Friday, December 20, 2013

Card fraud

The text-notification from our bank immediately caught my eye. "No, I had not withdrawn cash from an ATM 30km from my house at midnight," I told the agent on the fraud hotline. 

Apparently the checkout-lady at a store my wife frequents decided to ring up her own end-of-year bonus by skimming some of the cards she had run. Most were probably credit cards, but ours is a debit card with a strict daily limit, thank G-d.

After a string of attempts at the ATM, the card thieves only managed to squeeze out petty cash from our account. I'm guessing they were frustrated at their meager-pickings, but stealing from a rabbi doesn't often net a large haul.

We had to immediately cancel our cards, and endure the process of getting new ones and changing PINs and passwords. 

Posting the incident on social media, I was horrified to discover just how many of my friends around the world have fallen prey to this kind of fraud. I have felt the sting of violent crime before, so I am relieved to have been passively relieved of my cash in this instance. 

What probably happened is: My wife was at the till, one staff helping her offload her groceries and re-pack them, the teller ringing up her purchases. In a blink, while my wife was duly distracted, the seasoned criminals must have zipped her card through a skimming device. 

Boom! Your card is cloned without you noticing anything untoward. 

Thank G-d, my bank texts transaction notifications. Thank G-d, I actually read the text that exposed the fraud, as soon as I received it. Overlooking that notification could have been an expensive error.

Minor life events often reveal insight into the bigger picture of life. And we always need to be alert to read the messages when they arrive.

Each of us comes to Life with a purpose to fulfill. As we go along, we're meant to stock up on goodness, kindness, study and personal growth and fill our soul's "bank account". Should we lose focus, for even a moment, we could lose much of what we've spent time achieving. There is no "stagnant" in life- if you pause from growing, you can expect to lose something.

Victims of card fraud (like the victims of any theft) often feel incensed at the injustice of how someone so easily nabbed your hard-earned cash. It's unfair that you should invest time and energy, only to have your earnings picked effortlessly by a miscreant.

It's not only money we have to work hard to achieve. We need to work at least as hard to develop our character and healthy traits, and to get in touch with our souls. It may be tempting to find someone we admire and just try to clone their attitudes, philosophies and ideals. We could regurgitate their sayings, mimic their gestures and lecture about their worldview. But, there is no value in copycat personal growth. The only meaningful way to develop into a better, more sensitive, more spiritual person is to slog through your own personal journey, with its victories and failures until you become the only person you are expected to be: You, at your best.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Chabad gone ape

"Are there lions walking the streets?"

Whenever they'd ask me that on my teenage travels abroad, I'd solemnly nod and describe the daily peril of picking our way through the jungle to get to school. Recently, my kids sent photos to their cousins from a safari our family had taken. They captioned the pic of a herd of elephants standing on a dirt road "Reason we were late for school today".

Our family's playful teasing about wild encounters have been peppered with real first-person adventures in SA's various game parks. Our family has been charged by a rhino, driven in an open Land Rover through a massive herd of African Buffaloes, and has screeched off in reverse to avoid a head-on with a temperamental bull elephant. Those escapades had all occurred miles from home on safari. Joburg's streets hadn't threatened our kids with much more than panhandlers and annoying windscreen-washers.

Until Friday.

It wasn't a lion or lumbering elephant on Linden road, but we did have a very real and very scary visit from the wild.

Friday was the fast of Tevet, when Jews recall the first time enemy armies- the Babylonians- surrounded the walls of Jerusalem. As our community members began to arrive for the special afternoon fast-day service, an uninvited visitor pranced onto the wall of our temple.

I missed the action, which I'm quite miffed about, but an adult baboon arrived at our Chabad House, just in time for Mincha. (In future, I intend to be much more cautious about broadcasting that we need "one more for the minyan").

My seven- and eleven-year-old daughters were downstairs in the function hall, preparing for Shabbos. I was upstairs in Shul, preparing for the afternoon service. I didn't know my daughters were downstairs, they didn't know I was upstairs- and none of us knew there was a primate scaling the wall.

