Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tiger on the loose

Panjo is home safely and the residents of Bronkhorstspruit can now breathe easier. Over the past two days, I will admit to enjoying telling friends abroad that wild animals do roam the streets of South Africa.

Trackers, sniffer dogs and local farmers combed a wide area in search of the young tiger, while the rest of the nation followed developments closely. The prospect of a tiger on the loose had us all a little uncomfortable. Now that he's back home, the questions have started. Do the big cat's owners have the appropriate legal documentation? Did they conform to safety standards when transporting the tiger to the vet? You really need to know what you're doing if you own a powerful predator like Panjo.

Of course, we're all experts on how they
should have secured the great animal en route to the doc. Many of us are quick to condemn "irresponsible" people who "clearly" don't have the correct permits to own an endangered animal. "A tiger as a pet?" people ask incredulously.

Judaism prefers that we direct questions inwards, rather than point fingers. So, besides the fact that we should ensure that our own pets pose no threat to the public (admittedly, I'm extra sensitive since our neighbour's dog went for Mendy last week), what else can we learn from the tiger on the loose?

We all possess a wild animal. It lives within us and is usually docile. Over time, we start to believe that our inner-animal is just so cute and friendly and would never hurt a fly. Then, when we least expect it, our animal breaks out and starts running wild. Our animal may be anger, pride, stubbornness or passion. We won't now how it got out and we probably won't know how to get it back in.

Prevention is best, of course. Every person needs to be honest enough to learn the nature of their own animal. Anger and pride need to be restrained in the right cages and stubbornness or passion must be trained to express themselves appropriately. Without the right safeguards, you could have a disaster on your hands. Animals need owners to control them. G-d gave us an inner-animal and challenged us to become responsible owners.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Don't just sit there.

I've just seen the results of a new study commissioned by the American Cancer Association. Popular thinking used to insist that one hour's excercise per day would keep you healthy, but new evidence debunks this theory.

The study, done on more than 120 000 healthy participants over thirteen years, shows that prolonged sitting is serious health risk. That's right- sitting. Women who sit for six hours a day were 40% more likley to die younger than those who sat for less than three hours a day. Men who sat long hours each day had a 20% increased chance of dying young than their more active counterparts.

Of course, the study didn't factor in sitting and
shockling as we do during davening, nor did they study the benefits of working up a sweat and gyrating your thumb while studying Talmud in Yeshivah.

Logically, when you sit around you tend to snack more than when you're active. But, long sitting sessions also supress your immune system and slow blood circulation. When you sit for long periods, you also alter your body's metabolism, which can increase cholestrol.

The message is clear: Keep moving.

Our bodies and souls operate in a very similar fashion. You need to keep your body active to keep it healthy, and you need to do the same for your soul. One hour's "excercise" for the soul each day doesn't keep you spiritually fit, much less so a couple of hours on weekends.

When you stimulate your soul- which you do when you get up and join a shiur, hop over to Shul or do an extra mitvzah- it comes to life. If you wait for your soul to wake up and inspire you before you'll actually do anything, you'll find yourself sitting for along time. And sitting spiritually still for prolonged periods leads to premature death of inspiration.

Keep moving!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Extra time

"And the game goes into extra time," announced the commentator. Spain & Holland, each vying for soccer's most coveted trophy were still 0:0 at full time. Fit as they may be, those players had to have been pretty tired when they faced an extra thirty minutes of play. Having fought so hard for victory and seen none, you might imagine that they would have started to slack as they headed back to the field for more. 

Instead of slowing or growing despondent, each team attacked the ball with renewed vigour. The game picked up pace. Adrenalin. Action. Speed. Nobody slows down when the stakes are high, regardless of how long this thing takes. With every passing minute, the game becomes more urgent. Everybody fights harder. One goal, just one, will make all the difference. You only need to hit the target before the ref blows the final whistle.

Our team, the Jewish nation, has been working to score G-d's goal for Creation. It's been a long match. We had expected it all to end long ago, but we're now in extra time. It's not time to slow down or to become complacent, but to up the ante and shoot to win. One goal, just one, is all we need to make the world a better place. Take a shot now, before the final whistle blows!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The morning after...

