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...

Monday, December 21, 2015

My phone's not so smart... or is it?

I’ve been cut off from the world.

They tell me it’s temporary, but the last few days have felt like an eternity. I find it difficult to communicate. I have lost contact with hundreds of people.

I am isolated.

No news.

Can’t monitor your special moments in real-time. Even chatting with friends has become a burden.

My cell-phone is in for repairs.

Yes, they have given me a loan phone. My cynical side might call it a dumb-phone (as in the antithesis of smartphone). But, Its eight-day battery-life has earned it enough of my respect for me to fondly nickname it my “Chanukah phone”.

I had a phone like this once. In 1997.

To be fair, this phone can do more than just call and SMS. It has a calculator, a flashlight and even a selection of two-dimensional games. I’m sticking with calls for now, because typing messages on that push-the-button-three-times-to-type-a-letter system is agonizing. 

One plus is that this phone has no auto-text. I haven’t messaged anyone “Good Shabby” or signed off as “rabbit”. But, I have no Whatsapp, no social media and I have to wait until I get home to read my emails.

Truthfully, it’s a good time of year to have this inconvenience. December is summer vacation time, and being technologically incapacitated should be quite restful.

On the first day one of this loan-phone adventure, I habitually checked that device every five minutes to make sure it was still operational. A phone as quiet as that thing was had to be comatose, if at all alive.

As the day advanced, I began to enjoy the absence of beeps and jingles. I spoke to my children with no electronic interference. I made it through a full Shul service without checking for messages and spoke to people while making eye-contact (I think it made them uncomfortable). I felt no pressure to avoid opening any app that might betray my having seen a message without responding immediately. I may not have made it to Cape Town, but I was in full holiday mode.

By day two, dim memories of life pre-technology started to surface. Now foreign experiences, like summer evening walks, Monopoly games and researching information in books floated back. Life started to feel a little slower, a little quieter. 

I could get used to this!

My imagination tempted me with the promise of family fun, longer study sessions and spare time in the diary. Maybe I could simply not collect my smartphone when the service centre called. If I kept this magically non-invasive phone, surely they could sell my S6 Edge to defray costs.

But, then I realized the phone may have gone quiet, but that didn’t mean I had fewer interactions to manage. People had sent just as many queries, I just hadn't received them. Who knows? There are probably more than a few disgruntled people who think I am ignoring them. My “kosher” phone, as the frum world call it, is a great escape, but it isn't practical for 21st Century rabbinics.

Now, you can always find guidance and wisdom in the weekly Torah reading. My phone escapade coincided with the portion about Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was a smartphone person, his siblings more the "kosher phone" type. 

Joseph’s siblings advocated the simple life. As shepherds, they steered clear of the distractions of society. Joseph, to their dismay, dived right into the thick of the modern world. His brothers were certain nobody could retain their spiritual integrity while living in the hub of civilization. 

Joseph proved them wrong. Not only did he successfully enter the modern world, he rose to prominence and raised a spiritually-sound family to boot.

Years earlier, Joseph had predicted that his brothers would eventually come around to his approach. They had balked at the prospect. Today, Judaism is modeled after Joseph's approach; a spiritual path that engages- and shapes- the world.

That non-invasive simple-phone is very attractive, but my smartphone allows me to reach and touch the world. And to hopefully make a positive impact.

That said, my current techno go-slow is a good reminder that all-consuming connectivity is unhealthy. You can only influence the world if you are in the driver’s seat. Joseph shaped the world from a position of power. You only make a difference when you control the technology, not when you are controlled by it. And to stay in control, you need to be able to completely disengage regularly and reconnect with ancient, bedrock values. 

I’m looking forward to getting my slick, connected phone back, so I can easily interact with the world out there. But, if I don’t get back to you immediately or if I’m not the fastest to like or retweet your content, that’s because my time with my “Chanukah” phone has reminded me that switching off during family, social, study or spiritual time is more valuable than being virtually present all day.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Nkandla and the Nazir

This week's Torah reading includes, inter-alia, the laws of the Nazir and the Sotah, two seemingly unrelated personas. A Sotah is a woman who has compromised Kiddushin, the sanctity of her marriage, for lust. Infidelity is more than breaking the trust of one's life-partner, it is an affront to G-d and our own innate hto oliness. 
A Nazir is the complete opposite. He or she is someone who shuns pleasure in order to strengthen a connection with G-d. A Nazir wants to be kadosh, holy and focused.
You'll agree that these two characters are polar opposite, so it is surprising that the Torah desrcibes them one after the other. Why the link? The Talmud says that, if you see someone fall into temptation, like a Sotah, you should abstain from wine, like a Nazir.
In other words, if you see someone else fail, take precautions to ensure you remain beyond reproach.
It is a great lesson, but you have to wonder: Surely, someone who is inclined to take an oath of dedication to G-d is a long stretch from someone who commits adultery. Why the need for an immediate (and drastic) response to someone else's weakness?
Many ugly things happen in society. Thankfully, we remain unaware of most of them. But, when we a scandal catches our eye, we shouldn't just use it as Friday night table content, we should recognize that Hashem is messaging us. When He makes us aware of someone else's wrongdoing, He actually holds a mirror up for us to examine our own weaknesses.
Nkandla has many South Africans, including many of our own community seething; possibly with good reason. How can anyone justify throwing enormous amounts of money away on elaborate entertainment facilites and then claim that these are home essentials? It's obscene.
But, it makes me think of our "keep up with the Cohens" barmis, batties and weddings. South Africa has not yet seen a barmi with a "fire pool" or a battie at a kraal. But, I think we've lost our way pumping big budget into eye-catching decor and outfits, top of the line catering and specialist entertainers. And we've convinced ourselves that all the glitz is a "simcha essential". We can armchair critique the president's spend on his home and become frustrated. We could choose, rather, to rethink our own simcha expenditure and become modest and focused.
I wish for the day when people scale down their simchos, give their children a heimish celebration and share some of the savings with those who can't afford their own celebration. It would even make sense to share the saving with the newlyweds themselves to help them set up their first home. For now, I'm afraid, our whitewash teams will spin a tale on why "my child can't be the only one to have a simple celebration" and the bills will keep growing.