Friday, October 30, 2009

We all mess up sometimes

One step forward, two steps back. Ever find yourself doing that?

You manage two full weeks back at gym, but oversleep one morning and go downhill from there. Business seems on track, then suddenly goes quiet. Your Rosh Hashanah resolution looked promising, but you don’t feel so motivated any longer.

It can get frustrating to have a setback as you start making progress. No matter how motivated you feel or how convinced you are that “this time” you’ll stick with the programme, there will always be an obstacle along the way. Life’s speed bumps can bring us to grinding halt.

Backsliding is nothing new. 3900 years ago, Avraham had a similar problem. G-d Himself appeared to Avraham and set him off on a journey of discovery by telling him “Lech Lecha”, or as Johnnie Walker would say: “Keep walking”. “Lech lecha” doesn’t just mean “go”, it means continue to progress and develop in an unbroken upward motion. G-d essentially promised Avraham that he would never fail.

Yet, shortly after reaching his objective, the land of Canaan, Avraham had to leave. Famine in the land forced him to travel to Egypt, Earth’s most immoral country.

One second! What happened to the up-and-up message of “Lech lecha”? How could G-d promise Avraham consistent spiritual development and then send him off to Egypt? Avraham and Sarah had a rough landing when they got there- Sarah abducted by Pharaoh and Avraham scrambling to protect his own life. It seems a far cry from the grand Divine promise.

Read the story and you’ll notice that Avraham remains unperturbed by this unexpected twist of fate. He was a wise man, who understood the meaning behind life’s disappointments.

Avraham appreciated that growing spiritually and becoming a better person is not only about going up. You need to slip too. You need to mess up so that you can fix up; fail so you can grow stronger. Avraham trusted G-d that heading “down” to Egypt was really part of the process of rising up. Because he had the right attitude, Avraham bounced back, changed the trajectory of humankind and fathered the Jewish nation.

Next time you get all motivated and then let yourself down, remember to make it part of your journey to rise even higher.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Babel... uh Nobel Peace Prize

I’ve been wondering about the Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize thing for a while now. Either Obama has achieved incredible believability in record time or they’ve changed the Nobel Prize requirement from “creating change” to “pledging to make a change”. Obama’s “audacity of hope” clearly got the Norwegians hoping.

People like Tobias Asser (1911 Jewish Peace Prize winner), Sir Joseph Rotblat (most recent Jewish Peace Prize winner) or Ada Yonath (also Jewish, this year’s chemistry laureate) all worked for decades to earn their Noble accolade. Obama was cited for the prize a mere ten days into his presidency. When he jets off to collect the prize in Oslo, his country is likely to still be at war on two fronts.

What’s more intriguing than the question of why Obama made the grade is the question of why so few Jews have ever received it. 22% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish (that’s not bad coming from less than 1% of the World’s population). We have impressive numbers of Nobel laureates for medicine, chemistry, physics and economics, but only nine Peace Prize recipients!

That’s strange. Jews have always been peace activists. Our belief system pivots on peace, we end our daily prayers with a plea for peace and our Sages teach that the G-d gave us the Torah for one sole purpose: to bring peace to the world. How, then, were we overlooked in the Peace Prize race?

You can solve part of the mystery by referring to this week’s Torah portion. After the Great Flood, we’re told, people banded together to build a great new civilization. Earlier generations had undone their society through strife, jealousy and simple disrespect and G-d had destroyed them. Their descendants figured they could fix those ills by building a single society, built around a massive iconic tower that would always remind everyone of this ideal. Babel’s citizens wanted peace.

Strangely, G-d disapproved. He swooped down, thwarted their plans, mixed up their languages (they had all spoken Hebrew until then) and made sure they could never work together again.

Does G-d have something against peace?

A closer inspection of this story reveals a deeply profound message. Yes, they wanted peace; yes they wanted to live in harmony; yes they dreamed of a united humankind. But they wanted it for the wrong reasons. In outlining their plan, their leaders announced: “Let us build a city, with a tower reaching the Heavens... so that we will not be dispersed across the Earth”. Sounds noble enough, doesn’t it?

It would have been, but they inserted one corrupt phrase into their proposal: “Let us build a city… to make a name for ourselves”.

If you want peace, chase peace. When you pursue peace because you want to make a name for yourself, to leave a legacy, to earn the title “Man of Peace”, you’ll never achieve peace. In fact, you will likely create terrible conflicts.

Peace stretches beyond individuals and their egos. Peace is the foundation of Life itself. To reach peace, you need to forget yourself.

This story and, in fact, all of Torah has taught us one fundamental lesson: Jews are into peace, not prizes.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Some water with your wine?

Imagine you’re at an upscale restaurant for dinner. You order lamb chops and a glass of Merlot. Your waiter returns, bottle in hand (cloth draped over his arm), pours your wine and tops your glass up with some mineral water...

The Romans and Greeks used to dilute their wine to temper its potency, but modern connoisseurs would cringe at the thought of adding water to theirs. It’s not just a matter of taste- Judaism teaches that the difference between wine and water runs deeper than flavour and colour.

Nowadays, you can find a wide range of filtered, mineral and flavoured waters and you can probably taste the difference between different water brands. But, good ol’ water was never known for its taste. You drank water to survive, not to enjoy. Wine was what people would drink for pleasure, as we do today. Water keeps you alive; wine makes you happy. These two beverages may mix in the glass, but they don’t mix in concept.

Back in Temple days, Jews would bring daily offerings to Hashem that included wine. You’ve surely heard people compare Torah to water, but we compare it to wine as well. Just as you enjoy the ta’am, the taste of wine, you enjoy the ta’am, the rationale and meaning that Torah offers. We are a nation of thinkers who boast Talmudists who could run philosophical circles around Socrates and minds that have revolutionised science, psychology, politics and entertainment. We enjoy our “wine”.

As delicious as wine is, we also need water to survive. In fact, we need water more than wine.

Every Sukkos, they would pour water on the Temple’s altar. Ironically, the wine libation was par for the course; drizzling water on the altar was cause for celebration. The Talmud notes that the merrymaking that accompanied the drawing of this water was so intense that anyone who missed seeing it doesn’t know what real rejoicing is. You’d have thought that more wine would mean more joy, yet Judaism finds joy in water.

Human nature dictates that if we understand what we’re doing, we enjoy doing it; if we don’t understand it, we do it mechanically. Judaism flips that theory on its head and tells us that a Jew needs a good balance between intellectual appreciation (wine) and loyal commitment to the Cause (water). Just as they used to pour both wine and water on the altar, we need to build a relationship with G-d that comprises both dimensions.

We imagine that we will find greater satisfaction if we understand Judaism. Actually, we find exponentially more delight in our dogged dedication to simply doing what He expects of us.