Friday, August 28, 2009

The fastest man on Earth

Usain Bolt was already the fastest man on Earth last year. At the Beijing Olympics he broke world records in both the 100m (his own record) and 200m sprints. But, last month, "Lightning" Bolt outdid himself at the World Athletics' Championships, smashing his own sprint records.

You have to ask yourself why. Bolt was already the fastest man alive, so why the urge to run even faster? After all, "fastest" means you can't get faster than him; isn't that good enough? (Even if Bolt's mother was Jewish, I'm sure she would be satisfied.)

Bolt clearly appreciates one of life's most valuable lessons- success is not about beating everyone else; it's about outdoing yourself.

A day after Bolt's record-smashing run, the Jewish world began its annual soul-marathon. We leap from the starting line on 1 Elul and dash headlong towards Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Elul means thirty days of spiritual stock-take. It is an introspective time, when we assess our achievements and failures over the past twelve months and we resolve to improve in the coming year.

A word of caution: When you start your self-assessment, you may be tempted to rate your spiritual standing against others. You are sure to find people who are lagging behind you, which might convince you that you're "ok".

Perhaps G-d scheduled Bolt's success to splash out all over the media just in time to remind us what Elul is all about- breaking our own records.

Lost property

Ruth Bendik had her wallet stolen in Central Park as she stood watching the New York marathon. That was back in 1982. This July, a tree-care supervisor for the Park discovered her wallet under a heap of compost. He looked up the 69-year old, now living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and returned her wallet. $20 was missing; everything else was there.

Mrs. Bendik may not have been as lucky had she lost her wallet in Joburg. Actually, people are not often reunited with their lost property anywhere in the world. If society would follow Torah law, things might be different.

This week’s Torah portion instructs us to do whatever we can to return lost objects. If an item carries identifying marks, you need to pursue the owner. Jewish law rules that, as long as you can trace the owner, even if it will take time and effort, you are obliged to.

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa once found a clutch of chickens that someone had accidentally left outside his home. He took the chickens and cared for them. They had chicks that grew and had chicks of their own. He eventually sold his backyard's chickens and bought goats instead. Years later, when the chickens’ owner passed through the area, Rabbi Chanina presented him with a mini-farm, the return on his unplanned investment.

In Temple times, there was a “lost property” stone in Jerusalem. When people came to visit the Temple for the festivals, they would congregate at that stone to announce or reclaim lost property. Over time, the Shul became the lost property depot, later it moved to the Shul notice-board and today on many community's websites.

Our Torah readings are timed to coincide with whatever is going on in the Jewish year. Reading about returning lost items in the month of Elul is significant. The Kabbalists teach that we have as much obligation to return lost property to G-d as we have to return to another person.

G-d entrusted us each with a soul, which He wanted us to use for guidance and inspiration. When we assess the year that has passed (as we are meant to do during Elul), we may conclude that our soul has gotten “lost” in the stress and frenzy of modern living.

In 2007 a waiter in New Orleans tracked down the owner of a wallet that was left in a restaurant and landed himself an $8000 reward. You can bet that Hashem’s reward for returning His “lost property”, your own soul, is worth even more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guaranteed: Best way to learn

Einstein apparently said that you have only understood something properly when you are able to explain it to your grandmother. Almost 2000 years earlier, the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Chanina said: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and from my students most of all.”

Sir Francis Bacon (a less-kosher source, I guess) claimed that “knowledge is power” and most people would agree with him. In a Jewish sense, understanding what you’re doing and appreciating the value of your heritage is enriching and empowering.

Considering how valuable knowledge is, it would be a good idea to determine the most effective way to gain knowledge (and to keep it). You could spend fortunes on a money-back-guarantee study-skills course. You might attend a lucrative mind-power seminar. You may consider vitamin supplements that boost brain power, begin a meditation routine or learn hypnosis to improve concentration.

Or, you could use Torah’s time-proven method.

