Friday, April 30, 2010

Everybody loves a parade

You could see frost on the grass when we gathered at Yeoville Park thirty years ago. I wasn’t sure if I was shivering from excitement or simply from the cold. Luckily, they handed out wooly hats to keep us warm. They also distributed slogan-bearing placards for us to carry into the streets. Now that I think about it, I was a little young to join public action. A TV news crew covered the proceedings (we were later featured on the 8pm news) as journalists fanned out to interview members of the crowd. This was South Africa’s first ever Lag B’omer parade.

I remember the mayor speaking (not that I recall any of what he said) and the military marching band striking a high note. Kilted bagpipe players meandered between the floats that depicted Shabbos, kosher and “flying high” with Mitzvos (that full-scale model plane stood for months after at my friend’s house, and we’d hop into the “cockpit”, spin the propellor and “fly off” to imaginary destinations).

Parades are exhilirating. New Yorkers crowd Manhattan’s streets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and thousands flock each year to Rio’s Mardi Gras. Yesterday, Cape Town hosted a different parade as our national security forces flexed their muscle ahead of the Soccer World Cup. A more chilling parade is Ahmadinejad’s annual “Army Day” military hardware display.

Lag B’omer parades are decidedly unique. Decades ago, the Rebbe launched Lag B’omer parades as a way of uniting Jewish children and encouraging greater Jewish involvement.

The earliest Lag B’omer parade must date back over two centuries earlier. The Ba’al Shem Tov, as a young man, would travel incognito to various shtetls to uplift the spirits of the Jewish community and encourage Jewish observance. He once visited a village just as a marauding gang of peasants arrived to loot and terrorise its citizens. All the Jews fled to caves in the neighbouring hills to wait out the storm. On Lag B’omer morning- much to the terror of their parents-the Baal Shem Tov gathered all the children to parade in honour of the special day. They sang and he offered them treats. As soon as they finished, the looters ran in panic from the village, leaving the goods they had planned to steal.

Nations use parades to show their might. A Lag B’omer parade is more than a simple kiddies fun day, it’s a show of Jewish might. The Rebbe often related the children’s parade to King David’s words in Tehillim: “From the mouths of babes, You have established strength, to neutralise the enemy.” He often emphaiszed that Lag B’omer is an auspicious time to garner Divine protection for our People, it’s a time when our enemies’ plans can be defused through our unity.

As Iran flaunts its strength and the world criticizes our every move, let’s get together and parade our Jewish pride and unity through the streets.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Time to pull together

Flight delays are always frustrating, but tensions must have sky-rocketed in airports around Europe over the last week, thanks to Iceland’s drifting ash-cloud.

Imagine you’ve been away on business, or even a leisure trip. You’re all ready to head home and they cancel your flight. Indefinitely. You had budgeted your stay, and even the contingency cash you have left won’t cover the extra few days accommodation. Besides, all the hotels nearby are now fully booked (you lingered in the airport, hoping they’d open the air to traffic). Europeans airports offer precious little in the way of kosher food, so you start rationing chocolate bars and the two sandwiches you packed for the flight (because they never have the kosher meals that you order). Now, Shabbos is coming and you grimace at the thought of spending it in the airport...

I chatted to a friend in London yesterday. His Chabad House hosted 120 stranded Israelis last Shabbos. A colleague in Denmark could hardly fit all his guests into his home last week. In Marseilles, a Chabad rabbi rounded up the Israelis at the check-in counters to help him distribute biscuits and sandwiches. Dalia Itzik, previous speaker of the Knesset, was one of the grateful recipients of the kosher refreshments.

We Jews are one big family. We complain about each other, criticise each other and sometimes overreact in the way we censure bad behaviour. But, when it comes down to it, we’re all family and we care for each other.

Rabbi Akivah identified one line from this week’s Parsha that he felt encapsulates all of Judaism: “Love your fellow Jew as yourself”.

We shouldn’t need an eruption (volcanic or communal) to test how well we treat each other. The first Rebbe of Chabad taught that extra love to your fellow Jew can never be a mistake. Ideally, it will draw that person closer to you. If not, at least you’ve done the mitzvah of love.

