Friday, November 30, 2007

The "Long-short" way

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: "Once a child got the better of me."

"I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'which way to the city?' and he answered: 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.'

"I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?

' Answered the child: 'Did I not tell you that it is also long?'"

(Talmud, Eruvin 53b)

Spiritual growth also has a "short but long" way and a "long but short" way.

The “short-long” route is the “snappy answers to stupid questions” approach. In other words, you ask a good question and receive a quick answer. The answer is suave and impressive and you’re pleased. Later, when you think it over, you realize you still have some unresolved issues with this answer. So, you’re left with a decent answer, but you still have some questions.

The “long-short” approach requires more patience- and trust. You ask the question and, instead of hearing an answer, are directed to study something seemingly unrelated. That discussion leads you to another tangent, which takes you to a third, entirely unrelated concept. Along the way, you muse that this is all very interesting, but how does it answer the question?

In an instant, everything clicks and you realize that, in light of the new perspective all this information has afforded you, you actually have no question at all.

Chassidus is the “longer-shorter” route to spiritual growth.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hang on G-d, I'll be with you in a minute

Picture the scene: You’re sitting at home on a hot summer’s day and Hashem Himself drops in to say “hi”. Every second you share with the Ultimate Guest is obviously precious, and you’d savour the experience (after you recover from the initial shock, of course).

As you sit there, basking in The Light and being inspired, you notice some scruffy passers-by. They might be looking for a handout or simply passing through the neighbourhood, it’s difficult to tell. What do you do?

Me? I’d quickly conclude that if they needed my help, they’d knock on my door. Meanwhile, I’d pay attention to what G-d has to say. After all, if He made the effort to come see me, it must be rather important.

It’s strange, then, to note the story of history’s first Jew, our Patriarch Abraham, in exactly that situation. Only, he didn’t react quite the way we would. He stopped G-d “mid-sentence” and ran off to invite three sandy desert-farers in for a meal.

Imagine that? “Just a second G-d, I have business to attend to…”

Apparently, G-d wasn’t put out by this show of chutzpah. In fact, He was quite pleased. According to the Talmud, He wanted Abraham to illustrate an essential Jewish teaching- that taking in guests is more valuable than a face-to-face with G-d.

You may recall how the sage, Hillel summarised the entire Torah for a would-be convert. To paraphrase, he said: “How you treat your fellow Jew is the litmus test of your spiritual progress”.

People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that you’re really “frum” when you hang out with G-d- at Shul, while studying or by being scrupulous about Mitzvah observance. That may be true, but when looking G-d in the eye makes you miss seeing people in distress, you’re missing the point.

Judaism, by definition, must translate into treating the next person with care, sensitivity and empathy.

And you know you’re doing it right, if you’d rather be shmoozing with Hashem.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Green & Gold

On my way to drop kids at school this morning, I noticed people driving to work wearing “Bokke” shirts. I saw Joburg’s notorious intersection-entrepreneurs peddling SA flags in place of their usual wire ornaments, cell-phone chargers and garbage bags. Flags flapped from office windows, passing cars and people’s homes. Every newspaper headline carried a “Go Bokke” message and you couldn’t hear anything but rugby on the radio.

Excitement is building all over, reminiscent of the euphoria of South Africa’s win in 1995. (At least this year, they’ve been considerate enough to host the final after Shabbos…)

To be sure, rugby is not soccer. It does not hold the same fan-base in South Africa as that sport does. A good portion of our population wouldn’t watch rugby under ordinary circumstances.

These are not ordinary circumstances. Over this weekend tennis-fans, soccer-fans, nerds and sophisticates will all eagerly await the outcome of Saturday nights’ game.


Because it’s our team playing.

It doesn’t matter if we don’t enjoy rugby, understand it or support the team, the fact is that our team is going out onto that field and we’re rooting for them.

It’s quite like being Jewish. Sure there are things about Shul and Jewish observance that don’t excite us, or that we don’t understand. Sometimes, we don’t even like the team that we belong to. But, it’s our team, and we need to support it.

Not just one Saturday every four years, but regularly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Getting back to work.

I'm trying to self-motivate, to break out of the "day-after-the-month-before" syndrome and get back into "real" life. I'm stuck.

The last month has just been so special and uplifting. It always is.

We look forward to and plan it for weeks, He and I. We cherish every moment of those four weeks we get to spend together each year.

It's not that we're not in touch during the rest of the year, it's just that our live's are hectic and we don't spend as much quality time as we would like to. That's why we love this month.

We get to talk. Well, at least I get to talk. He's a great listener. As a child I always knew I could tell Him anything and He would listen. He would never judge me; and I believed absolutely that He could solve every problem.

When I grew a little older, I became more demanding- and critical. When He didn't agree with my opinions, or deliver on my demands, I got angry. There were times when I wouldn't talk to Him for days.

Fortunately, He was infinitely patient, and I grew up a little. Now I am happy just to have time with Him. Looking for my inner-child, I still try to trust that He knows better. For me, to have our conversations is more valuable than what I get from them.

I get to tell Him all about my family, what they've achieved, how they're doing, my fears, my dreams. Their fears, their dreams. He always makes me feel that my nachas is His; my worries His concern.

We also get to clear the air during this special month. I let Him know where I feel He's let me down over the past year. I apologise for letting Him down (usually it's been more often than I'd like to admit)- and promise to try harder between now and next year.

From day to day, we cherish our time together more. We laugh, we cry, we eat out under the stars and dance with unfettered joy. I feel close. Connected. Safe.

All too soon, it's over. It's time to go home and return to "normal" life.

I really don't want to go; it's just so special there.

But "normal" is where He wants me to be.

When I'm there, doing my best at making the "normal" special, it gives Him nachas. Then I know I'm really close to Him.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rugby and the REAL World Cup

With Rosh Hashanah a fresh memory and Yom Kippur close on horizion, it's probably a little irreverent to talk about the Rugby World Cup. After all, this is the time when matters of Life and Death are decided for the year- though for some the rugby may be even more serious than that.

Now, rugby is not a classical Jewish sport. I couldn't imagine Jewish mothers enjoying seeing their boychicks getting roughed up on the field, and most Jewish players would probably prefer to stand in the back and shout instructions to their colleagues on the offensive.

[One thing I do know is that, if the All Blacks were really Chassidim, there’d be a lechaim at every scrum…]

Anyway, Jewish or not, the game captures the imagination of millions of people- and (like everything else in life) carries a few spiritual lessons for us as Jews.

Lesson 1: TRY

A “try” in rugby means you have actually reached your goal. We're used to saying “I’ll try” as a pre-excuse for things not working out. Rugby teaches that when you succeed, you know you have made a real "try". (Heard this one from Rabbi Dovid Hazdan a few years ago)


Once you’ve scored a try, you get a chance to make a conversion. In Talmudic terminology, this is called the “Yogato umotzoso” principle. People normally expect their efforts to bear relative results; Torah guarantees that when you invest effort, you see results beyond your expectations.


Sometimes during the game, rugby players will bunch together and lift one player to catch or throw the ball.

Social gatherings are often a chance to get together and put others down. Life woulod be more pleasant if we took the rugby approach: When you get together with others for a chat, use the opportunity to give someone else a lift.


Unlike other sports games, rugby sees the ball going backwards to move forward. Too often, we think that of we’ve taken a step backwards, it’s all bad news. Judaism believes that every slip-up can be the catalyst for growth. Even when you toss the ball backward, remember to keep running forward, you’ll eventually get there.


Of course, it would be pointless to enter your team in the World Cup and only play the first one or two games. Sure, it gets tougher as you progress, but you have to be motivated to play through to the very end if you want to take the prize home.

Well, Rosh Hashanah is the launch of the spiritual World cup- and the winning team plays all the way to the final on Simchas Torah.

Hope you’ll be there!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Gain the upper hand

There’s a rather strange new Nike advertising campaign that’s popped up all over Joburg’s billboards. Each billboard depicts frame-by-frame shots of a sportsman in mid-game. The campaign’s theme is “This is how I war”.

We all know there is a huge amount of violence in our society, so Nike probably figured they’d advertise their brand and make a social statement at the same time.
It really is a nice message and let’s hope it succeeds.

Seeing as we’re generally expert armchair politicians, we tend to notice the battles around us and ignore the battles inside us. We all have them, they’re uncomfortable, and they’re for real.

People battle depression, laziness, temptation and a host of other personal weaknesses. If Judaism had to create a “This is how I war” campaign for those battles, what would the message be?

