Saturday, August 26, 2006

Upgrade your security

One thing about living in Johannesburg, is that we all know about security. High walls, electric fences and armed response have all become part of “normal” Joburg life.

What’s interesting is that, centuries ago, ancient Jewish towns had similar security systems in place. Even more interesting is that these safety measures were mandatory. “Shoftim ve’Shotrim”, the Torah instructs us to place judges and policeman at all “your” gates, meaning those of every Jewish city.

On closer inspection, though, it turns out that regular security is the easy part. “Your gates” also refers to the entry points to a human being- your eyes, ears and mouth.

It’s relatively easy to identify who shouldn’t enter your property- and to keep them out. It’s a real challenge to decide what doesn’t belong in your head- and even more challenging to keep it out.

This is why it’s no accident that we read this parsha just as the month of Elul begins. Elul is a time for a little more spiritual caution than usual. Rosh Hashana is just around the corner and it’s time to get into gear.

For the next 30 days, we should be vigilant about the sort of things we let ourselves see (not every TV show carries the Beth Din stamp), hear (avoid “did-you-hear” stories) and eat (30 days dedication to kashrut can’t hurt).

I sincerely believe that when we enter Rosh Hashanah more spiritually secure than usual, Hashem will gladly bless us with personal security for the coming year.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dating- a dangerous game?

The advisory on dating should read: "WARNING- DATING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP".

Nowadays, we spend longer than ever "getting to know each other" before settling into a long-term commitment (a.k.a. the M-word). Our liberal thinking encourages us to be open in and about our relationships. We have access to a wealth of articles, books, websites and TV shows that deal with relationships.

Yet, we see a particularly poor success rate. Break-ups are the norm and divorce rates have skyrocketed.

You know what they say, "If it isn't working- try something else".

Luckily, as Jews, we have access to methods that have stood the test of time. We are fortunate to have guidance on how to build a meaningful relationship, without much of the hurt and confusion that accompanies the conventional dating process.

Imagine you had some money and wanted to find someone with business experience to partner with on a new venture. Would you choose a partner suggested by your great-aunt (Boy, do I have a business partner for you...) and see if it develops into anything serious?

Would you ask a fellow to come over and fix your PC because you “spotted him at a bar after a few drinks and “he looked really nerdy”?

Many people think more carefully before signing a cell-phone rental contract than they do before investing time and emotion in a potential life's partner.

Why? People have a strong impulse to seek a partner. Evolutionists will tell you that it’s survival instinct. Judaism says otherwise.

Have you ever wondered why G-d first created Adam and then made Eve from his “rib”? Surely, the All-powerful could have just created a human couple, as He made male and female versions of every other living species.

G-d wanted us to realize that without a partner, we’re missing an intrinsic part of who we are. This creates the urgency within humans to find our “missing” part. Subconsciously, we feel anxious to find this “missing part” and we might jump at every “suggestion”, “phone number” or “good looking person” we encounter.

Choosing your life's partner is probably the biggest decision you'll ever make. It’s serious business, and a casual approach is counter-productive. You need to devise a dating-strategy and minimise your personal investment until you know that this is something worth pursuing.

So, here are a few pointers for a spiritual dating strategy:

1) Get serious. Appreciate how important this process is, and treat it with the proper respect. You'll have plenty of opportunity to enjoy life; don't compromise long-term happiness with "fun".

2) Research. Discreetly, find out some objective information about the prospective guy/girl. Do they share similar ideologies with you? What's their family like? What do their friends say about them? Are they ready to settle down?

3) Use your head. Feelings can be really tricky. People often tell me how they feel that everything is "right" about their partner, but they don't have "strong feelings". You may have had an expectation of what you would feel when you found the right person. Now, you're worried, because you're not feeling that way. Don't panic. Use your head and assess: Are the values and character traits that I'm looking for there? Is there a good reason I should not pursue this relationship?
Then make an objective, thought-through decision.

4) Look for guidance. Often, the problem is that your head is just as muddled as your heart. Find someone you respect and can trust, who knows you well and who has more experience than you do. Use that person as a sounding board to see if your fears/ expectations/ excitement are justified.
An objective opinion is very reassuring when you are caught up in the blur of emotion.

5) Connect to your soul. If you're working on discovering your soul mate, make sure that your soul is in gear. Judaism believes that marriage reunites two parts of a single soul. The more in touch you are with your soul, the easier it will be to detect your other half. Spiritual dating includes being extra focused on prayer, torah study and doing mitzvos during the dating period.

Of course, you can never "go it alone" anyway. An additional bit of Torah, prayer or mitzvah observance gets Hashem on your side. Then dating becomes advantageous to your relationship.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is your relationship "looking up"?

Yesterday was "Tu B'Av", a day long associated in Jewish tradition with matchmaking and marriage.

The Mishna describes how the day was celebrated in days of olde:

On this day, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out, dance in the vineyards and look for suitors.

They would say: "Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for

What would the beautiful ones among them say? "Look for beauty, for a woman is for beauty."

What would those of prestigious lineage say? "Look for family, for a woman is for children."

