Friday, November 27, 2009

Space race

“Charlie Buttons” is an eccentric who’s been part of the landscape of “770” for as long as anyone can remember. He wanders in wearing denim dungarees and a cap that sports various badges and buttons, and he always has a strange slogan to share. He targeted last week’s message at the thousands of Shluchim who had converged on Crown Heights for the annual Shluchim Conference. “I’m going to be a Shluchim (sic) on the Moon,” he happily announced up and down the Shul.

Many feel that Charlie already lives in Outer Space, but he’s an unlikely candidate for running the first lunar Chabad House. Make no mistake- there will be one. As soon as the first Jews settle on the Moon, you can bet Chabad will be there.

Space travel has historically been limiting- it costs a fortune and you have to be in prime health to make the journey. But, as the Shuttle fleet is set to retire, NASA is now looking to develop a cheaper way to get people into space. One radical concept that they’re seriously considering is the Space Elevator- a system that anchors a satellite to Earth’s equator, allowing us to move payloads up and down the 40 000km of cable. Clearly, there are many obstacles to this project, but they’re pursuing it seriously.

NASA’s inspiration for the Space Elevator may have come from this week’s Torah portion. In it we read how Yaakov dreams of a ladder linking Heaven and Earth on which angels climb and descend.

Yaakov’s dream-ladder is still in place- even if you can’t see it. It links us to G-d, allowing us to shoot our bundles of wishes up to Him and He to deliver blessings to us. Kabbalah calls it the ladder of prayer. When you start your prayer journey, you’re rooted on terra firma, but as you delve into its meditative embrace, you can break life’s gravitational pull and soar heavenward.

It may still take NASA years to hook us up with a Space Elevator system, but the cable that connects us on High is in working order, can carry any load and operates faster than NASA will ever be able to. With that technology at our disposal, we really should use it more often.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

My Zaida was a rabbi

A very religious Jew traveling through Europe stopped overnight at a B&B. He noticed a mezuzah on the door and wondered if he could rely on the kosher standard of the institution. He approached the bare-headed owner, who was manning the front desk and asked if he served kosher food.

“Look there,” the proprietor announced, indicating an aging photo of a man with a tangled white beard, “That was my father! Surely, you can rely on the kashrut of my food!”

The guest smiled slightly and replied: “If this was your father’s establishment and he had a photo of you hanging on the wall, I’d feel more comfortable eating here.”

Jews love to tell you about their pedigree, how frum their father or grandfather was or how their grandmother chaired the ladies’ guild back in the “old country”. “Oh, you’re a Hurwitz, are you related to the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Horowitz?” (When I introduce myself, I usually: “Is that a Jewish surname? I’ve never heard of it before...”)

Rabbi Dovber, the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, watched his house burn down when he was a young boy. His mother was devastated and he tried to console her, arguing that valuables are replaceable. But, she explained that her family tree, tracing their pedigree to King David had gone up in flames and could never be recovered. Little Dovber grinned and assured her that he would make sure to start a new famous family tree.

It’s each man for himself in Judaism. You can’t ride on the achievements of your parents, nor can you blame your failings on theirs.

Avraham’s father was an idolator, yet he became the father of monotheism. Rivkah’s family were crooks, yet she became one of the most pious people ever. Even Moshiach’s lineage is embarrassing. His original ancestors include Moab, a child born from the incest of Lot and his daughter.

Don’t tell us who you parents were; show us who you are.

Friday, October 30, 2009

We all mess up sometimes

One step forward, two steps back. Ever find yourself doing that?

You manage two full weeks back at gym, but oversleep one morning and go downhill from there. Business seems on track, then suddenly goes quiet. Your Rosh Hashanah resolution looked promising, but you don’t feel so motivated any longer.

It can get frustrating to have a setback as you start making progress. No matter how motivated you feel or how convinced you are that “this time” you’ll stick with the programme, there will always be an obstacle along the way. Life’s speed bumps can bring us to grinding halt.

Backsliding is nothing new. 3900 years ago, Avraham had a similar problem. G-d Himself appeared to Avraham and set him off on a journey of discovery by telling him “Lech Lecha”, or as Johnnie Walker would say: “Keep walking”. “Lech lecha” doesn’t just mean “go”, it means continue to progress and develop in an unbroken upward motion. G-d essentially promised Avraham that he would never fail.

Yet, shortly after reaching his objective, the land of Canaan, Avraham had to leave. Famine in the land forced him to travel to Egypt, Earth’s most immoral country.

One second! What happened to the up-and-up message of “Lech lecha”? How could G-d promise Avraham consistent spiritual development and then send him off to Egypt? Avraham and Sarah had a rough landing when they got there- Sarah abducted by Pharaoh and Avraham scrambling to protect his own life. It seems a far cry from the grand Divine promise.

Read the story and you’ll notice that Avraham remains unperturbed by this unexpected twist of fate. He was a wise man, who understood the meaning behind life’s disappointments.

Avraham appreciated that growing spiritually and becoming a better person is not only about going up. You need to slip too. You need to mess up so that you can fix up; fail so you can grow stronger. Avraham trusted G-d that heading “down” to Egypt was really part of the process of rising up. Because he had the right attitude, Avraham bounced back, changed the trajectory of humankind and fathered the Jewish nation.

Next time you get all motivated and then let yourself down, remember to make it part of your journey to rise even higher.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Babel... uh Nobel Peace Prize

I’ve been wondering about the Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize thing for a while now. Either Obama has achieved incredible believability in record time or they’ve changed the Nobel Prize requirement from “creating change” to “pledging to make a change”. Obama’s “audacity of hope” clearly got the Norwegians hoping.

People like Tobias Asser (1911 Jewish Peace Prize winner), Sir Joseph Rotblat (most recent Jewish Peace Prize winner) or Ada Yonath (also Jewish, this year’s chemistry laureate) all worked for decades to earn their Noble accolade. Obama was cited for the prize a mere ten days into his presidency. When he jets off to collect the prize in Oslo, his country is likely to still be at war on two fronts.

What’s more intriguing than the question of why Obama made the grade is the question of why so few Jews have ever received it. 22% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish (that’s not bad coming from less than 1% of the World’s population). We have impressive numbers of Nobel laureates for medicine, chemistry, physics and economics, but only nine Peace Prize recipients!

That’s strange. Jews have always been peace activists. Our belief system pivots on peace, we end our daily prayers with a plea for peace and our Sages teach that the G-d gave us the Torah for one sole purpose: to bring peace to the world. How, then, were we overlooked in the Peace Prize race?

You can solve part of the mystery by referring to this week’s Torah portion. After the Great Flood, we’re told, people banded together to build a great new civilization. Earlier generations had undone their society through strife, jealousy and simple disrespect and G-d had destroyed them. Their descendants figured they could fix those ills by building a single society, built around a massive iconic tower that would always remind everyone of this ideal. Babel’s citizens wanted peace.

Strangely, G-d disapproved. He swooped down, thwarted their plans, mixed up their languages (they had all spoken Hebrew until then) and made sure they could never work together again.

Does G-d have something against peace?

A closer inspection of this story reveals a deeply profound message. Yes, they wanted peace; yes they wanted to live in harmony; yes they dreamed of a united humankind. But they wanted it for the wrong reasons. In outlining their plan, their leaders announced: “Let us build a city, with a tower reaching the Heavens... so that we will not be dispersed across the Earth”. Sounds noble enough, doesn’t it?

It would have been, but they inserted one corrupt phrase into their proposal: “Let us build a city… to make a name for ourselves”.

If you want peace, chase peace. When you pursue peace because you want to make a name for yourself, to leave a legacy, to earn the title “Man of Peace”, you’ll never achieve peace. In fact, you will likely create terrible conflicts.

Peace stretches beyond individuals and their egos. Peace is the foundation of Life itself. To reach peace, you need to forget yourself.

This story and, in fact, all of Torah has taught us one fundamental lesson: Jews are into peace, not prizes.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Some water with your wine?

Imagine you’re at an upscale restaurant for dinner. You order lamb chops and a glass of Merlot. Your waiter returns, bottle in hand (cloth draped over his arm), pours your wine and tops your glass up with some mineral water...

The Romans and Greeks used to dilute their wine to temper its potency, but modern connoisseurs would cringe at the thought of adding water to theirs. It’s not just a matter of taste- Judaism teaches that the difference between wine and water runs deeper than flavour and colour.

