Thursday, December 08, 2011

Stepping stars

Until my recent visit to L.A. I had no idea that the vibrant Chabad community and the paltry Hollywood stomping ground are neighbours. My daughter loved the freedom to walk the streets (something we don't get to do much in Johannesburg), so we padded down Pico Boulevard and hiked up La Brea. Quite accidentally, we stumbled onto Hollywood Boulevard. 

Hatted Chassidim are incongruous on this noisy stretch of celebrity-crazed buskers and tourists. A Yeshivah student, cycling home stopped me to say he was surprised to find a rabbi on this street. I doubt I was the first. 

We walked down past souvenir shops and posed for a photo with Robert Wadlow's likeness outside the Guinness Book of Records Museum. We also found ourselves traipsing along the well-known "Hollywood Walk of Fame". 

I always knew such a thing existed somewhere in that sprawling city, but had not given a thought to where it might be until it appeared at my feet. Certain I would recognize most of the names molded into the floor, I was surprised to see very few familiar ones. My celeb-knowledge is clearly outdated. 

Finally, I spotted a familiar name! Admittedly a shadow-hero in my childhood, but certainly a character that every six year-old (at least in my day) would agree deserved to be immortalised in the "Walk of Fame": Woody Woodpecker! 

In my now-adult mind, the wonder of the "Walk of Fame" dissolved right there. To equate human talent and fictional creatures surely undermines the value of the former. Or perhaps, Hollywood intrinsically understands that everything about itself is make-believe. 

I looked down at the stars stretching out underfoot and was immediately reminded of G-d's promise to Abraham that his descendants would become "as the stars of the heavens and the dust of the Earth". 

The commentaries detect innuendo in that promise: "Follow what G-d says and you will rise as stars and illuminate the world; ignore His directions and you will be reduced to the dust that people walk upon." In Hollywood, the stars lie on the ground, as hundreds of people walk over them every hour. 

I was glad to be headed to New York for the Shluchim conference to meet real heroes, who have dedicated their lives to illuminating the lives of others.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black hat Friday

Now this was funny: Was in the long Shluchim line to buy a new hat on "Black Friday", so renamed it "Black Hat Friday". Seems the ever-present Crown Heights paparazzi picked it up :)


Thursday, November 17, 2011

An address for blessing

You can barely take a step in the modern world without everyone knowing where you are and what you're up to. Take your choice: You can Facebook, tweet or simply change your BBM or Whatsapp status to instantaneously geotrack yourself.

This morning, I got to use that connectivity for good cause. I was privileged to visit the "Ohel" of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Some casually call it the Rebbe's resting place. Kabbalah describes a Tzadik's grave as holy ground and a portal of connection to on High. Either way, it's an inspiring place and a well of blessing and miracles. 

Arriving at the Ohel, I updated all the relevant social networks and set about preparing to daven. I expected to get a number of requests for prayers. Nothing could have prepared me for the cascade of messages that clogged my phone over the next hours. 

No Facebook update I've ever posted garnered a fraction of the responses this one did. Just about everybody on my BBM list replied. Sadly, a large portion of the list was for people who need healing. A good portion was for people seeking their soulmate or hoping to fall pregnant. Many simply asked for a general brocha. 

During that brief Ohel visit I learned a few things:

I learned that every person needs some blessing in their lives. I saw that we need to appreciate those times when the blessings we need are not for the serious problems that others are facing. I also got to experience the overwhelming unity and goodwill that comes from sharing an opportunity for blessing with others.

Most inspiring of all, I learned that the Jewish soul instinctively knows that we have an address for blessings. Dozens of people sent me hundreds of names within moments of me inviting them to share my visit to the Ohel. Almost none of these people have ever visited the Ohel personally or met the Rebbe. Most of them have never studied the philosophy behind praying at a Tzadik's grave and how or why it works. They just have built-in faith. 

I stood at the Ohel feeling blessed for being there; for having an address to turn to for a blessing; for belonging to a People who naturally share that connection.

May all those blessing requests be fulfilled.

New York cabbies are an eclectic spread of American minorities, each a little quirky and with a story to tell. Often, as you exit the JFK terminals, hours of cabin fever give way to cab-angst. 
My flight had been smooth, arrival in New York sluggish (believe it or not, the US Immigration's computers were down) and stepping into the cool morning air a relief. 
Despite the grey drizzle, the dispatcher was chirpy and getting a taxi was remarkably painless. My chauffeur for the morning was an elderly African American fellow. I couldn't initially ascertain if he'd actually woken up before taking the wheel. His slur and half-closed eyes belied the verbal torrent that was about to greet me. But, that's how the New York cabbies work. Each has something to say.
"Ya gonna tha' syngog by the cemtry?" he wanted to know. Once I deciphered his question, I was impressed that he had identified me as a Chabadnik and knew exactly where to deposit me. 
For ten minutes en route to the Rebbe's resting place, he rambled on. I understood about a third of what he had to say. Apparently, I got the meaningful bits. 
At some point, for some unknown reason, he started discussing people who hate other people. His outlook on the subject was simple. And bull's-eye.
"Ya gotta 'member you're just a pile of dirt. A pile of dirt!" He swiveled back to see my reaction and mistook my horror at his almost hitting another car for admiration. 

"Now, thinkaboudit- wouldya git angry at a pile o' dirt? If you held sand in ya hand, couldya hate it?"
There it is: Real-life wisdom, distilled in endless circuits along busy city streets. 
It's an overcast Wednesday morning, I'm on the way to the Rebbe and the taxi driver is sharing Chabad teachings. 
People only hate people when they take themselves, and each other's foibles, too seriously. Let go of some ego and people don't get in your face that much. 

About 100 years ago, a Chosid came to the third Lubavicther Rebbe (the Tzemach Tzedek) to complain. He argued that his fellow Chassidim "walked all over him" every time he entered the Shul. The Tzemach Tzedek's reply: "Don't try spread yourself over the whole Shul and nobody will step on you." 

"Let my soul be like dust to all", we intone at the end of the Amidah. Our forefather, Avraham, was first to say it: "I am but dust and ashes". Avraham didn't hate a soul. He defended the undefendables of Sodom and Gommorah. 
Humility is the vaccine against hate. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What would you do for "The Cause"?

I almost didn't recognize a portion of our Shul members this past Shabbos. Guys who are normally suave and presentable walked through the doors with bristles on their upper lip. One fellow mistook one of the moustache-sprouters for John Cleese and another admitted he felt like Mario from the video games. Between the sideswipe glances, chuckles and eyebrow-raises, we managed to make it through the service.

Just before Shul I got to ask a couple of the new moustachios how the lip-hair had been received. One admitted that his coworkers laughed and the other complained that his wife didn't approve of his. So, why did they do it?

Apparently, this month is also known as Movember. For one month, guys grow their moustache and raise sponsorship for taking the dare. All money raised goes towards funds for men's health issues. Participants itch, look geeky and tolerate smirks for a month in support of "The Cause". Not everyone who does it knows what "The Cause" is (I checked), but they have been convinced that "The Cause" is worth looking silly for.