My daughters enjoy animals- from a very safe distance. A whimpering chihuahua would send them scampering for safety. You can only imagine their terror when a fully grown baboon leaped into the parking lot.

The girls panicked.

The baboon panicked more.

In seconds, the ape had run across our property, clambered over a wall and disappeared.

I was quietly studying the Torah portion upstairs in Shul, oblivious. By the time I became aware of the commotion, it was over. Our family spent the rest of the afternoon between Shabbos preparation, ad hoc trauma debriefing and informing all those cousins overseas that we really do have wild animals in the 'burbs.

Two days later, my kids are still wary of stepping outside alone (the baboon has yet to be caught and returned to the wild) and I've been mulling over the lessons to be gleaned from such an unusual experience.

Firstly, I was struck by the situation my children had found themselves in: Their ordinary day had rapidly shifted into a terrifying confrontation. They had panicked and had felt vulnerable and unequipped to tackle the problem. Yet, all along, their father had been upstairs. A good lesson in life: Whenever you experience a anxiety or an overwhelming challenge, remember you've got a father upstairs. You only need to do be aware that he is there and let him know that you're in trouble.

Next, I wondered what had brought the baboon to Shul. My community over Shabbos unanimously replied that it could only have been the food; he certainly would not have come for the sermon. They weren't far off, because it seems that the bewildered baboon had been scavenging through the trash for food. (Nobody had informed him it was a fast day).

Chabad philosophy teaches that we each have a "Divine" soul and an "Animal" Soul. While the "Animal" only relates to and chases things it believes will bring it benefit, the "Divine" within us inspires us to be transcendent and altruistic.

Impure or negative energy, when compared to holy or positive energy, is described as an ape compared to a human. Apes look quite human (it's amusing to watch primate families interact, because they look so familiar) and share a whole lot of our DNA. But, they don't have the capacity to shift their nature, use abstract imagination or to experience altruism. Old baboon couldn't stay at Shul, even if he had wanted to, because to be part of the community, you need to be a giver, not a scavenger.

Lastly- and my daughters do not believe me on this one- the ape was more afraid of the girls than they were of him. A group of my friends and I were once hiking in the Drakensberg mountains when a troop of territorial baboons cut us off and began threatening us. Initially, we thought they'd move aside and let us pass, but when they kept inching forward and started baring their menacing incisors, we backed down and returned home. An adult human is no match for an adult baboon.

But, this guy wasn't in his natural habitat; he was lost in our neighbourhood. He was disoriented and afraid and he darted at the hint of a wide-eyed girl's scream. Which is a good lesson too. Humans need to live in civilized areas if they are to be protected from the forces of the wild. And that means spiritually too. If you make sure to live in a spiritually healthy environment, the feral forces can't harm you. But, if you wander into a spiritually unruly area, you can't be guaranteed your safety.

Simply put: Come to Shul regularly, the vilde chayos won't bother you here.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Jewish pride on Joburg streets

On Sunday, I took my kids to join the local Chabad Menorah car-parade. With Chanukah so early this year, and nobody having migrated yet to the coast, we expected a healthy turnout. Sure enough, dozens of vehicles lined up, got decked with roof-top Menorahs and headed out onto Joburg's main streets. 

Music blaring, with police escort, our Carnukkah procession revved up in a very Jewish neighbourhood. Passing drivers waved and cheered their support for Chanukah on the streets. Jews stuck at the intersections that we blocked smiled and kvelled at the procession.

Soon, we were out of the Jewish area, headed towards our destination at the iconic Sandton City mall. This should have been the doldrum stretch of the ride,with the only landsleit in sight being the drivers in our cavalcade. Our position in the entourage was right in front of the music truck, so, between that and the sirens of the escorting patrol cars, I wouldn't say that our drive was quiet. 

As we passed pedestrians, they also waved and cheered us on. I'm talking about non-Jews; locals, most of whom had surely never heard of Chanukah before and had no idea of how to pronounce it. We were greeted with cheery happy-all-sorts-of-things greetings not vaguely associated with our holiday, but appreciated nonetheless.

