Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bring our sons back

We had a very moving presentation last night at the weekly shiur from Gadi Goldwasser. Gadi's older brother, Ehud, was kidnapped on the Israel-Lebanon border by Hizbullah terrorists on July 12th.

To date, the family still have no idea of his- or his colleagues'- whereabouts and state of health.

Please take a moment and add your voice, in prayer and in petition, to the call for their unconditional safe return.

Visit www.habanim.org for details and to participate.

May we see the return of all Israel's missing children very soon.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


While the story of Noach and the Flood clearly takes centre stage in the Torah reading this week (it’s probably one of the best-known Bible stories), there’s another significant story that we tend to overlook.

The Torah describes how, not long after the devastation of the Flood, people united to rebuild the world. They all gathered in a valley- in what would today be Iraq- and started an ambitious construction project. “Let us build a city, with a tower reaching the Heavens”, they declared.

I suppose, theirs would be a logical response to a post-destruction generation. Build a secure environment where you can be protected and not face the annihilation that others had before. Surely we should applaud their efforts to rebuild the world, to rise from the ashes (or perhaps, in this case, the mud).

Yet, Hashem was not pleased with these people and their project. He “came down” to observe what was happening and immediately intervened. He didn’t destroy the people, mind you, just the project. Where there had been unity and collaboration, Hashem created division. He seprated them into 70 groups, each with its own language and culture. The resulting mayhem brought the building of the Tower of Babel to a grounding halt.

What had they done wrong?

When you re-read the story, you’ll discover that their motivation for building the tower was “to make a name for ourselves”.

They still had fresh memories of a depraved generation; people bad enough that Hashem needed to destroy them. Their own focus should have been on building morality. Instead, they chose to create a legacy for themselves.

The Torah is a lesson book for our lives. Here the message is particularly relevant to us. As a post-Holocaust generation, we feel the urge to make a name for ourselves, to show the world that we are secure in our land and nationhood, so they shouldn’t think they can attack us.

Instead, Torah teaches that our most appropriate response is to create a “city for Hashem”. Rather than invest our efforts in rebuilding material structures, we need to work to build spirituality, morality and ethics. This approach forms the foundation for a successful, stable world.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Can you trust a woman?

We've just read the story of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the forbidden fruit. G-d chastises Adam for having eaten transgressed His command and Adam replies: "She made me do it!"

For many people, the Torah portrays Eve (and all women) as fickle and gullible and dragging men down with them in their dodgy exploits.

You'd be surprised then to see how G-d instructed Moses to deal with teaching Torah to the people. At Mt. Sinai, G-d tells him to address the women first.

The Zohar, Judaism's fundamental Kabbalistic work, makes a startling observation about this. When G-d gave his first commandment to people, He addressed the man in the story and relied on him to convey the message to the woman.

It didn't work.

While G-d had said don't eat from the tree, Adam felt he needed to tell his wife not to touch the tree. It was to be a disastrous precaution. The snake pushed Eve against the tree saying "You see, you touched it and didn't die; if you eat it's fruit, you won't die either". We all know what happened next.

So, when it came to entrusting humans with His Divine plan for the world, G-d told Moses to instruct the women first.

G-d says: "If the women have the facts, I can rely on them to keep the men on track too".


Freshly inspired by the special period of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos and Simchas Torah, we read the first portion of the Torah- Bereishis.

Chassidim say that Shabbos Bereishis sets the tone for the New Year. It’s really the first “normal” Shabbos of the year and the opportunity to translate the upliftment of the Yom Tov season into real life.

Which is why it makes sense to read the story of Creation at this time. We are in the process of re-creating our world for another year, full of promise and possibility. The story of G-d’s original Creation should provide a good model for us to emulate.

What does not make sense is why we start the year- and the translation of inspiration into action- by reading a story of dramatic human failure.

Here is the story of the first human, created by G-d’s own hand and imbued with the greatest sense of Divine inspiration. G-d gave this archetypal man a single instruction: “Do whatever you want, just don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge”. Our Sages understand that, after a mere three hours, Shabbos would have entered and the prohibition would have lapsed.

Adam failed.

