Thursday, May 30, 2013

Is it Friday night or Shabbos?

High school Shabbatons... ah, the memories: spirited Friday night singing, paper-thin matresses, mutant mosquitoes, unparalleled camaraderie and endless bean & potato cholent. But no high school Shabbaton will parallel the dash-to-make-the-candles-deadline Shabbaton we once had in the Drakenesberg mountains.
We set out early on that sparkling Friday morning to hike for eight hours up a ravine, across the ridge of a mountain and down what the guidebook called the "Mudslide". We hiked, scrambled over boulders and climbed chain ladders at a healthy pace, reveling in the spectacular views, but mindful of the fact that we needed to stay on course so that we would make it back with time to spare before Shabbos. As we walked along the tops of mountains, we gazed out over the horizon-hugging ranges and marveled at G-d's beautiful creation. By the time we reached the downward path, we figured that we would still have plenty of time to get back to the bus and return to our campsite before sunset.
Only, things did not go quite as planned.
Right there, perched at the top of the notorious "Mudslide", a fellow student developed vertigo. His anxiety grew with every downward step and, what should have been an easy two-hour walk, dragged into an endless coaching session, as we eased him down the incline. Eventually, we reached the end of the hike. We raced to the bus, zoomed back to camp, arrived within the 18 minute grace-period reserved for just such pre-Shabbos emergencies, sprinted to the showers... and got to Mincha just as the sun went down. 
Later that evening, a bewildered Afrikaans couple approached our headmaster, Rabbi Hazdan. "How," they wanted to know, "Did you pull that off?" 
"We were sitting on the stoep when your busload of mud-coated, boisterous teenagers arrived at the campsite. Five minutes later, a group of groomed, clean young men in crisp suits emerged from their bungalows! We could never get our teens to do something like that," they exclaimed.
He tried to explain Shabbos to them, but I'm not sure they got it.
Shabbos isn't something that Jews do; it's a symbol of who we are. No matter how busy, stressed or distracted we may be; regardless of what crises we've faced, Shabbos transforms us. It has that power. Shabbos is a healthy de-stresser, it is an anchor of family time, it allows us to shift gears from competitive business-life to enriching communal-life.
All we need to do is be there when the Shabbos magic switches on. Out in the 'Berg, we could have davened in our hiking boots or skipped shul because we had been wiped out by the adventures of a day in Nature. But, it wasn't even an option, because we'd been trained that Shabbos is not on the to-do list, it's in your bones. So, no matter what, we knew Shabbos would not be Shabbos if we would not dress the part, band together and daven together. 
Needless to say, that Shabbos was one of the most powerful we had ever experienced.
Rush in if you have to, but ensure you dress your best and join the community as Shabbos comes in. You can do Shabbos in the privacy of your dining room, but you just can't access that same amazing energizing spirit of Shabbos that you get when you're with the community each week. Shabbos is not just the start of the weekend, it's the day that defines us as Jews, the day when we teach our children by example that shul and community and prayer and a Jewish meal and our families are important. Shabbos is an experience to grab with both hands, starting this week! 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three steps to stay out of trouble

In a story that sounds better suited to a Leon Schuster prank than a CNN report, a local game ranger this week lost his job after he charged an elephant in the wild. Yip, the man charged the elephant. Ever since reading "Kringe in a Bos" during matric, I'm wary of getting to close to those feisty mammals, even when safely behind the bull-bar of our ubiquitous red Condor. I cannot imagine what would prompt an adult (a game ranger at that) to scream and hurtle headlong, hands flailing, directly at a massive bull elephant.
Apparently the answer is a cocktail of beer and, to quote the guy in question, "45 seconds of foolishness". Losing his head for under a minute had him lose a job built on twenty years of passion for wildlife.
Are you laughing yet?
Not so fast.
I mean, what he did was remarkably dumb, but do we never mess-up in a just a few seconds that undomonths or years of value? We might slip an insult at a good friend, embrarrass our spouse or alienate our child with half a minute's lapse of thinking.
How does that happen? How do mature adults- business leaders, professionals, academics- do things that are just plain inane?
We get caught up "in the moment". We forget who we are or where we are or where things could lead or the fact that someone might Facebook the photos of our idiocy. In the company of partying peers, in the heat of the moment, or "under the influence" our awareness levels switch off just long enough for us to behave recklessly.  
We usually can't catch ourselves once the inertia takes us over the edge of sanity, even as our spouse (or a friend) mouths that we're getting out of hand.  But, we can train to stay focused in the first place. This week's chapter of Pirkei Avos opens with a three-point plan to keep yourself out of trouble: "Remember where you come from, where you are going and who you will be answerable to". 
"Where you come from" means remember who you are. A follower of the first Chabad Rebbe would often say that, if he felt tempted to sin, he would remind himself that such behaviour would be beneath the dignity of a student of such an illustrious rabbi. Likewise, Joseph would have sinned with Potiphar's wife had he not seen a vision of his father's face; a clear reminder of his responsibility to his heritage. These people knew where they "came from" and that helped them stay focused.   
A valuable priority is to regularly think about "where you are going?". Having personal objectives is extremely important. We may dream of communal prestige, business recognition or personal growth. An athlete pre-event would never compromise his shot at gold by eating all the wrong stuff on the night before the event. A businessman who had worked for months to close a deal would surely not stop off for a quick fourball when he is due to meet with this prospective partners. If we have a strong sense of personal direction, we surely would not compromise our goals for a few moments of fun. 
And, even when nobody is around to see our nonsense, we should remember that, at some point, we will be answering to someone. Even a "perfect crime", (like the fascinating case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loebcomes to light, often quicker than we'd like to believe.
Remember where you come from, where you're headed and who may find out what you've done and you won't find yourself charging elephants in the wild.