Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A "previously unheard-of terrorist group"

We now have a new kid on the terror-monger block, the so-called "Decca Mujahideen". They're the amoral beasts who wreaked havoc in Mumbai and slaughtered six of our own in the city's Chabad House.

It seems as if each time there's a new terror attack in the world, there's a new group that pops up with it.

Honestly, I find it difficult to believe that a fledgling group tucked away in a Pakistani village has the capacity or resources to train and arm the professional assault team that attacked India's financial capital last week.

Around the world, governments and anti-terror agencies are being distracted by the "previously unheard-of" group theory. These shop-front splinter cells are simply a deflection from the big-daddy, mega-terror states and ideologies that sponsor them.

But, I'm not an expert on geopolitics nor on terrorism and don't believe a short vent here will solve these problems.

I do believe that our inner worlds reflect whatever plays out on the global stage- and that is where we need to focus our attention.

Each of us has a core of goodness, values and integrity. We also have a distracting side that will do anything to mislead and confuse us. It's the old Yetzer Tov (good inclination) v. Yetzer Horah (evil inclination) scenario.

You try to develop your spiritual side, but your negative impulses kick in- pulling in any direction but the one you know you should follow.

With minimal focus, you can identify your enemy. He's the one telling you how tired you are, how busy you are, how unrealistic your spiritual expectations are. When you know your enemy, you can remain alert to his attacks and commit yourself to thwarting them.

Of course, your internal enemy does not simply continue using old strategies, keeping himself in your sights and allowing you easy access to self-development.

Just when you think you've brought peace to your personal world, a "new" group attacks. If you've become a little more frum, you're suddenly hit with the "holier-than-thou" challenge; once you've mastered keeping your mouth shut and not spreading all that juicy gossip, your judgmental mind comes to life.

If you're not thinking, you could fall for the gag that you've conquered the serious areas of inner-struggle and now have a "new group" to address. If you are thinking, you'll appreciate that any small assault on your spiritual growth is sponsored by the mega-terrorist within. Until you've uprooted him, you'll keep on battling.

How do you oust your Innerdinejad?

Darkness runs from light. Concentrating your energies on fighting your frailties will tire you out. Investing extra energy in doing even more of the right stuff will empower you- and weaken your enemies.

Friday, December 05, 2008


This has been the longest week to have ever flown by. Each day has brought a blur of news reports, countless blog-tributes and heart-searing images that will be indelibly etched in all our memories.

I boarded a plane at JFK airport last Wednesday, soaring on the high of a spectacular Chabad rabbi's convention. The world was still intact.

I crash landed as I walked our of the airport in Johannesburg and heard the unspeakable news. Instead of my usual routine of catching my wife up on the stories, encounters and "farbrengens" of my annual NY recharge, we both stayed glued to our Tehillim (Psalm) books and Internet.

Moments before Shabbos, we got the confirmation we wanted to never hear...

Last week, with exacting precision, darkness incarnate pierced the warmth of Chabad Mumbai and the hearts of Jews around the world. Six of our brothers and sisters were brutally cut down in what was always a haven in the madness of India’s financial centre.

Only now, the haze is lifting somewhat, the jumble of emotion beginning to come into focus. While there was so much to say, there was nothing I could say for the last week.

The dam wall is cracking, thoughts cascading out along with an urgency to do; to make a difference.

Considering the meticulous planning that preceded this attack, you have to wonder why they selected the modest Chabad House rather than the magnificent (and more central) Knesseth Eliyahoo Shul. Built in 1884, it is certainly more of a Jewish icon than Nariman House.

Knesseth Eliyahoo represents the Judaism that was, while Chabad housed Judaism with a future. The Chabad House and its dedicated directors brought Judaism to life in an otherwise dwindling community. Pharaoh’s ghost has returned to try once more to eradicate the promise of a Jewish tomorrow.

Yet, Pharaoh is again trounced as baby Moshe is plucked from the clutches of savagery; as his family swears he will one day return to lead the Jewish community in Mumbai; as world Jewry unites in an unprecedented fashion and pledges to add light in a world turned dark.

I remember, in the 80’s when the Rebbe called on us all to name our private homes Chabad Houses. He even wanted us to hang “Chabad House” signs on our front doors.

"Chabad House" is not a restricted brand, Chabad Shliach (emissary) is not an elite club. It’s time to take up the challenge: use your home as a hospitality base, invite your friends and family to do an extra Mitzvah.

Become the phoenix that rises with greater force each time they try to destroy us.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Moshiach & Obama

No, he’s not the Moshiach, if that’s what you thought I meant. Sorry.

I’ll be honest, this time last year I had no idea who Barack Obama was. In January I heard a speaker predict that Illinois Senator Obama would be the next president of the United States. I went home to Google his name, doubtful that I would ever need to remember it.

Incredibly, here’s a man who went from near-obscurity to the most powerful position in the world overnight.

As Jews, we need to look for the lesson in stories that touch our lives or capture our imaginations.

The Rambam writes that every person has the capacity to change the whole world. “Nice theory,” we all think. Well, we have now seen: “Yes we can!”

People often ask me if I really believe that one day a religious Jew (read: Moshiach) will suddenly emerge as the unchallenged leader of the world. Well, an African American did it in a country that sits on a deep racial rift, despite all claims to the contrary.

Did Hashem push Obama to win so he would pull America out of economic turmoil and war?

I don’t know.

Did He put him there because he’d look after Israel’s interests?

I have my doubts.

Maybe, He wanted to ease us into accepting that leaders can emerge from nowhere, so that when the Ultimate Leader suddenly appears and promises true peace and prosperity- we are not taken by surprise.

May Hashem send us that leader we’ve always dreamed of- now.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who's it all about, anyway?

Apparently sibling rivalry is as old as siblings themselves. Consider Cain and Abel- they only had each other (although the Midrash indicates they also had sisters), yet look how they fought.

You have to wonder how Cain, reared by parents who spoke to G-d Himself (in fact, they chatted just before he knocked his brother off) went so extremely off the rails- and murdered his own brother!

This may just have been the first of thousands of conflicts that were sparked by religion. After all, the Cain-Abel fallout started as a religious exercise, each bringing an offering to G-d. They experienced the typical “my-way-to-G-d-is-better-than-your-way”. Only, in this case, G-d took sides.

Cain offered a simple grain-offering. Abel sacrificed a prized animal. G-d accepted Abel’s offering and turned away from Cain.

Abel was furious- not with G-d, but with his brother. Instead of contemplating why G-d had ignored him, he shifted the blame to Abel.

Cain didn’t bring an offering to serve G-d, but to satisfy himself. Cain wanted to get away with the bare minimum to satisfy himself that he had serviced G-d. Abel happily stretched himself beyond his means to satisfy G-d.

“Commitment to G-d” that’s based on the what’s-in-it-for-me philosophy can have devastating results. Religion and spirituality are about Higher Purpose, not Self.

If our world had more Abels and fewer Cains, we’d be living in peace.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Sukkah- template for the Jewish home

Ever since the Jews left Egypt some 3500 years ago, we've been wandering the globe. Be it due to pogroms, expulsions or our innate itch for change, we've crisscrossed the globe numerous times through our history.

That may explain why we resonate with the Sukkah- a temporary home that can be set up quickly just about anywhere. In a sense, the Sukkah represents the Jewish home: It's not rooted in one place, requires little to build and can be constructed from readily accessible materials.

But, I suspect there's more to the Sukkah's message for a Jewish home. After all, the Torah expects us to make it our home- in every sense- for a full week right at the start of the Jewish year. Whatever we do in the first days of our year impacts how the rest of the year progresses- and Sukkah is no exception.