Nowadays, you can find a wide range of filtered, mineral and flavoured waters and you can probably taste the difference between different water brands. But, good ol’ water was never known for its taste. You drank water to survive, not to enjoy. Wine was what people would drink for pleasure, as we do today. Water keeps you alive; wine makes you happy. These two beverages may mix in the glass, but they don’t mix in concept.

Back in Temple days, Jews would bring daily offerings to Hashem that included wine. You’ve surely heard people compare Torah to water, but we compare it to wine as well. Just as you enjoy the ta’am, the taste of wine, you enjoy the ta’am, the rationale and meaning that Torah offers. We are a nation of thinkers who boast Talmudists who could run philosophical circles around Socrates and minds that have revolutionised science, psychology, politics and entertainment. We enjoy our “wine”.

As delicious as wine is, we also need water to survive. In fact, we need water more than wine.

Every Sukkos, they would pour water on the Temple’s altar. Ironically, the wine libation was par for the course; drizzling water on the altar was cause for celebration. The Talmud notes that the merrymaking that accompanied the drawing of this water was so intense that anyone who missed seeing it doesn’t know what real rejoicing is. You’d have thought that more wine would mean more joy, yet Judaism finds joy in water.

Human nature dictates that if we understand what we’re doing, we enjoy doing it; if we don’t understand it, we do it mechanically. Judaism flips that theory on its head and tells us that a Jew needs a good balance between intellectual appreciation (wine) and loyal commitment to the Cause (water). Just as they used to pour both wine and water on the altar, we need to build a relationship with G-d that comprises both dimensions.

We imagine that we will find greater satisfaction if we understand Judaism. Actually, we find exponentially more delight in our dogged dedication to simply doing what He expects of us.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Light a candle of truth

The Jewish world stands a little straighter this week, emboldened by Prime Minister Netanyahu's telling-it-like-it-is at the UN last Thursday.  Bibi lashed out against Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-myth rhetoric, blasted the UN's anti-Israel bias and reminded the crowd that the message of world peace engraved on the entrance to the UN was composed by a Jewish prophet, Isaiah, walking in our land 2800 years ago.

Time will tell if Netanyahu's courage will carry from the General Assembly podium to Knesset decision-making. But, the speech was clearly impressive, "Churchillian" they're calling it- direct and brutally honest.

Where did Bibi get the guts to stand up to the world? Was he inspired by his older brother Yoni, the Sayeret Matkal commander who gave his life to save others at Entebbe?

Bibi's spontaneous answer, to an Israeli journalist just outisde the General Assembly, is surprising. Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. Shortly after taking the post, a friend suggested he attend the Simchas Torah celebrations with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad-Lubavitch HQ in Brooklyn.

Before the festivities kicked off, the Rebbe spoke to Netanyahu for forty minutes, much to the surprise and frustration of the Chassidim who were eager to start the proceedings.

"The Rebbe told me," Netanyahu explains, "You are going to the UN and you will find there an assembly hall filled with infinite falsehood and utter darkness. Your challenge is to light a candle of truth in that darkness."

25 years later, last Thursday, Bibi got to light that candle.

Last week was Rosh Hashanah and we flipped the calendar page to 5770, which has all the markings of a powerful year. 770 has the gematriya (numerical value) of "poratzto", meaning to burst forth, break barriers and shift paradigms. Less than a week into this special year, Prime Minister Netanyahu did "poratzto" in the UN. 25 years ago, the Rebbe planted the seed that burst into the open last week. Hopefully, Israel will keep the "poratzto" momentum and stand strong and proud.

You and I may not be able to change Israel or address the UN. But, we can shift our own paradigms. We all have a "hall of lies and darkness" inside our own minds: self-doubt, apathy and an urge to please the world. Tonight is Kippur, time to reasses and reinvent ourselves, time for our personal "poratzto". Time to confront our personal "hall of darkness" and tell it where to get off.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Stand on your head!

This week I heard a poignant story from a colleague overseas. A woman in his community shared a unique anecdote about her father as a child. It was Yom Kippur and the young boy accompanied his father to Shul. During the service, the congregation’s focus was disturbed when the lad walked to the front of the Shul and did a handstand in front of the Ark. Embarrassed, his father quickly led him back to his seat and then asked what had possessed the boy to do something so strange.

The youngster replied simply: “You told me that we have to do something difficult on Yom Kippur, and for me that was difficult”.

Different people experience Yom Kippur differently. For some, it’s a meaningful, focused and inspiring time when they are swept up in the experience of the day, barely noticing the fast. Others struggle with not eating or, more often, not drinking but push themselves to daven and to try connect. Then there are those who check in for the main services- Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and maybe Neilah- then quickly check out. Some Jews don’t even get to Shul, they simply sleep the day away and count the hours till it’s over.

Group A often looks askance at the others, who they feel miss the point of what this special day is about. Well, maybe they are the ones who have missed the plot. Those of us who understand the service and get involved and inspired because we appreciate what’s going on feel comfortable in Shul. We’re not in Shul out of dedication nor do we find it difficult to be there. Those who come to Shul begrudgingly because they “have to” are challenging themselves. If someone comes to Shul and cannot read Hebrew or doesn’t relate to the service they clearly are not there for their own benefit- they’re out of simple dedication to G-d. Dedication is worth far more than going through the motions or even feeling inspired.

This Yom Kippur, we need to challenge ourselves; to find something difficult to do; to take our commitment over those 24 hours to a completely new level.We need to stand on our heads. G-d always responds to us in line with our movement towards Him, hopefully He will take the tzoris in our lives and turn it on its head too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leshana Tovah ti... how do you say it again?

Every Rosh Hashanah people get tongue-tied trying to pronounce the official First-night greeting. Having a different formula for men, women and groups doesn’t help, especially if your Hebrew is not so hot in the first place. The good news is, you can say it in whichever language you prefer. What is more important is that you mean it.

From sunset on Friday evening until the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, G-d judges the world and determines everything that will happen for the next year, It’s an unnerving time and we’d certainly like to do whatever we can to ensure He sets up a good year fo us.

We come to Shul, pray with extra focus and hope we can convince Him that we’ve been good and deserve blessing.

Here’s a secret that can help us all guarantee ourselves a good year ahead: Wish other people a good year. Sound too simple (or perhaps superficial)?

We make a serious mistake- we don’t take our own blessings seriously enough. The Talmud warns that you should never underestimate even a simpleton’s blessing.

When he was just fourteen, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe commented how he could sense the tremendous joy on High that people’s “Leshana Tovah” greeting would generate. His father taught that two angels accompany every Jew to Shul on Rosh Hashanah. When they hear us bless each other with a good year, they fly up to Heaven and argue that we all deserve blessings for the coming year.

Jews believe that G-d wants the best for us and that He enjoys the greatest nachas from seeing us wish each other well. Praying in Shul is important, but wholeheartedly wishing your neighbour a good year might be even more valuable.

Whether you know the correct formula or not, make sure that you mean it when you say whatever you say. And make sure you say it to as many people as possible.
Shana Tovah, may you have a year with less stress and more cash, sustained spiritual growth and good health, extra nachas and inner-peace, all enjoyed against the backdrop of a stable and tranquil world awakening to spiritual awareness- or as we Jews like to say: Moshiach now!

Friday, September 11, 2009


The scene is always the same. She sits down with her bowl of cereal, I might be eating eggs, a roll, a salad- it really makes no difference. She usually has a cup of juice or some tea to go with her breakfast; I try to make sure it’s placed as far from me as possible.

Fortunately, today she doesn’t spill her drink (she almost destroyed my laptop once and has splashed on my trousers many times). She’s happy, eating her cereal and splattering less than usual (although milk droplets wobble on her chin). I offer her a tissue and ask her what she plans to do today. She changes the subject, telling me instead what she did and her sister did yesterday. I follow most of what she’s telling me, but lose the thread here and there when the conversation turns to babble.

She leans over and pilfers a piece of what I’m eating- without asking. I smile and say nothing.

She never asks me about my day, what’s happening in my life, how things are going. She offers little information about her own activities or even her feelings. She has yet to tell me what her dreams are.

I have now finished eating and get up, ready to start my day. She ignores me, scoops a cornflake from the table into her mouth.

We haven’t discussed anything meaningful and seem to live in completely different worlds. Yet, I have loved every moment of our time together. I wish this little time capsule of pure love would last forever. I have just eaten breakfast with my two-year-old.