What message does that give us? Adam was fashioned by Hashem’s own hand. He had an acute awareness of G-d at all times and received just one, short-term instruction straight from the Divine. Yet, knowing the dire consequences of his actions, he still messed up!

We are simple people. We don’t talk to G-d on a regular basis, and certainly don’t have Him talk to us too often. We have a long list of time-consuming and often inconvenient observances to follow. Our negative voice lives comfortably inside and appears far more alluring than Adam’s serpent did. Do we have any chance of not failing?

Why does the Torah begin with such a depressing message?

Nobody’s perfect

We all make mistakes and we hate them. Some of us get depressed over our failures. This might be because we take ourselves too seriously. We expect perfection of ourselves; when we behave less than perfectly, instead of realizing that we have failed, we think we are a failure.

That is precisely what Hashem wants us to know from the outset: He designed humans to fail. We will fail more often than we succeed.

And that’s ok.

Had Hashem wanted a perfect world, He would have stopped creating after He made the angels. Angels and perfection are not the goal of Life, though. He wants humans, He wants our foibles and weaknesses; our failures and mistakes. He loves us for our mess-ups.

More importantly, He’s designed us to achieve real growth out of error. In Torah terms, we call that yeridah tzorech aliyah or descent for the sake of ascent. In simple terms, sometimes you have to go backwards to be able to go forward.

As we get a fresh start on a new year, Torah wants us to know that the only real failure is if you get stuck in failure. The moment you grow from a negative experience, you fulfill the ultimate purpose for which humans were created- to transform adversity and darkness into success and light.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Getting drunk this Simchas Torah? Not!

Hopefully you're ready for the Simchas Torah marathon...

Not the drinking endurance-challenge, though. Yes, I know many people think that "getting shikker" is the mitzvah of the day (every year, I get the post-Yom Tov boasts of which shul had the most "casualties"). And yes, you do need a lechaim or two to get you going, but that's not the focus of Simchas

Simchas Torah is about losing yourself in unmitigated joy, dancing and celebration. You should dance so hard that you lose all sense of who's watching, what they're thinking, what time it is or how tired you may be.

Most of us find it easier to sit in shul for hours while fasting, than to experience the reckless abandon of true simcha. It certainly looks more spiritually valuable to sit and pray than it does to spin around in circles.

Wanna know the truth? That's exactly the point.

Powerful spiritual experiences don't make sense. Souls don't make sense. When your soul talks, your mind goes quiet.

Simchas Torah is one of the unique times of year when the deepest point of our souls comes to life. It overrides our rational voice and gives us access to absolute joy- even if our mind insists that we cannot be happy.

People who overdo the drinking don't stand a chance of achieving this deeply spiritual experience- they're simply knocked out of commission.

What we should do is take the Simchas Torah challenge: To let go of who we imagine ourselves to be and what we feel is wrong in our lives, and to be happy.

When we're joyous for no particular reason, other than that Hashem commands us to be, He smiles down at us and says "Now, I will give you reason to be joyous throughout the coming year".

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What you (don't) need to be happy

Happy Sukkos!

Have you ever wondered about it? It really doesn't seem to make sense.

For 7 days, we effectively move out of home and take up residence in a makeshift booth. During the day, it's swelteringly hot and at night chilly-to-cold or rainy. In the northern hemisphere, it's freezing.

So here's what seems to make no sense: The Yom Tov that's celebrated by scooping palm bits from your drink and swatting flies/bees/mozzies, while balancing on a rock-hard plastic chair that's teetering on an uneven floor- is called the festival of our rejoicing.

Wouldn't it have made more sense to reserve this title for Pesach, when you recline on a plump cushion and have someone else pour your drink?

How can the Torah expect us to leave our creature comforts and still be happy? Not just happy- the Torah says this is the festival when we must be happy 24/7 for 7 days (Ach Sameach in the original Hebrew).

Well actually, that's the point.

We have been convinced by TV talk-shows, glossy magazines, therapists and retailers that "if we have _____", we will be happy. It's a fundamentally wrong attitude.

Torah wants us to realize- and to experience first hand for one week a year- that you don't need anything to be really happy. In fact, you could be totally happy in a rickety home, exposed to the elements- secure in the knowledge that Hashem is looking after you and looking out for you.