Sunday, September 27, 2009

Light a candle of truth

The Jewish world stands a little straighter this week, emboldened by Prime Minister Netanyahu's telling-it-like-it-is at the UN last Thursday.  Bibi lashed out against Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-myth rhetoric, blasted the UN's anti-Israel bias and reminded the crowd that the message of world peace engraved on the entrance to the UN was composed by a Jewish prophet, Isaiah, walking in our land 2800 years ago.

Time will tell if Netanyahu's courage will carry from the General Assembly podium to Knesset decision-making. But, the speech was clearly impressive, "Churchillian" they're calling it- direct and brutally honest.

Where did Bibi get the guts to stand up to the world? Was he inspired by his older brother Yoni, the Sayeret Matkal commander who gave his life to save others at Entebbe?

Bibi's spontaneous answer, to an Israeli journalist just outisde the General Assembly, is surprising. Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. Shortly after taking the post, a friend suggested he attend the Simchas Torah celebrations with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad-Lubavitch HQ in Brooklyn.

Before the festivities kicked off, the Rebbe spoke to Netanyahu for forty minutes, much to the surprise and frustration of the Chassidim who were eager to start the proceedings.

"The Rebbe told me," Netanyahu explains, "You are going to the UN and you will find there an assembly hall filled with infinite falsehood and utter darkness. Your challenge is to light a candle of truth in that darkness."

25 years later, last Thursday, Bibi got to light that candle.

Last week was Rosh Hashanah and we flipped the calendar page to 5770, which has all the markings of a powerful year. 770 has the gematriya (numerical value) of "poratzto", meaning to burst forth, break barriers and shift paradigms. Less than a week into this special year, Prime Minister Netanyahu did "poratzto" in the UN. 25 years ago, the Rebbe planted the seed that burst into the open last week. Hopefully, Israel will keep the "poratzto" momentum and stand strong and proud.

You and I may not be able to change Israel or address the UN. But, we can shift our own paradigms. We all have a "hall of lies and darkness" inside our own minds: self-doubt, apathy and an urge to please the world. Tonight is Kippur, time to reasses and reinvent ourselves, time for our personal "poratzto". Time to confront our personal "hall of darkness" and tell it where to get off.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Stand on your head!

This week I heard a poignant story from a colleague overseas. A woman in his community shared a unique anecdote about her father as a child. It was Yom Kippur and the young boy accompanied his father to Shul. During the service, the congregation’s focus was disturbed when the lad walked to the front of the Shul and did a handstand in front of the Ark. Embarrassed, his father quickly led him back to his seat and then asked what had possessed the boy to do something so strange.

The youngster replied simply: “You told me that we have to do something difficult on Yom Kippur, and for me that was difficult”.

Different people experience Yom Kippur differently. For some, it’s a meaningful, focused and inspiring time when they are swept up in the experience of the day, barely noticing the fast. Others struggle with not eating or, more often, not drinking but push themselves to daven and to try connect. Then there are those who check in for the main services- Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and maybe Neilah- then quickly check out. Some Jews don’t even get to Shul, they simply sleep the day away and count the hours till it’s over.

Group A often looks askance at the others, who they feel miss the point of what this special day is about. Well, maybe they are the ones who have missed the plot. Those of us who understand the service and get involved and inspired because we appreciate what’s going on feel comfortable in Shul. We’re not in Shul out of dedication nor do we find it difficult to be there. Those who come to Shul begrudgingly because they “have to” are challenging themselves. If someone comes to Shul and cannot read Hebrew or doesn’t relate to the service they clearly are not there for their own benefit- they’re out of simple dedication to G-d. Dedication is worth far more than going through the motions or even feeling inspired.

This Yom Kippur, we need to challenge ourselves; to find something difficult to do; to take our commitment over those 24 hours to a completely new level.We need to stand on our heads. G-d always responds to us in line with our movement towards Him, hopefully He will take the tzoris in our lives and turn it on its head too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leshana Tovah ti... how do you say it again?

Every Rosh Hashanah people get tongue-tied trying to pronounce the official First-night greeting. Having a different formula for men, women and groups doesn’t help, especially if your Hebrew is not so hot in the first place. The good news is, you can say it in whichever language you prefer. What is more important is that you mean it.

From sunset on Friday evening until the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, G-d judges the world and determines everything that will happen for the next year, It’s an unnerving time and we’d certainly like to do whatever we can to ensure He sets up a good year fo us.

We come to Shul, pray with extra focus and hope we can convince Him that we’ve been good and deserve blessing.

