easy to get back to people nowadays. We no longer have to compose a handwritten letter and mail it. We don't even need to allocate time for a full phone conversation to communicate. Shooting off a text response takes just seconds. Yet, in the days of snail mail and rotary phones, people managed to stay in touch better than we techno-whizzes do today.
Twenty seconds of text-response can go a long way to building relationships. 
I'm not suggesting that we should drop everything to hit reply as each new message arrives. That is simply impractical. Anybody who expects us to be thumbs-at-the-ready to respond on the spot is out of touch.
But, no response? No excuse.
I am reminded of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that says that you only enjoy honour when you afford honour to others. Profound idea.
Ah, but maybe not every message needs a response. What if the person already knows what I think or that I have confirmed our meeting? Do I need to respond then too?
Here, we can take a page from Moshe's book. 
In this week's Parsha, Moshe is charged with coordinating the three days of preparation before receiving the Torah. In that time, Moshe had to shuttle back and forth from the Jews at the foot of the mountain to G-d at the top. He had to guide the Jews on the steps they needed to make before G-d would reveal Himself. He had to cordon off the entire mountain. He had to shimmy up the mountain for updated details from Hashem on the nuances of the preparation. And he had to gear himself spiritually to handle the biggest Divine event since Creation.
Now Moshe could well have had an excuse not to respond to messages until after all the chaos. He certainly didn't have to report to G-d, because G-d knows everything. 
Nonetheless, the Torah reports that Moshe made the trip up the mountain (pity he didn't have Whatsapp) to let G-d know that the Jews were preparing as instructed and that everything was on course for the Great Reveal.
Rashi, the Ramban and other commentators ask why Moshe stressed so much to personally communicate this information to G-d. After all, he would only be telling G-d things He already knew.
They conclude that Moshe wanted to model the importance of communication. He wanted us to appreciate that it's only right to get back to someone who has communicated with you, even if they already know your answer.
If Moshe felt he should return G-d's messages, we should do the same for each other. 
Hope you got my message...