Friday, February 24, 2012


Pravin Gordhan's budget speech on Wednesday got me thinking that it could be useful for us to do a soul-budget occasionally. For one thing, I would hope that our soul-budget would not start with an admission that we are in a recessionary period... 

Budgeting would include balancing our urge to launch new projects with the necessity of maintaining our existing spiritual infrastructure. We would need to decide how much time, energy and priority to allocate to our own and our family's education and development, spiritual health, policing against ethereal enemies and growing our soul's economy.

A bitter contention here in SA is that, exceptional as the budget may be, many ministries squander the monies allocated to them. Doesn't your blood boil when you hear of dysfunctional departments, headed by ministers who splurge on caviar, international holidays and flashy cars? Watching your tax money hard at waste may well infuriate you. 

Almost as enraging are those ministers whose ineptitude has them investing millions in dead-end projects, while their mainstay programmes putrefy in the background. "Inexperience" is an excuse you would definitely not accept from someone who has taken on mantle of public office (and public funds).

Now, try plug that into your soul-budget exercise. G-d allocates our budget of time, resources and energy on a daily basis. He packs us full of wherewithal and then watches to see if we use it well. Each day is a gift of potential creativity and productivity that you should utilise to the maximum. Realistically, though, there are many days when we push the snooze button, while away hours over coffee or meander through the Internet instead of getting on with what G-d put us here to achieve. We blow the budget on fun and pleasure, instead of meaning and purpose. 

Or maybe we just don't know how G-d wants us to spend our budget. We entertain novel ideas, take on exciting projects and throw ourselves into nouveau spiritual lifestyles. In our minds, we are soaring through heaven; in reality we are missing our purpose.

Pointing out all that’s wrong with government departments that we cannot change is considerably less valuable than examining our own Divinely-presented budget. Maybe budget time is time to think about what investment G-d has made in us and how important it is for us to determine our unique personal purpose- and then live up to it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Are you rich?

A friend and member of our community shared a personal anecdote with us at Shul the other day. It's a simple story with a great lesson. 

As is the case in most of Johannesburg, we have a number of beggars positioned on the intersections around our neighbourhood. One fellow is an eccentric character who has been around for as long as we've lived here. He regularly changes his outfits, likes to sport sunglasses, earphones (not that they're plugged into anything) and quirky cardboard signs, and he makes a point of getting the kids in the passing cars to smile. 

The other night, my friend stopped at a nearby petrol station and headed in to the Quick Shop to buy a drink. As he stepped up to pay, our eccentric beggar-friend approached him for a donation. Apologizing, my friend mentioned that he couldn't help the fellow and didn't even think he had enough cash to pay for his own drink. Sure enough, he was short. 

"How much do you need?" asked the homeless man. 

"Two rand," my friend admitted.

Without hesitating, the older man drew out his bag of coins- a day's worth of panhandling- and happily handed over two Rand!

By Divine design, we read the portion of the half-Shekel this past Shabbos. It's the moment where G-d baffles Moses by instructing him to have each member of the nation contribute half a shekel towards the maintenance of the Sanctuary. With those simple donations, the Jews were supposed to atone for the horrible sin of the Golden Calf. Moses grapples with the notion that a token contribution can make amends for such a momentous mistake. 

Well, here's one possible angle on the story: The Golden Calf was an investment that everyone believed was worth sinking cash into, because they anticipated it would offer solid returns (a replacement oracle for Moses, who they thought would not return). 

Still today, people happily throw millions at business or even philanthropic opportunities if they can forecast decent payback value. But, when stocks crash and fortunes halve, most people downscale and hang on to what they have as they become charity-averse. Someone who had been a billionaire and has lost a few hundred million is quite likely to feel poor and to consolidate and tighten the purse-strings.

Yet, here is a fellow who lives hand to mouth and was able to part with a few bucks to help someone clearly better off than he is.

As long as you can still give, you are wealthy. When you cannot share your money, regardless of how much of it you may still have, you have become poor. 

Perhaps that was G-d's message in the half-shekel- a reminder that big bucks to float a golden project don't indicate wealth, but giving away- even just a small contribution- does. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Oprah and the Chassidim

After my post last week about gentiles appreciating Jewish values, I was gratified to see that Oprah aired a show this week on "Chassidic Jews" (read: Chabadniks). I obviously did not watch the show on TV (not having a TV at home), but I did find a few clips online, including a post interview interview that you can watch on our community's website.
Oprah, who some call the most influential woman in the world, doesn't need to pander to the Crown Heights Jewish community- most of whom would never watch her show and some of whom have never heard of her (she'd have way more celeb-value with their African-American neighbours). Yet, in her interviews, Oprah is very complimentary of the religious Jewish lifestyle. 
Perhaps it shouldn't take a billionaire TV host to tell us that Judaism is cool, but sometimes that's what we need. In last week's Torah portion, we see the Jews ready to accept the Torah only after Yitro (Moses' father-in-law and leading authority on paganism at the time) came along and acknowledged that his lavish and spiritual lifestyle just didn't match up to Jewish life. Unlike Yitro, you shouldn't expect Oprah to convert to Judaism following her exploration of Chassidism, but her endorsement of Judaism should surely reinforce our commitment to it.
Oprah marvels at the "frum" family life and the value-system those kids that grow up with. She is blown away by their immunity to media influence (she can't believe these youngsters have never heard of Shrek or Beyonce) and their old-style creative play. She's even partial to the laws of family purity, after hearing four religious women describe their personal lives.
Normally, if Oprah endorses it, it sells. Many a book has turned bestseller thanks to her featuring it on her show. It would be wonderful if Torah now would fly off the shelves thanks to her reviews. 
Realistically, I doubt it will.
G-d designed us Jews to be thinkers. We're not wired to naively accept other people's approbations, and we resist lifestyle changes until we have proven their value to ourselves. Ironically, there's more chance of regular Americans exploring Jewish living than of Jews becoming more Jewish thanks to Oprah . 
This week we read "Mishpatim", the section of the Torah that deals with the rational laws of civil society. After all the spiritual hoopla of G-d impressing us at Sinai, He then tones down the inspiration and leaves us to come to terms with our spiritual path on our own. Last week, He wanted us to be blown away by spiritual revelation, this week He wants us to think and absorb it all on a personal level. The Yitros and Oprah's will always be there, but G-d wants us to understand and appreciate the value of Jewish life on our own. 