“Avinu Malkeinu, Avinu Atah”, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us that G-d is our father. We may look like a sloppy two-year-old when we perform his instructions and our prayers probably sound incoherent. But, He loves us all the same and cherishes every moment that we spend with him.


Friday, September 04, 2009

I've arrived??

Someone recently emailed me a video clip that shows a lead car race driver bungle his win. The clip shows the car zip around the last bend and speed towards the finish.  Confident of a win, the driver vigorously waves his fist out of the window, loses control of the car and smashes into the barrier, just two metres before the checkered flag. There’s a lesson- you haven’t arrived until you arrive.

We always read the portion “Ki Savo” before Rosh Hashanah. It opens with the law of Bikkurim, taking first fruits to Jerusalem as an offering to G-d. Bikkurim only applied once all Jews had settled in the Promised Land. It took seven years to settle everyone (you can just imagine the challenge of telling Jews where to live and hoping they’ll be happy). Meanwhile, people got to work farming as soon as they were settled. Many farmers had first fruits long before the nation had all moved in, yet none of them had to bring Bikkurim.

“Ki Savo” literally means “when you arrive”. The Bikkurim process could only be done when they arrived in Israel and until the last Jew had “arrived”, nobody had arrived.

Rosh Hashanah is in the air and it is time for introspection and self-transformation. If you’re serious about Rosh Hashanah, you are likely doing a little more for your Judaism these days. You probably hope to be focused and to feel connected at Shul over the High Holidays. Monday is “Chai” (18th) Elul, the final stretch. From Monday there are twelve days ‘til Rosh Hashanah- one day to repair the mistakes of each month of the last year. We’re zooming towards the finish line and all want to ensure that we make it across.

Our Torah portion’s message is most relevant now- nobody arrives until everybody arrives. When Noah saved his own family from the Flood and never tried to save others, he lost the chance to be Jewish. Abraham, who worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone he met would appreciate G-d, became the first Jew, setting the tone for how Jews should behave.

Jews are responsible for each other. Each of us is a cell in one great spiritual body, crisscrossed by nerves that link us to one other. No body-part can live independently of the others. No Jew can reach their spiritual goals as long as other Jews have not.

To truly arrive on Rosh Hashanah, we need to find a Jew who has lost touch with his/her Judaism and help them “arrive”.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The fastest man on Earth

Usain Bolt was already the fastest man on Earth last year. At the Beijing Olympics he broke world records in both the 100m (his own record) and 200m sprints. But, last month, "Lightning" Bolt outdid himself at the World Athletics' Championships, smashing his own sprint records.

You have to ask yourself why. Bolt was already the fastest man alive, so why the urge to run even faster? After all, "fastest" means you can't get faster than him; isn't that good enough? (Even if Bolt's mother was Jewish, I'm sure she would be satisfied.)

Bolt clearly appreciates one of life's most valuable lessons- success is not about beating everyone else; it's about outdoing yourself.

A day after Bolt's record-smashing run, the Jewish world began its annual soul-marathon. We leap from the starting line on 1 Elul and dash headlong towards Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Elul means thirty days of spiritual stock-take. It is an introspective time, when we assess our achievements and failures over the past twelve months and we resolve to improve in the coming year.

A word of caution: When you start your self-assessment, you may be tempted to rate your spiritual standing against others. You are sure to find people who are lagging behind you, which might convince you that you're "ok".

Perhaps G-d scheduled Bolt's success to splash out all over the media just in time to remind us what Elul is all about- breaking our own records.

Lost property

Ruth Bendik had her wallet stolen in Central Park as she stood watching the New York marathon. That was back in 1982. This July, a tree-care supervisor for the Park discovered her wallet under a heap of compost. He looked up the 69-year old, now living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and returned her wallet. $20 was missing; everything else was there.

Mrs. Bendik may not have been as lucky had she lost her wallet in Joburg. Actually, people are not often reunited with their lost property anywhere in the world. If society would follow Torah law, things might be different.

This week’s Torah portion instructs us to do whatever we can to return lost objects. If an item carries identifying marks, you need to pursue the owner. Jewish law rules that, as long as you can trace the owner, even if it will take time and effort, you are obliged to.

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa once found a clutch of chickens that someone had accidentally left outside his home. He took the chickens and cared for them. They had chicks that grew and had chicks of their own. He eventually sold his backyard's chickens and bought goats instead. Years later, when the chickens’ owner passed through the area, Rabbi Chanina presented him with a mini-farm, the return on his unplanned investment.

In Temple times, there was a “lost property” stone in Jerusalem. When people came to visit the Temple for the festivals, they would congregate at that stone to announce or reclaim lost property. Over time, the Shul became the lost property depot, later it moved to the Shul notice-board and today on many community's websites.

Our Torah readings are timed to coincide with whatever is going on in the Jewish year. Reading about returning lost items in the month of Elul is significant. The Kabbalists teach that we have as much obligation to return lost property to G-d as we have to return to another person.

G-d entrusted us each with a soul, which He wanted us to use for guidance and inspiration. When we assess the year that has passed (as we are meant to do during Elul), we may conclude that our soul has gotten “lost” in the stress and frenzy of modern living.

In 2007 a waiter in New Orleans tracked down the owner of a wallet that was left in a restaurant and landed himself an $8000 reward. You can bet that Hashem’s reward for returning His “lost property”, your own soul, is worth even more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guaranteed: Best way to learn

Einstein apparently said that you have only understood something properly when you are able to explain it to your grandmother. Almost 2000 years earlier, the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Chanina said: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and from my students most of all.”

Sir Francis Bacon (a less-kosher source, I guess) claimed that “knowledge is power” and most people would agree with him. In a Jewish sense, understanding what you’re doing and appreciating the value of your heritage is enriching and empowering.

Considering how valuable knowledge is, it would be a good idea to determine the most effective way to gain knowledge (and to keep it). You could spend fortunes on a money-back-guarantee study-skills course. You might attend a lucrative mind-power seminar. You may consider vitamin supplements that boost brain power, begin a meditation routine or learn hypnosis to improve concentration.

Or, you could use Torah’s time-proven method.

Chabad’s first leader, the Alter Rebbe declared: “When you teach another person, your own mind and heart become a thousand times more focused”. Decades later, the Rebbe insisted that this formula is literal- after teaching someone else, you will manage to understand something that should have taken 1000 hours in just a single hour. When you teach someone else, they will ask questions that you would never have asked, will make observations you might never have conceived of and may challenge what you take for granted. You know this from your children- teaching them opens new vistas of discovery for you. In my teaching experience, I have been consistently surprised at the fresh insights my high school students bring to subjects I thought I had studied thoroughly.

You may think that this sounds like a nice idea- for someone else. After all, you probably imagine that you don’t yet have enough knowledge to teach someone else. To that, the Rebbe countered, “If you know Alef, teach Alef”. In other words, whatever little Jewish knowledge you have, share. If you are waiting to grow your own education, consider that the best way to increase what you know is actually to teach.

Teaching is the best way to learn, guaranteed. Take advantage!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What an amazing Shabbos!

I’m on high from Shabbos.

Chabadniks traditionally host a farbrengen (an informal get-together with lots of Torah, song and lechaim) on Shabbos Mevorchim (the Shabbos before each new month). Elul is a special month on the Jewish calendar; it’s when we review the past year and begin gearing up for the High Holidays. Predictably, the Shabbos that blesses this exceptional month calls for an exceptional farbrengen. Our community always has an uplifting Shabbos Mevorchim Elul, but this year’s was on a completely new level.

What made it so special was a guest appearance by Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin. Rabbi Raskin is over sixty, but that didn’t stop him slipping on a pair of running shoes and walking seven kilometers to join us for Shabbos. Rabbi Raskin is originally Russian, now lives in Israel and is visiting South Africa to raise funds for his son who is the Chabad Shliach (representative) in Cyprus.

Zevi, his son, spent time in Joburg’s Chabad Yeshivah and that’s where we met. He is a big guy (comfortably over six foot) with the biggest hands I’ve ever seen and a matching big heart. In five years, he and his wife have created a Jewish revolution in Cyprus that is quite remarkable. After last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai, Israeli intelligence insisted that Chabad Cyprus upgrade their security and Raskin snr. is helping raise funds to cover his son’s security system.