Luckily, the answer’s right at the start of this week’s Torah portion. It starts “When you go to war on your enemies, G-d will deliver them into your hands”. To use correct grammar, the Torah should have said “When you to war against your enemies”. On your enemies? What is that supposed to mean?

Human nature is such that we take our enemies really seriously; maybe even more seriously than they take themselves. “I have a big problem with keeping my mouth shut”, “I battle to motivate myself”, “I’ll never manage to break my bad habits”.

Such an attitude doesn’t help fight the war, it predisposes us to lose it.

That’s why the Torah says go to war “on” your enemies. Our challenge is to remain above it. G-d says He will deliver them into our hands, He’ll guarantee success for our personal challenges. All we need to do is rise above- and trust.

Pretty appropriate at Rosh Hashanah-time, don’t you think?

Access Control

Security is a hot topic in Joburg. Actually, since 9/11, it’s become a hot issue throughout the world.

We have surrounded our homes with high walls, electric fences, security gates and burglar bars to keep the baddies out. Airports around the globe have introduced security screenings that would unnerve even the most ironclad heart. Our home PC’s and office networks are protected with firewalls to keep the rubbish at bay. It’s now not only acceptable, but fashionable to limit access on just about every level of our lives.

We know how to keep the burglars, terrorists and spammers out. Ironically, we still remain vulnerable to trespass of a different kind.

A wise man commented: “Jews have always considered it taboo to enter a church, yet nowadays they bring the church into our own homes”. “Church” represents more than a place of worship, it symbolizes anything antithetical to Jewish values.

You could sit in the comfort of your Jewish home, flanked by a silver mezuzah, Shabbos candle sticks and a portrait of your zeida. Flip a switch on the “black box” and you invite people, images, sounds and themes that are contrary to every Jewish value.

“Judges and policeman you shall place at all your gates”, states the Torah. You could just read that at face value- a Jewish town needs to have a judicial system. Or you could approach this line as a Jew should: The Torah is a book of personal lessons. If you cannot find the relevant lesson in the story for you, you have missed the point.

Let’s read that sentence again, with different emphasis this time. “Judges and policemen you shall place on all your gates”. Your gates are the access points to your soul: your eyes, ears and mouth. That is what the Torah is talking about. Just as it’s important to keep unwanted visitors out of your house, it’s just as important to keep them out of your head (and your kids’ heads).

We’ve invested a fortune in physical security, we should at least equal the effort for our spiritual security.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Run away!

Everyone likes to get away from it all at some point. Forget work pressures, even just driving down a Joburg street is stressful. It’s a relief to get out of town, find a serene spot and unwind.

The truth be told, though, it’s not always that easy. While we can get away from the external pressures of life, we tend to carry a full array of internal baggage with us wherever we go. Even on holiday, our doubts, insecurities and regrets come along for the ride. None of us is perfect, we’ve all made mistakes that we wish we could undo. Even in those quiet moments, we often feel we cannot shake them off.

Imagine if we could.

“Holidays from conscience”- now there’s a great business opportunity! I’m pretty sure if someone would offer us a place to escape our closet skeletons, we’d snatch it.

The good news is that we get a 30-day getaway opportunity every year. It’s called the month of Elul, and it starts next Wednesday (August 15th).

One of history’s greatest debacles was the crumbling of Jewish resolve at the foot of Mount Sinai. Just days after G-d’s unequivocal message that He is the only One, they traded Him in for an inanimate dummy-god. After Moshe gave them a piece of his mind, the Jews surely felt terrible. One can safely assume that they would have carried guilt and a sense of fickle-failure with them for long time.

That would have been the case, had Hashem not unveiled the Elul paradigm shift. He invited Moshe back up the mountain for a 40-day session. During that time, he allowed the People to escape their mess, and start with a fresh slate.

Like the Biblical Cities of Refuge, Elul created immunity for the Jewish People from the faults that threatened to haunt them.

It does so every year.

Escape to Elul. Invest some extra prayer, study and charity in the next 30 days and you’ll start the New Year on the right foot.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Road Rage

I'm stopped at a red light.

My hands relax on the steering wheel as I watch for the green. Nothing of interest happens as I wait for the light to change. Not usually, that is.

Today is different; I have front row seats for a brief drive-by show.

She's a prudent driver, staying just within the speed-limit as she crosses the intersection and turns right. He's madly rushing, stop-starting, revving and braking inches behind her.

She's calm, with both hands firmly on the wheel, and both eyes on the road. His free hand gesticulates wildly out the window, punctuating the expletives pouring from his mouth, as he gears up and steers with his other hand.

He's fuming. She's oblivious.

I'm tickled.

I wish I had a video camera and this guy's address. He obviously doesn't realise how idiotic he looks- ignored by the object of his anger; and observed by dozens of amused rush-hour commuters.

* * *

What is it about driving that transforms mild-mannered, nice people into revving road-rage racers?

I know many of these people. In real life, they are courteous, responsible and family oriented. On the road they mutate into monsters. How?

I think it has to do with the feeling of control. Take the wheel and you assume control. You direct and your car obeys.

You choose the route, destination, travel-time, speed and driving style. This is your journey.

What you haven't necessarily considered is that you don't control the traffic volumes, the red lights, the drivers next to you or ahead of you. You actually control very little of the journey.

When it doesn't go as you had expected you get upset, angry or possibly aggressive. And all because you thought you were in control.

Interesting insight into life, this road rage is.

Believe you're in control and you're bound to be frustrated. Accept that there will always be variables outside of your control, and that your job is to know how to respond to them, and you will remain calm. And happy.

* * *

Judaism centers on the Ten Commandments.

Rule #1: G-d is always in control.
Rule #2: If you think for a moment He is not in control, see Rule #1.

Friday, July 20, 2007


You may well remember the “Magic eye” 3D-poster craze from a few years back. At first, those stereograms looked like random coloured patterns splashed across a page. Once you stared at them for a while, though, you could make out a 3D picture.

Remember how many people would stare and stare and simply not see the 3D picture (you may have been one of them)? They would either become frustrated or accuse you of having them on, because there really was no 3D picture to see.

Modern science claims that this happens to us daily. We look at what is around us, and only consciously perceive a fraction of what we see. So, when people try to convince us that there’s more to life than meets the eye, we don’t buy it.

Which reminds me of a very important story.

It wasn’t long after the Roman destruction of the Temple, when a group of Talmudic Sages walked along the rubble-strewn Temple Mount. One can only imagine the immense sadness they must have felt as they surveyed the ravaged remains of Judaism’s holiest site.

When a fox darted out from the debris of the Holy of Holies, it was too much for them to handle. The rabbis cried bitterly. Rabbi Akivah, who was also there, laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” they challenged him.

“Why are you crying?” he retorted.

“How can we not cry,” the Rabbis asked, “when we see a fox exit the spot that was always off-bounds to all but the holiest Jew, the High Priest, on the holiest day of Yom Kippur?”

“That,” said Rabbi Akivah, “is why I laugh!”

“There are two prophecies,” Rabbi Akivah explained, “Uriah predicted that the Temple Mount would be plowed over like a field. Zechariah prophesied that Jerusalem would, once again, regain its stature and glory. Until I saw the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy, I was unsure that Zechariah’s prophecy would be fulfilled.”

Hearing that, the Rabbis remarked: “Akivah, you have comforted us.”

On the face of it, this is a particularly strange story. Yet, it provides an essential insight into the unique Jewish take on life.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple, they didn’t just demolish an important building. They disconnected the portal that connects heaven and earth. They disrupted the direct line of communication that Jews had with G-d and He with them. They snuffed out the light of the world, heralding 2000 years of anti-Semitism, plunder, pogroms.

To the rabbis, this was the devastating picture they saw that day on the Temple Mount. They saw a chaotic mess of incongruent colour splashed onto the canvas where a masterpiece had just been.

Rabbi Akivah was able to look deeper, beyond appearances. He saw the 3D picture that would emerge from that chaos. Yes, he felt the pain. Sure, he mourned the loss. But, he also saw beyond- that the destruction was also the seed of a higher, greater process.

Rabbi Akivah perceived that the fast day of Tisha B’Av is also the birth of Moshiach.

Spiritual as they were, the other rabbis couldn’t see that perspective, until Rabbi Akivah showed it to them.

We still battle to see the full picture.