This is the time of the year when we’re meant to think of each other and how we can treat each other better. The Omer period is dedicated to self-improvement and relationship-building. Now is an ideal time to fix a faribel, volunteer to visit a hospital or aged home, or to simply lend a hand to someone you know who’s going through a rough patch (here's something practical to do right now, visit 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fresh minds

It was back to school this week amidst sighs of relief from the moms and groans from the kids. From day one, schoolchildren count down to their next vacation. In primary school, they dream of being in high school, where they wish school was over so they could get into varsity, where they will itch for the day to be free of study altogether. 

Many adults feel relieved that their time of hitting the books is over. Sure, you might do an MBA, take a computer course or study sales and marketing strategies, but these are temporary forays into academics in between working the “real” world. As they age, people generally study less. 

Here’s an exception: Akasease Kofi Boakye Yiadom, a Ghanaian World War II veteran, who has just graduated business school at the age of 99. When interviewed by CNN, he explained: “Education has no end. As far as your brain can work alright, your eyes can see alright, and your ears can hear alright, if you go to school you can learn.”

When I was a child, I would attend holiday camps, where the day started with Torah classes. When it was time to move on to our next activities, the staff would announce: “Learning never ends”. For a Jew it dare not end. Yiadom’s inspiration sounds like the script of those camp announcements, or the teaching of our sages in Ethics of the Fathers. Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It’s not your responsibility to complete the task, but you may not shirk your responsibility either”. His message is that you’ll never fully plumb the depths of Torah, but you have to keep delving. 

They call us the People of the Book and we’re supposed to live up to that credo. As Yiadom says, if your brain an eyes still work then you ought to use them. His example- heading back to school at 96- should inspire us. Ok, I know not everyone has time to sit all day and study, but we can all make a plan to exercise our minds regularly. 

The funny thing is that, when you start studying Torah, you quickly start enjoying it. It will take a good push to get yourself to a shiur at first, but you’ll get into the swing of it in no time. Take a step to improve your Jewish education, you will be glad you did. 

Oh, and don’t wait till you’re in your nineties to do it!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Get those bad guys!

We have a strict no-TV policy and discourage our kids from violent and gun-based games. But, boys will be boys and my five year-old has picked up some war-game ideas from his peers. Today, he built a Lego town and crowned himself its defender against the waves of  attacks from numerous imaginary armies. When he proudly updated me on his Vuvuzela-cannon victories, I masked my frustration.

Then he threw me a ray of light, the type that sometimes reassures parents that some of the values they try instill in their kids actually get through. He flashed his impish grin and explained that he had a secret weapon that would guarantee him victory in every battle. His special weapon doesn't kill  the "baddies", it transforms them into "goodies". Who needs to fight a battle when you can just zap your enemy into becoming your friend? Ingenious!

His make-believe "transformer" gun carries a great message. We were put on this Earth to make a difference, to turn the unruly jungle we live in into a tranquil garden. To do that, we need to weed out the negative and plant lots of positive. 

There are two ways to achieve this goal. One is to overwhelm our world with powerful spirituality that forces the negative into hiding. When G-d blasted His message from Mt. Sinai, he blinded evil with His brilliant light and the world became a better place. Unfortunately, when you strong-arm evil out of the way, it goes underground and regroups. Before we even left the foot of Sinai, evil was back with a vengeance and we fell for the Golden Calf. You can win the battle by being stronger than your enemy, but you will fight many more battles along the way.

The second approach is to win your enemies over. When your enemy becomes your friend, you no longer need brute strength to keep safe. Judaism's goal is not to pulverize the body or starve the physical world so that we can grow our spirituality. Our aim is to transform every part of life into an ally for G-d's mission. Our objective is to turn those "baddies" into "goodies". 

My son had another trick up his sleeve: He whispered into my ear that he was actually a  superhero (I held my breath, waiting for the Spiderman routine). "Yes," he proudly explained, "I am Moshiach, and when the bad guys see me they are more scared of me than of anyone else!" 