To build a kosher Sukkah, you need to have two primary elements:

1. Walls that are stable.
2. A roof that is not.

If your Sukkah walls flap in the wind, your Sukkah may not be kosher. A Sukkah's roof that is impermeable is a no-no (you need to see the stars or at least let the rain in).

Regardless of where in the world our People has made its home, we have always built on these two principles.

Our walls are solid. What people do in their societies is their business, but we preserve an environment of our own inside our homes. Our Jewish identity remains pristine, safely preserves inside the stable walls that define us, regardless of where we are.

And, no matter how tough our situation might be, we keep an eye out for the heavens. There is no firm ceiling to our potential, to the possibility for change and improvement. At all times, we remain aware of the gaps above us that allow us to dream, to transcend the here-and-now, and to succeed.

Happy Sukkos!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And now?

Yom Kippur a powerful time.

And this year was extra powerful. Boruch Hashem, we had a full-house for the Shul services, everyone was focused on davening and connecting and the atmosphere was electric. We ended Neilah on a high with the sounds of "Shema Yisroel" and the lively Napoleon's March reverberating in our ears.

Soon enough, the last Shul members headed home and the kids went to sleep. In the quiet I mused over how Yom Kippur catapults us into transcendence, and then leaves us in suspended animation. Our challenge is to crystallize the experience, capture the high, take it home and live differently for the next year.

But how?

By the next morning, I had my answer.

Dr. Schneur Levin had been my paediatrician. I have very fond memories of his boundless love for us kiddie-patients, his quirky humour and his eccentric homemade remedies. Visits to the doctor fun and his house-calls (yes, he still did house-calls) lifted the mood of the whole family.

I hadn't seen Dr. Levin for at least 25 years. I "outgrown" him and moved on to a regular GP a couple of years before my Barmitzvah and we only crossed paths sporadically over the next few years.

On Friday morning, I heard that Dr. Levin had passed away. I decided to attend his funeral to say a final thank-you for all the amazing things he did for me as a kid.

As the funeral procession made its way through the lines of graves, I walked alongside an old friend's father.

'They could have written a book on him," he said, "I could tell you a hundred of stories about him".

"Ok," I prompted, "Then at least tell me one."

Dave told me how Schneur Levin had attended the "Jewish Government" school in Doornfontein. Apparently, the school still operates today as a regular government school (there are no Jews living in that part of Johannesburg any longer).

Some years ago, Dr. Levin visited the school, probably for "old times sake". He chatted to the staff, walked the familiar corridors and reminisced about the "old days". He also paged through the old school journal and found the entry from the day his brother had fallen in the playground and broken his leg.

The journal entry recorded how the school had called for an ambulance, which had cost the equivalent of 25c, to take him to hospital.

Now, Dr. Levin knew that his parents did not have that sort of money in those days and realised that the school must have paid for the ambulance.

Without hesitating, he calculated the 30-or-so years worth of interest on the 25c and handed the school an donation to that effect!

That's when I realised it was no coincidence that Dr. Levin was escorted from this world on that day. After all, he held the clue to translating the inspiration of Yom Kippur: Be a mentsch.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shopping through life

I'll admit it publicly: I'm not a great shopper. Unless it's a bookshop, I'm itching to get out from the moment I arrive.

Pick 'n Pay Hypermarket in Norwood is the Jewish woman's shopping mecca- and a shopaphobe's nightmare. Certain times of year transform this normally hectic palace of purchase into chaos unleashed. Pre-Yom Tov is one of those times. Mix pre-Yom Tov with a public holiday plus end-of-month shopping and you have a recipe for bedlam.

My wife and I arrived, set on getting what we needed and getting out in record time. Our headlong thrust slowed to a crawl as we bumped into at least one friend/ congregant/ shiur-attendee per aisle. At one point I doubted we'd make it home in time for Rosh Hashanah.

Relief at seeing the tills looming ahead was also short-lived. Long lines snaked back into the store from each one of them and it seemed that nobody was moving (I figured that we'd at least have a minyan if we were still there by Yom Tov).

Fortunately, my personal Moshiach arrived in the nick of time in the form of the ever-jovial Rabbi Yehoshua Chaiton, who pulled his overflowing shopping cart alongside our twin trolleys.

"So," he began with a mischievous smile, "What's the Kabbalah of shopping?"

We had plenty of time to ruminate while on line, and we worked out that everything you need to learn about life, you could learn in a supermarket:

For a start, as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) says, "You are born against your will". We have no option but to shop, the merchandise doesn't come to us of its own accord.

Once you're in the store, you wander through the aisles, selecting products and placing them in your cart. You may have the whole supermarket mapped out and follow a carefully planned route from the paper products to the freezer section. Or you might run haphazardly back and forth as you remember what you should have picked up three aisles earlier.

Some of us know where we're headed in life, others go in circles.

An interesting supermarket phenomenon is the way you keep bumping into the same people again and again as you go along.

Some people keep coming into our lives too- we don't always know why they keep appearing, and sometimes they even seem to get in the way.

Now, imagine coming from a small town with nothing more than a one-man convenience store and entering a supermarket for the first time. You'd stumble around wide-eyed at the variety and the sheer quantity of products. You may even be tempted to take "one of these" and "one of those" and pile your shopping cart high. You'd soon realise, though, that there's only so much your shopping cart can hold, and only so much you can use.

Life offers diverse experiences and opportunities, but nobody has it all. Take what you can handle and make a success of it, rather than trying to get everything.

As you meander through the rows of products, you might not find what you're looking for. Luckily, help is at hand. Look out for people wearing the store uniform and they will readily assist you. Just be sure to ask the store employees for advice and not the casual packers, who may look like they know what's what, but are really only familiar with one product.

Look around you and you'll find guides for life, people who know more than you do and can make your journey more pleasant and your goals more accessible.

Every once in a while you'll encounter friendly, yet persistent people who want to sell you an "amazing new product" you don't want and most likely don't need.

Avoid the candy-coated superficialities of life, regardless of how well they may be marketed, and stay focused on what you really want to achieve.

Any good store will warn you to buy frozen goods last and your common sense says do the same with eggs.

Living life to the fullest is about prioritizing right, so that the sensitive parts of living don't crack under the pressure, and so you can experience special moments while they last.

Once you've selected everything you need, it's time to check out. You can really have whatever you want from the shop, but you have to pay for it. At the till, you may decide you don't really need an item or realise that the advertised price was wrong and the bargain you thought you were getting is really no bargain. No problem, you can discard the unwanted items before you pay.

Rosh Hashanah is checkout time for the year. As we line up at the Supernal Till, it's time to reflect on this year's journey. Did we rush through the aisles, collecting stuff or did we stop to greet the friends we met en route? What have we loaded in our life's trolley? Do we really want to take all the things of last year with us or would we rather get rid of some of the poor choices we've made, while we still can?

There's little time left before the New Year, but it's still not too late to run back into the store and add one or two things to our cart. Another mitzvah or an extra prayer; a smile or a phone call.

It's closing time for 5768, time to get your shopping in order.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Great Escape!

Rosh Hashanah is the New Year- we all know that. Logically, then, we are now at the end of the year. And “end of the year” means time to get away, doesn’t it?

It’s been a challenging year and most of us would probably appreciate a break before the third quarter. Imagine disappearing into the bush or to an exotic island just to escape it all…

The good news is Elul is a month of escape.

No, it’s not the Jewish December, where you leave your home, business and neighborhood, only to take your self (and your real issues) with you “on holiday”.

This is the time of year to get away from it all; to really escape.

Humans are designed with great ambitions, but frequently let themselves down. Our spirit guns for lofty achievements, but our natural cynicism and apathy keep us grounded. Eventually, we decide that who we are is who we will remain and there’s no point in trying to achieve spectacular things- at least not spiritually.

Hashem knows how we think, so He offers us 30 days a year to escape our self-mistrust and step into a world where anything is possible.

