Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to make a rabbi

Einstein is credited with the saying "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limitations". When you read the news, you often get the sense that the genius had a strong point to make. The "Darwin awards" for stupid behaviour certainly have more nominees than the Nobel prize, or even the Oscars.
Take for example the would-be bank robber in the US, who took a liking to the female teller he held at gunpoint, so he left her his number before making off with the loot. Or the Idaho druggie who, instead of calling his dealer for more stash, dialled the detective trailing him. Society seems to have no shortage of fools. We Jews like to imagine that we are from the small percentage of smart people still walking this Earth.
How, then, do we explain the mega-blunder of the Golden Calf? You don't get much more foolish than that! I mean, the Jews had just witnessed firsthand how G-d runs the show and takes down His enemies in no-time. They had just had G-d Himself tell them in earth-shattering terms that they should have no other gods. They were still standing at the site of history's greatest Divine revelation, yet they fell apart and broke the most fundamental law by fashioning an idol.
Nothing about the story makes sense.
As you may imagine, there is no shortage of commentary on this bizarre event. One fascinating perspective is that you'll notice that the people made the Calf because they felt they needed to replace Moses, not G-d(the Torah says they made the Golden Calf because they felt that Moses had abandoned them). Those Jews didn't want to worship a foreign god, it's just that they had a scrambled sense of what a Jewish leader- orrabbi- is.
Moses wasn't always popular (look how many times the people questioned him and complained about his decisions). Moses' job was to teach, guide and coach people in taking on the difficult spiritual challenges (like stepping into a desert, relying on G-d for sustenance, taking on a set of life-governing laws etc.) that they would have preferred to avoid. 
Before they received the Torah, Moses had played the role of saviour- the charismatic hero, who brought them inspiration and the promise of a better life. Moses had stood up for them against Pharaoh, he had dramatically taken them acroos the sea and treated them to excellent food and full Divine protection every day.
Then they got to Sinai. Suddenly, the caring, inspiring, accepting Moses turned into the law-giving Moses who expected you to uphold standards, change your life and conform. Oh, and he wasn't there as you needed him, either. Moses didn't arrive to service the community at precisely the time when they felt that he needed to be there for them.
So, they decided to look for a new leader, someone shaped to suit the community, rather than one who insisted on shaping the community. They wanted the sort of rabbi they could mould to work for them- the type who could be built by gold.
More likely, fascinating.
A very attractive proposition, they made: Fashion a "golden rabbi". It didn't only happen at Sinai, it's the natural reaction of individuals and communities throughout history. But, it undermines the whole idea of having a rabbi. Jewish leaders are not meant to win popularity ratings as much as they are meant to challenge us, push us and raise us to a higher spirtiual and religious plane. Moses and his successors will always push our buttons, occassionally let us down and always prompt us to move to become better Jews, especially when we no longer feel the urge to improve.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Oy, Oscar!

The nation is in shock. No matter what you think of the Oscar Pistorius story (and there are some very divergent opinions out there), it's an absolute tragedy. Young people, both with promise- lives shattered. It's horrible.
What bothers me most is society's morbid fascination with a story like this. Media seems to thrive on the fallen hero; they're all over the story before there really is a story. Speculation is rife, opinions fly and we all tend to get sucked in. 
It didn't take long for the distasteful jokes to circulate. Opinions and armchair analysis developed quickly over coffee, in school parking lots and through social media. Sure, it's a natural human response to try and make sense of our dismay by talking and reading and listening to newscasts, as we hope to find "an explanation". But, today's news seems to deliver the shock-value too often, too quickly. The gloom-peddlers seem eager to make a buck and raise ratings through other people's torment. 
Interestingly, yesterday's daily Rambam piece focused on "rechilus", gossip or "peddling news". We're all familiar with the Torah's ban on lashon hara, not to speak badly of people, even when the story is true. Conjecture runs the risk of falling into the more odious category of "motzi shem ra", character assassination or libel. But, rechilus is a trait that Judaism despises just as strongly. And all it is is spreading news, sharing the innocent "did you hear?".
Whatever happened out in Pretoria yesterday is tragic, it's a story a life-altering mess that a person can surely never recover from. But, it's also really none of our business. How does it enhance our lives and quest for personal growth to dissect the news reports and callously joke about such an event?
There is really only one thing we should meditate on when such a story flies in our face: Who can claim to be so self-assured to know that they will never make a life-destroying mistake? We would do well to ask ourselves how often we look inward to check that we don't feel overconfident or invincible or deluded enough to imagine that we could never fall. Our response should be humility, gratitude that we have never crashed so severely and heartfelt prayer that we never do.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Feel alive!