To our eyes there is chaos, crime, illness and global terrorism. We see a loss of moral direction, a crumbling of ethics, a lack of world leadership.

We have much to mourn this Tisha B’Av. But, just before that, Hashem gives us a Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbos of vision. The Shabbos prior to Judaism’s day of national mourning is so named, because that’s when He allows us a momentary glimpse into the meaning behind the madness. Shabbat Chazon briefly opens our eyes to see a higher purpose.

Our wish is that Hashem allows that vision to become our reality this year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Life's a journey(s)

And I’m not sure we always enjoy the ride…

Actually, life is a series of journeys. Some of them are long and arduous, while others are fairly straight-forward. At times, we travel on routes filled with potholes, and feel relieved to reach the wide tarred highways of life. Sometimes we know where we are headed and other times we feel hopelessly lost. Each trip, and each stop has a message and a meaning that makes our life what it is.

You may hear people talk of “Gilgul”, the Jewish concept of soul-cycles. People naturally assume that this refers to the multiple lives that a soul lives.

The Ba’al Shem Tov explains one goes through numerous Gilgulim or life-cycles within the course of a single life. If you know how to navigate them, you reach your destination whole and enriched.

We've just read the Torah portion called Massei, which lists the 42 pit-stops that the Jewish nation made en route from Egypt to Israel. If you pay attention to the opening verse, you’ll immediately discover an anomaly. The Torah starts: “These are the journeys that the Jewish people took to leave Egypt.”

Between you and I, it only takes one journey to leave Egypt. As soon as you cross the border, you’re out. Simple.

Yet, the Torah wants to teach us about life rather than about history.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew term for Egypt, means constraints. Life’s journeys are not about getting from A to B. They represent the challenges that allow us to grow and develop into better people.
You grow when you challenge your natural limitations. Leaving Egypt means breaking your barriers and exceeding your expectations.

As soon you break out of the box, your new paradigm becomes your new “Egypt”. In other words, now that you’ve risen to the challenge, you can’t rest on your laurels. What used to be impossible has become ordinary. To grow further, you need to challenge yourself with a new “impossible”.

Do that 42 times, and you reach life’s destination - or your personal Promised Land.

Until then, you’re in a state of relative Egypt, with plenty more journeys ahead.

Friday, June 29, 2007

It never snows in Joburg

That's what they say, at least.

The truth is, I remember the last time it snowed in Johannesburg. That was in September 1981. Everyone was so excited, especially when they let us go home early from school.

It's not that there was much snow, but we enjoyed it. We threw snowballs and made 10cm snowmen. By the next day, the white winter was gone.

For a few more years after that, I waited expectantly for snow. Each winter, I'd look out at the crystal clear blue sky- and hope.

But, it never came.

People explaines that it never snows in Joburg, how '81 was a freak incident.

Eventually I stopped hoping.

12:30 a.m. Wednesday- a thunderbolt shook my children out of bed. Their knocking on the door woke me.

As I calmed them and prepared to return them to bed, something prompted me to look out of the window. Before my unbelieving eyes, I saw hundreds of little flakes floating down.

By the morning, everything was covered in a light coat of white. Ok, there was less of it than there had been 26 years ago, but it was snow.

The children scooped it up in their hands (unaware of the need for gloves), slipped and slid and had a wonderful morning.

"Snowburg" the newspaper headlines cheerfully proclaimed.

As people marvelled at the white wonder (everyone seemed a little happier than usual), the snow made me think.

About things that we believe will never happen. About how when they takes longer than expected, we start to imagine it will never happen.

It made me think about Moshiach.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lessons from the NY subway (part 2)

So, I was riding the D train from Boro Park back to Crown Heights. My fellow passengers all sat cocooned in their reading or music, waiting for the moment when they return to life and exit the car.

As I got off and merged with the human sea of the Atlantic avenue station, a staccato voice reverberated across the platform: "All passengers on the D and N trains, we regret to inform you that all D and N trains will be temporarily delayed as a passenger downtown requires emergency medical assistance!"

You may believe that your world operates independently of the next person's. But, when one person is in crisis, it derails us all.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lessons from the NY subway (part 1)

I always enjoy the New York pulse. It's exciting. It's electrifying. It energizes.

New York has got to be one of the most animated cities on our planet. No matter the time of day or night, you will see people. The streets are alive with business executives, tourists, hawkers, sidewalk evangelists, yellow cabs, and, nowadays, lots of cops.

Beneath those bustling New York streets there's the shadow-life of the subway system. For millions the subway is an integral part of life in New York. It is here that you can observe the people, their quirks and habits- and their attitudes. You can learn much about life from watching what happens on those trains.

Back on the subway a few days ago (it's been nine months since my last NY visit), I again noticed the prevalent isolationist attitude of commuters.

Some spread newspapers to shield themselves from their co-riders. Some read books or magazines, while others escape into the Hip-Hop that pulsates through their Ipods. Those unequipped with the tools to create the required barrier simply avert their eyes.

It's as though the common thinking is: "I am an individual. My life is absolutely independent of yours. We have nothing in common and no shared experience. Please, leave me alone."

Just then, the train lurches forward- and every single passenger lunges back the same distance, at the same time and the same velocity...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The secret that won the Six Day War

As Jews, we are trained to see the world differently. We look beyond the face of facts, and discern the hand that pulls the puppet strings.

To the Jew, World events are a Divine orchestration playing out in the terrestrial theatre.

To the Jew, if his People are involved, he is involved. He may not play a visible role in the National drama, but he directs some of the action from behind the scenes.

To the Jew, every event is a lesson. Major events provide key lessons; personal events convey personal messages.

It has now been 40 years and the Six Say War still captivates the minds and imaginations of people all over the world.

Military strategists still cannot quite explain how, with the odds stacked so heavily against them, the Israelis successfully routed the Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians and their allies in six days.

Israel’s army was outnumbered and vastly outgunned. As Egypt vowed to push Israel into the sea, nobody could afford to be optimistic.

Well, almost nobody.

Just a few days before war erupted, the Lubavitcher Rebbe announced that Israel was guaranteed Divine protection. He launched an overt campaign to enlist Jewish reserves around the world, and a secret weapon that would change the tide of the war.

The Rebbe approached the war from a distinctly Jewish perspective. He understood that the direction each battle would take is determined by a Higher Power. He appreciated that every Jew’s actions contribute to the success or otherwise of other Jews. He knew that a united approach to pulling the right spiritual strings would turn the tide in Israel’s favour.

So, he launched the Tefillin campaign.

Jewish unity in serving G-d, he said, would empower the Jewish people. He quoted the Talmud, which terms Tefillin the “Mitzvah that strikes fear in the hearts of your enemies”.

It was controversial. It challenged Jews to confront their Jewish identity, often in public. It challenged religious Jews to reach out to their secular counterparts.

It succeeded. By the end of that year, about half a million people had donned Tefillin.*

Within six days, Israel had a miracle.

It’s now been 40 years since that revolution. In that time, people have come to expect to wear Tefillin at the Western Wall. Nowadays, you may be stopped at a bus station in Tel Aviv, on an Ivy League campus, on a plane or in your own office, and be offered to put on Tefillin.

Jews see the world differently.

We appreciate that one Mitzvah can jump-start our soul. We realize it could protect the rest of our People. We acknowledge we each play a lead role in the Divine production of Life.

So, roll up your left sleeve, and join the “war” effort.

*"Just before the outbreak of the war, an active campaign to push observance by Jewish males over 13 years of age to do the "mitzvah" of tefillin was launched by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the "Lubavitcher Rebbe" of New York--leader of a Hasidic sect with branches throughout the world.
Since the Six Day War in June which resulted in the creation of a united Jerusalem as part of Israel, more than 400,000 members of the Jewish faith are estimated to have observed the commandment to wear Phylacteries-- tefillin In Hebrew--at the city's Western, formerly known as the "Wailing,” Wall. "
The Boston Globe November 24, 1967

Thursday, May 10, 2007

FINAL COUNTDOWN- Jewish Israeli Blog awards

A big thank-you to all of you who voted for this blog and got me into the Finals of the Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards (didn't quite expect it!).

It's crunch-time, so, please go ahead and vote here for this Blog in the finals.
While you're about it, please also support Its Almost Supernatural, finalists for Best News and Current Affairs Blog and Best Coverage of a Live Event Post.

Voting closes on May 16th.

Thank you for your continued support!

