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".

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stealing the limelight

Every tourist to London inevitably stops for a photo-op at Buckingham Palace. We were no exception and chose to get there for the much talked-about “changing of the guard”.

We arrived just moments before the royal spectacle began and the streets were already overcrowded with Nikon-wielding tourists from around the globe, vying for front row spots. We joined the throng to the first strains of march music as the Bearskins rounded the corner, followed by the stiffly synchronised marching guards.

We were not close enough to watch all the proceedings inside the palace grounds, but caught glimpses of flags marching back and forth and heard the barking of orders as the shifts changed. My camera captured more than my eye could and- thanks to digital technology- I was able to watch everything frame-by-frame a few seconds after it happened. Stretch arm, snap, look at photo, stretch, snap, repeat.

One photo is particularly revealing. It shows a flag-bearing guard and his armed counterpart brusquely marching along, while a nondescript suit ‘n tie clad man with an ID tag dangling from his neck looks on from inside a doorway.

My first thought when I saw it: “There’s the real security of Buckingham Palace”.

The honour guard at the palace is a great tourist trap, but the royals are most likely watched over by people you wouldn’t even notice.

Serving the King of kings is not too different. Some strut their Mitzvah stuff with a display that turns heads and elicits gasps of admiration. Others go about doing what needs to be done, with nobody noticing.

As we start the third book of the Torah this week, we will read the secret of offerings to G-d: “Adam (a man) who brings from you an offering to G-d”.

In Hebrew, you could also call a man ish, gever or enosh, yet the Torah chooses the name Adam in this context. It wants to remind us of the first person to ever give something to G-d: Adam. Soon after his creation, Adam offered a sacrifice to G-d. Nobody else was around to see what he had done. Adam was not out to impress anyone with his dedication to the Divine, because there was nobody around to impress.

The Torah highlights this message: Before you get into the details of what you plan to do for G-d, make sure you know how to do for G-d. Be like Adam, unconcerned for the approval of others, focused instead on what G-d needs you to do .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Need a lift?

Welcome to the morning after.

Purim was spectacular, Boruch Hashem, with best-ever crowds at Shul and good spirit all round. Now, we’re in the doldrums that follow the high.

I’m not talking about hangovers or headaches (thankfully), just that dullness that seems to follow wonderful moments. It’s not just that we battle to keep the high, it seems we humans naturally slip after the good times. It’s almost like the higher we climb, the harder we fall.

Maybe that’s why we read this week’s Parsha straight after Purim. It tells us how the Jews slid to our lowest ebb ever just days after experiencing history’s greatest high. Not long after G-d Himself revealed His Torah to us, our spiritual ADD kicked in and we built an idol. We went from hero to zero in record time!

You would expect the Torah to decry this horrible piece of our past, to subtly allude to it in less-than-polite terms. After all, the Golden Calf almost cost us our nationhood and remains the ugliest blight on our history’s landscape.

You probably know that the Torah refers to incidents with the name that would best describe the essence of the event. It should surprise you then to hear that the Torah portion that reports on the faith-lapse of the Jewish nation is called “Ki Sisa”, meaning “when you will lift or elevate”.

Is this Torah sarcasm?

If anything we will read this week of how the Jews FELL. The giving of the Torah was the ultimate lift, but we dropped sharply from unprecedented heights all the way down to rock bottom. Where’s the “lift” in this story?

To be sure, the “high” at Sinai was artificial. We were elevated by G-d, we didn’t elevate ourselves. When you lose inspiration and fall, you earn the opportunity to climb back up. In the portion Moshe rebukes his people, they recognize their spiritual recession and they immediately work to rise again. This time around they lift themselves- maybe not as high, but definitely more meaningfully.

Purim excitement is over, so it is now time to lift ourselves.