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.