After Shul, we sat down outside (we’ve, thank G-d, outgrown our Shul) for our traditional Shabbos Mevorchim cholent lunch. Soon enough, Rabbi Raskin started to share incredible stories of absolute dedication to Judaism, against unimaginable odds in a world behind the Iron Curtain that many of us don’t even realize existed. He described his clandestine bar mitzvah- celebrated with exactly a minyan and a smuggled Torah scroll- that the KGB bust despite all the family’s strictest precautions. He described how difficult it was to get kosher chicken, how he had to pretend to be sick every Shabbos or Yom Tov to avoid school, and how his father feigned insanity to dodge army conscription.

One story stood about from the rest. In his words, it’s the story of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe personally rescued his family from under the nose of the Communists.

The Raskin family lived in Gorky. Gorky was apparently a closed military zone (it housed certain military production plants) and one of the most dangerous places to live as an observant Jew, considering how many KGB agents lived there.

Rabbi Raskin, then a teen, studied in an underground Yeshivah in Samarkand. One day, unexpectedly, he received a telegram that his uncle needed to speak to him and he should head home. “Uncle” was the family’s code word for the Rebbe.

Rabbi Moshe Vishedski, Raskin’s uncle, had managed to leave Russia (not before the Russians threw him from a building, almost killing him and leaving him with permanent facial and cranial wounds). In New York, he visited the Rebbe and requested two things: 1) A “big miracle” for his brother-in-law (Raskin’s father) to dodge the KGB investigation of his business (which was illegal because it made a profit) and 2) Advice as to which city the Raskins should go to in order to lodge a request to leave the USSR.

The Rebbe’s response was reassuring- and perplexing. First, the Rebbe noted that G-d had managed to spirit Rabbi Vishedski out of Russia and that for G-d small miracles and big miracles are all the same, so He could help the brother-in-law too. Then he advised Rabbi Vishedski to tell his family to apply for emigration in their hometown, Gorky. This, of course, was the message in the telegram. The perplexing part was that Gorky had no Emigration Office, so the family couldn’t understand where the Rebbe wanted them to go.

Shortly afterwards, an official letter of invitation to move to Israel arrived. They now had the letter, but still no idea of where to present it.

Eventually, Rabbi Raskin’s mother figured that all applications to the Emigration Office would inevitably pass through the KGB’s hands, so they may as well go to the KGB offices themselves and apply to leave Russia. The KGB building in downtown Gorky was designed to instill fear in the hearts of the city’s residents. Outwardly, it was a four-storey imposing building, but everyone knew that there were many basement levels too, and unspeakable things happened there. Gorky’s citizens preferred to avoid the streets around those offices for fear of hearing the screams from underground or, worse, of being summoned into the building itself. Mother and son (Raskin’s father couldn’t join them, as he had claimed insanity to avoid the draft), two observant Jews, headed voluntarily into the lion’s lair.

Once inside, they presented their request to the officials on duty. Nobody seemed interested in assisting, claiming that this was not an official Emigration Office. Suddenly, a short, stout female KGB captain emerged, saw their official letter from Israel and phoned through to Moscow for advice on how to deal with them. Moscow told her to open a file, collect all the relevant documentation from them and send it to Moscow for processing. She promptly took down a thick file and a black marker and wrote “Raskin- Emigration Office” on its spine.

The Rebbe had indirectly opened an Emigration Office in Gorky.

Within ten days, they were ordered back to the KGB office to hear whether their request had been accepted or not. This was 1967 and the Russian government was denying most requests to leave- except occasionally for family reunion. The KGB summoned them on a Shabbos and they had to walk well over an hour to get there.

Arriving at KGB HQ-Gorky, agents led them to a room with tables lined with high-ranking officers. One led the proceedings, berating the family for even considering leaving Mother Russia. He thundered down at Mrs. Raskin, warning her that she was making a grave mistake to have asked to leave for Israel, a country in peril (this was shortly before the Six Day War and Russia was an Arab ally). He recommended that she reconsider, adding benevolently that the government would ignore the family’s application if she did. If they insisted on going, the family would have to face potentially dire consequences.

Mrs. Raskin explained that she and a brother were the only family members to have escaped the Nazis. Her brother lived in Israel and was not a well man. Had he been well, she explained, she would have encouraged him to come live in “this wonderful country”. Considering his ill health, she felt obliged to travel to live with him. Since family reunion was the ticket to leaving Russia, she hoped that the authorities would grant her request.

Hearing her story, the official reached beneath the table and extracted their exit visas, which had been there all along. At a time when some of their own family had disappeared without a trace into Siberia, when anyone who did make it out of Russia first spent years of frustration over failed attempts, the Rebbe’s brocha had obviously worked.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What do you see?

This week’s breaking-news story of a Brazilian TV host who allegedly ordered the murders that his show reported on should get us thinking. Wallace Souza denies claims that he ordered hits on drug lords to spike ratings for his TV programme, which was always first to cover those grim stories.

Souza is likely a thug, but it’s our addiction to sensationalism that oils the media’s 24/7 mission to dig up smut, scandal and violence. An average American watches some 4½ hours of TV and by age 18 has seen over 200 000 acts of violence, 16 000 of them murders. As the Internet speeds up and becomes more pervasive, we access increasingly vivid live coverage of bombings, bloody protests, natural disasters and the requisite celebrity scandals. Our grandparents would only witness violence or indecency when it invaded their lives; we watch it unfold across the globe- in real time.

Technological advancement is a good thing. Thanks to the Web we can disseminate useful information and express our opinions (as any Blogger would know) way beyond the circle of our immediate community. Educational TV programmes benefit people who have no access to formal scholling and we all appreciate good, clean entertainment delivered right into our living rooms. We are fortunate to live in an Age where we can observe more than just what is in our line of sight.

TV and the Internet are not inherently bad media. Depending on how we use them, they could enhance life or spurn rogues like Wallace Souza.

Our Torah portion this week is called “Re’eh”, meaning “see”. It’s opening line states: “See (says G-d), I place before you today blessing...” Towards the end of the portion, we read the list of non-Kosher birds, one of which is called the “Ra’ah”. This bird (some believe it’s the Peregrine Falcon) has amazing eyesight and can spot its prey from high altitudes and over great distances.

Kosher animals display characteristics that we should emulate and non-kosher animals represent traits we need to avoid. Surprisingly, in the section named for sight, we read of a bird that has exceptional sight but is treif. Sight is G-d's gift and should be used to look out for goodness and blessing. Sight becomes treif when you use it to see “prey”, someone else’s weakness.

TV and the Internet can educate and inspire us. Or, they could highlight people’s vulnerabilities and society’s dark side. We choose what we want to see and we ought to choose wisely.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

How much is enough?

The simple fisherman sat quietly, his line cast into the grey morning waters. Out for an early morning, holiday beach-jog, the exec stopped for a breather right next to him. Both men looked out to sea, the silence between them soothed by the crashing waves.

‘How long do you fish for each day?” the exec asked.

“A few hours, long enough to catch fish to take home for my family,” the fisherman replied, “Then I take it easy for the rest of the day”.

The businessman was incredulous. “You know,” he began, “You really could do better than that. I mean, if you would stay a few more hours, you could catch some more fish, which you could sell.”

“And then what?” asked the fisherman slowly, gazing at the horizon.

“Well, you could save up the extra money and buy a boat.”

“Uh huh... and then?”

“Well, with the boat, you could fish in deeper water and catch even more fish to sell at a greater profit.”

“Ok, and then?” The fisherman was still gazing over the crests of waves.

“Then, you could hire fishermen to work for you, they would bring in more fish, earning you more money so you buy another boat and then another, hire more fishermen and make more money,” the exec was excited, “Who knows? You might earn enough to buy a fish-packing plant, maybe grow to a chain of businesses... within ten to fifteen years, you could be obscenely wealthy!”

“I see, and what would I do then?” the fisherman finally turned his head, a wry smile on his face, “Sell my business and retire to sit on the beach each day admiring the beauty of nature and catching a few fish?”

In the desert, G-d gave us the manna each day- just enough food to keep us going. We weren’t happy, we wanted more, something to hold on to “in case”. He wanted us to realise that He supplies us with what we need, as long as we dedicate sufficient time to the important things in life- family, friends and our own spirituality.

Is Bill Clinton Moshiach?

I highly doubt that he is, but this Tuesday he taught us a thing or two about Moshiach.