Friday, May 04, 2007


It’s exciting when Lag B’omer falls on a Sunday, especially if the weather is good. Lag B’omer is designed to be an outdoor affair, so you can really enjoy it when you don’t have to go to work. People have picnics, make bonfires- Chabad organizes Lag B’omer parades*.

And, people play with bows and arrows.

You might find that incongruous- playing with weapons on a day of unity, but that’s how it is. Lag B’omer happened during the height of Roman oppression in Israel. Torah study was a capital offence, and many of our greatest Sages were executed for this “crime”. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the main character of this holiday, had to hide for 13 years to evade the Romans who had put a price on his head.

Brave souls who studied Torah in outlying fields and forests, would feign archery contests when Roman patrols passed their way. So, we re-enact those archery games to remember their dedication under fire.

That’s the simple reason.

But, Lag B’omer is not a simple day. It is a day of mysticism and spiritual secrets; it celebrates Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s vital contribution to Kabbalah. Everything about the day bears deeper significance. We light bonfires to represent the blazing spirituality of the day.

So, what about the bows and arrows?

As spiritual as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was (so much so that his mentor, Rabbi Akivah, believed none of the other students could even perceive his greatness), he understood the foibles of ordinary citizens. While he demanded total dedication to Torah from himself, he taught that people under work-pressure need only say the Shema twice daily to fulfil their Torah-study requirements.

He was a great Sage, not because of his personal spiritual advancement, but because of his ability to relate to- and guide- the average person.

A bow and arrow represent his unique perspective. To propel an arrow forward, you need to pull the bowstring backwards. Spiritually, when you’ve slipped a little in the wrong direction, you develop potential to fly in the correct direction. Rather than criticize the person who had fallen, Rabbi Shimon hinted that each fall has the capacity to propel us to new heights.

As you draw your bowstring back this Lag B’omer, reflect on the great potential you have to progress.

Let fly!

*The theme of Lag B‘omer is Jewish unity. Lag B’omer is the day that Rabbi Akivah’s students stopped dying. They had been struck by a plague because they hadn’t had proper respect for each other. Lag B’omer reminds us to strengthen unity, in the light of what disunity can cause (G-d forbid). In the 50’s the Rebbe introduced the idea of a parade that would unite Jews, advertise Jewish messages and show Jewish pride on the streets.

Friday, April 27, 2007

ACHTUNG: Jews are taking over the world!

Some people actually take this seriously.

Seriously enough (as we witnessed this week) to take the time to cyber-attack a Jewish blog awards site.

Why would anyone waste their time and energy hacking a Jewish blog site?

Sure, the awards mean a lot to the nominated bloggers, but the entire process is less than a blip on the Cyberspace horizon.

Yet, there are those who imagine that, if Jews have blogs, we have means for expression. If we have blog awards, we have added prestige. Who knows, then, what we may be capable of next?

Hacking a Jewish site is part of a pervasive phenomenon- the widespread belief that Jews plan to control the world, and are well on their way to doing so. People in developing countries believe it; Middle-Easterners discuss it; Westerners whisper it. Just about everybody seems to accept that Jews will, or perhaps already do, control the World.

Everybody, that is, except Jews themselves.

Big mistake!

We should want to take over the World. It’s a fundamental principle of our Jewish belief system. Jews are supposed to conquer the World- with goodness and holiness. Our role is not simply to be successful, or even to become spiritual. We are supposed to become the World’s inspiration. Our world is far from idyllic- and we are the people expected to fix it.

There’s a world out there waiting for us to uplift it. As long as we have not yet succeeded, the world will drop us an occasional reminder that we’re slacking.

Monday, April 23, 2007

"CHOICE"- Reflections on the VTech massacre

It’s only been a week now since I met him.

You met him too then, under those most tragic circumstances. Before it happened, not many had heard of him; afterwards, who hadn’t?

He was a foreigner, whose name most people probably struggled to pronounce. His early life, in his home country, had been difficult. Even after he moved to the liberal United States, he part of an ethic minority.

His quiet, reflective character belied the difficulties that he had experienced. At a young age, he had already tasted discrimination; even suffered personally because of it. Over time he had experienced persecution and even physical abuse.

I guess it wouldn’t have been surprising for someone who had been through his life-experiences to be bitter, or even angry at the world. If he had dark thoughts, his therapist would likely have called them “natural”, considering his circumstances.

Considering the relevance of that Monday in his life, the negative images must have been magnified. Turbulent emotions likely cascaded through his mind as he walked through the hallways of Virginia Tech campus on that cold morning. It was the perfect day for his emotions to ignite.

It happened shortly after 9:00 a.m. In one notorious moment, he was blasted from near-obscurity to the world’s front pages.

His face will remain before our eyes, his actions etched in our conscience.

In an instant he became a hero; the man who placed his body between a senseless gunman and a classroom full of students.

Having endured anti-Semitic Romania, labour camps and Communist discrimination, Liviu Librescu had every excuse to be angry at the world. As a child, he saw his father torn away by the Nazis, and as an adult, the Communists robbed him of his career. If anyone should have felt vengeful, he should have. He chose not to be.

Monday was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), a day that represented every seminal trauma of his life. It became the day that crystallized his response to that horror.

Liviu Librescu, following the legacy of tens of thousands before him, chose how to respond to life’s circumstances. Like his predecessors who emerged from the ravages of Crusade, the Auto Da Fé of Spain or the Gas Chambers, Librescu understood that a Jew is not shaped by life, but shapes life.

Years past retirement age, he remained committed to teaching, to sharing and adding value to the lives of others.

Our society is unnecessarily tolerant of people’s willingness to blame circumstances for their deviant behaviour.

Unlike his killer’s “You made me do this”, Librescu refused to surrender to “circumstances”. He understood the greatest gift of being human- choice.

He chose to live.

He chose to rise from the ashes to success and scientific renown.

He chose to dedicate himself to enhance life.

He chose to sacrifice his life to preserve the lives of others.

Librescu and his murderer stood separated by four centimeters of door; and by attitudes that are light-years apart.

I stand proud in the knowledge that I belong to the People of Liviu Librescu.

May his memory be a blessing- and an eternal inspiration to us all.

(This article was inspired by Rabbi Eitan Ash of Chabad House Shul, Savoy)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Who's afraid of a rhinoceros?

I took my children to the Pilaneseberg Game Park the other day. Out in the wild, you get to spend quality time as you try spot the various animal and bird species.

It was relaxed and we chatted, joked, sang. Only one dark cloud hung over this exciting excursion: The Rhino.

Lions, elephants and leopards- we could handle all of them. In fact, we couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of the Big Five. Well, actually the Big Four, because nobody wanted to encounter a Rhino.

The more they protested, the more I wanted to encounter Rhino- at close range.

Last time we had visited the same park, our bright red minivan raised the ire of a protective mother rhino. She charged, the kids panicked, I screeched off.

We got out of there with plenty time to spare, but the children remained traumatized. So, we needed to see Rhino, to normalize the Safari experience in the minds of my overly imaginative kids.

Then it happened. My eight-year-old daughter asked the question: “Why must we be scared of Hashem?”

Apparently, with all the talk of fears, this one had surfaced in her mind.

It reminded me of a ridiculous story I once heard. There was a deeply religious man who encountered the Torah’s commandment to “fear G-d”. Not sure how to achieve this, he turned to an equally observant, but rather superficial colleague for advice.

“This is how I do it,” the latter began, “I imagine a large, powerful, temperamental bull. Then, I picture that bull charging at me. I have a pretty good imagination, and it actually scares me to visualize this scene. At that point, I tell myself: ‘G-d is larger and more powerful than any bull I can imagine’. For me, that’s enough to fear Him.”

I told my daughter that the word “scared” isn’t the right word for Hashem. You could be scared of a rhino, because you imagine it might harm you. But, there’s no need to be scared of G-d. He is kind, gracious and interested in our wellbeing.

“Fear” of G-d is pointless, “awe” is appropriate. When you perceive His infinite greatness, and consider that He still takes an interest in you, you should be overawed. You should worry that perhaps you have not been giving Him all you can, considering He gives you all you have.

I’d like to think she understood, but we didn’t get to finish the conversation. We ran into a group of rhinos.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lessons from a thief

One of the primary lessons of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement) was to take a spiritual lesson from everything you encounter in life.

Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Anipoli was a spiritual master and student of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings. Reb Zushe- as he was known- defined seven lessons we can take from a thief.

