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.