It all began close to four months ago when two American journalists working in China, accidentally crossed the border into North Korea. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested and tried for illegal immigration and plotting to start an anti-government smear campaign. In June, a North Korean judge sentenced them to twelve years imprisonment with hard labour.

I can only imagine the dread they felt each night in their cells, yearning for their families and wondering about their dismal, unending future. Imagine the terror they must have felt as the warden opened their cells doors on Tuesday morning and led them out. I'm sure that they believed they were headed to the labour camp.

Instead, authorities led them into a room, where they were greeted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton had negotiated their release and they headed home immediately.

Like those women in prison, we tend to believe that life's tribulations are here to stay. We don't know how we landed up in this mess, why people accuse us and abuse us for things we never did. We have a dim memory of long ago believing that we'd break free of a life tainted by anti-Semitism, crime, financial stress and family meltdown. But, we've become cynical. Statistics convince us that life doesn't get better, it gets worse. "No news is good news" becomes our mantra, we'd rather live with the devils we know because we're too afraid of who lurks behind the door.

This Shabbos we will read the eternal words of Isaiah: "And Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me." Shall a woman forget her sucking child, from having mercy on the child of her womb? These too shall forget, but I will not forget you."

One day it will happen. One day the door will open and G-d's own envoy will be standing there. And we will return home. That day is sooner than we imagine.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Never give up

A young Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. His business career was a failure, as was his stint as a lawyer in Springfield. He was defeated in his first try for the legislature, defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858.

Thomas Edison’s first 1000 experiments to invent the light bulb failed.

Dr. Seuss submitted his first book to twenty-seven publishers before one agreed to print it.

They and dozens like them reinforce Winston Churchill’s contention: “Never, never, never, never give up!”

Whoever persevered, laughed at the odds and succeeded had the ultimate role model to follow. Moses, hearing from G-d that he would never enter the Promised Land, launched into a marathon 515 prayers to try to get Hashem to change His mind.

Hold on! I said “succeeded”, but Moses didn’t succeed. G-d rejected his plea again and again, reiterating that He could not enter the Land.

Interestingly, when Moses prayed for the 515th time, G-d responded “If you pray one more time, I will accede, so please don’t pray for this again.” In fact, G-d intended answering Moses’ prayer, just not right then and there. The Talmud tells us that Moses was the original redeemer, leading the Jews out of Egypt, and he will be the one to lead the Jews into Israel with Moshiach.

Until that happens, G-d wants us to take a lesson from this story. He wants us to realise that if we pray and pray for Moshiach and don’t see answers, we need to pray again. G-d’s message to us is to never give up, because we never know which prayer will be the one to tip the scales and launch the Messianic Age.

We always read the story of Moses’ pleas to Hashem on the Shabbos following Tisha B’Av, the Shabbos called ‘Nachamu” (comfort). Having just recalled centuries of Jewish tragedy on Tisha B’Av and how our hopes for a better life have been dashed again and again, G-d reminds us in this Torah portion that we are just one step away from His consolation and Moshiach. Let us pray that we see His promise fulfilled this Shabbos.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Remember when you were a child and someone insulted you, you’d reply: “Sticks and stoned may break my bones, but words will never harm me”? As you grow older, you appreciate that this is not true. Words can inflict as much pain- sometimes more- than physical blows.

A person can only injure you from close-up. Words can hurt you from a distance, over the phone for example, and even when you’re not around to hear them. When a person spreads Loshon Horah (negative information) about you, it harms you even without you knowing that anything’s been said. That’s why the Talmud compares words to arrows- once they’re out, you can’t take them back.

We accept that words can harm from far, without you knowing they’ve been said, but can they help from far as well?

Most people believe that Loshon Horah is bad because it spreads negativity about a person, tainting their image. That is true. But, it’s also bad because words create realities. What swims around in your mind remains theoretical; as soon as you mention it, it becomes tangible. Let’s say you notice that someone tends to be arrogant. You could mull over the problem and possibly guide them subtly towards modesty. Dong that, you would not have highlighted their problem, and you may even have solved it. Once you tell them (or others) that they are arrogant, you fuel that emotion, because words bring into reality something that floated potentially in the ether.

It works the other way too. You know that if you compliment someone, they will respond positively and probably behave that way again. Your positive words encourage them. Even when you talk well of them without them hearing it, you release positive arrows into the reality of the world and you subliminally encourage them from a distance. Positive-speak helps, even when the person who needs to hear it isn’t there.

Devorim, the name of the Parsha this week, means words. We always read this section on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av, the day of Jewish national mourning. Tisha B’Av reminds us how our holiest site fell because we spoke ill of each other. Devorim reminds us that we can regain our Temple by speaking well of each other- when we speak to each other and when we speak about each other.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Eagle has landed

Today 40 years ago Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted into space en route to the Moon. Millions watched fixated as the massive Saturn V rocket propelled them into orbit within twelve minutes. At 2:56 on the morning of July 21st 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped where no human had stepped before.

Today, forty years later, the Apollo mission has recaptured the world’s attention. For the fortieth anniversary, you can even track the Moon mission in real time on a special website, replete with photos, video and audio clips from both the astronauts and Mission Control.

This week’s Torah portion, Masei, also recalls an unprecedented journey of discovery, forty years after its first small step was taken. It took 42 journeys, spanning forty years, to go from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah labels all forty two of them as “journeys out of Egypt”. To leave Egypt, the Jews only needed to cross the border. To escape the mind-set of Egypt, the sense of personal inadequacy, took another 41 journeys.

At each junction, they needed to accept that their new environment was not home and that they needed to keep moving. We all go through the same experience: We only reach spiritual objectives if we keep moving.

Like NASA, G-d supplies a huge booster rocket to propel us out of the gravitational pull of our habits and foibles. Each booster that He offers us must eventually fall away so that we can take control and achieve our objectives independently. Yet, even when we feel alone in a dark expanse, He remains at Mission Control, guiding and encouraging us.

Apollo 11 almost ran out of fuel, and just made it to the Moon. Had they not managed to land the Lunar Module, their incredible journey would have been a waste of time.

It took 42 journeys to get from Egypt to Israel. If the Jews had run out of steam after 41 journeys, we would still be in the desert.

Our personal challenge is to keep improving our spiritual game until we are the best we can be. Mission Control has invested heavily in us and is waiting with bated breath for us to report back that “the Eagle has landed”.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Let's get it together

No weddings. No music. No haircuts. No new clothes.

What a glum time of the year! Each year, I dread it and can’t wait until it’s over. This is the time known as the “Three Weeks” or Bein Hametzarim, when we recall the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem.

I’m not sure we all appreciate what it is that we’re supposed to mourn. Surely it must have been glorious to have a central Shul in Jerusalem, where miracles unfolded daily and you would always leave feeling inspired. But, we are used to finding G-d with us wherever we go and are certain we can connect to Him anywhere.

Are we simply mourning a beautiful building?

People often imagine that Jews visited the Temple because it was a holy place. Actually, the Temple became a holy place because Jews visited it. Our Temple fell because our People had fallen. Every crack in the fibre of our society manifested as a crack in those powerful walls. Jewish unity held that Temple together and disunity destroyed it.

Our Temple was an icon of G-d, His people, goodness and peace. With the Temple gone, the world forgot G-d, abused His people, allowed evil to flourish and went to war after war. All of that happened because we were not whole. When Jews are united, G-d is with us. When we are divided, He steps away.

These three weeks are not a time to cry over what we have lost. They are a time a to think about what we can regain. This is a time for unity. Our sages describe how King David lost many righteous men in battle because they were disrespectful to each other, while the wicked king Achav did not lose soldiers because they were unified.

Now is the time to connect with each other, to end a faribel or to do something to help one another. Jewish unity is our single most important responsibility. It will change us, change our community and heal our world.

Please G-d, we should enjoy the restoration of our national unity and, through it, the restoration of our Temple, which will bring world peace, with Moshiach now.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Yesterday was Gimmel Tammuz, the 3rd of Tammuz, the day that the Rebbe left us physically. A Tzaddik never leaves, his guidance and inspiration remains with us always, but we’re simple people and we need to see and hear a person to relate to them.

Gimmel Tammuz became famous long before the Rebbe. 3284 years ago it marked the date when Joshua suspended the sun in midair so he could rout a band of enemies who had attacked the Jews’ allies, the Gibeonites. G-d could have chosen any of a host of miracles to keep the battlefield lit long enough for Joshua to defeat the attackers. By choosing to stop the sun, Hashem set the tone for this unusual day- the third of Tammuz.