(DISCLAIMER: The same spiritual force that motivates a criminal, impedes us from achieving our spiritual goals. In other words, it's easier for a thief to get this right than it would be for us).

1) He works quietly.

It's only the dumb thieves who boast of their exploits, or leave their ID at the crime scene- and get caught. A smart thief realizes that stealth and a low-profile are his key assets.

It's the same with spirituality. The foundation of all spiritual progress is humility. Moses is lauded in Torah for being the "most humble man" ever, not the most learned man ever (though he was that too).

2) He is ready to place himself in danger.

At any moment, an alarm might trigger and bring the police; or the thief could be spotted. He knows the risks, but goes ahead anyway.

Spiritual progress also involves taking risks. Nobody moves spiritually if they are too worried about what "might be".

Some of us are afraid to take the risk of showing our Jewishness in public. Others worry how their family will react to their newfound spirituality. The greatest challenge of all is taking the risk that your spiritual improvement may actually transform you into a different person.

Yet, that's the way spirituality works- take a chance, do something that you never imagined you could do. The Red Sea split because people took the chance of walking into it.

3) Every detail is important.

Did you hear the (true) story of a group of Romanian burglars? They cased a local bank for months and eventually made their move one night. They had overlooked one minor detail- the bank had moved to new premises a few days earlier.

People often wonder why Judaism pays so much attention to details. "Who cares if my mezuzah is missing a letter, surely it's the thought that counts?"

NASA has grounded billion dollar space flights in the past because of a loose screw. Your Judaism is a far more important project than any well-staged crime, or even a space mission. When the stakes are high, every detail counts.

4) He works hard.

Spirituality doesn't operate in a vacuum. Unless G-d appears to you and inspires you personally, you're not going to find your way to spiritual enlightenment overnight.

The important things in life come through effort. If you want the "treasure", you need to put in the effort.

5) The need for speed.

Thieves and getaway cars are quite synonymous. When he's in the process of stealing, a thief doesn't have time to waste. He needs to be quick, energetic and efficient.

You could have the greatest spiritual potential, but if you're sluggish or lazy, you probably won't move too far. Avraham, the first Jew, is quoted in the Torah as "waking up early in the morning" to fulfil G-d's missions.

We're his descendants- we're expected to operate with the same enthusiasm.

6) Confidence and optimism.

Who would attempt crime if he believed he would be caught?

You only succeed when you believe you can succeed. Too often, we tell ourselves that such-and-such a spiritual ideal is beyond us.

The arch-enemy of the Jewish people is "Amalek", the nation who had the gall to attack us as we left Egypt (when the rest of the world was cowering in fear after we defeated the Egyptian superpower).

In spiritual terms, Amalek represents doubt. Just as you begin to emerge spiritually, the doubts set in: "Can I really do this?".

That's the arch-enemy of a Jew. Hashem is one your side, you can definitely succeed.

7) If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.

You have to give criminals credit for perseverance. They will keep attempting a lucrative robbery time and again. They may be arrested and resume a life of crime when they get out.

All too often, we try, fail- and give up. "A Tzadik falls seven times before rising," says the Torah.

The question is not whether or not you fail, but how you react when you fail.


Jews are charged with the task of transforming the world into a holy place. When we improve our own spiritual progress based on a thief's behaviour, we transform the world of thieves into something a little holier. Hopefully, we do it enough to actually eradicate crime altogether.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Is enough really enough? (A fresh angle on Dayeinu)

I recently read a story about a guy who wants to sell his late grandfather’s violin. He goes to a friend, an antique dealer, to get a quote.

The dealer tells him: “Old fiddles don’t really fetch a great price nowadays.”

So, he asks the dealer what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin.

The dealer explains: “If I’m buying it from you, it’s a fiddle; if you’re buying it from me, it’s a violin.”

* * * * *

There are certain moments during the Pesach Seder which are especially animated. One of these is “Dayeinu”. In homes all around the globe, everyone joins in and sings about all the wonderful things that G-d did for us during the Exodus from Egypt.

Every once in a while, though, somebody reads the famous poem with a discerning eye and asks the obvious question. Apparently, half of what we say there makes no sense.

We say: “If He had split the sea and not led us across it on dry land- dayeinu (it would have been enough for us).”
“If he had taken us across on dry land and not drowned our enemies- dayeinu.”
“If he had drowned our enemies, but not provided food for us in the desert for 40 years- dayeinu.”


If G-d had not taken us across the sea, drowned the Egyptians or fed us in the desert, we would have died! How can we honestly say any one of those steps would have been “sufficient”?

Now, I know there are several classical answers to this question, but a different thought crossed my mind this year- that it’s all about how you read Dayeinu.

The Pesach experience is supposed to be a personal spiritual-growth launch-pad. Part of that includes revisiting how we look at our world- and making some changes.

For many of us the personal version of Dayeinu might go something like this:

If I give charity regularly, but don't go to Shul- dayeinu (I have
done enough for G-d).
If I would go to Shul, but only once a year- dayeinu.
If I not only go to Shul once a year, but once a month- dayeinu.
If I not only go to Shul once a month, but also eat kosher at home- dayeinu.
In other words, we believe we do more than enough for Him, but He often doesn’t do enough for us.

When you look at life from that perspective, you tend to wonder how you can ever say dayeinu (it is enough for me). You’re giving G-d violins- and getting fiddles in return. Regardless what you have, you still feel you need more.

A chosid once came to ask the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, for a blessing.
The Rebbe said to him: “What you need you do not hesitate to mention, but what you are needed for, you omit to mention…”

Pesach challenges us to shift our focus, to introduce an objective dayeinu to our lives.

That dayeinu would go something like this:

If I wake up in the morning, even unable to get out of bed- dayeinu (it would be enough reason to be indebted to Him).
If I get out bed, but don’t have running water- dayeinu.
If I have running water, but not a wardrobe full of clothing to wear- dayeinu.
If I have clothing to choose from, but not a fridge full of food- dayeinu.
If I have a fridge full of food, but no job to go to- dayeinu.
If I have employment, but no transport to get me there- dayeinu.
If I have employment my own transport and a family to make all the effort worthwhile- dayeinu.

Dayeinu is a reminder of how much we have to be thankful for- and how appropriate it is to give a little back to Him, considering all that He does for us.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Good question!

Why is this night different? Because we ask questions?

Can’t be, Jews always ask questions. We take nothing for granted. We challenge everything, query everything (just observe a Jewish person receive a bill) and question, question, question. We even answer questions with questions- don’t we?

Pesach is not a one-night-opportunity for questions; we’re expected to keep our enquiring mind alive all year round. Rather, Pesach commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation- a nation that is different. “Why is this night different” is another way of saying, “Why is this People different?”

We’re different because we ask questions. While other religions place a premium on unquestioning faith, Judaism traditionally asks, and asks again.

Of the four sons listed at the Pesach Seder, the one who turns up stone last (even after the “wicked” son) is the one who “doesn’t know how to ask”. Rather ask an inappropriate question (as the “wicked” son does) than ask nothing at all.


Because the only way to grow spiritually is to take nothing for granted. If you accept the fact that you’re a slave in Egypt, you can never leave. Once you ask “why should I remain this way?”, you take the first step to personal liberation.

A Jew’s worst enemy is complacency. Questions shake us out of that apathetic state.

So, if you want to make this “night”, your current spiritual state different (better), then you need to start asking questions.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Grow up?

Nobody appreciates childish behaviour in an adult. As adults, we’re expected to do adult things: Act responsibly, react to situations with maturity, be practical- and retain a basic level of cynicism.

When Pesach arrives, we shift focus for a night or two. Seder night is kids’ night. That’s not to say that the Seder is for kids only. Nor does it suggest that the Seder is the only time Judaism highlights children. Rather, the Seder is the time to become a child again.

Traditionally, the youngest child asks the Four Questions. But, if there’s no child available, an adult has to assume the child’s role and ask the questions. Karpas- dipping a veggie piece into salt water- was designed to get the children asking questions. Let’s be honest, it has you asking too. Singing Pesach songs and pondering (or acting out) the 10 plagues have a childish sparkle to them. As you analyze the four sons, you must wonder which of the four you are. And who doesn’t have just as much fun as the kids when it’s time for the Afikomen hide-and-seek game towards the end of the Seder?

The Pesach Seder is not only about entertaining the kids, it’s about becoming a child again.

As healthy as it is to be an adult, there are some childlike traits that are worth trying to recapture. Innocence, naiveté and wild imagination are childhood treasures we should earth up once in a while.