Like our Parsha’s “Cities of Refuge” that protected an inadvertent murderer from his victim’s avengers, Elul shelters us from every built-in mechanism we have that blocks soul-progress.

Simply put- if you daven a little extra, make it to a minyan, join a shiur or help another person during the next couple of weeks, the payoff will astonish you.

It’s time for the “Great Escape”- don’t squander the opportunity.

Friday, August 01, 2008

WARNING: Jewish terror plot!

A news report out of the Middle East this week warns of a Jewish terrorist ploy that will threaten one of Islam’s holiest sites. The article quotes a senior Islamic spokesperson who claims that a coordinated effort is under way in 200 locations globally to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque, on the Temple Mount.

If the article is correct, I could be arrested under International anti-terrorism laws.

The claim fingers Chabad as an extremist Jewish movement, looking to establish a new Temple in Jerusalem. Zahi Nujidat, of the Islamic movement, notes that a three-week course on the Beis Hamikdash being held at Chabad centers worldwide indicates the movement’s intentions to destroy Al Aqsa to make way for a Jewish Temple.

I guess they’re not wrong. We do yearn for our Temple to be rebuilt. We do study about it at this time of the year, because this is when we recall the Temple’s destruction- and when we are most hopeful for its restoration.

But, we don’t wish harm on anyone in the process; we’ve never attacked people in the name of religion.

We see our Temple as a source of peace for the whole world. Praying and hoping for its rebuilding means dreaming of a better world- for all.

Our Temple will reverberate with prayer-calls, but these will be voices of blessing, peace and goodwill for all people.

The Talmud notes that, if the nations of the world had appreciated how much blessing the Jewish Temple brought them, they would have sent their armies to Jerusalem- to protect it.

Terrorism may be threatened by our Bais Hamikdash, but upstanding citizens around the world have everything to gain when it is restored.

May it happen speedily!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tractor terror

Yet another Arab terrorist attack in Jerusalem, this time just a little closer to home. Ghasam Abu-Tir used a mechanical digger to smash three cars and a public bus, injuring 11 people before police shot him.

Just a few meters away, a large group of our local rabbis sat eating lunch. Some saw the tractor attack, the rest dived to the floor when the shooting began.

We’ve seen rocket attacks, suicide bombings, shootings and knifings in Israel. Now, it seems there’s a new terror tactic. It’s called “Beating ploughshares into swords”.

I remember a 1991 magazine article that described how Armscor had started using technology that had originally been developed for weapons’ production to produce better-quality tractors.

Over the last 15 or so years, the world has shifted towards converting military technology and hardware into peaceful uses. Radar, GPS, nuclear energy, Internet and satellites are the better known examples of war-technology being used for useful purposes. Lesser known would be Kleenex (originally designed for gas masks), disused rifles that comprise avalanche-prevention systems in the USA and testing performance and stability of trucks on tank-testing sites.

“Beating swords into ploughshares” is a prophecy regarding the Age of Moshiach. As we draw closer to that special time, the world is already starting to behave accordingly.

Well, at least most of the world, with the notable exception of East Jerusalem.

Shortly after the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbi Akivah and some colleagues were walking past the ruins, when a fox darted out of the site of the Holy of holies.

Seeing this, the rabbis began to cry. Rabbi Akivah laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” they challenged him.

“Why are you crying?” Rabbi Akivah retorted.

“We are crying, because we’ve just seen a fox run out of the site that was so holy only the Kohen Gadol was allowed to enter, and only once a year. This is exactly what the prophet Micha predicted: ‘Tzion will be plowed over as a field.’”

“And that’s why I am laughing,” Rabbi Akivah explained, “Seeing the prophecy of Micha has been fulfilled assures me that Isaiah’s prophecy of the Temple’s rebuilding will also be fulfilled.”
Jerusalem is being plowed over again, this time with mechanized ploughs. It fits the Three Weeks of mourning the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Now that we’re seeing Micha’s dire prediction happening all over again, let’s hope it means Isaiah’s prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dear Mr. Ahmadinejad, can’t you say something nice for a change?

Ali Shirazi (he’s the Iranian guy who threatened to “burn Israel” if provoked) chose the right week to open his mouth- only he doesn’t know it.

As Ahmadinejad oversees missile tests and Iranian clerics spew hate-speech, Jews are studying details of the same story, set in a similar region, at a different time.

Balak, king of Moab, was afraid of the Jews. He had witnessed their miraculous victories against mighty armies, his own neighbours and allies. He had seen this band of refugees become a powerful nation. Balak appreciated that conventional warfare had failed against these people in the past, and that he needed a special weapon.

Balak hired Balaam, a deeply spiritual man; a prophet renowned for his unique ability to harm with words. Most importantly, Balaam was an avowed anti-Semite.

Together, they chose a prime vantage point from which to launch their barrage against the Children of Israel. With the entire Jewish nation in his sights, Balaam set about preparing his unique ammunition- inescapable curses that would destroy the People more effectively than any army could.

Balak looked on smugly, impatiently waiting to see the Jews’ certain fate unfold before his eyes.
It never happened.

Balaam, who could only curse, only see the bad, only spout evil- blessed the Jews! Balak was beside himself, but Balaam was unstoppable as blessing after blessing spilled from his mouth.

What went right? How did this wholly toxic human being turn benevolent?

Balaam himself answered that in his blessing: “Mah tovu oholecho Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisroel- How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel”. Words that are so potent, we repeat them daily in our prayers.

As Balaam’s hateful eye focused on his intended victims, he was overwhelmed by their unusual camp-formation. Each tent was positioned so that everyone had complete privacy. Their unity and mutual respect made the Jews immune to Balaam’s verbal assault.

Love and respect for every Jew is potent stuff. It not only protects us from harm, it transforms our enemies and even causes them to bless us.

Let’s do more to show respect and concern for each other, to allow people their space and privacy, without ignoring their needs.

Let’s see what Shirazi and Ahmadinejad have to say then. It might be quite miraculous.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Today is Gimmel Tammuz.

I find this day difficult to define. Some will simply call it the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, but it is significantly more than that. A Tzadik’s passing is anything but ordinary.

This morning I bumped into a colleague who described how a congregant had asked him: "Do I wish you 'long life' today?"

No, it's not a mournful day.

It's not a festive day either. After all, Gimmel Tammuz reminds me of the good times when the Rebbe inspired us every single week, called on us to achieve the impossible and reminded us uneqivocally that G-d runs the world and that Moshiach is on our doorstep.

Gimmel Tammuz is a day suspended between day and night, between sadness and joy, between nostalgia and hope.

This is the nature of the day- as it has been for centuries. The 3rd of Tammuz became famous over 3000 years ago, when Joshua led the Jewish nation in conquest of the Promised Land.

Overwhelmed by the Jews’ miraculous victories, the people of Givon made a truce with the invading Israelites. Soon enough five kingdoms attacked Givon, who then called on Joshua for help. G-d assured Joshua that he’d defeat those powerful armies and Joshua led his forces into battle at the Ayalon valley.

Joshua’s troops closed in on this huge allied force and, by day’s end, were poised to defeat them. It was getting late and the light was failing. After dark, they would have to stop fighting, which would allow the Canaanite forces to regroup.

G-d intervened and allowed Joshua to stop the sun just above the western horizon and suspend the moon as it rose in the east. During this unique daylight savings time, Joshua wiped out the attacking armies.

I’m sure you’ve heard that story, it’s very well-known. I doubt you knew it had happened on Tammuz 3rd. Most people don’t.

Gimmel Tammuz is a paradox. Both the sun and the moon share the sky. It is a day that’s outside of the ordinary- technically night, but still light.

On this day, the moon hangs in the darkening sky; reminding us of those wonderful times we had with the Rebbe, which are now on hold.

