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.