Ironically, many of these same brave-hearts wouldn't dare walk out in public with a kippa on their heads. Apparently, we have lots more work to do to teach people how valuable "The Jewish Cause" is.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Open Letter to the Russell Tribunal| News24

My, my... what do we have here? Tolerance and even-handed, open debate? Apparently not.

No surprises here...

Open Letter to the Russell Tribunal| News24

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh, my aching head...

Aching head? Not quite, thank G-d. Aching muscles and near-hoarseness are my Simchas Torah injuries (I won't highlight those individuals who may have suffered minor migraines over the weekend...) But, getting back into a five-day work week with nary a Yom Tov in sight, does tighten the tension around my temples. 
Rosh Hashanah through Simchas Torah is the "Yiddles in Wonderland" potpourri of everything from introspective remorse to careening Torah dances. Through this past month we've shape-shifted through contrition, resolution and celebration. We've eaten more than we should have, prayed more than we normally would have and have hopefully participated as well as we could have. G-d, in his infinitely imaginative way, has provided us with enough stimulation and inspiration to make the holiday season electric.
Now, the spiritual hangover starts as we head back to the drudgery of normal life. In truth, there are some lingering Yom Tov tunes, a few leftover meals and (hopefully) a New Year's resolution or two still in place, so the season isn't quite forgotten yet. But, it will be soon; buried in bills, traffic and the overfull inbox of life's incessant monotony.
And that's exactly the point. 
Floating along through spiritual experiences that G-d has placed there for our benefit is great, but says nothing of our own abilities. We're essentially passengers following a predetermined itinerary through a slew of spiritual destinations. 
Cheshvan, the month we start this Shabbos, is when you get to test what you are able to offer to the world. You've now stepped off the holy Contiki tour and won't be getting any supernatural pickups for some time. Now's the time for you to make an impact; to step into the "ordinary" world and deliver your unique spiritual message. 
G-d didn't create the world so that He could achieve great spiritual things, but so that we could. Now that we've disembarked off his cruise ship, we get the chance to make our mark on the world. 
To be Jewish over Yom Tov is tiring, but expected. To be Jewish in daily life- that's an achievement.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

You won't believe what our painter did to us this week

It's been a manic week- between juggling the regular Yom Tov prep (which is hectic under ordinary circumstances) and managing the plethora of details that need attention so we can get into our new Jewish Life centre on time. And then there was the painter.

The paint issue has been a significant time-consumer this week. We need to paint the outside of the building before the spring rains come. While we're about it, it's logical to paint the inside and reduce the overall contract cost. So, we went painter-hunting. In reality, we had already tried- and rejected- two contractors (just too expensive) before the architect found Andre.

Andre seemed to be a decent guy (in our five-minute meeting), friendly and keen to help. He came, he measured; he left, he quoted. His quote seemed reasonable, so we were ready to roll, but I wanted to see if I could get us some paint donated. My attempt flopped, so we reverted to the original gameplan of paying for materials.

Well, Andre surprised us. On his own initiative, he contacted Plascon Paint to ask them to donate the paint. Our architect emailed him a nice thank-you note and added a typically mischevious message that, as sign of thanks, I would intervene with G-d on Plascon's behalf "to ensure their turnover would grow from strength to strength".

I thought it was quite funny.

Andre didn't.

Late last night, he emailed me, "G-d has been good to me all my life. I'll do this one for free."

Just like that.

Here's a man, he's not Jewish, he's not a member of the community, but he's willing to donate his time and services to help us. We often talk about how G-d will repay us for a mitzvah, especially tzedokah. To Andre it's clearly serious business. Do some work for G-d (or His people) and the blessings will come.

It's the month of Elul, an introspective time to weigh up just how real our relationship with G-d is. Traditionally, it's a time to go out on a limb and do more of what Hashem wants of us. The Rambam lists tzedokah as the first step in this process. In today's Tanya lesson (there's one for each day of the year) we discover that charity heals a wounded soul, as medicine does an unhealthy body. Just as you wouldn't budget what to spend on emergency medicine, the mystics recommend that you don't budget what you'll pay to "heal" your soul- especially before Rosh Hashanah. We could learn something from Andre. 

To quote my architect, in his reply email to me after I had forwarded Andre's undertaking to him: "May the whole Elul be like this." 


Thursday, August 25, 2011

When times are tough...

Times are tough. The markets are a mess. Trust me, trying to raise funds for our new Shul and Jewish Life Centre, I've learned that people are feeling the pinch right now. Logically, this is not a good time to push people for donations.

Logically, that is. But, the Torah takes a different view. This week is when we read G-d's grand promise "Aser te'aser, donate and I will make you wealthy". As the Talmud explains it, Hashem invites you to test Him on this one. Go ahead, make your pledge and then hold Him to his commitment to reimburse.
Fair enough, Tzedokah is a wonderful thing and Hashem appreciates it. You can't help but wonder, though, why G-d didn't just supply every person (and organisation) with everything that they need and we could have avoided the uncomfortable process of raising funds. Why did G-d create haves and have-nots? Surely He has the resources to dole out enough of everything to everyone?
You'll need a crash course in Jewish mysticism to get a handle on this one. Before there was a world, there was only G-d. That makes sense, because G-d is infinite. What actually makes no sense is how we got here. Surely, if G-d is everything and everywhere, that would leave no room for us.
G-d, say the Kabbalists, first created a "vacuum" (a reality where he is completely invisible). Then, He began to radiate a focused laser-beam of energy into that "empty" space, which continually gives life to all Existence. The template of Creation is that there are voids and there are those who fill them. Should you help someone in need, you become G-dlike; filling the hole in their lives.
Conventional thinking recommends a lock-down of your assets when times are tough. Since you don't know what tomorrow brings, you need to hold tightly on to what you have. Difficult times are not the season of giving.
Torah says, when times are tough, fill a void. By giving to a worthy cause, you create a vacuum in your own finances- which invites G-d to do what He has designed His world for- to it. You really cannot ask for a greater blessing than G-d Himself filling in what you're lacking. He tends to be unusually generous.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Too much choice...

They say that the two most common complaints that modern women have is "nothing to wear" and "not enough cupboard space". Life in the 21st Century is an endless smorgasbord of choice (or Multichoice, as the TV people like to call it), yet our society is significantly dissatisfied. While our grandparents may have grappled with the ravages of poverty, we are statistically more prone to depression. In the shtetl they had few lifestyle choices and, in a sense, lived a simpler life. We flick channels and surf the Web, finding "have to have" retail items that grow out-dated as soon as we purchase them. The Talmud's teaching that "one who has a hundred wants two hundred" could well be the slogan of modern living.

G-d always pre-empts problems with the potential for their resolution. He long ago introduced a perspective to help us through the poor-rich reality that we live today- where the more you have, the less you feel you have. He encoded that lesson in the manna, which He delivered daily for forty years to the Jews in the desert.