Yet, the sun has not set. Kabbalah defines a Tzadik’s yahrtzeit as a time of celebration, as his soul soars higher and his lifetime’s achievements resonate more strongly through the world.
Talmudic lore calls wicked people dead while they are still alive, and deems the righteous alive, even after their deaths. Jewish mysticism adds that a Tzadik’s impact on the world increases after his passing.

The Rebbe’s yahrtzeit is not simply a nostalgic time, but an empowering time.
Gimmel Tammuz is when- in the words of the Zohar- “Crying is entrenched in one side of my heart and joy in the other”.

Today reminds me how much all us Chassidim- and thousands of others- miss the Rebbe, as it reminds me that he is always with us. It is a day full of memories of his crystal-clear guidance to individuals and to nations; guidance we can still find today.

And these memories will reassure me of his crystal-clear vision that our world is in mid-preparation for Moshiach.

G-d first made Gimmel Tammuz famous with a spectacular miracle in the Ayalon valley. May He honour this Gimmel Tammuz with an even greater miracle.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mountains of darkness

Typically Jewish, we were late for the start of the hike.

Truthfully, it was African time, not Jewish time that delayed us. Most of our group arrived on the Monday morning of the hike.

None of their luggage did- all our kosher supplies included.

We veered our way down the narrow, muddy road to Arusha National Park, our bus dodging pedestrians, bicycles, goats and chickens. A brief stop at the gate, an even bumpier ride and we were "there".

Our group looked the part in our boots, Raybans, camelbacks and overloaded backpacks. Our bodies tingled with anticipation as our minds focused on the challenge ahead. We were ready.

That's when I noticed that we couldn't see the top of the mountain. In fact, we couldn't see most of the mountain- it was mostly above the cloud. Doubt flitted through my mind. If the top was too high to see, was it too high to reach?
I had hiked Table Mountain and that wasn't easy; the Drakensberg's Amphitheatre had been trying too. I clearly remembered seeing the tops of both those mountains before setting off to conquer them. This mountain was high.

It was just as well I had trained properly for this hike.

Yes, I walked daily, but that's not how a rabbi trains for an expedition like this. Real training took place in the library, not the gym. I invested time exploring what the spiritual take on mountains is; Chassidic teaching prepares you for everything.

Kabbalah talks about two types of mountains: Mountains of "light" and mountains of "darkness".

Chassidic thought makes sense of this enigmatic reference: A mountain is a piece of earth that has been forced skyward. It represents a person's striving to rise from the banality of life to get closer to G-d. Perhaps that's where the human urge to climb mountains comes from; the innate soul-calling to rise beyond normalcy.

Sometimes you can predict your spiritual trajectory in advance- you can see where the spiritual path will lead you. Even before you take the first step of your spiritual journey, you know where you plan to end up.

That's a mountain of "light", a mountain with a peak you can spot from the ground.

Climbing that sort of a mountain takes effort, but it makes sense. You appreciate that every step you take brings you that much closer to your objective. You will always find doable mountains to climb.

Occasionally, you need to take a leap of faith; to go for a goal so impossible you can never see yourself doing it.

That's the mountain of darkness; the peak is so high, you can't tell where it is. You need to trust other people to guide you to where you never believed you could go.

Climbing that sort of mountain takes everything you've got. It's more difficult than you could ever imagine, almost breaking you in the process. Many times along the way, you feel you'll never get there or that you're wasting your time.

When you do reach the top, you're a changed person.

The clouds were still there, Meru's peak invisible. We were ready for the impossible.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rural bliss

I've just returned from a fascinating trip to Tanzania. I joined a group of a dozen men from Chabad of Hendon to climb Mt Meru, Kilimanjaro's neighbouring little cousin (Meru's about 800m shorter than Kili).

Climbing a mountain is an extreme experience. I've been hiking before, but this was beyond anything I could have anticipated. In the tranquil setting of unspoilt nature, pushing your body to the limits, your mind opens to little truths about life that are worth bringing home to suburbia.

These last few days back home have allowed me a chance to reflect and unpack this amazing experience- full of insight.

Living in South Africa, I thought I was prepared for the African experience. But, northern Tanzania is far more rural than anywhere near my home and the simplicity took me by surprise.

Our guide collected us from Kilimajaro airport and zipped us along the one road that leads into the town of Arusha. Both sides of the road are mud paths, cluttered with bicycles (many veering into oncoming traffic), loads of pedestrians and a mix of boney cattle, goats, donkeys and chickens.

Tropical vegetation lines the streets, banana trees are everywhere. Beyind that, shacks and squalor.

It seems that Arusha's population is generally destitute. A fraction of the community benefits from the thriving tourist trade; the rest live off the land.

Back home we always hear how poverty causes crime. Nobody warned us against muggers or armed robbers in Arusha.

Besides which, the people were so friendly. Everyone greeted us with the traditional Swahili "Jumbo!", they all smiled. Over the whole week, I didn't see any road rage or arguments, our driver didn't even lose his cool when his Landrover packed up half way up a 4x4 track at Ngorongoro Crater.

There were no taxis available on the day I had to head home, so our tour guide arranged a friend to take me to the airport. He took me- all the way in, insisted on carrying my bags, and wouldn't leave until he knew I was going to make the flight (several big-deal motorcades had blocked the roads and we ran very late).

When I asked him if people were generally poor in Arusha, he assured me that my analysis had been accurate.

"So, if they are all poor, how is it that everyone looks happy?" I asked him.

"Because they are happy," he replied, simply.

"How can they be happy? They have nothing," I pressed him.

"Nothing?" he was surprised, "They have peace! We have had no conflict in our country for decades- that is why we are happy."

Simple, isn't it? Money doesn't buy happiness; peace does.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Over your head?

Kabbalah? We’re practical people. We relate to making a living, keeping the family happy and the pragmatic elements of being Jewish.

Mystical ideas are beyond us, mention spiritual realms, sefiros, Divine names and they simply fly over our head.

Today’s Lag Baomer, a day dedicated to celebrating one our nation’s greatest mystics. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, responsible for one of the most seminal Kabbalistic texts, the Zohar, died on this date.

He is the one who insisted that we celebrate the occasion each year. Since then, Lag Baomer is a fun-filled family field day, especially in Israel, where it’s essentially a national holiday.

If you been to Israel at this time of the year, you will have seen hundreds of bonfires dotting the landscape wherever you go. Burning pyres are certainly iconic of this festival.

The other icon (maybe lesser known) is a bow and arrow. You have to wonder why. Mystics and fire seem to gel, fire is unconfined by the shape and size of other physical entities. But, mystics and bows ‘n arrows? Sounds like a bad Shidduch!

I got to try my hand at archery a few Lag Baomers ago. While I tried to hit the bullseye, the defiant arrow insisted on landing lower than the target time after time.

That’s when the instructor stepped over and revealed the arrow’s secret: “Aim higher than the target- and you’ll hit it”.

Then and there, in the chilly dusk of an archery club, I got the secret of Lag Baomer. Mysticism might seem out of reach, but it doesn’t matter. Aim higher than you expect.

In fact, all of Judaism is about aiming higher than our goals. If we aim for mediocrity, we land up uninspired- and less than mediocre. When we aim for the impossible, we hit a healthy spiritual target.

Sometimes, we surprise ourselves and reach beyond the target too.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Round II

Important message from Israel’s Chief Rabbi: Due to unexpected circumstances, please note that Pesach actually begins this Sunday night!

If you think this message is far-fetched, it really happened. It was a long time ago, and the Chief Rabbi then was none other than Moshe himself.

What happened was a group of people volunteered to transport Yosef’s remains through the desert. When the first Pesach came around, they realized that they couldn’t participate in the Paschal lamb, because they were all impure.

