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.