When Moses recapped his time with the Jewish people in the desert, he also described the manna. "And G-d afflicted you and let you go hungry and fed you the manna..." On the face of it, Moses is praising G-d for feeding the people at a time when they were starving. However, the commentaries point out that Moses was also expressing how the manna "afflicted" those who ate it. What made the manna unique was that it could taste like anything you could imagined. Sounds amazing, surely, but it was actually frustrating. Firstly, you never saw what you were eating. If you imagined eating a succulent steak, the manna would still look like white crystal (its default appearance). Part of the joy of eating is seeing your food. Secondly, considering that the manna could taste like anything at all, you could be eating and wondering what other option you should be imagining (not all that different an experience from getting your meal at a restaurant and then realising that you actually wanted what the next person got).

Those who ate manna felt wealthy on one hand because they had so much choice, but poor on the other because they realised they could never explore all the available options. That does sound remarkably similar to life in our hi-tech, mass-production age.

There was nothing wrong with the manna; the person eating it simply needed to appreciate his or her own limitations. G-d was offering unlimited opportunity, as He does because He is infinitely good. People, however, can only handle bite-size experiences and can never access the full spectrum of his blessings. So, the trick to enjoying the manna was to appreciate that whatever G-d gave you at that moment was exactly what you needed. On the next day, He would give you the next bit of what you needed. G-d always retains a highly accurate sense of what is right for each person at each moment.

Choice is wonderful, but it can overwhelm you. Learn to trust that G-d sends you what you need as you need it and you become the wealthiest person around.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Largest Jewish Camp Network in World Turns 55 - News Stories - Chabad-Lubavitch News

Largest Jewish Camp Network in World Turns 55 - News Stories - Chabad-Lubavitch News

Lots of amazing memories from Camp Gan Izzy here in South Africa.

Would you have rioted in Tottenham this week?

London's ugly underbelly screamed across the media this week in a blaze of arson and looting. Charred and embattled London this week looked like the evil twin of the dignified and regal city that transfixed two billion people in April. A far cry from the elegant formalities of the Royal Wedding, this week's violent protests seem wholly un-British.

Stereotypically, the English are tea-sipping, punctillious prudes who follow the law to a tee. I guess, just as stereotypically, Africans are a lawless bunch of savages. How ironic then to see crime-ridden South Africa issue a travel advisory this week relating to Great Britian.

You can appreciate how emotions run high when the cops kill a man unecessarily. You can appreciate the family's anger and the community's frustration. You can even forgive them spewing anti-establishment vitriole or launching a suit against the police. But anger doesn't justify wholesale damage to property, torching cars and buses or stealing plasma screens for your home in the ensuing chaos.

Perhaps Africa's jungle-law lives somewhere in England too. Perhaps it lives inside every one of us.

Culture and grooming define how you behave in public; they don't modify who you are. The well-spoken, highbrow art critics and Bach-lovers who massacred six million of our people are still fresh in our memories. Push an emotive button in a person and his primal instinct kicks in, shutting down his brain.

I saw it summed up well this morning: "Anger is the wind that extinguishes the lamp of the mind."

To be a Jew is to learn to use your mind to still and direct your emotions. We'll all have flare-ups; moments when our emotive instinct threatens to overwhelm everything that makes sense. Our Holy Temple was destroyed because of one such incident, where a man was mistakenly invited to his enemy's party. On arrival, he was publicly disgraced and unceremoniously ejected. You can appreciate his burning shame, but it didn't justify his extreme reaction: To slander his own people to the Romans, claiming that the Jews were about to launch a revolution. Rome's military response saw the destruction of Jerusalem.

Momentary blinding anger can rip apart a family or destroy a lifelong friendship. Any of us can becoming a Tottenham rioter, smashing to bits those very relationships that keep us human. We owe it to ourselves to learn Judaism's mind-over-impulse techniques so that we can keep our families and community whole.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why don't we achieve our objectives?

I spent the last two days in Rustenburg at the South African Rabbinical Association's annual conference. I won't bore you with the details of everything we discussed, dissected and debated, but would like to share an interesting sidebar experience that I shared with a few of the rabbis.

Now this may sound like the start of a poor joke, but there were seven rabbis on a mountain. Well, not quite a mountain...

I guess whoever put together the conference programme figured that rabbis don't get enough excercise and decided to allocate "recreation time" to the itinerary. One of the choices in that slot was to hike the nearby kloof. I joined a group of other rabbis who had temporarily traded in their fedoras for baseball caps, and set off into the compelling serenity of nature.

A hotel employee directed us to the start of the trail and off we went. Only (as we were to discover much later), he hadn't shown us to the correct spot, and the "trail" he had pointed out was no trail at all.

We eagerly set off, quickly disappearing into the bush. We passed a troop of baboons and headed along what appeared to be a rather unused trail. Within ten minutes, the "trail" began to rise steeply and became steadily more difficult yo discern. We very soon found ourselves slipping on loose stones and mud, as we tried to clamber up the steep incline.

Two rabbis turned back.

Soon enough, another joined them. We remaining rabbis had to decide if we would forge on or head home. After all, we would soon be due back for the next conference session.

As I considered heading back to relax between sessions, I figured that if I could make it to the top of Mt Meru or across the endless staricases of the Great Wall, I could surely make it to the Kloof's shimmering waterfall somewhere up ahead. I conferred with the other rabbis and suggested that perhaps we were simply on the wrong side of the river. If we could cross the stream, perhaps we would find the proper path after all.

So, we slip-slid back down, navigated over the rock-strewn water and, sure enough, there was the path. It only took us another fifteen minutes to reach the pristine waterfall. We spent the better part of an hour perched on a huge boulder under the towering crags and circling birds, listening to the cascading water and inhaling tranquility. It was beautiful.

We snapped a few photos so we could show the other rabbis what they had missed and headed back, joking about how this conference had, in fact, highlighted the importance of staying "on the path".

It also illustrated why 90% of people don't achieve their goals. Often, they set off in the wrong direction to start with. When that happens, people commonly retreat, rather than look for an alternative path to reach their destination. Most importantly, people too often give up when the incline gets too challenging. And they miss the true beauty of what can only be found after you have pushed forward, despite your mind telling you to head home.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Do you have good eyes?

Earlier this week, I was listening to a recording of one of the Rebbe's farbrengens on my iPod. The Rebbe mentioned the American "custom" of telling a joke in a speech, and then proceeded to tell the following story:

There was once a noted Torah scholar who prided himself in his acute ability to correct other people's mistakes. He had an eagle-eye for errors and was always quick to point them out. When he eventually passed away, the Heavenly welcoming committee asked him what he had excelled at during his lfietime. The gentleman proudly replied that he had been quite a scholar.

"In that case," the welcoming angel decided, "You should give us all a shiur, so that we can appreciate your abilities."

"I have a better idea," the scholar retorted. "Please tell me, who would you consider the brightest individual here in Heaven?"

"That would be G-d Himself," the angel responded.

"In that case," our misguided rabbi suggested, "Let's ask G-d to give a shiur and I will point our whatever He gets wrong!"

As a young boy, the Previous Rebbe once asked his father why G-d gave us each two eyes. His father explained that the right, or kind eye is for looking at other people; the left, or critical eye is for looking at ourselves.

