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.