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 "No, I had not withdrawn cash from an ATM 30km from my house at midnight," I told the agent on the fraud hotline.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.