If there is one thing that we Chabadniks learned from the Rebbe, it was to look for the positive in every person. A man once asked the Rebbe how the Talmud could claim that even a sinful Jew is full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds. Surely, the fellow reasoned, if someone is a sinner, they have no mitzvos. The Rebbe gently suggested that the question should be phrased the other way around: "If every Jew is called 'full of good deeds', how can any Jew be called a 'sinner'?"

Bilam, the anti-Semitic prophet who takes centre-stage in this week's Torah portion, took the opposite view. He dedicated his life to finding and highlighting the negative. He was an expert at exposing the flaws and weaknesses of people. He prided Himself in his ability to detect the brief millisecond each day when G-d gets angry (i.e. he ignored the 99.9% of the day when G-d is benevolent and kind).

Bilam was blind in one eye, says the Talmud. He was incapable of seeing goodness and could only detect rot. You could say he only had a left eye. According to Pirkei Avos, Bilam and Avraham were polar opposites. One of the differences between them was  that Avraham could see only good in everyone; Bilam could see only bad.

But, even Bilam turned at the end. When he observed the Jewish encampment in the desert, it changed his own views. He saw how the tent formations were set up so that no family could see into its neighbour's tent. The Jewish camp was designed to block people from seeing each other's dirty laundry.

This had such a profound effect on Bilam that he offered one of the most powerful blessings every given to the Jewish people. His penetrating words are now part of our daily davening.

Today's media loves to expose the dirt on anyone and everyone. Journalists merrily spill the dirt on anyone, while society plays judge and jury, writing people off even before the facts emerge. In our own communities, unsubstantiated rumours snowball from school parking lot gossip to Shabbos table main course.

G-d gave us two eyes. Unlike Bilam, we're endowed with the ability, and charged with the responsibility to seek the good in everyone.

When we make the effort to look well at others, G-d makes sure to look at us in a good light too.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are you being followed?

Last week, a friend of mine stopped at a tyre outlet for a routine tyre-swap on his car. When he returned to his vehicle, he immediately noticed that his iPad was gone from the passenger seat, where he thought he had left it. Unconcerned, and figuring he may have moved it unwittingly and forgotten where he'd put it, he flipped on his iPhone and launched the "Find my iPad" app. The GPS-based programme quickly indicated that his iPad was on the move. My friend jumped into his car, chased his iPad and soon caught up with it, in someone else's car. Can you imagine the thief's surprise when the iPad's owner arrived at his car-window, discovered the iPad that he'd been sitting on and demanded an explanation? He couldn't fathom what had blown his cover.

I've recently noticed a slew of news stories about laptop thieves getting bust by the computer's owners remotely activating their laptop's camera to expose the thief. Either GPS or IP-logon tracking then allow the cops to know who to apprehend and where. 

George Orwell's "Big brother" is coming to life. In 1949, when he wrote the classic, people could conceive of a dominating regime that would spie on its citizens. But, could they have envisaged a world where everyone tracks everyone? Even Orwell could not have imagined the ever-exposed world of reality TV, paparazzi and social networking. Neither did he imagine a world of satellite tracking or a personal digital history. In his day there was no technology that could have recorded billions of people's movements. The sheer manpower needed to implement Thought Police would have, in reality, been prohibitive. 

Logically, a super-snooper society would have had to focus its attention on "people of interest", potential revolutionaries, insurgents, terrorists or criminals. Essentially, the CIA, Mossad or KGB did just that. They honed their skill, technology and personnel on tracking "valuable" targets. Tabloid media focused their time and attention on politicians, celebs, tycoons and socialites. And the ordinary person remained anonymous.

As Thomas Carlyle noted, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". Or, at least, interesting people.

Not anymore. You no longer need to be someone significant to have your life tracked. Your phone, your car's GPS, online travel plans, Twitter, Facebook, Google searching  and a dozen other technologies ensure that your activities are recorded. Some experts even warn that people may one day want to create a new personal identity to escape their embarrassing online activity as youngsters. That's how it is nowadays. You probably don't even realise it, but just about everything that you do is recorded somewhere in the great digital cloud. It could come back to bite you at any time.

2000 years ago, the Talmudic sages already knew this. Ok, they didn't have Internet, credit card trails or GPS, but they did know that the Great Database In The Heavens records every move each of us makes. It's all stored on a server that never crashes. 

One day, G-d will tap on your window and confront whatever secrets you're sitting on. Make sure your record looks good, or you may be as flummoxed as the fellow who stole my friend's iPad and is still wondering how on earth he traced him.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It all depends on how you see it

Life depends on how you see it. Even if f that sounds daunting, it is an extremely valuable concept to keep in mind. The way you see your life quite literally defines how it will pan out.

Take as an example one of Jewish history's greatest disasters, the debacle of the spies sent by the Israelites to the Promised Land. We all know, and will review this Shabbos, how the spies (except for Joshua and Caleb) reported that the Jewish nation would never reach the Promised Land. The nation quickly bought into their gloomy prognosis ("oy vey" is the Jewish way) and cried bitterly over what they believed could only be a suicidal attempt to settle the Land.

What set off the spies' fears was what they witnessed while scouting the country. Each time the spies entered a city, they saw a large funeral procession. Quickly, the reconnoisance team concluded the "obvious": This is a land where people die. In their report to the nation they would describe Israel as "a land that eats up its inhabitants". That was enough to unseat the people completely. Just about everybody bewailed their terrible fate and demanded a return to Egypt. And G-d responded with the parental, "If you cry for no good reason, I'll give you a reason to cry". Every complainer would die before he could reach the Promised Land. And the eve of crying went down in history as the dreaded Ninth of Av, anniversary of almost every significant Jewish tragedy.

Ironically, what the spies interpreted as disaster was actually G-d's plan to keep them safe while on their mission. He had decided to distract the population of each town with the death of one of its prominent citizens. Everyone would be so caught up in the formalities of burying these people that they wouldn't cast a glance in the spies' direction. G-d envisaged keeping the spies alive and safe. The spies saw death.

It's easy to keep a rosy outlook when things proceed according to plan. When they teeter (G-d forbid)- health issues, financial stress or family crises- we slip into "gloomy forecast". We seem to need a secret switch to flip us back into the optimistic approach. How do you look confidentally at bleak predictions?

One man quieted the tumult long enough to get his message across. Caleb, himself one of the spies, watched the growing mob-despair and realised that nobody could wedge a rational word in anywhere. Instead, he announced: "Oh, so do you think that this is all that Moshe did to us?" The crowds paused long enough to hear what they expected to be more fuel for their fury. "He also," continued Caleb, "Took us out of Egypt, split the sea and provided Manna for us in the desert." In a single sentence, he had changed perspective. He had reminded the people that Moshe had, with G-d's help, gotten them out of a slew of sticky situations. He had previously proven his worth and could be relied upon to pull them through their next challenge.

Caleb knew how to flip the optimisim switch. What he told the Jews in the desert applies equally to us. We can all identify moments in our lives that "went right". A fortuitous business meeting, a "chance" medical checkup that saved a life or simply a time when we found a convenient parking space is a moment in our lives where G-d came through for us. It is healthy to review these events from time to time, just to remind ourselves who's Boss, that He knows what He's doing and that He delivers. Remember those moments and it becomes much easier to imagine that what is still to come will be OK too. 