Pesach is about breaking barriers, transcending personal issues and liberating the spirit. To do those things, you need to become a child again- trusting and unafraid to dream.

Babies are naïve enough to make the leap from crawling to walking, and youngsters’ dream they will change the world. Pesach invites us to join this world of unfettered trust and fantastic dreams- and empowers us to make them happen.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Here's an interesting article that I received this week from Rabbi Shea Hecht:

Just a few short weeks ago one of the many e-mail messages that pass through my inbox caught my eye. The subject line beckoned me to do something to help the kidnapped Israeli soldiers who are still in captivity. I was fascinated. What could I, living in NY, do to help Israeli soldiers taken hostage?

Turns out that this e-mail campaign was an effort that was spearheaded by Laurie Rappeport, a dynamic woman in Tzfat, Israel. The e-mail was forwarded to women the world over and was related to the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah, a Mitzvah specific to women.

The women who answered Laurie's call were willing to dedicate the merit of the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah to the welfare of the imprisoned Israeli soldiers. These women dedicated the Mitzvah in an effort to affect a positive change in someone else's life.

Unfortunately, the soldiers are still in captivity, but this worldwide effort by women to help these soldiers really touched a chord.

We all have issues that we rally for. We all have some goal that we work for. But the spiritual power of women who get together to make a difference is a power that makes things happen.

My involvement in the political world has shown me this. I have seen the power of lobbyists - and it is a power to be contended with. Two of the most powerful organizations in the United States are Mother's Voices and Mother's Against Drunk Driving. Just the name alone of these organizations is so powerful, and the fact that it is mothers who are fighting disease and drunk driving lends a large measure of credibility.

One source of the power of women is a spiritual one. We are told that the Matriarch's prayed for their children. Particularly the Matriarch Rachel who still cries for her children to this day. Our sages tell us that not only does Rachel present the case of her children's suffering to G-d, she is the one who is answered.

Researching the Hafrashat Challah story brought me to two women in my very own neighborhood, the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, Yael Leibovitch and Leah Silverstein. They have groups of 40 or more women who weekly dedicate the merit of their Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah to women who don't have children.

Speaking to Yael was quite an eye opener. Not only did I find out that there are other similar groups in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and many other areas all over the world but also, that since they started their program over two years ago countless women have been helped. Women who had no children for 10 years and more have given birth after their plight was kept in mind as the merit of the women doing the special women's Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah.

My daughter is part of a group of women who do this same special thing for their classmates. Some of my daughter's classmates are not married and some don't have children. Those who are lucky enough to have both of those blessings pray for those who don't. They have witnessed the tremendous power of their prayers which have been answered when they have dedicated their Mitzvah to help others.

The Talmud tells us that the Jews were freed from Egypt in the merit of the women. And this is not the only place where great occurrences are attributed to the power of women. Throughout history women prayed and accomplished for others - acting as a powerful spiritual lobby. And we can take pride in the fact that it continues even today. To read about the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah click here.

Friday, March 09, 2007


This is the tale of two cows. These cows lived at around about the same time, in the same region. Our bovine heroes were related to each other, yet polar opposites. While one cow received all the bad press, the other became a hero.

The first cow, young and undisciplined, created a terrible mess. So, the older, mature cow had to step in and clean it all up. That wasn’t an easy task; the mess was so bad that it dirtied more than just the calf’s stable, it soiled the whole world. Cleaning such a mess should have been an impossible task, but this was an unusual cow- beyond anything we could comprehend. She hasn’t quite succeeded yet, but she’s getting there.

Come to shul tomorrow, and you can meet both cows.

The young, impetuous calf dragged the whole Jewish nation into a spiritual quagmire. We know him as the infamous Golden Calf, subject of this week’s Torah portion.

When G-d gave us the Torah at Sinai, He reverted us to “Garden of Eden” status. We were pure and immune to death. After the Golden Calf debacle, we reinstated our own misguided tendencies- and became prone to death again.

The mother cow empowered us to transcend death and reverse its negative side-effects. She introduced the supernatural tool of purification. To you and I, she is better known as the enigmatic Red Heifer, which we read about in the special maftir that’s added this week at Shul.

As the Midrash puts it: “A maid's child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: "Let his mother come and clean up her child's filth." By the same token, G-d says: "Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf"

How the Red Heifer works is something we can never understand- it’s called a chok, a Torah commandment that has no rational basis.

Both cows are part of our daily spiritual experiences. We have our “Golden Calf” moments, when we lose sight of what we should be doing and err spiritually. Whenever we make a spiritual mistake, a part of our soul dies.

This sounds impossible to fix- “What’s done cannot be undone”.

So, G-d gives us the other cow, the one that doesn’t play by the rules. The Red Heifer is a chok, a ritual that we’ll never understand. We do it because G-d says so; because our commitment to Him is absolute.

We need our “Red Heifer” moments, times of total commitment to what a Jew should do, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. In those moments, we bring our soul back to life.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

When the going gets tough...

Get your mask ready, Purim is upon us!

But, with all the festivity, frivolity and fressing, you wonder about the deeper significance of this seemingly raucous holiday.

Believe it or not, it's deep. So deep that most people miss it. "When one enters, secrets emerge", say the Kabbalists. When the whole festival is about wine, it must contain many spiritual secrets.

Here's one:

At the end of the Megillah, we're going to read a cryptic statement, "The Jews kept and accepted...". According to the Talmud, this means that we finally accepted the Torah that had been presented at Mt. Sinai centuries earlier. In other words, when the Jews committed to Torah in the presence of G-d, it wasn't good enough.

At first glance, this really makes no sense. The Jews who left Egypt were highly spiritual people. At Mt. Sinai, G-d Himself appeared and presented the Torah.

At the time of the Purim story, the Jews were not all that spiritual. When the king made a feast to celebrate the downfall of Jerusalem, they attended. Apparently, they were not very spiritually sensitive.

Instead of the miracles of Mt. Sinai, they were faced with the threat of a Holocaust. It seems odd that under such adverse circumstances, they would make a greater commitment than at one of the most powerful moments in history.

Actually, therein lies the message.

To commit to a Jewish lifestyle when G-d is "in your face", miracles are normal, your soul is on fire, and you're in the care of a spiritual giant like Moses, is no big deal.

To be proudly Jewish when life is tough and anti-Semitism is rife- that's an achievement.

Purim reminds us that it is the challenging moments in our lives that bring out the best in us. It teaches us to measure our spiritual progress by how we do when we're uninspired, not by how we achieve when times are good.

Now you can appreciate why the Talmud says, "A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'Cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai'". This is not a call to drunken stupidity.

Rather, the Talmud wants us to realize that whether your internal Mordechai or your personal Haman is dictating your feelings; whether you're spiritually inspired or apathetic, you can always switch on your inner spirituality.

Have a great Purim!

(For more like this, visit

Monday, February 26, 2007

I'm inspired and humbled

It's healthy to have a reality check once in a while.

We're all involved in doing good thingsand it's human nature to pat ourselves on the back for our achievements.

Occassionally you get to meet someone who is a real hero. You stand humbled; hopefully inspired.

I bumped a friend at a Barmitzvah tonight. We haven't seen each other in a few years, so we did some catch up.

He and his wife now live in Sumi, Ukraine (I had never heard of it either). They've finally got internet (it cuts out every other day), which is a good thing for their eight-year-old daughter. Now she can attend online classes and interact with half a dozen other girls her age on the web- her only Jewish friends. There is no Jewish school in the vicinity.

They milk a cow once a week to get kosher milk and bake their own bread. Meat gets delivered monthly from nearby Kharkov (a three-hour bump-ride).

There are no other religious Jews in Sumi. Most people who think they're Jewish are not. (Many of those convinced they are not, are). Most of the population lives below the bread line.

So why does my friend and his family live there?

Because there are Jews who don't know they are Jewish. Because there are Jews who need a soup kitchen. Because they are building a Sumi's first mikvah and Jewish pre-school (with what funds?).

Because they are Shluchim (emmissaries) of the Rebbe who care enough to live where the closest hospital is four hours away, and their children have no friends, and it's a three-hour commute to a mikveh, so they can help a few more Jews connect with their Judaism.

I stood humbled; hopefully inspired.

Friday, February 23, 2007


A friend of mine lent me a book this week.
It’s an architecture atlas that showcases amazing building projects from around the world. With building a new shul on my mind, I found it very interesting. There are some amazing architectural feats around the world, and some very bold projects.