This group went to complain to Moshe, who was stumped. Fortunately, he had 24/7 access to the Almighty, and received an answer for these people on the spot.

Had they never have asked, the Jewish nation would never have known that there’s a second chance at Pesach 30 days after the original for people who missed it.

This Sunday evening, we commemorate “Pesach Sheini”, the second Pesach, by eating some Matzah.

It is a beautiful time, with a powerful set of messages:
  1. Judaism always offers a person another chance, regardless of why they missed it the first time around.
  2. Never feel embarrassed to ask for a second chance- if you don’t ask; you don’t get.
  3. Your awkward situation may land up benefiting the whole community.
  4. When you need to play catch-up, Hashem helps you do a seven-day course in 24 hours.

Enjoy round II!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

3D Judaism

3D movies seem to be making a comeback. People seem to enjoy donning those paper glasses and ducking projectiles that appear to fly out at them.

No doubt, 3D makes an experience all the more real.

Jewish movie production seems to lag somewhat. We don’t have too many Torah-education blockbusters; certainly none in 3D.

What we do have, though, is a formula for 3D Judaism without the silver screen. It was introduced 2000 years ago, by Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi (and we’ve just read it this week in the 2nd chapter of Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers).

He explains: “Consider three things and you’ll never sin.” He does list three factors to consider, but there’s a cryptic message in this sentence- before you get to the list.

Judaism is clearly a spiritual discipline, designed to bring us closer to G-d.

There are those who feel that the best way to progress spiritually is to see the world in 1 Dimension.
There is G-d & spirituality and nothing else counts. They argue that, if you want to grow spiritually, you’ll have to lose touch with the world and focus all your energies on study, prayer and meditation.

Others see the process in 2D. On the one hand, there’s spirituality, Torah and mitzvos. On the other, there’s “real life”. They’ll tell you that you need to find the balance between developing your soul, and making a success of your life. You can’t do both at once, so you’ll need to allocate time and energy for each.

Torah teaches us to see a third dimension. Yes, there’s a spiritual paradigm (we go there when we’re at Shul or engaged in a Mitzvah). There is also a physical reality, mutually exclusive to that spiritual realm.

Then there is G-d. He is neither physical, nor spiritual. That means that He can be accessed through physical action, just as through spiritual meditation.

Torah says that you don’t have to wait until you’re at Shul to engage G-d or develop your soul. You can, and must, find that connection at work, during leisure time, in your personal relationships.

3D Judaism is when you unveil the essential bond between everything in your life and it’s Source. It is when you recognize G-d as being up close and personal at all times, under all circumstances.

And, if He is that close, His blessings are too.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lechaim Moshiach!

Everyone knows we Chabadniks are Moshiach-crazy. We talk about Moshiach all day, sing Moshiach songs, produce Moshiach newspaper ads, bumper stickers, posters, songs and even t-shirts.

On Pesach, we take it just one step further. For the last 250 or so years, we’ve hosted a welcome party for Moshiach at the end of every Pesach.

Our guest of honour hasn’t yet arrived at one of them, but that won’t deter us. It’s sort of like waiting at the airport’s arrivals gate for a relative. Just about every other passenger seems to walk through those doors before your family member emerges. You might get anxious over the delay, but you’ll keep standing there until the right person shows up.

Our Moshiach meal is something along those lines. And more.

A young boy once wanted an apple, but his father wouldn’t give it to him. The clever little guy hatched a perfect plan- he loudly said the full brocha over the fruit. Taken aback, his dad had no option but to give it to him.

We’d like to “force” our Father-in-Heaven’s hand the same way. We’ll set up the meal, invite the guests and drink the Lechaim- then He’ll “have to” send us the Main Attraction.

So, this Sunday afternoon, come say Lechaim for Moshiach. We’re really hoping he’ll be there to reply in kind.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Why Matzah?

Matzah? Delicious!

Well, not quite. I know some of you enjoy eating Matzah, but when it’s eight days straight (and especially if you don’t put anything on the Matzah, like us), it can get a bit much.

Why do we have to eat this tasteless, flour/water flat-bread?

Go ahead; consult your trusty Haggadah (which should be out by now) for an explanation. There it is, towards the end of the story of the Exodus. What does it say? Ah, yes, that we eat matzah because the dough of our forefathers didn’t manage to rise in the mad rush out of Egypt.

That’s what you’ve always thought, right?

One question: Before the Jews left Egypt, they had a special meal that Hashem had commanded.
On the menu was roast lamb (the Paschal sacrifice), maror and… that’s right, matzah!

That was before they rushed out of Egypt. They ate matzah then, well before midnight and the slaying of the firstborn. Jews in Egypt ate matzah because they were told to, not because they couldn’t manage to bake bread!

Like anything in Judaism, if you want to really understand what’s going on, you need to look a little deeper.

Matzah is made of dough that doesn’t rise. Puffed up chometz symbolizes ego. Flat and simple matzah represents humility.

There are two types of humility: You could work hard at being humble, train yourself to limit your ego; or you could be suddenly overwhelmed with a powerful realization of Hashem’s greatness that makes it patently obvious that there’s no room for your own ego.

When the Jews ate Matzah at their pre-Exodus meal, that was their own ego-deflation process. At the stroke of midnight, Hashem revealed Himself and their dough/ ego could not rise. As you stand before Hashem’s presence, you don’t feel yourself.

Which matzah do we eat on Pesach?

Glance into the Haggadah again. It says we eat matzah because the dough could not rise. Every Pesach, Hashem reenacts the Exodus in every spiritual detail. He reveals Himself and deflates our ego for us- opening the possibility for real spiritual growth- in leaps and bounds.

We just have to notice that He’s there.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Moon People

Giggling children run excitedly from one bright stall to the next enticing ride. Lively music mixes with the whooping of thrilled little ones and the screech of metal. Candy-floss and popcorn aroma fills the festive air here at the funfair.

I’m not a big fan of roller-coasters, but gladly take my kids on the Big Wheel. They’re impatient, and fret when we sit at the bottom of the wheel for a minute too long as new passengers alight.
Moments later, when the Wheel stops again and we’re at the top, they shout with glee- sure this top-of-the-world experience will never end. Slowly, the Wheel moves downward; they groan.

We’re moments away from the month of Nissan. Over 3300 years ago, on the first Nissan ever, G-d gave our nation our very first Mitzvah.

No, it wasn’t “I am the L-rd, your G-d”. Actually, it wasn’t any of the apparently fundamental faith-builders. His first instruction to us seems almost trivial: “This is how the Jewish calendar works”.

Wouldn’t you have expected Him to first lay the ground-rules? You know- let us know He is in charge that we are obliged to believe in Him, serve Him and pray to Him.

Why start with the calendar?

He wanted us to know that Jews are moon people. On the 1st day of Nissan 2448, G-d showed Moses the sliver of a new moon and said: “This is what your people will look for every 30 or so days, to define the new month.”

G-d wanted us to know what Jewish life is like. Jews don’t live the static, stable life of the sun; we fluctuate like the moon. We have our ups and downs.

Some days we’re on top of the world, confident that we’ll never fall. Other days, we hit rock-bottom and don’t know how we’ll ever come right.

G-d wanted to show us, from day one, that these swings are normal. He also wanted us to know, that when your moon looks like it’s faded away completely- look out for a new moon. When things look bleak, He assures us there lies the seed for new growth.

You only need to believe it. And look for it.

As the Rebbe Rashab once said: “Both those at the top of the ferris-wheel and those at the bottom are mistaken- neither will keep their position for long”.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Be a mentsch

This Shabbos we'll start reading the 3rd book of the Torah, Vayikra. It's opening message teaches: "Adam, A man who will bring from you a sacrifice to G-d".