We choose how to see what has happened in our lives. We choose to see how things will happen in our lives. Whatever perspective we choose, it defines our lives.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are you getting your tattoo tomorrow?

Do you plan to get a tattoo?

A few weeks ago, I popped into a nearby quick-shop to buy a bottle of water. As I stood on line waiting to pay, I read the neck of the person in  front of me. 

Yes, his neck. 

In bold, calligraphic letters, this fellow had tattooed the Shema on the nape of his neck. I got the sense that he was stretching and flexing especially for me to see. He was doing a sort of "Hey! Rabbi, do see my Jewish pride?" number. Tattoos aren't kosher, but there is no doubt that his was intended to celebrate, not undermine Judaism. 

I've since shared this story with a few people and have discovered that Hebrew/ Torah tattoos are quite popular. I'm told there are even some celebs who sport Hebrew on their bodies. I'm told that a very proud local Jew has had a Magen David emblazoned over his heart, to show his love for Yiddishkeit. Would I do it? No. But, those graffitied Jews make a you think.

Torah is classically presented as ink on parchment; be it a book or the sacred Torah scroll. Ink and paper/ parchment remain two separate entities (the ink + paper) that combine to create a document. You could chemically remove the ink, which proves that the ink and the paper remain separate. They say you can remove a tattoo using laser, but there's no question that body-art is more permanent than ink on paper. My "friend with the Shema on his neck" has etched its message on his person more indelibly than most Jews I know.

Tomorrow is Shavuot, the day G-d gave us- and gives us again- His Torah. When G-d gives the Torah, it's not the ink-on-paper type; it's the etched into stone version. On this holiday, He empowers to engrave His message onto our souls. All you need to do is get to Shul to hear the Ten Commandments tomorrow. You arrive and G-d brands you with His message.

So, are you going to get yourself a tattoo tomorrow?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Did you have the urge to see Osama dead?

Got a Facebook account? 

Then you'll know all about the torrent of invitations to see photos of Osama bin Laden dead that have invaded the social networking site. I didn't take the bait. That was just as well, because those who did unleashed a Trojan message that invaded their friends'  list and posting itself on everyone else's walls, luring them to the trap of those "graphic photos". 

Monday and Tuesday, the debate raged over whether or not to publish the dead Osama pics. Today, the White House officially announced that they would not make the kill-shots public. Personally, I'm glad they made that decision, because I'm too squeamish for blood 'n guts. But, there are many others who want to see proof that global enemy #1 is actually dead, and still others who want to revel in his death.

Over 56 million Americans flipped on their TV sets to watch President Obama announce that Bin Laden had been laid to waste. Considering that it was almost midnight for many of them, that's a massive viewership. An episode of the wildly popular American Idol series "only" grabs about 25 million viewers. Even Obama's inauguration clocked in at under 50 million viewers. Americans seem obsessed with this story- and they want to see every detail. Obama himself (along with VP Biden and Secretary of State Clinton) purportedly watched the special forces' assault live.

What's with the American people and their urge to witness misfortune? Al Qaeda played on the American fixation with live TV when they slammed United flight 175 into the second of the Twin Towers in front of the disbelieving eyes of millions.

It's not only the Americans who harbour this urge to see it for themselves, it's a global phenomenon. Traffic backs up regularly on our roads as people "rubberneck" when passing car accidents. Online videos or photos of disasters clock up incredibly high hit rates (think of the Japanese tsunami footage). Even when we know that the images will traumatize us, we look anyway (like the recent Fogel family murder in Itamar, Israel). Right now, hundreds of Jews on "March of the Living" are visiting the most horrid places on Earth, Nazi concentration camps and mass graves. We don't suffice with reading reports, we insist on witnessing events personally.

Napolean, Hannibal and Alexander the Great successfully directed complex military campaigns over thousands of kilometres in foreign territory, relying on sketchy, dated information procured by scouts and couriers. Back then, you often heard news long after it had happened. The Talmud describes how the residents of Tur Malka in Israel celebrated victory over the Romans on one side of town, unaware that the Roman legions had destroyed the other side of town and were mere metres away from killing them all. 

Until the 20th century, you saw perhaps half a dozen significant events in your lifetime, possibly heard about double as many and remained blissfully unaware of most of what went on in the battles, famines or epidemics anyway further than 100km from home.

Our great-grandparents picked up stale stories in newspapers. Our grandparents heard somewhat fresh reports on the wireless. Our parents picked up the day's events during the 8 o' clock news on the Telly. We have access to a dazzling array of multimedia formats that stream directly onto the devices we carry in our pockets, so that we can be updated by the second.

Reality TV, streaming video, online cams and social networking have turned society voyeuristic. We expect to see. We enjoy seeing. We want to see. If we can't see, we feel robbed.

The classical model of study always relied on hearing. You heard a lecture or listened to a teacher and that was how you learned. Studying from a book would follow a similar cognitive process to hearing- taking in one byte of information at a time.

What you hear is never as real as what you see.

There is only one change that will occur when Moshiach comes. Instead of just hearing; we will start to see. We always hear about G-d and about how great He is, but we see a world that seems devoid of a Boss and a life that lacks meaning. We've heard all the religious rhetoric before, but what we see contradicts what we hear. Moshiach will usher in a time when we see differently. It will be a time when we see realities, rather than study concepts. Then we will see the whole picture and life will start to make sense. Then we won't have to rely on hearsay about what is and isn't true, who is or isn't right. We'll see it for ourselves.

Society is now primed for the Moshiach paradigm shift. We are the generation that won't settle for what they tell us, we want to see. Psychologically, we're there. The time has come for G-d to allow us to see what He's been hiding all this time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to celebrate Osama's death

When Americans took to the streets to celebrate Osama bin Laden's death, something didn't quite sit right with me. Initially, I put it down to two issues that didn't add up. One was the undeniable similarity between their behaviour and Arab jubilation when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. The other was the patently illogical joy at a "safer world", when the threat of terrorism remains palpable even after Osama. Besides, since when do Jews celebrate our enemies' downfalls?

Earlier this week, the "was it right to celebrate" conversation came up again. As we debated the merits or otherwise of America's joyous outpouring, a fresh perspective emerged.

Pesach recalls how Pharaoh tried to annihilate us, and failed. Purim commemorates Haman's unsuccessful attempt at Jewish genocide. During these and other similar holidays, we don't thank G-d for killing our adversaries, but for saving us.

In fact, after G-d drowned the Egyptians in the sea, we sang a song of praise to thank Him for rescuing us. The angels wanted to sing a song of praise at that time too, but G-d stopped them. We had reason to sing, because we had just been saved and needed to thank G-d. The angels had never been in danger, so G-d refused to allow them to sing at a time when so many people- evil as they were- died.

When the Jews sang to G-d at the sea, it was not a flippant, break-out-the-bubbly-in-the- street affair. If you acknowledge that G-d has made a miracle for you, you acknowledge that you owe Him something in return. After all, if He has kept you alive, He clearly expects you to achieve something.