China boasts striking, futuristic skyscrapers, while New York is planning its new WTC tower complex. In Dubai, they’re creating man-made islands that look like a world map (buy your piece of the planet) and at home in SA, we’re about to begin creating stadiums for the Soccer World Cup in 2010.

But, none of these projects is as ambitious as the one commissioned in this week’s Parsha. That project is beyond anything ever attempted- or even imagined- by humans. Ironically, the only way to complete that project is to be half-baked.

Unveiled in the blazing hot desert, with almost no available natural resources, Moses’ project called on the people to build a Home. The Home would be simple- only 500 square metres, comprising just two rooms and a courtyard.

The catch? This small place was to be G-d’s home.

Impossible? Yes.

Doable? Apparently.

To get the project off the ground, Moshe called on the people to donate their gold, silver, copper, precious stones and other materials. He also taxed them all with a half-shekel tax. This money would be used to maintain the Tabernacle, G-d’s home in the Universe.

With all that gold and silver, you wonder why he wanted half a shekel donation.

Jewish thought identifies a fundamental lesson in this. No individual can build G-d’s home. As long as you perceive yourself as “complete”, you lack the capacity to create a home for the Infinite. As soon as you realize that you are only part of the picture- half a shekel- and you need at least one other person as your partner in progress, then you can achieve G-d’s dream.

G-d’s home doesn’t only belong in the desert. Over time, Jews have been led to China, New York, even Dubai and certainly South Africa- to build homes for G-d in all these places. As skyscrapers and malls shoot up around in an unprecedented global construction boom, we need to remember our own unique project.

Wherever a Jew is, he/ she can- must- transform his/ her environment into a better, more spiritual place.

You cannot do it alone, you need to partner with every other Jew you know. When you recognize you’re a halfwit on by yourself, you take the first step to do the impossible.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Don't overload your donkey!

It's a rather common sight here in Joburg- a taxi zooming past with at least40% more load than it should have. The rear bumper is a millimeter from the ground as the daredevil driver zigzags through peak-hour traffic.

Apparently, this isn't a new phenomenon.

According to this week's Torah portion, overloaded donkeys were a problem in Biblical times. Such a problem, that the Torah tells us how to address it:

"If you see your enemy's donkey struggling under its load and you (want to) desist from assiting it, you shall surely help him."

Notice: Your enemy's donkey still needs your help.

Chamor- Hebrew for donkey- is strongly linked to Chomer, the Hebrew for matter.

This sheds a whole new light on the message of the donkey-overload, according to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement.

It means: As you grow spiritually, you might find your Chomer- your instinctive, physical self -taking strain. Each time you try to move forward, improve and transcend it cries "exhaustion".
Your body and its physical interests seem to interfere with your spiritual progresss. You are trying to rise, yet bogged down by the "enemy".

You might consider punishing your body, to speed the spiritual process. Fasting, derpriving yourself of sleep or ignoring your health may sound holy. All are wrong.

Says the Torah, "Help him". Work with your Chomer, inspire your Self to become your partner. When you know how to use a donkey, it can carry more than you can- for a farther distance.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Get attitude!

Most people I know want to grow spiritually. Maybe we all have different speeds we'd like to travel at, but the general direction is the same.

It gets frustrating when you're trying to develop, but keep slipping back into old habits. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, three steps back.

Here are four attitudes to look out for. Each of them is dangerous to personal development. They're all culled from one of Judaism's most important historic dramas- the splitting of the Red Sea.

As the world's mightiest army bore down on the Jews, trapped by the sea, four reactionary theories emerged.

One group said: "Let's rather jump into the sea!" They felt it better to commit suicide than to contemplate reverting to slavery.

Another said: "Let us surrender!". They believed that life as a slave better than no life.

The third crowd argued for a last-ditch fight against the advancing army.

And the last group figured the best response to crisis would be to pray.

None was right.

G-d refuted each argument by telling Moses: "Tell the people to march on!"

What a lesson in spiritual growth!

Torah, the ultimate book of life-lessons, predicts the course of each of our lives. We will all be inspired to leave our personal "Egypt" and embark on a journey of discovery. No sooner have we done so, we'll feel uncertain of our decision: The way forward looks impossible, and old habits are quite comfortable.

At that stage, if we adopt any of the four attitudes, we don't stand a chance.

Translated into personal terms:

1) "Dive into the deep-end of spirituality and never return to normal life." Judaism does not believe in ascetism or living the hermit-life. We were put on this Earth to inspire the world, not to run from it.

2) "Become a slave again". A healthy Jew cannot live on auto-pilot. It's not enough to engage the world (including its dark "Egypt" alleys) because you have to (but you'd rather be meditating). A Jew must at all times be full of life and enthusiasm.

3) "Go to war". Sometimes it feels holy to nitpick and get stuck on every spiritual issue until it's resolved. It's a noble idea, but you'll never move forward.

4) "Pray". When it's time to challenge yourself to move, it's not time to defer to G-d. Sure, we need His assistance every step of the spiritual road, but we cannot simply pass Him the buck.

When in spiritual crisis, get the right Jewish attitude: March on! As long as you have your personal Mt. Sinai in sight, keep moving towards it.

You'll be surprised how the whole world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going.

Friday, February 02, 2007

BEWARE: Don't scratch!

Al Gore and his environmentalist colleagues could take a page out of our book. Judaism has got to be the only religion that dedicates a day as “Rosh Hashanah” for trees.

Tu Bishvat is not only a day to recall the value of trees in society. It is a day to reflect on the lessons that trees teach us about life. “For man is the tree of the field,” says the Torah. Chassidic teaching highlights various similarities between trees and people- each needs good roots, and should ultimately produce fruit.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons from a tree relates to bringing up children.

You often see people’s names etched on tree barks. “John was here”, “Suzy loves Mark”, it’s gross disrespect to the tree, but the tree will survive.

But, if you had to make a tiny scratch on a seed, the whole tree would grow scarred.

This is the difference between children and adults. As an adult, negative exposure or habits may not ruin you. A child, though, is highly impressionable. A small “scratch” on a child’s fertile mind can affect their life’s outlook.

Tu Bishvat reminds us to nurture our little saplings with care. We parents need to weed out the words our children should never hear. We must guide them in proper behaviour, etiquette and respect- mainly by setting a good example. We need to think carefully about the images we allow them to see and the role models (real or fictional) that we encourage them to emulate.

If we tend out little gardens with care, vigilance and lots of healthy spiritual supplements, we will enjoy beautiful trees in years to come.

Monday, January 22, 2007

In the dark

Last week's rolling blackouts across South Africa got many of us a little hot under the collar. It's frustrating to try work without power. It's more frustrating to try travel through intersections that are gnarled up because the traffic lights don't work.

What really got people fuming was the poor excuse offered by Eskom, the country's power supplier. Their contention was that growth in South Africa has progressed so rapidly, that they haven't yet created the infrastructure to deal with the country's energy needs.

What would they prefer? That the economy not grow? That we slowly slide into Third World status?

Every thinking person appreciates the nonsensical nature of this argument.

Unless, we are making it.

We often hear people complain about the load that their Jewish involvement places on them. They were originally happy to get involved in Jewish observance, but now find it tedious.

That's when people sometimes make the Eskomic error- instead of celebrating their growth, they start bemoaning their new energy tax. The next step could be to back-pedal and hope that less Jewish involvement might make life more manageable.

The answer is not to slide back spiritually, but to appreciate that growth needs investment.

Embrace progress, don't oppose it. It will illuminate your life.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Pharoah in Denial

Do you ever feel a twinge of idealism, a whisper of “I can do it”?

And, do you often find that small voice is drowned out by the cacophony of “no you can’t”?

“You’re too busy/ old/ tired/ stressed to do more than just survive”, your reality-check-system tells you.

“Focus on what you’ve got to do- earn a living, provide for your family, watch your health,” it continues, “One day, when things settle down, you can stop to meditate, to soar, to engage your spirit and live your dreams.”

We’ve all been given a tremendous resource- the Jewish soul. It is alive with possibility; it strains at the bit to transcend and transform. It whispers consistently that there are greater things we can achieve.

The soul’s optimism is cut short by the Voice of Reason, “Don’t waste your time with fantasies! This is the real world and you’re stuck in it, a hamster on a wheel. Nobody has escaped it and neither will you.”

This is life in Egypt.