Here’s a secret that can help us all guarantee ourselves a good year ahead: Wish other people a good year. Sound too simple (or perhaps superficial)?

We make a serious mistake- we don’t take our own blessings seriously enough. The Talmud warns that you should never underestimate even a simpleton’s blessing.

When he was just fourteen, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe commented how he could sense the tremendous joy on High that people’s “Leshana Tovah” greeting would generate. His father taught that two angels accompany every Jew to Shul on Rosh Hashanah. When they hear us bless each other with a good year, they fly up to Heaven and argue that we all deserve blessings for the coming year.

Jews believe that G-d wants the best for us and that He enjoys the greatest nachas from seeing us wish each other well. Praying in Shul is important, but wholeheartedly wishing your neighbour a good year might be even more valuable.

Whether you know the correct formula or not, make sure that you mean it when you say whatever you say. And make sure you say it to as many people as possible.
Shana Tovah, may you have a year with less stress and more cash, sustained spiritual growth and good health, extra nachas and inner-peace, all enjoyed against the backdrop of a stable and tranquil world awakening to spiritual awareness- or as we Jews like to say: Moshiach now!

Friday, September 11, 2009


The scene is always the same. She sits down with her bowl of cereal, I might be eating eggs, a roll, a salad- it really makes no difference. She usually has a cup of juice or some tea to go with her breakfast; I try to make sure it’s placed as far from me as possible.

Fortunately, today she doesn’t spill her drink (she almost destroyed my laptop once and has splashed on my trousers many times). She’s happy, eating her cereal and splattering less than usual (although milk droplets wobble on her chin). I offer her a tissue and ask her what she plans to do today. She changes the subject, telling me instead what she did and her sister did yesterday. I follow most of what she’s telling me, but lose the thread here and there when the conversation turns to babble.

She leans over and pilfers a piece of what I’m eating- without asking. I smile and say nothing.

She never asks me about my day, what’s happening in my life, how things are going. She offers little information about her own activities or even her feelings. She has yet to tell me what her dreams are.

I have now finished eating and get up, ready to start my day. She ignores me, scoops a cornflake from the table into her mouth.

We haven’t discussed anything meaningful and seem to live in completely different worlds. Yet, I have loved every moment of our time together. I wish this little time capsule of pure love would last forever. I have just eaten breakfast with my two-year-old.


“Avinu Malkeinu, Avinu Atah”, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us that G-d is our father. We may look like a sloppy two-year-old when we perform his instructions and our prayers probably sound incoherent. But, He loves us all the same and cherishes every moment that we spend with him.


Friday, September 04, 2009

I've arrived??

Someone recently emailed me a video clip that shows a lead car race driver bungle his win. The clip shows the car zip around the last bend and speed towards the finish.  Confident of a win, the driver vigorously waves his fist out of the window, loses control of the car and smashes into the barrier, just two metres before the checkered flag. There’s a lesson- you haven’t arrived until you arrive.

We always read the portion “Ki Savo” before Rosh Hashanah. It opens with the law of Bikkurim, taking first fruits to Jerusalem as an offering to G-d. Bikkurim only applied once all Jews had settled in the Promised Land. It took seven years to settle everyone (you can just imagine the challenge of telling Jews where to live and hoping they’ll be happy). Meanwhile, people got to work farming as soon as they were settled. Many farmers had first fruits long before the nation had all moved in, yet none of them had to bring Bikkurim.

“Ki Savo” literally means “when you arrive”. The Bikkurim process could only be done when they arrived in Israel and until the last Jew had “arrived”, nobody had arrived.

Rosh Hashanah is in the air and it is time for introspection and self-transformation. If you’re serious about Rosh Hashanah, you are likely doing a little more for your Judaism these days. You probably hope to be focused and to feel connected at Shul over the High Holidays. Monday is “Chai” (18th) Elul, the final stretch. From Monday there are twelve days ‘til Rosh Hashanah- one day to repair the mistakes of each month of the last year. We’re zooming towards the finish line and all want to ensure that we make it across.

Our Torah portion’s message is most relevant now- nobody arrives until everybody arrives. When Noah saved his own family from the Flood and never tried to save others, he lost the chance to be Jewish. Abraham, who worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone he met would appreciate G-d, became the first Jew, setting the tone for how Jews should behave.

Jews are responsible for each other. Each of us is a cell in one great spiritual body, crisscrossed by nerves that link us to one other. No body-part can live independently of the others. No Jew can reach their spiritual goals as long as other Jews have not.

To truly arrive on Rosh Hashanah, we need to find a Jew who has lost touch with his/her Judaism and help them “arrive”.