There is only one way to do this: Learn. Find out more than you think you know about Judaism and you will make an informed- and meaningful- choice to get more involved.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

What's with you Jews?

Two of my best years of life were enjoyed in the yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, Israel. We would spend all day negotiating the unpredictable terrain of Talmud and Chassidic philosophy, our evenings philosophizing or "farbrenging" and our weekends absorbing the stories of the colourful Kfar Chabad personalities. 

Friday was our chance to "hit the town". A busload of us students would travel to Tel Aviv and then fan out to predetermined locations. We'd set up shop and spend the afternoon coaxing indifferent Israelis into rolling up their sleeves for Tefillin treatment. 

My friend Yossi and I would handle Dizenghoff Square. If you've been there, you'll recall the kaleidoscopic Agam fountain, the tourist buzz and the falafel stores. Most tourists didn't notice it, but in the 90's the area was also home to Goths, punks and druggies (I haven't been back since, so can't comment on the current state of the place). Dizengoff was not renowned as a religious area and we had it a little tougher reeling in the Jews than most.

One Friday I was manning the Tefillin station alone (Yossi had gone to "strap up" a few falafel proprietors) when a tall, silver-haired American strolled over. "I don't git what's with you Jews," he drawled in Texan. 

"You're certainly not the first," I thought, wondering what he thought of our street-side mitzvah stall. 

"Y'know," he continued, "You have such a rich religion, a beautiful tradition and a majestic history and you (he thumbed at a passing pair with nose-rings and pink hair) try to be like us!"

He made a really good point. What is with us Jews? 

More South Koreans than Israelis own a copy of the Talmud. They study it too, convinced it is the key to higher IQ. According to a string of news reports, the Koreans are convinced that the secret of Jewish ingenuity is our centuries-old tradition of Talmud-study. 

Oy, if they only knew how few of us learn it these days...

What is it with us Jews? Strangers see us for who we are, a special people (I'm sure you've been told you're "G-d's chosen" at some point) with a unique direct-line to G-d accessed through his Torah. Instinctively they pick up what G-d told us and us alone: "Anochi". That opening word of the Ten Commandments translates simply as "I", but is an acronym for "I have given My soul to you in these writings". That's probably why the world gets on our case so often (whether through overt antisemitism or oblique journalism). It's because they sense that we should be using our direct-line more effectively.

Next time a Southerner stops me to ask what's with us Jews and why we're so laissez-faire about our Judaism, I hope I can say he's out of touch, because all the Jews I know learn Torah regularly. 

The question is: What will you say to the same guy if he asks you?

Oprah's views on Chassidic life

Friday, February 03, 2012

61 years ago today...

Kol Nidrei night. As the sun cast its last auburn strands over the town, the Jews of Liozna waited for the awesome day to begin. Men stood with eyes shut tight, their taleisim framing their beards as they focused their minds ahead of the prayers. The women's gallery was abuzz with the murmurs of Tehillim. Even the children stood quiet and attentive. At any moment, the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the "Alter Rebbe" of Chabad, would signal to the chazan  to begin. 
Only, he did not give the signal. Instead, Rabbi Schneur Zalman purposefully removed his talis and left the building. Incredulous Chassidim looked blankly at each other, unsure of what had just happened. One or two of the bolder youths darted out of Shul to discover where their Rebbe had gone.
A cool breeze softly blew over the quiet dark town as the Alter Rebbe walked to its outskirts. He passed the houses of merchants and cobblers, even the shacks of water-carriers as he headed out to the forest. There, the Alter Rebbe chopped wood and carried it back to the edge of town, stopping to knock at the door of a ramshackle hovel in the poorest section of the shtetl. Inside lay a mother beside her newborn infant, alone as everyone had streamed to Yom Kippur services. The Alter Rebbe lit a fire and boiled water for the woman, only returning to Shul when he was satisfied that she and her baby had been adequately cared for. 
Sixty-one years ago today, our Rebbe related this story in his first address as the new leader of Chabad; the man committed to steer modern Jewry through the turmoil of changing times. 
With this story- and a number of others- the Rebbe crystallized the key to keeping your inspiration alive in a world of stress and ubiquitous distraction. The Alter Rebbe could easily have selected any member of the community to assist the woman in distress and they would surely have obliged. But, he chose to care for her personally. His example, explained the Rebbe, teaches us that the key is to put everything you love (the Alter Rebbe certainly loved the prayer experience, especially on a day as powerful as Yom Kippur), care about and appreciate aside and step out of your comfort-zone to personally help someone else. 
People typically believe they should invest in themselves to grow and be fulfilled, yet the reality is that it is only when you invest in others you reach true heights.