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.