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.