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.