Technically, this the intro to the laws of sacrifices. One level deeper, the Hebrew for "bring a sacrifice", yakriv, translates literally as "draw close". In other words, this section teaches us how to draw close to G-d.

Judaism uses four different words for humans. Adam refers to the most refined and developed of the four. You could probably say that Adam equates with what we'd call a mentsch.

Step one to draw close to G-d: Make sure that you are a mentsch.

Responding to terror

Hundreds of civilians were attacked in a terrorist ambush that targeted women, children and the infirm. The Jewish army responded swiftly and decisively, killing scores of insurgents and wounding hundreds of others.

This may sound like yesterday’s news, but it’s actually the Torah’s account of the first-ever terror attack against Jews- when Amalek ambushed our People soon after they left Egypt.

Every year, on the Shabbos before Purim, we are instructed to review this story and its lessons. It contains key aspects of how to deal with terror.

The nature of terror

Egypt was the World Superpower 3300 years ago. When miracle after miracle brought Egypt to its knees and the Jewish nation became the first slaves to ever leave Egypt alive, neighboring nations were concerned. After the world’s mightiest army disappeared underwater, Middle Eastern countries were shaken to their core.

40 years later, the nations of Canaan still shuddered as the Jews approached their borders. No thinking People would have dared to challenge the Children of Israel when G-d so patently destroyed their enemies.

Except one.

Amalek snickered at the jitters rumbling through the developed world. Laughing off the wild stories of Jewish miracles, Amalek ambushed the fledgling nation almost immediately after its miracle at the Red Sea.

Terror is insolent. It attacks indiscriminately, where sovereign armies would never strike, for no good reason.

The cause of terror

Jews are trained to look beyond what meets the eye. When evil grows in our world, we look inward to see how we may possibly be feeding it.

Only moments before Amalek attacked, the Jews had complained against G-d. With their own eyes, they had seen miracle after miracle in Egypt; they had crossed the sea on dry land; they were living in the climate-controlled environment of the Clouds of Glory, and G-d’s pillar of fire guided them at night. Yet, with G-d’s spectacular presence staring them in the face, when they ran out of water, they complained: “Is G-d with us or not?”
Rashi, the most important commentator on Torah, provides a telling metaphor for their attitude: “A man was walking with his son on his shoulders. When the son asked for a drink, his father got him water and when he was hungry, dad provided a snack.

“After some time, the pair passed a man on the road. The son turned to him and asked: ‘Have you seen my father anywhere?’

“Incensed, the father dropped his son to the ground and a dog came and bit him.”

“Likewise,” Rashi explain, “When the Jews became blasé about G-d’s constant care and protection, He allowed Amalek to attack- to remind them not to take His attention for granted.”

Terror breeds when we overlook Hashem’s miracles; when we believe in our military might or political prowess rather than in our G-d.

The response to terror

No sooner had the Amalekites attacked, Moshe sent Joshua and a crack army to repel them. Moshe climbed a mountain to oversee the battle.

From atop the hill, Moshe raised his hands. As long as his hands were raised, the Jews had the advantage. When he tired and dropped his arms, the battle turned in Amalek’s favour.

Obviously, Moshe’s hands didn’t make or break the Jewish victory. His extended arms reminded the people to look to G-d for victory, to entrust Him with their success. As long as they reinstated G-d’s control, their enemies stood no chance against them. If they slipped back into the “is G-d with us?” mindset, they quickly faltered on the battlefield.

“Zachor, remember!” The Torah instructs us never to forget the Amalek story. Of all the Torah readings of the year, this is the one every Jewish person is required to hear.

Its message is eternal: Fight terror by improving your relationship with G-d. Thinking that we can fend for ourselves without Him or doubting His absolute control place our nation in a perilous position.

Far from Israel, we can still all make a difference. We must fight the spiritual battle, like Moshe atop the hill, strengthening our faith in Hashem.

Hopefully, Israel’s leadership learns to do the same.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Eight empty chairs in Jerusalem

Joy itself was struck down last Thursday evening.

Blood-splattered Torah books littered the violent scene, as the wounded were taken away. Eight young men, caught in the act of studying Torah, lay dead. This wasn’t 1938 Berlin, but 2008 Jerusalem.

On the eve of the month that should be the most joyous on the Jewish calendar, evil stung at the soul of the Jewish People. London reverberated when its Underground was bombed and America shook as their Towers fell. A strike at a Yeshivah, in the heart of Jerusalem, is a blow to the heart of Jews everywhere.

We are left reeling. How could this happen?


Studying Torah!

In Jerusalem!!

There are those who will accuse the impotent Israeli government, while others will blame a society that glorifies death to its children. Some may even point a finger at the ever-apathetic world powers who don’t take a stand against terror.

Jews are taught to avoid blaming and rather look inward in troubled times. Our nation is smarting from a blow to our collective solar-plexus. Our nation needs to stop and think why something like this happens. More importantly, we need to reflect on what we can do about it.

Protests, letters to officials, coffee-table complaining are not going to change the situation. None of us is about to pack up and join the IDF. So, what can we do?

For a start, we can pay attention to the timing. We’re days away from Purim, another time in another place where they tried to kill us.

Persia’s Jewish community at that time was more politically connected than any other Jewish community in history. We had one of “ours” as queen, and the king owed a senior minister of his cabinet (who happened to be the Jewish spiritual leader) a serious favour. We could have pulled out all political stops and reversed Haman’s plot in a flash.

But, the Jews of Persia learned something critical: No political strategy will succeed without Divine backing. So, they went to Shul, fasted for three days and committed themselves to Judaism like no preceding generation had.

Then, Esther went to the King.

Jews approach life differently. We each hold the key- regardless of how far we are from the crisis- to make a difference. Every Jew can do something significant to help Israel.

After the Holocaust, people commonly left an empty seat at their Seder table to commemorate a Holocaust victim. The Rebbe was adamantly opposed to this practice, arguing that a better response to the Nazis is to fill every extra seat with a Jew who wouldn’t otherwise be at a Seder.

Today, eight seats sit empty at a Yeshivah in the heart of our Homeland.

It is up to us to fill them. If terrorists want to try and rob us of Torah, then our response must be more Torah. We need to fill the Torah-gap that was left last week at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Let’s take the challenge. Let’s each commit to eight additional Torah study periods (they can be just 10 minutes long) between now and Pesach in memory Jerusalem’s eight young martyrs.

When Hashem sees that our Jewish spirit doesn’t wane in the face of terror, He will surely bless us with the Purim blessing “Venahafoch Hu”, the transformation of sadness to joy and of darkness to light.

A Torah response to terror

Friday, March 07, 2008

Aah! The quiet life!

I returned a few days ago from a weekend wedding in Oudtshoorn (a small town in the semi-desrt Karoo region of S.A.). What a wonderful experience!

We flew into the picturesque coastal town of George, drove through 40 minutes of lush countryside and breathtaking mountain passes, and arrived in the stillness that is Oudtshoorn.

Quaint old-style homes, stores and restaurants dot the lazy main road of this town. Chirping birds replace the roar of traffic and a crystal-blue sky illuminates the whole area.
Admittedly, people looked twice at the hat & beard, but were all genuinely friendly to us- at Pick ‘n Pay, our hotel and on the street.
What’s left of the 600 Jewish families is about two minyanim of warm, close-knit, salt-of-the-earth good people. Sitting in the same room as them is inspiring; a reminder of the humanness people should have.

Oudtshoorn’s sandstone Shul stands proud on the main road. A working mikveh, South Africa’s first ever Jewish day school (now rented to a local nursery school), rabbis’ house (pity there’s no rabbi) and a large tract of land- all well maintained- sit behind it.

Many, perhaps most, of the community eats only kosher meat. Rabbi Maisels of Cape Town treks through once a month to shecht. Hundreds of kilometers away from kosher delis and bakeries, some still keep strictly kosher homes.