It's really no surprise that bored bystanders waved, smiled and yodeled for us. This is Africa, where the locals are mostly friendly folks who love some rhythm and delight in unexpected street celebrations. This was free entertainment and they loved it.

But, when we snaked past the vibrant Melrose Arch and obstructed three car-fulls of new-money youngsters, I expected the mood to sour. Joburg drivers are notoriously impatient. The fancier the car, the more impatient the driver. 

I waited for the glares, the revving engines, the grumbling. 

Instead, all three cars whooped "Happy Chanukah" (they could even pronounce it)! They air-punched and thumbs-upped and clapped to the music, wide grins on their faces. Our inspiring parade was instantly more uplifting.

Right there, on Corlett Drive, the Chanukah story came alive again. Jews, the minority, standing proud for Judaism and the world around them feeling brighter for it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Do the bad guys win?

Movie cliches dictate that the bad guys are always stronger and better organised than the heroes. For most of the plot, the villains look poised to conquer the world until- just in the nick of time- a social outcast with just the right combinations of mazal and skill pulls off a perfect sequence of tricks that tips the scales, sends the villains packing and saves the world.

With the right agent, the Maccabees could have raked in royalties (or plagiarism suits) for generations now. Hero/ villain movies are all just variations of the Chanukah tale. That whole one-guy-takes-down-auto-weapons-packing-global-crime-syndicate-with-his-bare-hands genre is Maccabee through and through. Read the Chanukah prayer, it's all there: "The mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous". Basically, the good guys defy the odds and win.

Ah, but there is one part that Hollywood hasn't picked up on. Chanukah is also the time that the "impure were delivered into the hands of the pure". Goodbye martial arts, this is now spiritual conflict we're talking about. You know, the kind that plays out inside our heads and is much more difficult to win than a bar brawl or street scuffle.

Spiritual conflicts work like a see-saw, when one force rises, the other must fall. You'll know this from your own experiences- on the days that you feel inspired, no distraction pulls you away from your focus. But, when you're feeling dry, scintillating spirituality doesn't raise your eyebrow. Get stuck in that rut for long enough and the "pure" side of life slips far out of sight. You start to feel like you'll never be inspired again.

What a frustrating vicious cycle to get caught up in. You don't feel inspired, so you have no motivation to get up and do the things that may inspire you. So you feel less inspired. 

By rights, once you're getting sucked down in that blah spiral, there should be no way to come up for air. After all, how can you inspire yourself to inspire yourself?

The real miracle of Chanukah is not so much the "good guys come out tops" story (you can catch that on DSTV). The big deal of Chanukah is that the "pure" found a way to displace the "impure"; the soul managed to drag itself out of the mire of lethargy. The light was able to shine again through the darkness. That's Chanukah. It celebrates the promise that the most uninspired of us can flip our "on switch" whenever we choose to, even if we're convinced that the inspiration we want can never be found, and if it is found, it can never last. Chanukah says beating bad guys is impressive, but the real goal is to reignite our personal Menorah.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Is Judaism boring?

