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".