Tonight is the World Cup final at Soccer City, just a few miles away from here. We can already hear the sirens of VIP motorcades heading out of Sandton. Choppers are circling overhead and the ubiquitous vuvuzelas blast away on the streets. Once again, you can feel electricity in the air as South Africa gears up for the climax of a spectacular month. As Holland and Spain warm up to face off in the ultimate soccer meet, there is another group of people who faces an even greater challenge than the finalist teams.

We have floated on a cloud for weeks and now this spectacular time is about to end. Tomorrow's Monday morning blues will likely saturate the whole nation. Pick 'n Pay tellers and Eskom phone operators will resume their deadpan, slow-mo service. Window-washers will harass you at intersections and taxi drivers will cut you off on your way to work with nary a cop in sight to stop them. Whities will become cynical again. The great hangover sets in tomorrow. 

Or not.

Anticipation, celebration and the inevitable letdown that follows are not unique to the World Cup. I remember the day that I graduated high school; how my friends and I had so looked forward to that great celebration of freedom, and how the day had turned out to be unusually ordinary.  Weddings, births, graduations- life is full of wonderful moments to look forward to and enjoy, before they slip by. 

Life is actually not about the wonderful moments. It's after the excitement dies down that life truly begins. 

Yesterday we read the twin Torah portions Matos-Massei, which teach us how to deal with the "morning after" syndrome. 

Matos means staffs or tribes (the singular being "mateh") and Massei means journeys. The synonym for "mateh" is "shevet" (which also means both rod and tribe). The difference between a shevet and a mateh is that, while both are branches that have been cut from a tree, the former is still moist, fresh and flexible, while the latter has dried out and hardened. A shevet is inspired, whereas a mateh has lost its excitement. 

We all have our brief shevet moments and "real-life" mateh periods. 

A shevet still has its freshness and inspiration, but a mateh has strength and resilience. And that’s exactly the point. Inspiration is wonderful- while it lasts. It is not the stuff of achievement.

By linking the twin portions of Matos-Massei, the Torah illustrates a critical lesson about life: You will always feel better when you are inspired, but you will achieve more when you are resilient. Matos, determination- not excitement- produces Massei, journeys, movement and true progress.

South Africans could tomorrow make the all-too-natural mistake of cleaning up the party mess and moving on. Or we could learn the recurring lesson that good times are there to open our eyes to life’s opportunities. And then it’s up to us to realize those opportunities.

We are blessed. We have hosted and impressed the world. We have tasted national pride and national unity. Tomorrow is not the day to reminisce on how good the last month has been. It is the first day of working to grow the goodwill, spirit and positivism that our country forgot it had.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part IX: "The winning team"

All too quickly, it’s almost over. The World Cup hype has stoked our country for almost a month, and hopefully the positive vibe will continue beyond next Sunday night. We’ve seen some of soccer’s greatest names disappoint and some dark horses make good. Now it’s time for the best teams of the tournament to face off at Soccer City on Sunday night. 

The sangomas and psychic octopus are working hard to predict who will walk away with the trophy, while the bookies put Holland ahead of Spain to win. Either way, history will be made. Netherlands has never won a World Cup and Spain has never made it to the finals. 

So, what does it take to be a winner? 

Casino ads often carry the disclaimer that “winners know when to stop”,but it’s the other way round in competitive sports. Your biggest mistake in a contest of this magnitude is to stop or even slow anytime before the final whistle. Even if your team has one goal up on your opposition, you should still push for another goal- and then another. Watch the pros play and you’ll see they don’t relax when they take the lead, they keep pushing.

In business, too, winners don’t slow when business is good, they power on harder. Regardless of how spectacular profits may be, a successful businessman will strive for even more. Winning artists keep honing their skills, top musicians practice and practice and scientists consistently push the envelope of research and innovation.

As one of my high school teachers was fond of saying: “Keep on truckin’!”

Everyone accepts the winner’s attitude to sport or business, but we often overlook this approach in the core areas of life. A few years into our marriages, we are likely to feel comfortable, maybe complacent. We tend to get by with giving our children just enough attention and love, but nothing that ejects us from our comfort zone. We hardly tackle our Judaism with winner’s enthusiasm.

This week we’ll read the Torah portion called “Masei”, meaning “journeys”. Note, the name is “journeys”, in the plural. Judaism is about constantly progressing; always improving. As soon as you plateau, you are not living as a Jew should. 

Judaism is built on the winner’s attitude. Make sure you don’t take second place.