"No pushing, please, we're Jewish." You won't hear that line at the barmi buffet table, but it sums up how Jews think about being rammed with religion. You can't blame us, we've had sword-yielding, bible-swinging, stake-burning religious activists try stuff their religions down our throats for most of our history.
And we’ve had rabbis. And Jewish mothers.
Jews are a thinking people; quite proud, in fact, of our cool, analytical approach to life. We only take wise risks. We research and study thoroughly before leaping, and we believe that spirituality is a personal matter, where each of us needs to find our comfort zone.
In fact, most Jews are quite convinced that Judaism rests on the bedrock of moderation and rationalism. Say "fundamentalist" and Jews cringe and deny that we have any (even our fanatics are not "real" fanatics, we’ll tell you).
That’s why Jews don't talk much about our patriarch, Yaakov's sons, Shimon and Levi. After their sister had been violated, these two took matters in hand and wiped out the whole city of Shechem, where the perp had been a nobleman. Vigilante Jews? Not something we’re overly comfortable with. 
Well, almost.
The Talmud highlights precisely that incident and uses it to determine the age of Barmitzvah. In that narrative, the Torah calls these two Ish, the term for "man", even though they were youths. A quick calculation reveals that they were both thirteen, so the Talmud illustrates that at thirteen a boy becomes an "ish".
Now, of all the stories of our ancestors, why would the Torah choose the story of a bloodbath to nail the age when one becomes an adult? Surely, the Torah doesn't want barmi boys stabbing their way into manhood. But, it does want us to know that to be counted in the Jewish community, you need to be bold for your Judaism. Not every Jewish response will fit into the neat, rational compartments of our understanding, but are expected to stand up for our beliefs, even when they are beyond our comprehension.
And the Torah wants us to know that Judaism must be passionate and energetic; infused with the zeal of a protective older brother. When Judaism simmers down to a comfortable, predictable rhythm, it quickly becomes uninspiring and is soon discarded. 
At the Kinus, I heard many rabbis bemoan how Jews seem to be losing the spark from their Judaism. In some communities, Judaism still plods along, but at a humdrum, mechanical pace.
In others, the wheels have stopped turning altogether. The recent Pew Research Centre survey on American Jewry highlights the challenge of US Jews who have lost their Jew-mojo. 
We’re lucky in S.A. We have a dynamic community and remain behind the USA’s downward curve. But, we are not immune. Any of us can run dry. Many of us have solidified our Jewish habits and no longer want the challenge of pushing spiritually forward. We’re happy, we’re settled and we’re “more involved than so many other Jewish people”. Shimon and Levi come along to remind us to step up, step out and take the challenge to do something unplanned, but passionately Jewish every once in a while. We need to regularly raise our Jewish heart rate to ensure we keep our souls fit and the next generation inspired to stay Jewish.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Jews, get out of South Africa?

A few Chabad rabbis leave town for a while and the rumours start that Jews are pushing for mass-emigration. 
While we were dancing at farbrengen-central, the Star newspaper ran this sensationalist headline: 

I picked this up on a friend's Facebook feed, where young concerned Jews vented their concerns about rising anti-Semitism in S.A. Sensationalist perhaps, but the Star's article wasn't anti-Semitic. It reported on Israeli MK Avigdor Lieberman's comments that South African Jews should get out of the country ASAP to avoid an impending "pogrom". Lieberman was responding to some inane comments against Israel made by International Relations Minister, Nkoana-Mashabane.
Pogrom in SA? We may have problems in our country, but rampant anti-Semitism isn't one of them. 
Last night, I landed in Montreal Canada. Shortly before I got here, a Jewish man was attacked in an eatery by two Muslim women. Ironically, he had asked their view on an issue of mutual concern- the possibility that the Quebec government may ban religious head coverings. Rather than engage, the women hurled abuse at him, knocked his food to the floor and took a few swings at him, before calling the police to report his "racial incitement". 
Last year, Canada had over 1300 reported incidents of anti-Semitism.
This past Sunday, I chaired a session at the Kinus to discuss anti-Semitism in Europe. The Shluchim on the panel represented Sweden, Germany, Poland and the UK and, to our surprise, the UK measured the highest levels of anti-Semitism of them all. Last year, Australia racked up over 500 anti-Semitic incidents, and last month saw five people hospitalized in an anti-Semitic attack in Sydney.
South Africa reported 50 anti-Semitic incidents last year.
A few years back, I heard Mark Bagraim talk about how he had represented the SABJD at a conference on global anti-Semitism and had arranged a comprehensive two page report on the issues on our home front. The French delegates arrived with a three volume report on the problems in their country, with the UK, Australia and Canada not far behind.
If Israel wants to promote Aliyah, by all means.
But don't fear-monger.
Having just spent the week with communal leaders from around the world and hearing what's really going on in other Jewish communities, I'd rather go with the assurances of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that SA will remain good for the Jews until Moshiach gets here. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some people just grow up

Before Rosh Hashanah this year, I posed this question at a shiur: "How will you know if you've had a good Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" Someone quickly replied, "If you're still here for next Rosh Hashanah!"