After being held up in my home at gunpoint a week before Rosh Hashanah (and a few days before 9/11), I remember thinking that G-d clearly wanted to send me a message. My assailant could have pulled the trigger at any moment (Johannesburg has more daily murders than you care to imagine), so what stopped him? My conclusion: G-d didn't allow him to. Standing in Shul on that Rosh Hashanah, reflecting on the past and planning for the future, I felt that if He had kept me alive I had better ensure my life would be meaningful.

When a person survives a life-threatening experience (crime, accident or illness), Jewish law mandates that they say a thanksgiving blessing. That blessing reads: "Blessed are you G-d... who kindly does good for those who do not deserve it." G-d does miracles because He cares about us, not because we have earned them. He destroys our enemies because He loves us, not because we deserve His protection.

You want to celebrate because one terrifying villain is no longer? Fine. But, don't rush out into the streets, yelling and toasting his death. A Jew should respond with a show of dedication to G-d; a meaningful statement of "thank you for what you have done for us, now we owe you."

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The cost to catch Bin Laden

Here's one of the hundreds of Bin Laden jokes floating around the Internet: "It took the most powerful, technologically advanced country in the world hundreds of millions of dollars and over a decade of searching through the Afghani mountains to find one man in his home." Exactly how much the Bin Laden hunt cost the US is unclear, but it was no cheap operation. 

It's a week later and the media remains obsessed with the details of the special forces' operation, the machinations of Al Qaeda network and with the foreboding of retaliatory attacks on Western interests. Even William and Kate's most-watched-ever wedding has receded to a page-two story, overshadowed by the specter of the world's arch-terrorist. The world has abandoned the exuberance of a fairy-tale couple to fixate on the hate-filled architect of global terror.

Typical human behaviour. 

Did the US squander disproportionate time, expertise and money in the search for Osama? Who knows. But, each of us blows energy, time and emotion on the little "Bin Laden" who lives in our heads. He's the guy who always bombs your plans to become more disciplined, to improve your relationships or to connect with G-d. Whenever you're primed to make progress, he blasts away at your resolve. 

So, you start searching for Osama. 

"Why do I always fail?", "What causes me to slide backwards when I thought I was making progress?" 

You enlist expert help, spend time in therapy, retrace your childhood and dissect your personality. Over years, you spend hundreds of hours, fortunes of energy and an heaps of money hunting your nemesis. You may eventually find and eliminate him. But you might just expend time, energy and money only to remain frustrated. 

Judaism doesn't recommend seek-and-destroy when it comes to internal works. The Torah's advice is to build the positive inside yourself. Do more. Learn more. Help others more. Invest in growth and positivity and your inner-enemy will dissolve.  

Obsession with bad guys is good for the Navy SEALS. You concentrate on growing the good within yourself. 

Monday, May 02, 2011

Is it okay to celebrate Osama's death?

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Today, after ten years of trying, US Navy Seals and CIA operatives killed him in his compound in Pakistan.  

Americans are elated. Outside the White House, they sang, cheered and waved flags. At Ground Zero, a decade's worth of pent-up emotions exploded into joy and calls of "Obama got Osama!". Barack Obama announced that "Justice has been done" and European Union Parliament president, Jerzy Burzek declared "We woke up in a safer world". 

A safer world? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the burning question for many is "Should we be celebrating?". Street-jubilation and flag-waving is distasteful to us. We've seen it too often on Palestinian streets, the flags, the singing, the gunshots as they've celebrated Jewish deaths. We are a nation obsessed with life, fixated on peace and repulsed by killing. Yes, we're glad he's gone. Yes, we abhor the terror that the Bin Laden's of the world perpetuate. But, do we celebrate death- albeit of our enemies? 

"When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, lest G-d sees your glee and directs His anger against you," warns the Torah. 

Jewish holidays don't celebrate the deaths of our enemies, but the rescue of our people. While we recall the demise of Haman on Purim and of the Egyptians on Pesach, we focus our attention on the fact that our nation was saved, rather than rejoice at their suffering.

We've just concluded Pesach. On other festivals, we sing Hallel, a series of praises to thank G-d for His miracles. On the last two days of Pesach, however, we only recite an abridged version of these praises, because these days recall when G-d drowned the Egyptians. G-d even stopped His angels from singing praises at that time, because He insisted that it would be wrong to sing while people are dying. Remember, we're talking about the  Egyptians, a depraved nation of slave-drivers who were our nation's arch-enemies for two centuries. Still, no singing.

Likewise, King David, in Psalm 104, calls for sins- not sinners- to be eradicated. 

Exactly twenty years ago today, the Lubavitcher Rebbe challenged us, his followers, and the entire Jewish world in an unprecedented way. He made an impassioned public address in which he said: "I have done everything in my power to bring Moshiach, now do everything in your power to bring him!" That Osama was killed exactly twenty years later to the day is no coincidence. But, it gives us no license to celebrate.

As the media that trumpeted Osama's death, it also reported heightened security and warned of possible anti-West retaliation. One tentacle of the terror-beast is gone, but the beast is as fearsome as ever. Now is a good time to remind ourselves that Purim only became a festival after the war was won, not as soon as Haman had been killed. The "war on terror" has not yet been won. We don't have time to celebrate Osama's death because the threat of what he represents is very much alive. 

When the Rebbe spoke of bringing Moshiach, he referred to a time of global peace; a time where goodwill pervades society and all people focus on Divine-connection, rather than vice, jealousy and hatred. He spoke of a world where sins dissolve and sinners come round; where you no longer fight for liberty and safety, because the perpetrators of violence "get it" and put their weapons away forever. The Rebbe insisted that we dare not rest until that idyllic world becomes reality. 

If good men still need to kill to free the world of evil, we're not yet ready to celebrate. There is still much work to do.


(Click here for another perspective on this question. Excellent article.)

Is this what Moshiach will look like?

Friday buzzed non-stop with William and Kate's royal wedding. I didn't join the 2 billion strong TV audience (don't have a TV) or the half-billion streaming-Internet viewers to witness that glamorous spectacle.  I would have liked to have watched the military bands, Bentley's and Rolls Royces and the RAF fly-past. The actual ceremony held no interest for me. Besides, which rabbi has leisure time on a Friday?

Chatting to a member of our community later in the day, I had a twang of regret. He animatedly described the procession, throngs of well-wishers, Union Jack-lined streets and exuberance of the crowds. 

"They really got excited," he explained, "for the Brits, this is their thing. They love the whole monarchy, pomp and ceremony bit. It's what defines the English. Today was their day; something they would have looked forward to for years."

He had a point. Every country has its sense of identity, its national pride and landmark moments that generate wholesale joy among its citizens. 

What he said next is what got me thinking.

"To me, this was a dress-rehearsal for Moshiach," he remarked. "I mean, he will be our king, we'll line the streets and cheer- or dance- as he parades along, flanked by Judaism's great personalities and escorted by the world's military elite (all defunct except for their role as honour guard), his every move flashed around the world for all to see."

To be honest, I hadn't thought of the royal wedding hoopla in that light. He certainly had a point.

The Talmud says, "Always take the opportunity to see a king, even a gentile king. If you merit, you will get to discern the difference between their kings and ours". According to the commentaries, the Talmud means that you will appreciate the greatness of Moshiach after you have seen the kings of the nations. 

