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.