You can't argue with that.

You never know how good something (or someone) is, until the end. The Proteas may whack sixes and still lose the test. You don't know how it will end until it ends.

That is why philosophers argue that we've got it all wrong- we celebrate birth and mourn death. Ted Bundy's folks must have celebrated his birth, I mean who knew he'd land up in the electric chair. You go out on a limb celebrating the birth of an unknown person. And we mourn the death of the most accomplished, good people, whose life's success we should, logically, celebrate. 

Our sages sum it up as: "Don't trust yourself until the day you die."

None of us knows how we will look at the end, and we should invest the effort in that ensuring we do look good in the final assessment. Our Matriarch Sarah did. When she died at 127, the Torah says "all her years had been equally good".

The Torah also offers a clue into how she did it. It tells us that by saying she lived for 100 years and for 20 years and for 7 years. Why not simply say "she was 127 when she died"? Because the Torah wants us to know the secret that Sarah knew about making life meaningful until the end.

At age 100, Sarah was free of sin, like a twenty-year old. At twenty, she still had the innocent beauty of a seven-year-old.

By age 100, Sarah still had the purity most of us start to lose when we take on life's responsibilities. Her secret to retaining that innocence was that she kept some of her seven-year-old worldview, even as an adult.

Children are full of wonder. They question, they explore, yet the accept what they are told. Teens challenge their parents' values and their teachers' information. By the time the maelstrom of adolescence is over, we have typically rearranged our perspectives and defined a life's philosophy of our own. In adulthood, most people stop listening as openly to new ideas, fresh perspectives or other opinions. We prefer, instead, to analyze, check new ideas against our own worldview and accept or discard accordingly.

Sarah managed to keep the humble childhood ability to accept other ideas, especially those G-d shared with her husband, even after she had grown into an adult. We often recoil from the expectations of Torah or reinterpret G-d's wisdom to fit comfortably with our outlook. Sarah was open to hear new ideas and accept new direction as and when was necessary. And so, by the end of her life, she had retained the consistent dedication to G-d that many people grow tired of as life progresses.

There's a lot to be said for thinking, probing and having an independent mind. There's more to be said for retaining the innocence and humility that allows us to accept that we don't have all the answers and will never have an objectively reliable perspective on our own. Sarah, mother of the Jewish nation, teaches us to always remain the wide-eyed child who is excited by the new challenges and shifting sands of life and who is always receptive to be guided by an "adult" voice.

The graveyard shift

We rabbis spend a disproportionate amount of time at the cemetery. Occupational hazard, I guess.

I was at a funeral again yesterday. Another rabbi delivered the eulogy, so I glanced around at the crowd and noticed the undertakers standing on the sidelines. I mean they're always there, so it was no surprise to see them. And it was surprising all the same.

Obviously there are gravediggers at funerals. That's what they do. They drive out to collect the bodies, they assist in the procession, they throw the last shovel-fulls of soil into the grave. 

Yet, they are invisible.

Nobody knows their names. The crowd stares right through them. You hardly ever hear their voices as they go about what they do. Obviously, the deceased whom they service never thank them. 

They do this job because they are often unqualified to do anything more sophisticated. Sometimes they're there because life's other avenues have shut them out, but usually they're there because they wouldn't make it in the high-brow world. 

Professionals and entrepreneurs are too anchored in the tangible, material world to offer dead people appropriate, humble respect. These gravediggers get what we miss- in the presence of the deceased, you should be invisible.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Keep the Jews, drop the Judaism?

My weekly FreshThinking show yesterday on ChaiFM got really animated. I had asked the question: "Seeing as we're losing so many Jews, is it worth compromising some Jewish values to keep them?" 

Well, you already know my answer: A resounding no. 