Chabad’s first leader, the Alter Rebbe declared: “When you teach another person, your own mind and heart become a thousand times more focused”. Decades later, the Rebbe insisted that this formula is literal- after teaching someone else, you will manage to understand something that should have taken 1000 hours in just a single hour. When you teach someone else, they will ask questions that you would never have asked, will make observations you might never have conceived of and may challenge what you take for granted. You know this from your children- teaching them opens new vistas of discovery for you. In my teaching experience, I have been consistently surprised at the fresh insights my high school students bring to subjects I thought I had studied thoroughly.

You may think that this sounds like a nice idea- for someone else. After all, you probably imagine that you don’t yet have enough knowledge to teach someone else. To that, the Rebbe countered, “If you know Alef, teach Alef”. In other words, whatever little Jewish knowledge you have, share. If you are waiting to grow your own education, consider that the best way to increase what you know is actually to teach.

Teaching is the best way to learn, guaranteed. Take advantage!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What an amazing Shabbos!

I’m on high from Shabbos.

Chabadniks traditionally host a farbrengen (an informal get-together with lots of Torah, song and lechaim) on Shabbos Mevorchim (the Shabbos before each new month). Elul is a special month on the Jewish calendar; it’s when we review the past year and begin gearing up for the High Holidays. Predictably, the Shabbos that blesses this exceptional month calls for an exceptional farbrengen. Our community always has an uplifting Shabbos Mevorchim Elul, but this year’s was on a completely new level.

What made it so special was a guest appearance by Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin. Rabbi Raskin is over sixty, but that didn’t stop him slipping on a pair of running shoes and walking seven kilometers to join us for Shabbos. Rabbi Raskin is originally Russian, now lives in Israel and is visiting South Africa to raise funds for his son who is the Chabad Shliach (representative) in Cyprus.

Zevi, his son, spent time in Joburg’s Chabad Yeshivah and that’s where we met. He is a big guy (comfortably over six foot) with the biggest hands I’ve ever seen and a matching big heart. In five years, he and his wife have created a Jewish revolution in Cyprus that is quite remarkable. After last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai, Israeli intelligence insisted that Chabad Cyprus upgrade their security and Raskin snr. is helping raise funds to cover his son’s security system.

After Shul, we sat down outside (we’ve, thank G-d, outgrown our Shul) for our traditional Shabbos Mevorchim cholent lunch. Soon enough, Rabbi Raskin started to share incredible stories of absolute dedication to Judaism, against unimaginable odds in a world behind the Iron Curtain that many of us don’t even realize existed. He described his clandestine bar mitzvah- celebrated with exactly a minyan and a smuggled Torah scroll- that the KGB bust despite all the family’s strictest precautions. He described how difficult it was to get kosher chicken, how he had to pretend to be sick every Shabbos or Yom Tov to avoid school, and how his father feigned insanity to dodge army conscription.

One story stood about from the rest. In his words, it’s the story of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe personally rescued his family from under the nose of the Communists.

The Raskin family lived in Gorky. Gorky was apparently a closed military zone (it housed certain military production plants) and one of the most dangerous places to live as an observant Jew, considering how many KGB agents lived there.

Rabbi Raskin, then a teen, studied in an underground Yeshivah in Samarkand. One day, unexpectedly, he received a telegram that his uncle needed to speak to him and he should head home. “Uncle” was the family’s code word for the Rebbe.

Rabbi Moshe Vishedski, Raskin’s uncle, had managed to leave Russia (not before the Russians threw him from a building, almost killing him and leaving him with permanent facial and cranial wounds). In New York, he visited the Rebbe and requested two things: 1) A “big miracle” for his brother-in-law (Raskin’s father) to dodge the KGB investigation of his business (which was illegal because it made a profit) and 2) Advice as to which city the Raskins should go to in order to lodge a request to leave the USSR.

The Rebbe’s response was reassuring- and perplexing. First, the Rebbe noted that G-d had managed to spirit Rabbi Vishedski out of Russia and that for G-d small miracles and big miracles are all the same, so He could help the brother-in-law too. Then he advised Rabbi Vishedski to tell his family to apply for emigration in their hometown, Gorky. This, of course, was the message in the telegram. The perplexing part was that Gorky had no Emigration Office, so the family couldn’t understand where the Rebbe wanted them to go.