Here's a piece of trivia for you: This Shabbos we will read the 18th portion of the Torah.
Ok, I get it, you didn't let out a whoop of joy for having learned that. What's intriguing about Mishpatim being portion "Chai" is that it doesn't strike one as a  lively parsha. For the last few weeks we've read of frogs and pestilence, splitting the sea and the explosive Sinai experience. This week's portion reads like a droning legal journal.
Some get a kick out of wading through laws of torts, but most people would quicker call last week's 4D sound-and-light presentation at Sinai "lively". 
Since everything in Judaism is meant to happen by Divine design, you have to wonder why parsha number "Chai" seems to be anything but. 
Jews are thinkers. Yes, we're committed to our Judaism. We dutifully avoiding bacon, celebrating Friday night and suffering through Yom Kippur. Yet, we don't just accept things. We question, we challenge, we debate, we re-hash. A cursory glimpse of your local Yeshivah's debating hall (a.k.a. study hall) will convince you that Jewish thinking precludes blind acceptance. To us, religion is only alive when you understand it and then revisit it and understand it more deeply.
G-d's impressive appearance at Sinai inspired the socks off every person standing there. But, that honeymoon was soon quashed by hangover and the people lost the plot and made the Golden Calf. Whenever someone or something else is the root of your inspiration, you are a hairsbreadth away from deflating into apathy. Inspiration is always exciting, but it's also just a bit over our heads. As long as we chase the next exciting thing, nothing will remain exciting for long. 
"Chai", the secret of keeping your Judaism alive, is making sure that you "get it". Once you understand something, you appreciate it. Once you appreciate it, you connect with it and it becomes a sustainable part of your life.
We all want our Judaism to feel dynamic. Nobody likes to drag themselves through repetitive rituals and painful prayer services. The worst thing for our spiritual growth is for us to feel it a meaningless burden; a load of "have to do" items. The only way to change that is to understand and appreciate; to make it meaningful. And the only way to do that is to learn.
Week 18 of the Torah portions is the first Torah portion focused on presenting information that we can all "get". It's message: Learn and learn and learn. Inspiration will entice and disappoint us, but study and appreciation will motivate and propel us. 
There is no shortcut to meaningful Judaism- you have to study and read and attend shiurim- constantly.  

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Wife appreciation week

I am well within my rights to look frazzled at Shul this Shabbos. Right now, I feel like that inept husband who arrives home to a house ravaged by what looks like Hurricane Sandy's second cousin, asks his wife what happened and she smirks and says, "You know you always ask me what I do all day- well today, I didn't do it!"
I've been blessed to travel abroad quite a few times in the last year or so. Somehow my absence did not once seem to generate the levels of concern and unease at home that Naomi's six-day stint in the US has. My "please take care of while I'm away" list goes something like "turn off the lights & lock up before you go to bed". I've never had pre-trip concerns of cooking and freezing meals or arranging after school activities and lift-schemes or strategizing Shabbos shopping lists and clothing suggestions and reminders about this one's medication or that one's dietary preferences. No question, without the woman of the house around, things get pretty shaky. Fortunately, our family has reached the stage where our daughters are kitchen whizzes and have the bath-nappy-bedtime routine down pat (it's wodnerful to start enjoying the investment you have made in a large family). These girls are well on their way to creating homes where things will crumble when they get to travel abroad. 
Naomi is in New York at the women's Kinus there. Imagine that? A black-hatted patriarchal "ultra-religious" movement where the women fly off un-chaperoned for a girls-only leadership weekend. They enjoy workshops, lectures, interactive sessions, classes and social networking on a par with any frontline organisation- and they're not just trading recipes and sharing birthing experiences.
This women's conference is designed to coincide with the yartzeit of the Rebbe's wife (this Shabbos). To the Rebbe, Judaism was never about rabbis and pulpits any more than it was about women who inspire people, lead revolutionary projects and build communities- all while producing a well-balanced generation of forward-thinking future Jewish leaders. Men can compete on the half, but typically at the expense of maintaining a home and investing in children as women do. 
That's why, when G-d gave us the Torah, He insisted that Moshe address the women first. Besides the fact that the first time He had entrusted Man to pass on instructions to Woman, they wrecked Eden and brought death to the world, G-d knew that women would ultimately lead the world to its purpose.
Judaism is about harmony: Body and soul, idealism and pragmatism, the world outside and the world within. Women naturally carry the instinct to synthesize the disparities of life.
G-d redeemed the Israelites from Egypt in the women's merit, placed them first in line for the Torah, and entrusted the future in their hands, because they intuit the essence of Judaism. 
On Shabbos we will read the story of the giving of the Torah and commemorate the life of a remarkable Jewish matriarch by honouring her proteges from around the world. It's a Shabbos of feminine energy; a glimpse of the future.