But, the banter turned to debate and stoked emotive interaction around the subject. I live in one of the most traditional, committed Jewish communities in the world, they say. Just last week our Chief Rabbi ran a mega-successful Shabbos project that saw thousands of Jews, many secular, keep a full Shabbos. Coming on the heels of the unsettling Pew Research Centre survey about American Jews, we all realised that Jewish South Africa is light-years ahead of most other Jewish communities. So, I'll admit, some of the response caught me off guard. 

During the show, I quoted an LA Times article that described humanist" and "Jewish secularist" communities in the States. These groups believe that we're so desperate to keep a hold on our Jews, that we should do whatever we can to make them comfortable in their Jewishness. "Whatever we can" includes having "intercultural" (read: intermarriage-supporting) communities and finding ways to ensure children "know their Jewish identity", without "having religion forced on them". Some even argue that we should shed our "tribalist attitude" and embrace the surge of assimilation.

When I posed the question on air yesterday, it was mainly out of curiosity. I figured that SA Jewry would not consider it worthwhile to compromise Judaism to try to hang on to Jews. 

I was wrong.

Yes, plenty of party-line messages came through on the SMS-line and through social media. People felt it was a slippery slope" when you start moving religious goal posts. Some mentioned how Christianity started as a "new" version of Judaism. One tweet made the point that the "outdated" version of Judaism has outlived all the various attempts at creating a "modern" version. Good point! 

But, I also had some vociferous dissent. Callers and texters insisted that Judaism need not be about religion, that the interpretation of rabbis past was no more relevant than the interpretations of modern scholars and that much of Jewish practice was "superstitious nonsense". Their message was clear: Judaism needs to shed some of the heavy religious baggage and evolve in order to survive.

To my mind, something about us Jews has empowered us to survive as a tiny minority in hostile territory for longer than any other people. And it hasn't been Hebrew (Aramaic, Ladino and Yiddish each had a shot at being "Jewish" languages) nor kneidlach or matbucha that kept us together. It wasn't even a nationalistic ideology. 

It was Judaism. Real, unadulterated Judaism.

It was matzah and dressing up for Purim and studying Talmud and avoiding shellfish and Shabbat candles that kept Jews Jews throughout history. 

And it's those things that will keep Jews Jewish. Nothing else. Not social clubs nor Jewish celebs nor kosher-style delis nor half-Jewish kids having glittery trees topped with Chanukah candles. Altering Judaism didn't work in Greece or Rome, nor in Medieval Spain or Germany of the last century. And it won't work in the US or here in traditional South Africa. 

Is the ritual meaningless? Only if you've never explored the meaning.

Is it a matter of someone's interpretation? That, in itself, has to be interpretation. It's a code, a lifestyle, a tradition and a deep wisdom that has been passed down leader by leader, family by family, community by community for longer than any other extant tradition.

Tomorrow at Shul we'll read the bizarre story of Lot, Abraham's nephew, who lived in the ganglands of Sodom. When G-d decides to save Lot before wiping out the city, He sends two angels disguised as humans. Lot invites them to sleep over in his house- a risky move in a city where harboring foreigners was a crime. Somehow the news gets out that Lot has guests and a seething mob surrounds his house, insisting Lot hand the guests over to be "dealt with". Lot, playing the role of benevolent host, offers the crowd his two unmarried daughters instead. 

Which is nuts! Who willingly offers his own children to be abused in order to protect some strangers he's just met?

But, Lot had grown up in Abraham's home. His formative years had been shaped by the man who embodied hospitality, so he imagined that treating a stranger like a mentsch was the most noble thing to do. Never mind that Abraham's life was also about absolute morality- of which Sodom was the antithesis- or that Abraham had dedicated his life to knowing G-d. Lot picked up on the idea of being a good host and that defined being a "good person" for him. 

Lot had assimilated. He had bought into a flashy culture that negated his roots. Whatever mini-identity he did hang on to was so misguided that it almost cost him his family.