Shabbos in Oudtshoorn is the real deal- quiet, peaceful, restful. The wedding we went to celebrate was a communal/ family affair, as simchas were intended.

I couldn’t help but wonder why all the Jews had left.

Why do we opt to live in the stress, pollution and noise of the globe’s great metropolises? Why are all major Jewish communities in the Londons, New Yorks and Joburgs of the world?

Wouldn’t you love to move to a crime-free, tranquil spot of ramrod-straight-farmer territory, less than an hour from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches?

I would.

But, that would miss the point.

Hashem placed us in this world to create “a home for Him in the lowest realm”. Now, as the spiritual universe goes, Earth is as low as it gets. On Earth, the dog-eats-dog madness of city-life is as low and dirty as possible.

Jews gravitate to those places, because we’re driven to make a difference. We’re naturally drawn to uplift and inspire a world that’s not naturally kosher.

Its’ nicer to live in Utopia; it’s more meaningful to radiate light into the coal-face.

Still, it’s good to visit rural spots once in a while- just to remind yourself what our world is supposed to look like.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Beating the darkness

It’s a warm, quiet Friday evening. We have a table full of guests. The younger children are in bed. The relaxing atmosphere of Shabbos permeates the house as we prepare for Kiddush. Everyone feels uplifted as we begin to sing Shalom Aleichem…

The lights go out.

There are a few uneasy giggles and a wry comment about living in “Darkest Africa”. Thankfully, the children are reassured by the emergency light in their bedroom. Shabbos dinner turns into an intimate, candle-lit affair.

It’s unnerving to be plunged unexpectedly into darkness. It’s worrying not to know how power-cuts will harm your business and interfere with running a normal household. It’s concerning to speculate about what the future holds in this country.

We all seem to be living in the dark these days, an ominous sense of foreboding seeping through the community.

As we shop for candles, camping lights, gas or generators, wouldn’t it be useful to discover a product to boost optimism?

One glance at this week’s Torah portion provides one answer. Towards the beginning of the Parsha, we’ll read about how they lit the Menorah in the Sanctuary. Only the best fuel would do for this Divine light-source that would illuminate the entire world. The Torah calls for “Shemen Zayis Zach, kasis lamaor- Pure olive oil, crushed for lighting” to use in the Menorah.

Ostensibly, the Torah simply describes the fuel for the Menorah- pure olive oil. On a deeper level, Torah alludes to the secret of how to handle tough times.

The Jewish nation is compared to olives. Normal people collapse under pressure, succumb to adversity. Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and many others rallied when times were good, only to overrun when the tide turned against them. The secret of the Jew has always been that hard times bring out the best in us. “Kasis Lamaor”- when the olive is crushed, it can begin to shed light.

Judaism is a religion of courage and immense faith. We look to emulate the example of our founding father, Abraham, who stood up to the entire world and didn’t cower when they threatened him. We are empowered with a natural sense that G-d is in control, at all times and in all places (as rough as things may be, we have it on good authority that He hasn’t emigrated yet).

Ironically, in the good times, we sometimes forget about the fundamentals. As the pressure mounts, a Jew’s true potential surfaces.

We rally; we generate optimism because we know that G-d is in charge and has our interests at heart. We shine a light when the world goes dark. And G-d responds in kind, just as he did for the Jews of Persia at the time of Purim.

May we all be blessed with the light of the Menorah and the blessing of the Megillah: “And for the Jews there was light, joy, rejoicing and glory”.

The disappearance of Bishop Tutu

Here's an interesting article I came across:

The disappearance of Desmond Tutu
By Simon Deng
Friday November 16, 2007

Late last month, I went to hear Bishop Desmond Tutu speak at Boston's Old South Church at a conference on "Israel Apartheid." Tutu is a well respected man of God. He brought reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa. That he would lead a conference that damns the Jewish state is very disturbing to me.

The State of Israel is not an apartheid state. I know because I write this from Jerusalem where I have seen Arab mothers peacefully strolling with their families even though I also drove on Israeli roads protected by walls and fences from Arab bullets and stones. I know Arabs go to Israeli schools, and get the best medical care in the world. I know they vote and have elected representatives to the Israeli Parliament. I see street signs in Arabic, an official language here.
None of this was true for blacks under Apartheid in Tutu's South Africa.

I also know countries that do deserve the apartheid label: My country, Sudan, is on the top of the list, but so are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. What has happened to my people in Sudan is a thousand times worse than Apartheid in South Africa. And no matter how the Palestinians suffer, they suffer nothing compared to my people. Nothing. And most of the suffering is the fault of their leaders. Bishop Tutu, I see black Jews walking down the street here in Jerusalem. Black like us, free and proud.

Tutu said Israeli checkpoints are a nightmare. But checkpoints are there because Palestinians are sent into Israel to blow up and kill innocent women and children. Tutu wants checkpoints removed. Do you not have doors in your home, Bishop? Does that make your house an apartheid house? If someone, Heaven forbid, tried to enter with a bomb, we would want you to have security people "humiliating" your guests with searches, and we would not call you racist for doing so. We all go through checkpoints at every airport. Are the airlines being racist? No.

Yes, the Palestinians are inconvenienced at checkpoints. But why, Bishop Tutu, do you care more about that inconvenience than about Jewish lives?

Bishop, when you used to dance for Mandela's freedom, we Africans allover Africa joined in. Our support was key in your freedom. But when children in Burundi and Kinshasa, all the way to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and in particular in Sudan, cried and called for rescue, you heard but chose to be silent.

Today, black children are enslaved in Sudan, the last place in the continent of Africa where humans are owned by other humans. I was part of the movement to stop slavery in Mauritania, which just now abolished the practice. But you were not with us, Bishop Tutu.

So where is Desmond Tutu when my people call out for freedom? Slaughter and genocide and slavery are lashing Africans right now. Where are you for Sudan, Bishop Tutu? You are busy attacking the Jewish state. Why?

Simon Deng, a native of the Shiluk Kingdom in southern Sudan, is an escaped jihad slave and a leading human rights activist.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The joys of building a new Shul

When I went to Yeshivah for all those years, I was trained in Talmudic logic, Halacha and Jewish mysticism (a.k.a. Chassidus).

Lately, I can tell you all about zoning issues, tax-rebates on donations, civil engineering and construction- and hopefully some Gemorah too.

These are the joys of building a new Shul: Meet with Julian (he's the architect), change the plans and then change them again. Phone the town-planner (for the 3rd time) to find out if the zoning has been approved. Check the bank account and realize nobody’s anonymously dropped a million in there (yet).

Dreaming of a new Shul was exciting; waking up and making it happen is challenging.

Thankfully, this week’s Parsha offers some inspiration. We’re going to read about the first Shul ever built- the Mishkan-Sanctuary in the desert.

Admittedly, they didn’t have the funding issues that we do (every Jew that left Egypt led 90 donkey-loads of gold and silver with him), but there’s something about that story that puts in all in perspective.

In particular, what strikes me is how much attention the Torah pays to this story. Torah, in its usual succinct way, dedicates about 8 paragraphs to Creation. Judaism’s keystone, the Ten Commandments, is summarized in a single paragraph. Yet, the story of the world’s first Shul occupies three whole Torah portions!


Creation, the Exodus, splitting the Sea and the giving of the Torah are things that Hashem did. That’s not the focus of Judaism- or of Life.

This week we begin reading about what we do. We make Hashem’s home on Earth, and we bring G-d’s goal for Creation to fruition.

It may take longer than we’d like, and bring some stress along the way, but building a home for G-d is the greatest project a person can ever hope to be involved in.

May Hashem bless our efforts- as he blessed the efforts of the Jews in the desert.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

It's easy to complain

Sol visits Abe and sees he’s got a new dog.