We Chassidim were spoiled, inspired and guided by the Rebbe through life’s every step for over forty years. The Rebbe was an expert teacher, weaving tapestries of Torah that intrigue the greatest Jewish minds until today. The Rebbe was a revolutionary, prodding us on to achieve what we were certain was light-years beyond our abilities. The Rebbe was a prophet, predicting the unexpected twists and turns of an ever-changing world. The Rebbe was a father, caring for the disenchanted Jew and the Israeli politician and the Chareidi scholar and the rebellious teen.

We were the fortunate followers, swept up in the raging tide of the Rebbe’s energy. A world without the Rebbe’s presence and guidance was unthinkable. Gimmel Tammuz surprised us completely, challenged our thinking and forced us to reassess our role.

But, the Rebbe had prepared us for that day and its subsequent reality. He had coached us through it from his inaugural address through to the last discourse he distributed. Again and again the Rebbe argued that a righteous individual- Moshe on the banks of the Jordan, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in ancient Israel or the Rebbe in New York- could have single-handedly achieved G-d’s mission for Life and brought Moshiach. But, that would defeat the purpose of Creation.

Hashem made an imperfect world for us ordinary people to fix. We don’t believe we can do it and prefer to defer to the greats of our nation, to let them guide us. Our great sages believe in us more than we do- not only did they trust that we could follow their instructions, but they believed we could even see our own way clear to fulfilling Hashem’s dream.

Just less than a year before the Rebbe took ill, he announced that he had done all he needed to for Moshiach to come and that he was handing the task over to us. On Gimmel Tammuz, the sun of the Jewish nation went still. The sun is still there, illuminating our path, but it has paused, waiting for us to win the battle.

We are an empowered people who can and must rise to the occasion and quite literally change our world. That may sound like a big ask, but one step in that direction is actually all we need. When G-d sees us recognize our potential and step up to the plate, He will push “play”, hopefully right away.

"Bad Jews"

Korach was a rogue, a rabble-rouser who challenged the rabbis of his time and everything Judaism held dear. Korach’s call for reform attracted hundreds of the Israelites’ best and brightest. They gathered, cried foul and insisted on change.

But, Korach and his anti-establishment crew all died in a public show of G-d’s support for His leadership structure, swallowed by the earth in front of the whole community. Ever since, Korach’s name evokes echoes of rebellion and disrespect. He is the paragon “bad Jew”.

It should surprise you, then, to find his name in lights. The Torah names the portion describing Korach’s uprising after him! King Solomon taught us to obliterate the names of the wicked and we usually relegate the rogues of history to obscurity, stamping out their memory. Here, we give Korach a platform that even Moses does not get- a Parsha named for him.

Korach’s uprising may appear to be a jealous spat targeting his cousins, Moses and Aaron, who got it all. On closer inspection, you can detect a wistful ambition for spiritual advancement in Korach. The irony of Korach is that he had the right motives, he just did not know what to with them.

His contention was that every Jew is holy and every Jew should be able to attain the coveted position of Kohen Gadol- high priest. Moses even agreed with his sentiment, responding that he, too, wished to become High Priest, but that G-d created systems and job allocations that we need to accept.

Korach knew something else- in the Messianic Age the Levites (he was one) would serve as kohanim, as priests. He wished to fast-track the process and become a kohen there and then.

When the Torah named this portion Korach, it wanted to teach us that yearning for a higher spiritual platform is a virtue. You only need to ensure that you keep idealism in check, or you could go off the rails as Korach ultimately did.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that this portion holds a vital lesson on how to view “bad Jews”. People often write off the rebels within our Jewish community. Traditionalists recoil at free-thinkers who reinterpret Judaism against convention; who vie for roles that Orthodoxy bars them from.

Rather than rush to condemn, the Torah wants us to recognize the Korach-like yearning to participate that every Jew feels. Not every Jew expresses that wish; not every Jew knows what do with it. Every Jew has it.

Each of us needs to nurture the yearning for greater spiritual participation that we feel and that others feel. We also need to learn how best to channel that want, so that its passion can spiritually uplift us rather than distract us.

This week we commemorate the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Thursday, the third of Tammuz, is the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit), someone whose life-mission epitomizes recognizing the soul-thirst that every Jew has and innovating methods to grow it into proper focused spiritual success.

We would all do well to emulate his example, and cultivate the spark within the Korachs we encounter.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

Sunday, 14 June 2009- South Africa is on fire; cars zoom by trailing red, blue and green, Joburgers smile at each other. You can hear our anthem hummed at the supermarket, punctuated with vuvuzela blasts. We are the host nation!

Monday, 15 June 2009- Joburg is gloomy. Our hearts flutter with the forlorn flags. Vuvuzelas whisper the reality: Bafana will never make it.

Thursday, 18 June 2009- Yes, there is hope. 2-0!

After Bafana’s dismal showing against Iraq, there was a flurry of told-you-so’s. We all knew our team was sub-standard and were disappointed, but not surprised at their weak leg-work. Today, the die-hard patriots are warning against writing SA soccer off prematurely. Saturday night will tell who’s right, when our national team takes on one of soccer’s giants.

Just hours before the whistle, we’ll be at Shul, reading the secret of winning that match. More importantly, we’ll read the secret of winning the matches we play daily in our lives.

G-d took the Jews out of Egypt with the promise of a land. Every promise He had made to us, he kept. He guaranteed that He would take us out of Egypt, get us across the sea and miraculously care for us in the desert. He delivered every time.

To enter the Promised Land, He wanted the people to work out how they could succeed. G-d resisted playing Guide and allowed them to try figure it out. It should have been their crowning moment. They should have understood that He wasn’t abandoning them, only maturing them. But, they missed it. Rather than believing in themselves as their Maker did, they doubted.

They considered the goal, to take over a land occupied by pagans and transform it into a haven of holiness and hesitated. Impossible!

As soon as they declared the mission impossible, it became impossible. They could no longer enter that land and, instead, died in the desert. Only their children, who were naive enough to believe in miracles, went on to create the miracle of the Promised Land.

Bafana may or may not make it through to the semis., but if they see themselves as winners they stand a chance.

We have an advantage, G-d has assured us of success in our spiritual endeavors. If we only trust that we can succeed, we will.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Get rich quick schemes

Bernie Madoff rocked the financial world last December when his $50 billion Ponzi scheme was exposed. Last week, South Africa uncovered its own ponzi mastermind and the smouldering trail of the billions that he took from investors.

South Africa's Jewish community is hurting as many have lost huge sums in this scam. Some have lost everything. People are shocked at how what looked like a watertight investment, proposed by a decent guy was really a skilfully contrived money-sucking plot.

I suppose this is one of those times to be grateful if you don't have much money. Nobody approached me to invest in this "amazing opportunity".

Timing is everything and G-d always designs events to happen around Torah portions that help you understand what has happened- or at least what you should learn from it.

Yesterday's Torah portion (which we read just hours after the story broke) describes the dangers of greed and worse, of expecting too-good-to-be-true returns on investment. It recalls how the Jews complained to Moses about the food he provided for them in the desert. Now, Jews complaining about food is not too unusual (after all, waiters at kosher restaurants often ask the patrons during the meal if anything is ok), but this fuss went beyond the norm.

Jews in the desert ate manna, a spiritual food that tasted like anything you could imagine and was nutrionally balanced to perfection. Still, that apparently wasn't enough and the Children of Israel insisted they needed meat. Moses wasn't happy, and neither was G-d who warned that the meat would come, but at a hefty price. With meat still stuck between their teeth, the carnivorous faction all died.

Lesson 1: When you have what you need and are still greedy for more, beware! As attractive as it may seem, greed always comes back to bite.

Even more intriguing than their urge to replace manna with meat was the line of argument the rabble-rousers used. "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free!" they exclaimed.

For free? What higher price can there be than paying for something with your independence? They were slaves in Egypt, they paid with their lives for the "free" fish. Technically, the meals in Auschwitz were also free, but who would be as callous as to refer to them that way.

Rashi (the first commentary you consult to decode a Torah verse) solves the mystery. Nobody believed that the food in Egypt was free. They were saying that they missed eating for "free", without any moral responsibility.