Lessons from the World Cup part VIII: "There's no I in team"

As the World Cup tournament progressed, we saw team after team leave the field. We saw  some of the hottest teams unceremoniously dismissed. France is seething at their team that fell apart, English fans want to know why their players are paid so much (they didn't even make the quarter-finals) and South America's giants bowed out early.

In the build-up to the games, people ogled over Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka and Messi. None of them will play in the final game on Sunday. Having a celebrity sportsman on your team doesn't guarantee success, because one man cannot win a soccer game. It's a team effort, where everyone has to play in harmony or everyone goes down. It's those teams who have played as a cohesive unit who have made it to the finish line, not those that boasted the fanciest names of football.

Judaism is team effort. You can't connect to G-d on your own; you need to join a team. You can't rely on a professional Jew (your rabbi) to look after your spiritual needs. No matter how good your rabbi is, one man can't win the game. For that matter, you can't expect your child's school to insure his child's spiritual wellbeing. Sure, you send your youngster to an excellent school, but his teachers need you on the team to ensure that he turns out a success.

Lessons from the World Cup part VII: "Spectators"

Watching soccer is interesting. Watching people watch soccer is more interesting. At times they sit on the edge of their seats, beer suspended pre-swig in midair, breath held. They chorus in collective groans at the near-misses and yelps of "Yes! Yes!" when their team scores. It's understandable. Your adrenalin pumps as the excitement on the field rises. 

What I don't get is when people shout instructions to the players. I understand that technology has come a long way from the old flickering TV screens and you can now watch the game in HD or even 3D. I didn't know that the new-fangled sets allow the players to hear you.

Ok, we all know they can't hear you. We all know that fans play the game vicariously through the footballers they watch. But, seriously, why the screaming?

It gets more extreme than that. 

When we realized that we would battle for a Mincha-Maariv minyan on the evening of the South Africa- France game, I arranged for the guys to watch the game together at someone's house and we'd daven Mincha during half-time (I can be pragmatic, sometimes). 

Mincha took a little longer than expected and the guys got back to the game a few minutes into the second-half. Nothing serious had happened in the first few minutes of play, so everyone should have been happy. What nobody noticed was that one of the guys had slipped into the room ahead of the pack and PVR'ed the game back to the beginning of the second half. When the others found out, a raucous debate ensued: Some wanted to watch every minute of the action, while the others argued that there would be no point in watching a live game if they were not going to watch it live. 

In life, there are times when you are the player and times when you're only a spectator. When you're the player- when you can do something about a situation- play with everything you've got. When you're a spectator- when things happen that are beyond your control- don't scream and shout, because it won't help. Don't try control what you can't control and don't live in the past, because the live game will pass you by.

Some people live life as players. They get things done. Others are spectators. They make no meaningful contribution, but have plenty of advice for everyone else. If you find yourself feeling critical of everyone else, it may be a symptom that you're living as a spectator. When that happens, get up and do something proactive.

Lessons from the World Cup: Audio link

Lessons from the World Cup part VI: "Keep your eye on the ball"

I'm not a soccer aficionado, nor do I follow professional sport, but having the world's largest sporting event in my backyard this month has piqued my interest in soccer.  

One lesson from the beautiful game that seems pretty obvious is that a player must keep his eye on the ball. During the game, it's all action. No player can afford the luxury in mid-play to stop and check the score or ball-possession stats. 

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was a leading Talmudic sage. As he lay dying, his students gathered at his bedside, the great man reflected on his 120 years. 

"I don't know which way they will take me, to Heaven or to purgatory," he commented. 

Here was a man who had dedicated his every breathing moment to G-d. He had studied every aspect of Torah, had taught hundreds of the greatest Jewish scholars and had single-handedly ensured the survival of Judaism in the face of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. And he didn't know where he was headed in the next world?

Rabbi Yochanan had spent his whole life working, with his eye on the ball, and had never stopped to ruminate over what his scoreboard looked like. Rabbi Yochanan's wanted to teach his students (and us) that life is all about playing the game, not worrying about how good we look while on the field.

Lessons from the World Cup part V: "Encouragement"

Bafana Bafana, South Africa's national team, was ranked 83rd in the world soccer-rankings. France, their final opponent in the opening round, was ranked 6th. By that game, every South African knew their team stood almost no chance of making it into round two. All they wished for was that they should go out winning a game. But, the odds were steeply stacked against an SA victory.