Abraham's greatest accolade from G-d is "I know that he will instruct his family after him to follow the way of G-d." Abraham did, and his descendants still do. They tell his story, spread his wisdom and follow his traditions. Lot melded into the prevailing culture. His ragtag bit of Abrahamic identity failed him in crisis. His descendants have disappeared into the melting pot of history.

Lot's Judaism can't save Jews. Abraham's will. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jews who make you feel uncomfortable

The elderly miser, Morris Levenberg lay deathly ill. A pale Mrs. Levenberg waved Rabbi Bruchman into the hospital room, mumbling that the doctors these days knew nothing about medicine. Mrs. M described how the specialist assigned to her husband had proposed that the only thing that would cure the old scrooge would be to get him to perspire.

Raising the room temperature and covering him in woolen blankets had done nothing. Even her piping hot chicken soup had left him frigid. The rabbi approached Morrie, asked after his health and then recommended that he commit to give some charity to curry some Divine favour. Levenberg nodded and, for the first time in his life, offered the rabbi a donation of R5000 for the Shul.

"Actually," the rabbi said, "I thought that a man of your means should offer R500 000, after all in merit of the Tzedokah, you will be healed, please G-d".

Old Man Levenberg blanched and muttered that he would consider R18 000. The rabbi was ready to settle on R450 000. Morrie replied with a whopping R36 000, which the rabbi countered with a R360 000 settlement. After a long pause, Morris Levenberg mustered up an offer of R50 000. But the rabbi would hear of nothing less than R250 000. The room was still, save for the wheezing of a desperate Morris L. 

"Ok, rabbi!" he yelled, "Ok, I'm shvitzing already, I'm shvitzing!"

Many people feel uncomfortable about forcing others to behave in a certain way. Your kids are one thing; you're required as a parent to instill the right values in them, even when they recoil and tantrum over it. But, other thinking adults? Surely, we should allow them the space to explore and research and arrive on their own at decisions that they feel comfortable with. 

Yet, Chabadniks hustle Jews on the street to put on Tefillin and host farbrengens, where a person may "shvitz" under the laser-focus of a rabbi who tries to push them for an extra minyan, a new mitzvah or a Torah class commitment. And people often feel uncomfortable with it. 

Well, the idea of pressuring people for commitment to G-d was not invented by Chabad. It's as old as Judaism itself. Abraham, founder of the Jewish people, did it too. 
Avraham and Sarah used to run a free motel/ deli in the scorching desert. Parched wayfarers would regularly drop in at their spot for a meal and some shade. Having eaten, they would call for the bill and Avraham would instead give them a quick shiur on G-d. Then he would ask his customers to say a blessing to thank G-d for the food they had just eaten. If they refused or claimed that they had their own belief system, he would present them with a bill that would quickly have them shvitzing. Needless to say, everyone blessed G-d.

So, you have to wonder what the point of it all was. Surely, if these travelers only blessed Hashem to get out paying top dollar for their meal, their praise wasn't particularly genuine. 

Avraham had a unique way of looking at people. He didn't see them as hypocrites who just muttered a formula so they could save money. He believed that every person intrinsically knows that G-d runs the world. But, people get caught up in the ego of their own achievements and sometimes lose sight of what is really important. They forget that they need to invest in their souls, not only in fame and a bank balance. Avraham sensed that the only reason people don't automatically acknowledge G-d is because they have gained layers of insensitivity, causes by too much investment in self. 

He appreciated that the best remedy for people's self-absorbed view is to make them shvitz. Make someone feel uncomfortable and they quickly shift perspective. Avraham knew that G-d could rattle people's confidence and realign their priorities through illness, financial difficulty or family strife.

Avraham also knew that he could shortcut the process by making people squirm in his dining room instead of in a hospital ward or bank manager's office. So he turned the screws, made them uneasy and forced them to see a healthier perspective of their own world. 