"So what kind of dog is this?" asks Sol.

"It's a Jewish dog. His name is Irving," says Abe.

"Watch this," continues to Abe as he points to the dog.
"Irving, Fetch!"

Irving walks slowly to the door, then turns around and says, "So why are you talking to me like that? You always order me around like I'm nothing. Then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis... You give me this farkakta food with all the salt and fat, and you tell me it's a special diet... It tastes like dreck! YOU should eat it yourself!...And do you ever take me for a decent walk?

"No, it's out of the house, a few steps, and right back home. Maybe if I could stretch out a little, the sciatica wouldn't kill me so much!"

Sol is amazed and tells Abe how remarkable this dog is, to which Abe answers: "I don't know, I think this dog has a hearing problem. I said fetch, and he thought I said kvetch."

Ever since our 40-year tour in the desert, we Jews have done our fair share of complaining.
Our family is either too meddling or totally unsupportive; our community is too small and nosey, yet too big for me to be significant; our leaders aren’t perfect and the weather’s never right; our salary is insufficient, our budget overwhelming; Government is useless and the country’s going to the dogs.

It’s so easy to fall into this habit, especially when we feel our complaints are justified.

How do you break the kvetch syndrome?

Judaism offers a 60-day programme of outlook-modification- and it launches internationally this week. It’s called the month of Adar and it’s here for double the usual length this year (being a leap year).

The Talmud says "Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimcha", when Adar enters, we increase in joy. Adar is the month of Purim, which commemorates a time when Jews had plenty to complain about. Haman threatened to attack every living Jew, and the mightiest leader of that time was on his side.

Funny, those Jews didn’t complain; they became proactive.
First, they united- working together is critical.
Second, they prayed for a miracle- appreciating that He’s in charge is powerful.
Third, they followed Mordechai- we need strong leadership.

Thanks to their proactive approach, the inevitable tragedy became, instead, a cause for celebration.

Each Adar, we’re offered that opportunity again. Sure, there’s much to complain about, but Adar is about joy. Joy means that you trust that things can- and will- improve. Joy means that circumstances don’t paralyze you, but that you can generate your own happiness, under any circumstances. Joy is created by working with others, trusting G-d and learning from our spiritual leaders.

Joy comes from active participation, not from armchair grumbling.

We’ve got two months of potential Simcha, joy without limitations. Let’s grab the opportunity with both hands.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Unexpected upgrade

Last week, I flew to Umhlanga, a beautiful resort town on the east coast of South Africa, to give a shiur.

I was booked to fly on Kulula.com, the local no-frills el-cheapo airline (after all, do I really need a half-warmed, double-wrapped inedible kosher lunch on a 50 minute flight?).

As it happens, Kulula is owned by Comair, a British Airways partner. Occasionally, they simply put their Kulula passengers onto BA flights- which is what happened to me. In fact, not only did I get onto a BA flight, but landed in row 7!

Row 7 means I had a business class seat!
Ok, I was behind the impermeable business class curtain and I didn't get the free newspaper or peanuts. But I did have extra leg room and a tad wider armrest. My ticket was for a buy-your-own-drinks, cattle-class flight, and here I was traveling in "style" (considering that people pay big bucks for 50 minutes of extra leg room...)

You see? Sometimes in life, you get more than what you pay for.

Of course, the Talmud knew this all along. That's why it teaches "Yoga'ato Umotzoso", try and you will find.

Everyone else will tell you that, if you try, you will succeed. Only G-d tells you that you will find.

If you chance upon a wad of cash on the side of the road, it's not because you tried to find it. It's a windfall; beyond your expectations.

G-d promises that whenever you try and grow spiritually or draw close to Him, the result will be so far beyond your expectations, that you'll feel as though we found the unexpected.

You just have to try.

(Next time I fly to New York, I think I'll try this free business class upgrade thing again...)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Always look on the bright side of life

Well, this is a refreshing moment, I can actually get to my PC and use the Internet. It's not that I've been unusually busy or anything, just that we've had rolling blackouts here for nine days straight : (

Honestly, this "load-shedding" (politically correct way of saying, insufficient-power-leading-to-regular-power-cuts) is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve experienced to date. I’m sure you’ll agree.

Like it or not, we’ve been forced to alter our lifestyles compliments of Eskom. Businesses are really suffering and even just preparing supper has become a challenge, but not every powercut-induced lifestyle-change is bad.

Firstly, families are talking again. In the evenings, without the lure of TV or the Internet, people have become social again.

Secondly, we are being trained in the lost art of patience. Have you noticed how people behave at intersections sans traffic lights? No hooting, no shouting, just waiting their turn because they have no alternative.

Thirdly, while many people fret or simply twiddle their thumbs when the lights go out at work, we don't have to. My suggestion is: Take a Torah book to work. When the power goes, head outdoors, enjoy the fresh air and read. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn in a matter of weeks.

Family time, patience and extra study are all important. We shouldn’t need a crisis to remind us.

If the world looks dark, a Jew is supposed to generate (even a little) light.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Life has its ups and downs

It's back to school tomorrow! (for those of us in the Southern hemisphere)

My younger children are excited, they have their cases packed and their lunches ready. They'll probably be up at the crack of dawn. The older kids have already reached the "ho-hum, how many days will the end of the year" stage and aren't overly excited.

I've start teaching again tomorrow. Enough said.

Whatever it is you do, you probably share that sense of excitement and conquer-the-world enthusiasm when you've had a good break and are about to start things afresh.

The reality is, no matter how excited or inspired you feel, chances are something will get in the way sooner or later. Inspiration wears off, obstacles test our optimism and boredom sets in.

Is it possible to keep the inspiration alive? Or are burnout and the doldrums realities we need to accept.

The answer may lie in the very first mitzvah that the Jewish people were given as a nation. That instruction was not belief in G-d (as many people think), but establishing a calendar. It must make you wonder: Why does the calendar take precedence over the basics of Jewish faith?

Our Jewish calendar follows the moon. Most of our festivals coincide with full moon, and we start each month with Rosh Chodesh, at the birth of the new moon.

The moon has its moments- birth, waxing, fullness and waning- and so do we. We run our calendar by the moon, because we are like the moon.

The moon grows steadily for the first half of each month, peaks and then diminishes. We also start new things with enthusiasm, then fizzle out.

What we do wrong is we stay fizzled out. G-d's very first message to the nation of Israel is "Hachodesh hazeh lochem rosh chodoshim". Simply that means: This month is for you the first month of the Jewish year.

Yet, the deeper message is: Renewal (chodesh, month comes from the Hebrew chidush, meaning new) is yours on a monthly basis. Don't get stuck in failure, G-d empowers you to renew and reinvigorate yourself on a regular basis.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Don't cramp your style

Moses had a tough job. He hadn’t even started talking to Pharaoh, when the latter basically sent him packing.

“I’m here with a message from Hashem,” Moses began.

“Well, I don’t know any Hashem,” Pharaoh cut in, “and I’m not releasing any prisoners.”

We all know the rest of the story- Moses warns Pharaoh, G-d sends ten plagues, and eventually Pharaoh capitulates. And we celebrate Pesach very year.

People often get confused about us reading this account every year so many weeks before Pesach. Surely, they wonder, if the Torah portion is about Pesach, it should be read at that time of the year.

Actually, this story happens every day, to every one of us.

Part of us, our inner Moses, is inspired to do great things. Our Moses voice says: Think big, break the mould and challenge yourself to become spiritually active.

Our cynical Pharaoh retorts: “Never! Not you. You know yourself too well. You will always be who you have always been, and you’ll never amount to anything more.”

The secret to real personal growth and to achieving amazing things: Don’t let Pharaoh cramp your style.