“Let my people go” was not simply Moshe’s challenge to Pharaoh, it is the call of every Jewish soul.

Pharaoh was in denial: “I don’t know Hashem, and I will not let the People leave!” In Hebrew, the Torah emphasizes that he said, “I don’t know Havaye (the name spelled Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey). Pharaoh was prepared to acknowledge Elokim, the name of G-d that runs Nature. He accepted that humans can engage the Creator of the natural order. He refused to accept, however, that humans can tap into a supernatural reality, represented by Havaye.

His voice echoes in our minds still today. His is the voice that cajoles us into thinking we are stuck in the rat race like everyone else. Our inner Pharaoh leaves us in denial, believing that Hashem’s message for our spiritual liberation is fantasy.

Our challenge is to silence his cynicism, and listen to our inner voice. Our objective is to believe in our innate potential- and to realize it.

The journey out of Egypt begins with a single step.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Who's your boss?

Remember the story of the Jewish slaves in Egypt? Do you ever feel like you're slaving away?

We know that the Torah is not a history book, but a book of lessons. In fact, the first Chabad Rebbe recommended that we "live with the times" by analyzing the weekly Torah portion. Each week's story is the story of our lives- and usually perfectly timed.

Tomorrow's portion tells us how the Children of Israel became slaves in Egypt. Read a little closely, and you'll see that their main job was to build cities for Pharaoh. Even without the taskmasters, the lashes and the severe punishments, building cities for Pharaoh is not a job for a Jew. It's the antithesis of everything we stand for.

Jews were put on earth to build a home for G-d. He endowed us with special abilities, to transform the mundane world into a holy place.

Every Mitzvah that we do is a brick in that Divine structure. We become fulfilled each time we lay another spiritual brick.

Pharaoh is the Jew's nemesis. His kingdom is the whisper in our ear that life is all about the here and now; about cars and homes and salaries and designer labels. In his own words, Pharaoh announced to Moses: "I don't know G-d".

When we focus our energy solely on careers, money and prestife, we build Pharaoh-cities.

Ask yourself this question every once in the while: "Who is my boss? Do I invest my energies in realizing G-d's purpose for Creation, or do I work for Pharaoh?"

Are you ready to face another year?

Well, 2007 is upon us. For some it means new college courses, for others new jobs- and for most people more of the same.

After a good break, it's often a little difficult to get back into things. It was so relaxed and peaceful, we could do the things we enjoy. Now- back to the grindstone.

Give it a week and you'll hear people start complaining: "It feels like I was never away..."

How do you head back to work and not get bogged down?

Just the other day we read an important insight from the weekly Torah portion. When Jacob headed down to Egypt after discpvering that his long-lost son, Joseph, was there, it was a difficult move.

Jacob had lived in the serene, spiritual environment of Israel for two decades. Now, he had to migrate to Egypt, the land of restriction and spiritual darkness. He was that concerned about the move, that G-d had to reassure him it was ok to go.

So, before getting there, Jacob set a plan in motion that would protect him from being entrapped by Egypt. He sent his fourth son, Yehudah, to establish a Yeshivah.

With that, our forefather unveiled the secret of keeping your head above water: Before you get back into the rat race, set a time to learn Torah. Torah will empower you to overcome stress, boredom and the monotony of daily living.

So, before you get back into things, set up your personal "yeshivah". Commit to some regular Torah class(es) for 2007. It will add flavour to your year- and help you keep your head above water.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A matter of Perspective

I've just come across this article, it's an interesting perspective:

It's All a Matter of Perspective
Rabbi Shea Hecht, Chairman NCFJE

There are times that it's all a matter of perspective. Things that happen may
seem to be sending us one message, but with some analytical thinking we can see
through the façade and recognize their true colors.

Over Chanukah UPS refused to deliver packages to Jews in the West Bank and
Golan Heights. Because of the violence and mayhem in the Middle East, to many
that would seem like sound judgment, the problem is that they felt perfectly
comfortable delivering packages to Muslims in Arab areas, even in those areas
that are run by terrorists.

In an article titled "Package Apartheid: UPS is Official Delivery Service of
the Jihad", Debbie Schlussel wrote that a friend told her that UPS told her it
does not deliver packages beyond the green line. Additionally, UPS would not
deliver even to parts of Israel that are within the "Green Line," such as the
Golan Heights.

When UPS was called to verify the facts a worker read the following
statement: UPS service is provided to and from most addresses within Israel and
the Palestinian Authority area, except for Jewish settlements in the West Bank,
a few remote areas in the Golan Heights, and the Southern Negev desert. He then
confirmed that though the above-mentioned Jewish areas were "undeliverable", one
could send a package to "Palestinian" areas of the West Bank, to terrorist
infested Ramallah and to Arab areas in the Golan Heights.

When asked for a reasonable explanation for this differentiation between the
Jewish and Muslim areas, the UPS worker said that packages could not be sent to
the Jewish areas "for security reasons. It's dangerous there." Since Palestinian
areas are well known for their anti-Western violence that reasoning is almost

This revelation engendered quite a bit of anger towards UPS including a
proposed boycott of their services and the use of (German owned!) DHL instead,
with Ms. Schlussel going so far as to say that UPS stands for United Palestinian

However, a little perspective changes UPS's actions from negative to
positive. For the longest time Jews have been pleading for someone - anyone - to
acknowledge what we all know. Simply put, though they protest otherwise, the
Muslims are safe in their own little towns. It's the Jewish areas that are not
safe. It's the Jews who have the Kassams rained down on them daily, who are in
danger from the cowardly suicide bomber or deadly intruders onto their land and
property. There is no need to be upset at UPS because they are validating what
we all know is true - that the Jewish areas simply need more protection.

I think the story should be publicized, but only to prove our point. Jewish
areas are not protected. They are so unsafe that even UPS won't go there for
fear of sharing in the violence that is perpetrated on the Jews in those areas.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Saddam & Moshiach?

This is something really interesting:

As Jews, we believe emphatically that nothing happens by chance. The timing of every event is precise and fits the Divine master plan.

So, when the Iraqi courts chose to execute Saddam on the day before the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, it got me thinking.

There are a number of fasts scattered throughout the Jewish year. 10th Tevet is one of the more serious fasts. If it falls on a Friday, you still fast, even though you are normally forbidden from fasting just before Shabbos.

10th Tevet commemorates when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon's troops laid siege to Jerusalem. Seven months later, they destroyed Judaism's holiest site, the Temple. In a sense, the 10th of Tevet marks the beginning of that destruction and even of the subsequent destruction of the second Temple by the Romans over 400 years later. That's why it is an extra bad day on our calendar.

When Moshiach comes, each of the year's fasts will become holidays. Logically, the fast that represents the start of all the negativity is the first one that needs to go. (In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained this process at length on 10th Tevet 1991.)

How is the fast of Tevet "reversed"? Consider the following:

Saddam Hussein considered himself the Nebuchadnezzar's heir, sworn to complete the mission of destroying Israel.

"Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history.
And what is most important to me about Nebuchadnezzar is the link between the
Arabs' abilities and the liberation of Palestine. Nebuchadnezzar was, after all,
an Arab from Iraq, albeit ancient Iraq. … That is why whenever I remember
Nebuchadnezzar I like to remind the Arabs, Iraqis in particular, of their
historical responsibilities. It is a burden that should… spur them into action
because of their history." (Fuad Matar, Saddam Hussein: A Biographical and Ideological Account of His Leadership Style and Crisis Management)

In the late 1980s he promoted the Iraqi Arts Festival called "From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein." He also had a replica of Nebuchadnezzar's war chariot built and had himself photographed standing in it. He ordered images of himself and Nebuchadnezzar beamed, side by side, into the night sky over Baghdad as part of a laser light show. And he spent millions rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar's capital city.

When Saddam attacked Kuwait in 1990, the Rebbe referred to an ancient Midrash that predicts how the "king of Persia" will attack an Arabic king and throw the world and Israel into confusion. Persia, Babylon, Iraq- are all really the same region. The Midrash concludes that the entire episode is a prologue to Moshiach.

  • In Moshiach's time fast days become happy days,
  • It all begins with converting the 10th of Tevet (source of all negativity),
  • The 10th of Tevet is the day that Babylon rose up against Jerusalem,
  • Saddam saw himself as the scion of Nebuchadnezzar,
  • Saddam is executed the day before 10th Tevet and buried on the day itself!

Sounds like an important message from the "Big Boss"...