Yep, I got some nachas today- and a good lesson that Moshiach is all about transforming the world, not beating it into shape.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Pesach takeaways

It strikes me as somewhat ironic to hear people say they’re glad to be free of the Festival of freedom. Granted, the matzah can get a bit much and Pesach is eight days of fantasizing over chocolate cake, but it remains an essentially inspiring time. Rushing from Pesach to the pizza parlour often robs us of the chance to reflect on what the festival of freedom has offered us.

Pesach marks the birth of idealism. Moses had a dream. He ignited the imagination of three million slaves and led them to a new life. Our nationhood exploded into being amidst miracles and Divine revelation- the hallmarks of Pesach. Then reality struck. In short order we went from the magic of supernature to the monotony of wandering a barren desert. Don’t think this is history; it’s life. We have our Pesach moments that fling us headlong towards model behaviour. Soon enough we have our tasteless-Matzah moments, where we wonder why we ever thought those resolutions and principles were a good idea.

As with Aaron’s sons in this week’s Parsha, it’s easy to fly off in pursuit of dreams. His sons were experts at inspiration and failures at application. Hopefully, you had a good seder (the food was good, it didn’t end too late, the kids sang nicely and you felt inspired). After Pesach, our challenge is to anchor the upliftment into real life.

So, straight after this spectacular holiday, we begin to read Pirkei Avos. Every Shabbos afternoon, for the next few weeks, we review a chapter of the teachings of our Sages. Most Talmudic literature focuses on the how-to of Judaism. Pirkei Avos coaches us in being a mentsch, it trains us to refine our character. 

Interestingly, in the opening chapter of Pirkei Avos, we find the Jewish definition of being a mentsch. Shimon the pious offers the first teaching of the book- which is meant to set the tone for whatever character refinement Avos is meant to teach us. He insists that the world stands on three pillars (his implication is that a world on two pillars will topple): Torah, prayer and good deeds. A Jew will be a mentsch with a good mix of study, contact with G-d and good ol’ kindness. 

Whatever Pesach meant to you this year, now is the time to put together an action plan. All you need to do is study something about Judaism each day or at least each week, daven and give a little more charity than you feel you should.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

It depends what you're looking for...

You need to have good eyes for Pesach. I'm not talking about having decent eyesight to read the pages of Haggadah-text on the Seder nights (although that is useful), I mean you need sharp eyes to prepare for and enjoy Pesach.

First, you need eagle-eyes for the chametz-search on the night before Pesach. As you search for those ten small pieces of bread, you also seek your own character weaknesses so that you can overcome them. In other words, before Pesach, you look for- and find- problems.

On the next night, at the Pesach Seder, you search again. This time, you look for matzah (the antithesis of bread). Your search is not for just any matzah, but for the elusive afikoman. Beyond the kiddies' treasure hunt, the afikoman represents the hidden essence of your soul that you should constantly strive to reveal. Your soul's own power is unstoppable, if you can only activate it. So, on Pesach night you look for solutions.

These two searches are typical of the opposing attitudes of Pharaoh and Moses, or pre- and post Exodus mentalities. What's common to both is the life-maxim that whatever you look for, you'll find. 

When Moses told Pharaoh to let the Jews go, Pharaoh invented a most creative spectrum of excuses for them to stay put. He warned Moses to be practical and not to spoil his people's employment opportunities, he recommended that the children stay behind to avoid the stress of desert travel and he even warned that the stars bode ill for Moses' people. Pharaoh looked for excuses and he found some really good ones.  Moses looked for opportunity and he saved our nation. 

Pesach reminds us that we will find what we look for in life. Even before Pesach starts, we look for the problems with a view to resolve them. Once Pesach begins, we only look for opportunities and solutions. At Pesachtime, you need to be wary of the sophisticated and apparently well-intentioned views offered by Pharaoh and take encouragement instead from the positive outlook of Moses.

You might come up with watertight excuses for not making spiritual progress. But, then you are Pharaoh's slave. Alternatively, you could look for opportunity and leap into action. Then you follow Moses to free yourself from the shackles of your own self-doubt, called Egypt.