Friday, January 25, 2013

Sometimes it's wrong to pray

Disclaimer: The following statement should not discourage you from coming to Shul.
Sometimes it's wrong to pray.
Let me qualify that: It is usually the right thing to pray, especially when you've already made the effort to get to Shul. But, sometimes it's not the right thing.
Strangely, when it's the wrong time to pray, we are tempted to pray. The corollary of that theory is true as well: When it's time to pray, we are tempted to chat, engage with our kids, even study Talmud - anything butpray.
So when is it no good to pray?
Logically, the most important times to pray are when you either need help or are inspired to express gratitude to  G-d. The most common time that people pray is when they face a crisis. A friend of mine was on an El Al flight that had to make an emergency landing. He says that everyone on that plane, regardless of how secular and including the pilot over the PA system, all said the Shema as the wheels hit the ground.
That story is an amazing illustration of the instinctive, built-in faith that every Jew carries. But, I don't know if the pilot should have been davening right then. He should have been focused on landing his plane.
One of Jewish history's most nail-biting moments happened as the fledgling Jewish nation stood trapped by the Red Sea up ahead and the mighty Egyptian army right behind. Other than surrender to Egypt or commit mass suicide by drowning, they were all out of options.
What would you have done? Prayed? 
Moses, as a responsible leader, began to pray. But, G-d cut him off immediately and scolded him that this was a crisis, not a time to pray. Instead of pleading for mercy, G-d insisted that Moshe should lead the people straight ahead, into the sea. G-d's message was: You have a mission to fulfill, to reach Mt. Sinai, don't get distracted,  not even by prayer.
A businessman once approached the Tzemach Tzedek, third Rebbe of Chabad, just before shacharis to ask for a loan, so that he could buy some wares at the local market. The Tzemach Tzedek asked him to return after Shul and he would certainly assist him. No sooner had the man left, the Tzemach Tzedek realised that the fellow needed the cash immediately, so he removed his tallis and chased after the man to give him money. 
When you need to act, it's inappropriate to pray.
When someone needs you to help them, don't offer to say Tehillim, help them. Prayer is one of Judaism's most powerful tools, but it can never replace action. A Jew should always pray for the wellbeing of others and should always wish others well, but should never fall into the trap of davening when it is time to be doing. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Keep it fresh!

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up someplace else", Yogi Berra

Creating a mission statement takes a lot of soul-searching, but is a really healthy experience. You should try it. Define a mission statement for yourself or your family: What do you stand for? Where are you headed? Just the exercise alone is worth the effort, even if you land up without committing anything to paper. 
Here's a thought. What would you say is the Mission Statement of Judaism?
The best time to formulate a mission statement is at the beginning, when you are looking to define what you are all about.  So, the logical place to find the Mission Statement for Jews should be right at the moment when the Jewish People was born- 3300 odd years ago, in Egypt.
You would probably expect our Mission Statement to be something like "Connect to G-d" or "Follow the Torah", yet G-d's choice for us seems something of a let-down. Rather than hit us with deep philosophy, a call to personal growth or spiritual ambitions, G-d's first address to His new nation (which you have to assume is the moment He gives us our Mission Statement) simply instructs us to make a calendar. No big dreams. No idealism. Just a calendar. Does that sound like the Judaism you know?
"Hachodesh hazeh lochem..." G-d opens by stating that the month of Nissan (that's when Pesach is) will always be the head of all months for us. Can you say that you are living the Jewish Mission? Sure, you buy a Pick 'n Pay calendar or download the Luach to your phone, but do you research the astronomy of when the New Moon will next be seen? 
Jews follow a lunar calendar; the West follows a solar calendar. The Sun is constant, always blazing and bright, while the Moon waxes and wanes (did you see the large crescent on Thursday evening?). Each new month begins with the rebirth of the Moon after its decline during the preceding month. In fact, that's why we call the month a "chodesh", from the Hebrew for renewal, "chidush", because our month starts when the Moon starts a new cycle.
And that's the Mission Statement of the Jew: Stay fresh. Always look for an opportunity to rejuvenate and re-inspire yourself. And if last month fizzled out and you let yourself down, always believe that this month is a chance to jump-start and rev yourself up again to full throttle.