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.