Our opening game appearance wasn't too promising either. Mexico is a strong team and we genuinely feared that we'd make history as the first World Cup host nation to lose an opening match.

The South Africans only had one thing going for them: Spirit. Lots of it. South Africans exuded more positive energy in the opening day of the 2010 World Cup than in recorded history. I sat in traffic for two-and-a-half hours, creeping along to collect my kids from school on that Friday. Joburg had never witnessed so much traffic. Thousands of motorists rushing home to catch the game crawled alongside busloads of fans, all blocked every few minutes by motorcades whisking dignitaries along (Joe Biden's passed me on the road). There were concerns that the South African team would arrive late at the game due to the congestion. 

It was chaos. 

And everybody loved it. 

Poeple waved, sang, blew vuvuzelas and danced in the street. Everyone smiled. When the team bus eventually snaked from its hotel towards the stadium, the crowds went wild. When they entered the stadium, the crowds went wild. Eleven men, who weren't really cut out to take the international stage, walked onto the field as heroes. And they played beyond expectation. 

SA drew with Mexico. In fact, a South African player scored the opening game of the tournament (and boy, did the crowds go mad! It was already Shabbos when he scored, but we knew all about it from the roaring vuvuzelas.) Uruguay outdid the South Africans, but the home team managed to beat the French- achieving the impossible.

Ok, so we didn't make it to the second round. But, we learned a great lesson in positive energy and how much you can do for someone with a little encouragement.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part IV: "Eleven men"

What do a soccer team and a minyan have in common? Not much, I hear you say (although players do occasionally pray on the field). 

Ten men make a minyan, eleven a soccer side. (Admittedly eleven men make the minyan more pleasant, because then one can use the bathroom without stopping play).  On the face of it, there's no meaningful link between the Jewish prayer quorum and a traditional football squad. 

Besides, ten is a big number in Judaism. G-d used ten utterances to create the World, Judaism is based on the Ten Commandments and Ten Sefirot or Divine energies form the framework of Creation.

Eleven is, apparently, insignificant. 

On closer inspection, eleven connotes an interesting spiritual mystery. One of the most sacred rites of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was the ketoret incense. Ketoret was the only offering ever brought into the holiest inner sanctum of the Temple. Unlike the other offerings that were essentially food, the ketoret was a fragrance. Smell is the sense that the mystics associate most strongly with the soul, so this incense is considered especially spiritual. When a plague threatened hundreds of thousands of lives in the desert, Moses sent his brother out with the Ketoret to stop the dying. Ketoret is powerful stuff.

The recipe for the Ketoret spice calls for eleven ingredients. 

Remember, ten is the number of holiness. It is considered a whole, or perfect number. Ten represents the organised system of life in balance. A system made of eleven elements seems to carry something tagged on to an otherwise complete system. Kabbalah calls it the number of the unholy. 

"Holiness" means harmony between Creator and creation. It is the symbiotic relationship between our Maker and us. "Unholiness" implies a disconnect, where a person feels detached from the source of his own life. Such an individual sees his life as a complete entity and G-d as distant "great uncle", who occasionally drops by with an inappropriate gift. To be "unholy" is to live an eleven-part life, ten parts of integrated self that live tenuously linked to a remote power source called G-d. It is to breathe each day and forget the value of oxygen.

To combat the negative "eleven", you need to invoke a healthy "eleven". Either way you look at it, eleven expresses a deviation from the wholesome system represented by ten. A corrupt "eleven" means that someone has detached from G-d. A positive "eleven" means that someone has transcended the normal ten-point system and now operates with super-rational dedication to G-d. The ketoret was that "holy" eleven, an offering strong enough to stop death itself in its tracks.

In 1980, the Lubavitcher Rebbe shared a valuable life's lesson that we could all learn from soccer. He compared the ball to the Earth and the goal-posts to the gateway to G-d. We have been put on this Earth with a mission, to get the world through the "king's" gateway and into G-d's palace. Achieving our goals has its challenges, most notably the negative forces (the corrupt "eleven") that block our spiritual progress. Often, the other side appears to be more powerful than we are, and we may feel we're not up to the task. It's at those times that we need to recall that G-d empowers us with our own "eleven", the supernatural wherewithal that ensures we will win the game.