What would the ugly ones say? "Make your acquisition for the sake of Heaven, as long as you decorate us with jewels"

Besides story-telling, the Talmud wants to teach what the primary ingredients for a successful marriage are.

1) "Raise your eyes", the dancing maidens call out. Your first step to building a successful relationship is to "lift your eyes"- to change perspective. People tend to be attracted to physical appearance, money or self-serving interests in a relationship. So, the wise girls of Jerusalem remind us, "Lift your eyes" and look for lasting and meaningful values and traits in your partner.
2) The beautiful girls suggest that "a woman is for beauty". Judaism doesn't buy into the glossy magazine or Hollywood version of beauty. Not to say that looks are unimportant, but they're not the make-it-or-break-it of relationships.

True beauty, according to Jewish mysticism, is spiritual beauty. Someone who is a mentsch, a good person who exudes kindness and good traits, is called beautiful. Physical beauty may fade, spiritual beauty will mature.

For the single looking to marry, the first thing to look for is "beauty"- is the person a mentsch?

For the married couple, to test if your marriage is headed in the right direction, ask yourselves "Are we making each other more beautiful- more mentsch-like?". A good marriage breeds personal development in both parties.

3) Family. Unquestionably, Judaism places a premium on family and children. We all want the best for our children, in fact, we'd like them to be even better than we are. I often encounter couples who are not very religious but want their children to have a religious education.

Children need a family environment that supports the theoretical messages that their parents and (parents' choice of) teachers preach. Even before the children arrive on the scene, a couple needs to ensure that the family that they envisage and the values that they aspire towards, are already being developed.

4) The "ugly". Every marriage has its ugly moments- stress, arguments, challenges. The real test of a marriage depends on how successfully a couple deals with its "ugly" moments.

Here the Talmud tells us, "Marry for the sake of heaven". Sound like a tall order? Almost like "close your eyes and accept what comes your way"?

Actually, it's the most solid marriage advice anyone could ask for.

When the going gets tough and a couple gets caught up in the cycle of accusation, guilt and blame, they need to remember to "marry for the sake of heaven".

Simply put: When you feel the urge to "have the last word" or "just put the record straight", remember that this is not about "me" vs. "you", it's about "our" marriage, which is larger than both of us. It's not a matter of being "right", it's a matter of keeping the marriage alive and growing.

Instead of basing your retort on what you "have to say", stop for a moment and consider "is this next move/remark/retort going to be good for our marriage". If it isn't, keep quiet.

When you and your partner master this skill, you are well on your way to happiness.

And to master this skill, you need to raise your eyes.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

What goes down must come up

It's that time of the year here in the Southern Hemisphere when we start looking for the first signs of spring. Johannesburg winters are relatively mild, but we prefer the "Sunny South Africa" experience.

Sure enough, the first buds and blossoms appeared a few days ago and the temperatures began to rise. "Spring's here", we all thought, "and, thankfully, it wasn't even such a cold winter".

Then, out of the blue, the mercury dropped suddenly and we were hit with a freezing Tisha B'Av (admittedly, making the fast a little easier...).

It was icy and bitter and thoughts of Spring were placed on hold- not dissolved, just postponed. In a country that's warm for some 300 days a year we know that "when the mercury goes down, it must come up".

Quite apt for this time of the year.

Tisha B'Av marks the lowest point on the Jewish calendar, the day when we commemorate all the terrible things that have affected our nation over time. It's the Jewish national "down in the dumps" day.

But we don't get stuck there. Just a few days after Tisha B'Av, we celebrate Tu B'Av, a day the Talmud designates as one of the two happiest days on the Jewish calendar.

This is the "Yeridah tzorech aliyah" principle, or "whatever goes down must come up". Judaism believes that every fall prepares us for a greater rise. Every failure is the fertilizing of new achievement; every difficult time, the making of a new miracle.

It's more poignant this year, with Israel fighting for its life during this period of national mourning. Some people may have read that as bad news (G-d forbid) - "Tisha B'Av" 2006. Please G-d, we hope it's really just a short-term downer that will be the catalyst for a surge of good, peace and security in our Holy Land and its surrounds.

What an amazing people we are

Here's a really nice article that someone sent me the other day. Kiryat Shmona is one of the towns in Israel hardest hit by Katyusha rockets.

Kiryat Shmona's 'finest hour'

"One day," said Motti Avraham, owner of the Mor Minimarket near the southern entrance to the city, "two elderly men walked into my store. I could tell they were from Jerusalem by their accents. One of them asked me if I sold on credit. I said I did. Then he asked me whether some of my clients were poor. I said they were.
"He told me to take out my list of people who owed and mark those who were poor. After I did that, he turned to the other man and said, 'Take it out.' The other man took out a wad of crisp NIS 200 bills. He then began to give me NIS 300 for each of the people I had ticked off and told me to deduct the money from their debt.
"I asked them who they were. They replied, 'What difference does that make?' Then I asked them to at least give me their phone numbers so that their beneficiaries could thank them. They replied that the greatest mitzvah is when the donor does not know whom he has given to."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The truth about Israel

Just come across an interesting site with a spiritual take on Israel, based on classical Jewish sources and primarily the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.