Shortly afterwards, an official letter of invitation to move to Israel arrived. They now had the letter, but still no idea of where to present it.

Eventually, Rabbi Raskin’s mother figured that all applications to the Emigration Office would inevitably pass through the KGB’s hands, so they may as well go to the KGB offices themselves and apply to leave Russia. The KGB building in downtown Gorky was designed to instill fear in the hearts of the city’s residents. Outwardly, it was a four-storey imposing building, but everyone knew that there were many basement levels too, and unspeakable things happened there. Gorky’s citizens preferred to avoid the streets around those offices for fear of hearing the screams from underground or, worse, of being summoned into the building itself. Mother and son (Raskin’s father couldn’t join them, as he had claimed insanity to avoid the draft), two observant Jews, headed voluntarily into the lion’s lair.

Once inside, they presented their request to the officials on duty. Nobody seemed interested in assisting, claiming that this was not an official Emigration Office. Suddenly, a short, stout female KGB captain emerged, saw their official letter from Israel and phoned through to Moscow for advice on how to deal with them. Moscow told her to open a file, collect all the relevant documentation from them and send it to Moscow for processing. She promptly took down a thick file and a black marker and wrote “Raskin- Emigration Office” on its spine.

The Rebbe had indirectly opened an Emigration Office in Gorky.

Within ten days, they were ordered back to the KGB office to hear whether their request had been accepted or not. This was 1967 and the Russian government was denying most requests to leave- except occasionally for family reunion. The KGB summoned them on a Shabbos and they had to walk well over an hour to get there.

Arriving at KGB HQ-Gorky, agents led them to a room with tables lined with high-ranking officers. One led the proceedings, berating the family for even considering leaving Mother Russia. He thundered down at Mrs. Raskin, warning her that she was making a grave mistake to have asked to leave for Israel, a country in peril (this was shortly before the Six Day War and Russia was an Arab ally). He recommended that she reconsider, adding benevolently that the government would ignore the family’s application if she did. If they insisted on going, the family would have to face potentially dire consequences.

Mrs. Raskin explained that she and a brother were the only family members to have escaped the Nazis. Her brother lived in Israel and was not a well man. Had he been well, she explained, she would have encouraged him to come live in “this wonderful country”. Considering his ill health, she felt obliged to travel to live with him. Since family reunion was the ticket to leaving Russia, she hoped that the authorities would grant her request.

Hearing her story, the official reached beneath the table and extracted their exit visas, which had been there all along. At a time when some of their own family had disappeared without a trace into Siberia, when anyone who did make it out of Russia first spent years of frustration over failed attempts, the Rebbe’s brocha had obviously worked.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What do you see?

This week’s breaking-news story of a Brazilian TV host who allegedly ordered the murders that his show reported on should get us thinking. Wallace Souza denies claims that he ordered hits on drug lords to spike ratings for his TV programme, which was always first to cover those grim stories.

Souza is likely a thug, but it’s our addiction to sensationalism that oils the media’s 24/7 mission to dig up smut, scandal and violence. An average American watches some 4½ hours of TV and by age 18 has seen over 200 000 acts of violence, 16 000 of them murders. As the Internet speeds up and becomes more pervasive, we access increasingly vivid live coverage of bombings, bloody protests, natural disasters and the requisite celebrity scandals. Our grandparents would only witness violence or indecency when it invaded their lives; we watch it unfold across the globe- in real time.

Technological advancement is a good thing. Thanks to the Web we can disseminate useful information and express our opinions (as any Blogger would know) way beyond the circle of our immediate community. Educational TV programmes benefit people who have no access to formal scholling and we all appreciate good, clean entertainment delivered right into our living rooms. We are fortunate to live in an Age where we can observe more than just what is in our line of sight.