The Torah doesn't record how many of Avraham's guests later thanked him for having redirected them to a more meaningful life. But, I know a few who have "shvitzed" at a farbrengen and come to say thank you afterwards.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Shabbos Project

You could have wished Joburgers "good Shabbos" any day this week and they would not have looked twice. Everyone everywhere everyday has been talking about Shabbos, thanks to the Chief Rabbi's phenomenally successful "ShabbosProject". In grade one, they told us that if all the Jews would keep one Shabbos, Moshiach would come. I think we can expect him in Joburg this week.

Of course, not everyone who is "keeping Shabbos" this week is keeping it 100%. So what? Whatever Shabbos commitment people make has big heaven-cred.

I've heard skeptics mutter that nobody will keep it up, so what good is a one-time-Shabbos wonder? Judaism isn't a numbers game (if it were, our tiny population should have given up ages ago), it focuses on the value of good when good is done. And it teaches that you never know the impact of that one good move. Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam, taught that you should view the world as hanging in perfect balance between good and evil and that your next move could tip the scales the right way and literally save the world. Yes, the Talmud says that we all need to keep Shabbos to earn Moshiach, but it might just be you leaving your phone or laptop off from Friday sunset to Saturday night that will make all the difference in G-d's eyes.

And if you already "keep Shabbos", you can't get away with signing up online for the Discovery points for walking to Shul, or just doing the once-a-week stuff you do anyway. 
Think of the effort all the Shabbos novices will have to invest this week and challenge yourself to put at least as much effort into upgrading your Shabbos. 

If you usually skip Friday night Shul, this is the week to make the effort to start Shabbos as Shabbos is intended to be started. If you don't always make the starting line on Saturday morning, try it this week. Whatever you normally do for Shabbos, do something extra this week.

Shabbos has held Jewish families together over centuries and has brought a ray of light to some of the toughest times in our history. As a teen, I was mesmerised by Lazer Nanas, a Chabadnik who never broke Shabbos once during twenty years of imprisonment in Russian gulags. More recently, I was moved by Herman Wouk's dedication to Shabbos, even as he tried to make his mark on Broadway. Shabbos isn't always easy to keep, but it is always worthwhile.

You know what they say: "More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews". 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Stop beating yourself up!

An older, somewhat cynical, man once listed three great Jewish heroes for his grandson: Samson, King David and Morris Levine. The young boy knew the story of Samson's valiant battles against the Philistines and of King David's bravery against Goliath, but he had never heard of Mr. Levine.
"Who did Morris Levine fight with?" the curious youngster asked.
"Everyone," grandad wryly replied.
Jews are not natural warriors, but we sure seem to know how to fight. With Rosh Hashanah fast approaching, we're meant to reflect on who we may have riled up and then get in touch with them to ask their forgiveness. Over this same period, we're also meant to reflect on our personal shortcomings and invest some time and effort in trying to fix them.
In summary: Now's when we say sorry to those we've fought with, and start fighting with ourselves.
Because anyone will tell you that taking stock of our spiritual standing is a battle. And trying to do something about improving it is an all-out war. I'm sure you know the feeling: You decide that it would be a good idea to exercise more, study more, be more attentive to your family or give more charity. Your extreme make-me-over looks great on paper, yet as soon as you try implement it, those dreams quickly change turn into one frustrating scrimmage. 
But, what are our options? Roll over and play failure? Resign ourselves to mediocrity? Jews are definitely too high-achieving for that. So, we go on fighting (and feeling fustrated).
You may remember the story of the duke who challenged the village fools to drive darkness out of a room. One swung wildly at the blackness with a baseball bat, another screamed at the gloom to leave and a third clapped and stamped to frighten the shadows away. Fighting with ourselves to try and better ourselves is about as effective as their inane attempts.
To live illuminated, we need to engage with light, not tackle darkness. In Jewish mysticism you will find one sure-fire way of moving ahead spiritually- learn more Torah. Torah inspires. It switches on your inner beacon. By learning, you don't only collect info and gain insight. Learning Torah draws G-d's wisdom into your life, and that offers you a new and refreshing perspective on everything.
It's really our choice: Fight on or light up. For optimum results: Try option 2.