Thanks to YouTube, I did get to watch the procession highlights. I think I'm all ready for Moshiach now.

Friday, April 29, 2011

You didn't crack an invite to Will & Kate's wedding?

I hear you didn't make the cut for today's Royal Wedding. 

That's a shame, but you can take comfort in the fact that neither were Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or the Obamas (Swaziland's King Mswati is on the guest-list, mind you). Besides, you're welcome to join a royal wedding later if you'd like. (No, I'm not referring to our local "royal" wedding celebrations of Dudu Zuma either.)

London this morning will be aglow with all the glamour and extravagance befitting a royal affair. Weather permitting, the couple will travel from the service to Buckingham Palace in the historic 1902 State Landau carriage built for King Edward VII's coronation. Over 1000 military personnel, in ceremonial uniform, will line the streets en route and an honour guard will greet the couple on arrival. Various army, navy and RAF bands will play as the couple passes them. A fly-past of World War II fighter planes and modern jets will swoop overhead once the new couple has arrived.

William and Kate's nuptials promise to be a riveting spectacle, whether you watch it from the inside, from the London streets or on your TV at home.

But, as I said, if you're not on the VIP list, don't fret. You're invited to a royal wedding too. Come join us this evening. There'll be less paparazzi and glitz, but a more spectacular procession and a more royal couple.

Shabbos (as you can see from the famous "Lecha Dodi") is called both a bride and a queen or a royal bride. Soon after Creation, G-d commented that each day has a partner (Sunday-Friday, Monday-Thursday, Tuesday-Wednesday) except for Shabbos. His intention was to pair us with Shabbos, transforming both of us into royalty for 24 hours a week.

Kabbalah teaches that, as Shabbos enters, processions of angels rise to the Heavens and return here to Earth. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev described a "great parade" that gets underway on High as we say the Friday night prayers. According to the Zohar, the spiritual excitement of Shabbos is so intense that all negative energy is suspended. Likewise, the Talmud notes the "Gehinnom" shuts down and that blessings flow for the whole week ahead.

William and Kate are expected to have 2 billion TV viewers and 400 million Internet users watch their wedding. They'll have their day of glory today- and likely in the media for a good few days to come. But, considering that a single angel comprises the energy and complexity of 1/3 of our entire universe, and that we have two of them accompany us home from Shul on Friday night (not to mention the parading angels in Shul), it makes sense to capitalise on the amazing wedding procession we have access to every single week.

Yes, it has gone cold. Yes, it's dark now by the time Shul ends. Yes, we work long-draining days during the week and flop down exhausted on Friday evening. Yes, we plan to be at Shul on Shabbos morning. But, G-d puts on a royal wedding for us every Friday night, so surely we should be there! 

Can you imagine what would happen if Kate didn't show up this morning?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

He's YOUR child!

One of the central, yet often overlooked, chapters of the Seder night revolves around four sons. They are a diverse bunch- a wise, rebellious, simple and silent son who all come to hear the story of the Exodus. I know some people glance around the Seder table and mentally rate the guests according to this list (Jeremy's a genius, definitely the wise son, Harold's rather simple and Dean's biting sarcasm qualifies him as the wicked one...). 

But, I suspect that we get so caught up in the myth of the characters that we forget the Torah introduces them as "your son". Pesach is a time for parent-to-child education, in line with the Torah's instruction "You shall tell (the story of Exodus) to your child". So, the Torah had you in mind when it listed the "son" archetypes.

You may have a wise son (which Jewish parent doesn't?), he's gifted and frets if his grade drops below an A+. You know your budding Einstein needs to be stimulated, so you sign him up for extra maths, public speaking and a plethora of extra-curricular activities to keep his mind buzzing.

Or your son might be the school rascal, a troublemaker who spends more time in the principal's office than on the playground. He has ADHD appended to a string of other abbreviated disorders that make him a teacher's nightmare. You pack him full of Ritalin or whatever other miracles drugs the experts recommend and hope to dull him to a manageable behaviour level so he can get an education.

You might have a simple son, who you schlep off to therapies after school because of his learning difficulties, low muscle-tone and poor fine-motor skills. 

Your son could be the silent type; one who doesn't challenge you with the depth of the genius nor with the barbs of rebellious chutzpah. You plonk a PS3 into his hands or seat him in front of the TV and he's happy. 

Whatever your child(ren)'s nature, today's world allows you to outsource their needs. 

Pesach, in typical forward-thinking Torah fashion, says you need to remember to be your child's parent. Sure, you're entitled to use the world's offerings to help your child, but never forget that you are their parent. The Torah addresses parents in the singular: "You teach your child." Pesach reminds us that we dare not abdicate our responsibility to take a personal interest in each of our children, to recognize that each of them is an individual. 

Talk to your child on his terms. Listen to what he says and respond appropriately. And if he doesn't talk, coax him into conversation. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shvitzing for Pesach

Pesach. Again.

Oh, but this one's been different to all others (cliched as that may sound).

You know it's that time of year when the kids hum mah nishtanah, your credit card burns brighter than your chometz bonfire (if only Pick 'n Pay would realise Pesach products aren't supposed to inflate) and you drag out the once-a-year dishes (hey, I forgot we had a one-hand, sixteen-mode grater/peeler!).

But, this year is different. Our family's been extra priveleged to get to play the part of the Jewish slaves, thanks to the unplanned departure of our domestic help. Working my way through the house, I discovered that our maid had actually checked out about six months back (judging by my forensic dust-audit) and only owned up to it a couple of weeks ago (maybe she had a twang of Jewish guilt about being paid for doing nothing). Either way, my kids are dusting bookshelves and I'm scrubbing walls and floors.

I'm not about to glorify my newfound cleaner role, but it has been enlightening. Our grandparents in the Shtetl surely had smaller homes to clean, but they did it all themselves. Thank G-d, we have the luxury of cleaning help, but perhaps with it we've come to miss some of the Pesach experience. You can definitely feel liberated at your Seder table without doing "back-breaking" (or physio-inducing) labour beforehand. Pesach is the time to liberate your spirit, which is just as challenging if you live in Sandton or in Alex. No, it's not the reliving our ancestors' experience that I'm feeling in the grit and dust.

Wash-rag and window-cleaner in hand, I recall a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. One Rosh Hashanah, after blowing the Shofar, he called his congregation to attention. If you read the small print in the Machzor, you'll find a little Kabbalaesque passage after Shofar-blowing. There we ask Hashem to release the angels that we've created through the variety of Shofar blasts, and to bless us for a good year.

"What happens," asked Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, "If we haven't focused properly on the Rosh Hashanah service and we've only produced weak angels. Will we receive incomplete blessings for the New Year?"

As the crowd swallowed hard, the rebbe continued, "Kashrak is the acrostic for the sounds of the Shofar. It also stands for kratzen (scraping), sheiben (polishing), reiben (scrubbing) and kasheren (kashering dishes). If the angels produced by the shofar aren't powerful enough to elicit blessings for the year, the angels produced by the exertion of Pesach preparations are certainly powerful enough to bring us blessings for the year!"