Chassidic teachings develop the theme, stating that whatever appears to be "free" belongs to Egypt. Egypt is the antithesis of holiness. To attain spiritual meaning requires effort. Anything that comes too easily belongs to Egypt. It is treif.

If someone tells you to invest money and you will get near-immediate over-the-top returns for doing nothing, know that is Egypt speaking. It is treif.

If they assure you that you can fix your marriage by simply reading a book or attending a seminar, Egypt is at it again. When someone proposes that you can raise wholesome children in a few easy steps, he is coming at you from the Nile Delta. And let nobody assure you that erratic shul visits and an occasional shiur will mature your soul.

Anything valuable in life comes through effort. Nobody should try to convince you otherwise, because only nothing is for nothing.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How to heal yourself

Just the other day, the Hayom Yom (daily inspirational thought from the Rebbe) compared spiritual ailments to physical illness.

Before you can begin healing, it said, you need to admit you are unwell and identify the cause of the illness.

Here's a good example:

I guess our challenge is to do for our souls what she did for her body.

Don't throw it out

Joe Goldberg phones his stock broker in a panic. “Sell everything immediately,” he shouts into the phone. Joe’s broker is stunned and tries to dissuade Joe from making such a rash move. Seeing he is getting nowhere, the broker asks Joe what has prompted him to suddenly want to sell up.

“Well,” Joe explains, “For the last twenty years I’ve lied to my wife. She doesn’t trust the markets and forbade me from investing. So, whenever I’ve invested money, I’ve told her I was stuffing it into the mattress for safekeeping.”

“Ok,” the broker slowly replies, wondering where Joe was headed, “So, what’s the problem?”

“Well, you see,” Joe continues, “She’s just bought a new mattress- and they’re delivering it tomorrow!”

I heard this story less than a week ago, and smiled. Yesterday, I heard a bizarre real-life version of the same story. A woman in Tel Aviv - known simply as Annat- surprised her mother with a new mattress for her birthday, tossing her old one into the garbage. When mom arrived home, she was horrified. Over decades, she had stuffed $1 million of her savings into her tattered old bedding.

Now, the search is on at dozens of Israeli dumps and landfills, as the family hopes to recover the missing mattress.

Annat and her mom embody the Jewish story. Our zeides and bobbas painstakingly invested emotion and energy to create a heritage that would keep the next generation Jewish. Many of their children felt ashamed of the grey, worn and outdated “bed” their parents clung to. They threw it out and replaced it with a new-fangled, ergonomic version. And only then, when the old “mattress” was gone, did they appreciate what they had given up. Now the search is on- to recapture the treasure that our heritage offers.

If you have an “old mattress”, don’t rush to throw it out. If you don’t have one- start searching. You never know who will find it first.

Friday, June 05, 2009

(What) were you thinking?

In 1859, New York Congressman, Daniel Sickles gunned Philip Barton Key down in cold blood. Twenty-three years later, Charles J. Guiteau assassinated U.S. President James Garfield at a Boston railway station. The former was acquitted, the latter hanged. Both accused used the same line of defense- one that would become both notorious and intriguing: “temporary insanity”.

Had either case gone before a Beth Din, the judges would have laughed their defense right out of the courtroom. Judaism teaches that a person only ever does something wrong if they are temporarily insane, because a thinking Jew would naturally do as G-d wishes. The legal term for this is “shtus” or foolishness and the Talmud preaches that a person does not sin unless they have momentary shtus.

You might feel uncomfortable with the thought of lapsing into insanity a number of times a day (an hour?), but it really is a comforting notion.

We all know that we’re not perfect and that we mess up regularly. We promise ourselves that we will treat people better, keep the gossip down, learn more and grow spiritually. With all good intentions, much of the time we let ourselves down.

Some religions preach that messing up is part of being human; that we are inherently sinners, programmed to fail and destined to pay the price.

Judaism sees things completely differently. It teaches that we are innately spiritual and that spiritual success is programmed into our systems. When we mess up- regardless of how frequently that happens- we get up, dust ourselves off and move on.

You’ve surely stopped to ask yourself “what was I thinking” after behaving in a way that you know doesn’t suit you. In fact, you should probably acknowledge that “I wasn’t thinking”. Messing up happens when we stop thinking for a moment; when we lose our focus and succumb to shtus. Fixing that is merely a matter of getting back on task, refocusing our mind and getting in touch with our true self.

Judaism argues that getting it wrong is temporary and out of character. And easy to fix.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Do you echo?

You know that feeling when you stop at a Joburg intersection and a taxi pulls up next to you, heavy bass booming from his radio, into your car, through your chest and stomach and out the other side? That is a sampling of what the Jews felt like at Mt. Sinai.

When G-d’s voice blasted the Ten Commandments at us from all six directions, it produced the most powerful sound every heard by humans. G-d’s thundering announcements hurled the people hundreds of metres backwards, knocking their souls our of their bodies. G-d had to dispatch an emergency angel team to revive them and bring them back to the foot of the mountain.

Every nation in the region quaked from the intense sound. Birds stopped chirping, animals froze and nature paused as the Divine sonic boom overwhelmed them all.

But, the powerful noise did not echo.

If you have ever visited the Sinai, you will know how stark and rocky it is. In that stony, sandy environment, you would think that every sound should echo, certainly a very loud one. Why did G-d’s voice defy nature and not reverberate?

The simple science of echoes might help us understand. Noise is really a series of sound-waves that emit from a source. If those sound-waves hit an obstacle that will not absorb them, they bounce back in the direction they came from. This is an echo.

Torah and its directives are designed for the real world. G-d does not want us to escape normal life to attain spirituality; He wants us to embed holiness within the normal life that we live. In other words, He intended His message to sink in to the world, not to bounce off its surface. If His message had echoed, it would have implied that it was too spiritual and could not be absorbed by our world.

On Shavuos you should ask yourself: “Do I echo?”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's all a numbers game

“Not one, not two, not three...” anybody who has been at the morning minyan will know about counting the crowd and waiting for that 10th man to arrive.

The Jewish community seems obsessed with numbers: “How many members does your Shul have?” “How many people were at the talk last night?” “How many guests did the Goldbergs have at their son’s barmitzvah?”

Is Judaism simply a numbers game? Do we rate the value of an institution, event or family by how many followers they attract?

In the early days of Facebook, a friend of mine won a radio competition for having the most “friends” in Joburg. I doubt whether he knows more than half of them, but he’s winning the numbers game anyway.

There are two ways to count people: You could reduce each person to a simple number, a statistic in a census, a mark on a ballot paper or a cog in a massive machine. Just 65 years ago, one-third of our nation was demeaned into a faceless sea of numbered bodies.

Or you could count them like the attentive collector, who proudly counts his artifacts or diamonds again and again- with love.

Jews don’t count Jews. We dare not relegate our fellow to a simple number. Hence the “not one, not two” formula for figuring out how many minyan-makers are present. It reminds us that a person is not a number.

G-d does count Jews. He obviously knows how many of us there are, so He’s not counting for numbers’ sake. He counts us to express His love and pleasure, like one who relishes knowing exactly how much he has of what he loves.

We are expected to emulate Him, to always see the preciousness of our fellow Jew.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are you really better than the next guy?

Reb Hillel of Paritch was a tremendous Torah scholar who “crossed the floor” and became a Chabad Chossid. Over the years, he became a dedicated student of the second and third of the Chabad Rebbes, but never managed to meet the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad.

It’s not that he hadn’t tried, but Providence ensured that each time he arrived in a town that the Alter Rebbe was visiting, he just missed the Tzadik by a day. Eventually, Reb Hillel researched the Rebbe’s movements ahead in advance and arrived in a small shtetl ahead of the Rebbe’s brief visit there.

To make sure he would not miss the chance to meet the Rebbe, he smuggled himself into the Rebbe’s room, hid under the bed and waited...

Excited by the prospect of meeting this great Torah personality, Reb Hillel had prepared some intricate questions on the obscure topic of “erchin” (the appraisal of people’s value to donate to the Temple) to pose to the Alter Rebbe.

As the Rebbe walked into the room, before Reb Hillel could move, he announced: “If a young man has a question regarding appraising people, he should first concentrate on appraising himself!”

Reb Hillel fainted; the Rebbe’s message had hit its mark. By the time he came to, the Rebbe had left and Reb Hillel never got to meet him.