TV and the Internet are not inherently bad media. Depending on how we use them, they could enhance life or spurn rogues like Wallace Souza.

Our Torah portion this week is called “Re’eh”, meaning “see”. It’s opening line states: “See (says G-d), I place before you today blessing...” Towards the end of the portion, we read the list of non-Kosher birds, one of which is called the “Ra’ah”. This bird (some believe it’s the Peregrine Falcon) has amazing eyesight and can spot its prey from high altitudes and over great distances.

Kosher animals display characteristics that we should emulate and non-kosher animals represent traits we need to avoid. Surprisingly, in the section named for sight, we read of a bird that has exceptional sight but is treif. Sight is G-d's gift and should be used to look out for goodness and blessing. Sight becomes treif when you use it to see “prey”, someone else’s weakness.

TV and the Internet can educate and inspire us. Or, they could highlight people’s vulnerabilities and society’s dark side. We choose what we want to see and we ought to choose wisely.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

How much is enough?

The simple fisherman sat quietly, his line cast into the grey morning waters. Out for an early morning, holiday beach-jog, the exec stopped for a breather right next to him. Both men looked out to sea, the silence between them soothed by the crashing waves.

‘How long do you fish for each day?” the exec asked.

“A few hours, long enough to catch fish to take home for my family,” the fisherman replied, “Then I take it easy for the rest of the day”.

The businessman was incredulous. “You know,” he began, “You really could do better than that. I mean, if you would stay a few more hours, you could catch some more fish, which you could sell.”

“And then what?” asked the fisherman slowly, gazing at the horizon.

“Well, you could save up the extra money and buy a boat.”

“Uh huh... and then?”

“Well, with the boat, you could fish in deeper water and catch even more fish to sell at a greater profit.”

“Ok, and then?” The fisherman was still gazing over the crests of waves.

“Then, you could hire fishermen to work for you, they would bring in more fish, earning you more money so you buy another boat and then another, hire more fishermen and make more money,” the exec was excited, “Who knows? You might earn enough to buy a fish-packing plant, maybe grow to a chain of businesses... within ten to fifteen years, you could be obscenely wealthy!”

“I see, and what would I do then?” the fisherman finally turned his head, a wry smile on his face, “Sell my business and retire to sit on the beach each day admiring the beauty of nature and catching a few fish?”

In the desert, G-d gave us the manna each day- just enough food to keep us going. We weren’t happy, we wanted more, something to hold on to “in case”. He wanted us to realise that He supplies us with what we need, as long as we dedicate sufficient time to the important things in life- family, friends and our own spirituality.

Is Bill Clinton Moshiach?

I highly doubt that he is, but this Tuesday he taught us a thing or two about Moshiach.

It all began close to four months ago when two American journalists working in China, accidentally crossed the border into North Korea. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested and tried for illegal immigration and plotting to start an anti-government smear campaign. In June, a North Korean judge sentenced them to twelve years imprisonment with hard labour.

I can only imagine the dread they felt each night in their cells, yearning for their families and wondering about their dismal, unending future. Imagine the terror they must have felt as the warden opened their cells doors on Tuesday morning and led them out. I'm sure that they believed they were headed to the labour camp.

Instead, authorities led them into a room, where they were greeted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton had negotiated their release and they headed home immediately.

Like those women in prison, we tend to believe that life's tribulations are here to stay. We don't know how we landed up in this mess, why people accuse us and abuse us for things we never did. We have a dim memory of long ago believing that we'd break free of a life tainted by anti-Semitism, crime, financial stress and family meltdown. But, we've become cynical. Statistics convince us that life doesn't get better, it gets worse. "No news is good news" becomes our mantra, we'd rather live with the devils we know because we're too afraid of who lurks behind the door.

This Shabbos we will read the eternal words of Isaiah: "And Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me." Shall a woman forget her sucking child, from having mercy on the child of her womb? These too shall forget, but I will not forget you."

One day it will happen. One day the door will open and G-d's own envoy will be standing there. And we will return home. That day is sooner than we imagine.