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.