A man once asked the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe why he allocated so much of his time to simple Jews, when he could surely have better invested his time with scholars. The fellow happened to be a diamond merchant, so the Rebbe asked to see his stones.

As he looked through the collection, the Rebbe remarked that he didn’t see why a particular stone was so expensive, it seemed rather ordinary. The dealer patiently explained that, as an expert, he could see the value of a stone that an inexperienced person could not see.

“I,” said the Rebbe, “am an expert in people, I can see a value that you cannot...”

If we are unable to see that preciousness in the next Jew, it is ourselves we need to assess.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What I learned from Jacob Zuma

Like him or hate him, you've got to respect him. Jacob Zuma may have a checkered past, but he stole the hearts of South Africa and led the ANC to a landslide election victory last week.

I wouldn't advocate learning morals or honesty from Zuma, but here are a few things you can learn:

1. Don't limit yourself by what other say

Zuma stared down raging condemnation and campaigned his way to the country's top position.

As a Jew, you can expect plenty global criticism. Turn a blind eye and get on with what you know you need to do.

2. You don't have to know how it will all work out

I doubt whether JZ knew quite how he would wiggle out of his corruption trial. His skeleton-filled closet threatened to burst open right up until literally moments before the poll.

Today was the birthday of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose motto was Lechatchila Ariber: Stay focused on your goal, put your head down and go for it. Don't waste time worrying about what could go wrong- just make it happen.

3. They don't care how much you know...

... but they know when you care. Zuma ousted the dispassionate and aloof, AIDS-denier Thabo Mbeki using his suave, people-friendly personality. He showed that he could relate to real people and their real problems, and that swung the electorate.

Being Jewish is not all about knowledge- despite what people may tell you- but about sincerely caring for your fellow Jew. Knowing the Talmud backwards, but being judgmental of the Jew who drives on Shabbos undermines the fundamentals of our faith.

4. Dare to conquer your enemy

The greatest coup of this election was the ANC's overwhelming victory in Kwazulu Natal. KZN is a traditionally Zulu stronghold and the most powerful base of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP party. Never before has the ANC made such inroads into this region.

But Zuma is a Zulu. He campaigned heavily in volatile territory- and won.

A Jew is expected to venture into the "enemy territory" of our the mundane world, and transform it into holy territory. Be it business, excercise or eating- a Jew can and should convert the experience from its default position to serving a new and higher purpose.

Missed opportunities?

My brother has recently made Aliyah and moved to Modi'in. Over Pesach, he came to visit and told us all about the vibrant lifestyle in this fast-growing town. From the way he described their ultra-modern home, spectacular public transport system and overwhelmingly warm community, I can't wait to see it for myself. (I might have even considered moving there myself, but we've got plenty work to do here in S.A. so Israel's on hold till Moshiach).

Modi'in is clearly one of the most attractive places in Israel to live and real estate is very valuable. That made me wonder about people who had owned land there twenty some years ago, when Modi'in was little more than a Bohemian settlement. Those who had foresight to buy then must be sitting pretty now.

Then I remembered that we actually had family who almost moved to Modi'in in the early nineties. They almost became millionaires (considering that they almost bought property that would have fetched a fortune in today's market).

We all have "almost" stories. "Almost" made a fortune of money, "almost" met a public figure, "almost" this and "almost" that. Life is full of opportunities, but we almost always seem to miss the really good ones.

Last Wednesday was election day in South Africa. Like a good citizen should, I headed to the polling station up the road. Voting was moving very slowly and it took over an hour to cast my ballot. Normally, I would have stood and chatted to the strangers in line, possibly daydreamed or fretted at the inefficiency of it all.

For once, though, I had enough foresight to take advantage of the time. I took a book that I had needed to study and got through about half of it during the wait. Opportunity used.

Standing there reading reminded me of the Vilna Gaon, who quipped that he became a Torah giant in all those five minutes' that others simply wasted.

We are currently counting the Omer. The Omer days are not festivals, they're ordinary days. Counting the Omer each day transforms each day into a meaningful time- a mitzvah day.

You need less than five minues each evening to to count the Omer. In that short mitzvah-moment, you transform you whole day. Here is a cheap investment that offers great returns.

Counting the Omer is all about not missing opportunities. Yom Tov is always an inspiring time and, be it Pesach or Rosh Hashanah, we naturally feel we need to take advantage while the opportunity lasts. The Omer shows us that we don't need to wait for special days to find opportunities for meaning. They are there every day. And they only take a few minutes.

Five minutes of focus each day can change your whole day. Use five minutes each day for something worthwhile- a Torah-byte, chapter of Tehillim or one kind deed. It will change your day, possibly you life.

And, at the end, you won't have to look back and say "I almost made my life meaningful".

Friday, April 24, 2009

Make it count

Did you vote?

I did. I even have the purple thumbnail to prove it.

Counting votes slowly continues today. One by one by one, IEC officials are tallying the tail end of some 20 million ballots. Some didn’t bother to vote, figuring they wouldn’t change the Zuma fait accomplis. Each result-update emphasizes how every ballot paper really does combine to create a grand total.

In Pretoria they’re counting the polls. Around the world, we’re counting the days. It’s now the time of numbers, of counting. It’s the period called Sefiras Ha’omer.

From second night Pesach until Shavuos, we count each day and tally each week in the longest seasonal mitzvah marathon of the year. Simply put, we’re counting the days until we re-receive the Torah on Shavuos.

Sefiras Ha’omer is more than a simple day-by-day count, though. Numbering the days as we do at this time alerts us to the message of counting.

You count things that are valuable. Some people count their money, others their blessings. Judaism teaches us to count every day that we live, to cherish each one and to make it count.

At the end of his life, our patriarch Avraham is described as “old and ‘come’ in days”. Avraham didn’t waste a day. When he looked back over his long and productive life, he could proudly recall how he had filled each day with meaning.

As the IEC does their counting, let’s make sure to do ours. Our challenge is to fill each day with meaning and growth.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Giving charity makes you money

There's new proof to show that giving charity makes you wealthy. Take a look.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Message from a guy in a dogbox

If you have ever visited Covent Gardens in central London, you'll know just how diverse and entertaining a place it is. If you've never been, put it on your itinerary for your next visit.

We stepped off the Underground and into the human sea there last Sunday morning. As we turned into the pedestrian mall, I noticed a guy with his purple hair tied back in a ponytail. Figuring my kids would find that intriguing, I planned to surreptitiously snap a shot without attracting his attention.

My brother-in-law, who is far more audacious than I, decided to create the photo-op for me. He strode over to Purple-Hair, offered a loud American "hello" and asked if they could pose together for a photo. Politely, our model agreed, but I couldn't help thinking that he probably looked at our beards, tzitzis and yarmulkes and figured: "Boy, these guys look strange."

We continued on past jugglers, mimes and buskers, while the "how do they look at us" complex bounced around in my head as we walked.

A creative busker caught our eye. He sat under a table, with his head protruding into a dog travel-box (you know, the type they use to take dogs on planes) and his face painted Fido-like. Two paw-gloves and a fluffy tail sticking out of the box topped off the costume.

The guy in the dog-box teased passersby, sang and made everyone smile. Seeing us, he asked: "Are you Loob'evitch?"

I'll admit, I was surprised.

"I like the Loob'evitch," he continued, "they're cool!"

Now, I was truly gobsmacked.

Purple-Hair had given me a frum-appearance complex, but Guy Dogbox restored my perspective.

Yesterday, we started reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The first word, Vayikra, is spelled with a shrunken letter Alef. It is unusual for a letter in the Torah to be enlarged or minimised, so when it happens, you need to pay attention and learn something.

Elsewhere, the first word of the book of Chronicles starts with an enlarged letter Alef at the head of the name "Adam".

Vayikra describes how G-d calls Moses, while Chronicles talks about Adam, the first human tasked with making the world a better place. Between the two Alefs we learn a powerful lesson: When dealing with G-d, shrink your Alef* and stand humble and ready to hear His instruction. When facing the world, let your Alef stand tall and proud so that the world respects who you are and is ready to learn from you.

Unfortunately, we often get our Alefs mixed up. We express our opinion when it's time to listen to G-d and sit back daunted when we look the world in the eye.

Luckily, Hashem sometimes sends us reminders- in the most unexpected ways- to reset our Alef perspective.

We continued down the cobblestone, while the Dogbox struck up a lively "Hava Nagilla".

* Alef is the first letter of "Ani", the Hebrew for "I".