I take comfort in that. I'm not attacking dust-bunnies, I'm generating angels.

You can't live Judaism in your head. Ours is not a religion of philosophy or theosophy; it's about action. If you want to do what Hashem wants, be prepared to break a sweat and get your hands dirty. Life will throw you many moments where you need to pause and help someone else. Those chances will usually be inconvenient and often take you places (physical, emotional or philosophical) that are uncomfortable. Next time G-d sends you that challenging person or that tedious task, consider that Judaism is about turning dust into angels.

And, if sweeping the floor to prepare for Pesach is so powerful, imagine how invigorating Pesach itself must be. If I can reach the heights of Rosh Hashanah, or higher, with my dustpan, I must surely be able to access immense blessing at the Seder itself. As the Previous Rebbe was told by his father, "All the doors of Heaven are open on Pesach night, make sure to access the right things".

Pesach (Passover) Guide

Pesach has got to be the Jewish holiday with the longest to-do list. Here's a simplified version of what you need to get done:


In the Northern Hemisphere, Pesach is in the spring. The frenzied Chametz-purge that we undertake must be the origin of having an annual clean-up. Technically, you could keep treif food in your house during the year, but you may not own a crumb of bread over Pesach. That's why we get all OCD about cleaning every corner of the house.

We all know bread is forbidden on Pesach. Other Pesach contraband includes anything made from wheat, barley, spelt, oats or rye that's been allowed to rise (pasta included) or ferment (whiskey, beer). You'll need to check ingredients of medicines and cosmetics too.

You can't own chametz over Pesach, so if you plan to keep (locked away) some bread, biscuits or Black Label for after the holiday, make sure to sell it to a non-Jew. You can sell yours online at

Pesach is not a cheap time of year. When you stock up on your matzah, wine and macaroons, remember to contribute something towards those who can't afford their own Pesach.

Get yourself some bona fide hand-baked Matzah for the Seder night. It will add some authentic (lack of) flavour to your Pesach.

You'll need to clean and "kasher" your kitchen and utensils to be usable on Pesach (some appliances and utensils can't be kashered). Click here for a guide to what can and can't be kashered for Pesach and how to go about it.

The Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos Hagadol, the "great" Shabbos. It's the day the Egyptian firstborns caught wind of the fact they were all going to die, causing an Egyptian uprising (yes, already back then) against their dictator (Pharaoh). The rabbi is supposed to review the Pesach laws on Shabbos, and we read part of the Haggadah after Mincha.

On the night before Pesach (Sunday night) have someone hide 10 pieces of bread (good idea to wrap them to avoid scattering crumbs) around the house (also a good idea to jot down where each piece is, in case you forget). Grab a feather, wooden spoon, paper bag and candle and set out to find the 10 pieces (and any other chametz you might have missed). Start with the blessing: "Boruch atoh Adonoy Elohaynu Melech ho-oilom asher kid'shonu bemitzvoisov vetzivonu ull biur chometz".
Once you've collected all 10 pieces put them aside to be burnt (with any other leftover bread etc.) on Monday morning.
After the search and when burning chametz, say the "nullification" of chametz (basically: "Any chametz I've missed is of no value to me").
After that's all done, no eating Chametz 'till Pesach's over. 

Firstborn boys (or their dads, if they're under 13) should fast on the day before Pesach (Monday). That's out of respect for the fact that G-d spared them when he killed the Egyptian firstborns.
You can dodge the fast by coming to Shul in the morning to hear a "siyum" (conclusion of a tractate of Talmud), which is a reason to celebrate (and eat).


We add "Hallel" (thanksgiving prayers to Hashem) on each night of Pesach.

On first night, have everything ready to go before you head off to Shul. That way, you can get down to business ASAP when you come home.
On second night, you may only start preparing for the Seder after dark.


Place 3 Matzos on top of each other and the Seder plate above them. On the Seder plate you have:

Bone = roasted chicken neck with most of the meat removed. (Top right of the plate)

Egg = hard-boiled or roasted. (Top left)

Maror = romaine lettuce and fresh horseradish. (Set up in two places, middle & middle bottom)

Charoses = ground nuts, apples/ pears & wine (pasty, not wet). (Bottom right)

Karpas = slice of raw onion/ parsley/ boiled potato. (Bottom left)


Kadesh- Kiddush.
Each person says their own brocha for the wine, even if they don't say Kiddush. This is the first of the four cups.
[Each of the 4 cups = full cup, in one shot, leaning to left. Minimum cup size is 90ml)

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say no Brocha.

Dip the onion/potato/parsley into the salt water.
Say Baruch... Borei Pri HoAdomo and eat a little.

Break the middle Matza in two.
Put the larger piece away for the Afikomen.
Leave the smaller piece between the other Matzos.

Pour cup #2 and read the story of Pesach (Discuss its contemporary relevance).

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say the normal Brocha for washing hands.

Say the Brocha for Matzah (same as for bread), while holding  2½ Matzos in both hands.

Say the special Brocha for Matzah (Boruch... achilas Matzah), while holding only the top 1½ Matzos in both hands.
Lean to the left and eat about 1½ Matzos (minimum 3/4 of a Matzah) from the top & middle Matzos.
Try to finish this Matzah in 4 minutes.

Say the special Brocha for Maror (Boruch... al achilas maror).
Eat about three medium-sized Romaine lettuce leaves with some raw horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoses.
Don't lean.

Eat ¾ of the bottom Matzah with about three romaine lettuce leaves and horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoses. Shake off the Charoses.
Lean to your left while eating.

Shulchan Orech
Eat some of the boiled egg, dipped in salt water.
You made it! Now you can eat the meal (or can you? After all that Matzah...)
This is also a great time to discuss the Pesach story and its modern message in detail.

Bring the afikomen out of its hiding place and enjoy another 1½ Matzos (minimum ¾ of a Matzah).
Lean to your left.

Pour cup #3 of wine as well as Elijah's cup.
Sing the benching (grace after meals).
After benching, drink the third cup, pour the fourth cup and open the door for Elijah.

Praise Hashem for all his miracles.
Drink the fourth cup.

Hashem has accepted our Pesach Seder.
Next year in Jerusalem!

On first day Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew.
From that point on, we change to "Morid Hatal" (Who causes the dew to fall) in the Amidah.

From 2nd night Pesach, start counting the Omer, 49 days of prep for Shavuos and the Giving of the Torah. The seven weeks of Omer-counting are a time for introspection and personal development.

April is already a write-off, with all those public holidays, so you may as well enjoy the semi-holiday "Chol Hamoed" period between Yom Tovs, when you're not meant to work.

The first days of Pesach concentrate on the historic Exodus, while the last days look towards the future redemption with Moshiach.

It's customary to spend the 7th night of Pesach learning.

On the last day of Pesach, we have a special meal called "Moshiach's Seudah" or Moshiach's meal. Join us for a round of 4 cups of wine, spiritual insights and a farewell to the holiday.


The day after Pesach is called "Isru Chag", a day for little extra joy & food to keep the Pesach spirit alive.

You can find more info, all the right times for your location as well as where to find a Seder near you at