Thursday, August 14, 2014

Get off Facebook!!

"OMG!", as they say these days. This whole King David vice headboy story has gotten completely out of control and it's all our fault! I mean he was completely out of line, and his behaviour raises serious questions about the education that our children are getting. But, we, the ordinary members of the Jewish community, are the ones who splashed that kaffiyeh photo- accompanied by rantings and accusations- all over the internet. We alerted the media and we baited our detractors.
We need to pause- as we stand in the virtual ruins- to reflect. Everything a Jew sees or hears is meant to be a lesson, according to the Baal Shem Tov. What a whole group of Jews does, especially just before the most introspective time of the year, certainly must teach us something important.
For a start, we don't all appreciate the power of social media. Someone once asked the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe what spiritual lesson one could learn from a telephone. He responded: "What is said in one place will be heard in another". Chassidim always said that the spoken word is impactful, but the printed word is eternal. Social media is irretractable.
In plain English, once you've posted something, it's everywhere, forever in your name.
One of Judaism's greatest spiritual principles is that the mind must guide and control the heart. Most online postings are emotion-based, which leaves them wide open to being misguided, misplaced or misinterpreted. We've all blurted things out and regretted them afterwards. Unintended insults or faux pas can be corrected face to face, but written (or actually typed) words will often read differently to the reader than they did to the writer.
Think before you post. Is your motivation to make a difference or to release frustration? If it's the latter, rather put it in an email to your like-minded friends. Rabbi Akivah taught that the buffer of wisdom is silence.
If you post, think about who you are posting to or about. We were all seventeen once. We all did hotheaded things that we thought were smart at the time, but now hope nobody will ever uncover.
Luckily for us, we didn't have social media to expose and eternally shame us in those days. Real haters out there, like public figures who have called for death to the Jews, deserve to be exposed, discredited and dragged through the appropriate legal procedures. But, young (and naive) idealists should be allowed the dignity of discretion, and disciplined by the appropriate bodies. Mass-attacking a teen whose ideologies don't match yours is more likely to alienate than to rehabilitate him.
Even if a public figure says stupid (not inciting) things, we gain nothing by attacking them. Public personalities receive criticising mails all day long. Best case scenario, yours will be lost in the crowd and will achieve nothing. Worst case, your target will villify you publicly. Unless you have rapport with someone, don't attempt to attack them. Certainly don't be disappointed if they don't change their views because of your pestering. The Torah says only rebuke someone who you believe may listen to you.
Our biggest failing as a community is broader than these technicalities.
We are reactionary. Someone provokes us, we take the bait. We respond and they blow our response out of proportion. Then we either fuel more anti- senitiment or simply look stupid.
This week's parsha tells us that the first setp towards decline is not standing proud of who we are. We need to be proactive and get our story out there. We need to remind the world of G-d's promise of Israel to the Jews. We underestimate how many people believe that the Bible is true. We need to remind them of that truth, because they do consider it more compelling than CNN. We need to be proud of our heritage, the morality and compassion that is part of our DNA. We need not be ashamed to call evil by its name. And we need to be proud of our people, our country and its army, who are not perfect, but are way ahead of the curve.
Jewish history is a repetitive refrain of Jews empowering their enemies by reacting rashly, rather than by following the guidance of our timeless Torah. We have an opportunity to act differently at this time. Please G-d, our appropriate behaviour will draw down His blessings for the world to wake up to reality.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why does G-d make it difficult?

Ok, here's one of the oldest questions ever: Why does it have to be so tough? Yes, I know that they say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but why do we have things that almost kill us, just to "make us stronger". Surely, G-d, in His infinite kindness could find softer, sweeter ways to send us blessings or means of personal growth?
All those tests and challenges we face in life are called "nisyonos" in Judaism. Some are the obstacles that interfere with us living a happy, comfortable life. Others are the challenges that stymie our efforts to become better people; things like temptation or character flaws.
Before living on earth, our souls didn't have to face off with the nonsense that we deal with daily down here. Our souls basked in Divine radiance and generally led a happy, spiritually aware life. Jewish mysticism teaches us, though, that the Divine access our souls enjoy is limited. It belongs to the hieararchy of spiritual flow, where each level of existence gets a calibrated dose of spiritual light- and nothing more. True, in heaven there's more light than in Joburg, but it's a fixed rate of energy that can't be changed.
Living as humans (with all our foibles), however, presents both challenge and opportunity. The challenges result from the lack of Divine awareness in our world. But, G-d undertakes to help us with our spiritual progress. In heaven, where spiritual growth comes easy, He doesn't invest too much to help us, because we don't need much help.
On the daily uphill of trying to be a decent person in a less than decent world, G-d has to "pull out" extra spiritual boosters to help us along. While in Heaven, the spiritual backup available is predermined and static, on Earth, it is relative to our efforts and can range way up, beyond what's available in heaven.
Simply put, G-d throws challenges at us, because they force us to dig deep and uncover resources that we wouldn't have known we have. When we dig within, He then boosts us with some hidden resources of His own, allowing us to access Divine energy that's way over our pray-grade. G-d doesn't send us challenges to stump us, but to spur us on.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Get (a) life!

If you ever thought that chicken-swinging at kapporas was bizarre, the Talmud says that the Parah Adumah- or Red Heifer- is the most bizarre of all Jewish rituals. It involves finding a perfectly red cow; more than two black hairs on it would disqualify it. No sooner do you find this cow, you burn it (and, trust me, its ashes don't come out red, so what difference did the colour make anyway?). Then you would have mixed some of those ashes into water and you would have had the only concoction that could have been used in Temple times to purify a person from the impurity contracted through contact with a dead body.
Funny thing, though, the kohen who sprinkled the ash-water would then become impure and would have to undergo a purification process of his own. Even King Solomon, known as the smartest person to ever have lived, said that he was stymied by the Parah Adumah. The only person to whom G-d ever offered a glimpse into the meaning behind this process was Moses. And he never shared what he was told.
Clearly, Moshe and the Red Heifer had a special relationship. He had to prepare the first one ever used. Tradition has it that some of the original ashes that Moshe had processed had to be preserved and recycled into the ashes of every subsequent Parah Adumah. The Torah even says that the Parah Adumah will always be named after Moshe.
So, what's Moshe's special connection with this weird mitzvah?
Moshe was perplexed by death. He couldn't fathom how Hashem would allow such an irreversible negative energy into His world. But, when Hashem introduced Moshe to the Red Heifer, he came to realise that even death can be "cured". Sure, in those days, it was only the person contaminated by contact with death who was cured, but the process carries the promise that one day death will be permanently undone. And that was very important to Moshe, because he represented life, endurance and eternity.
The Mishkan that Moshe built was never destroyed, only hidden away before the Temple was built. The ashes that Moshe prepared for the original Parah Adumah were kept for all future generations, in keeping with his attitude of enduring contribution. Moshe's teachings have been studied globally by religious people, not only Jews, forever. The Talmud even suggests that Moshe did not die, but relocated to serve G-d on another plane. So, Moshe would naturally resonate with a process that defies death, because his aim was to do just that- hence, his special affinity for the Red Heifer.
Next week is Gimmel Tammuz, the day when we commemorate the Rebbe's yarzteit. Back in 1994 the bets were on that Chabad would wither and become insignificant without a Rebbe who could give rousing public addresses and mail responses to letters seeking guidance and blessing. Chabad's meteoric growth in the last twenty years has defied the death that the experts foretold for it. But, that is also no surprise, considering that the Rebbe was fixated with Moshiach, who will bring death to its knees. Like Moshe's, the Rebbe's teachings and deeds live on and will endure all the way until they achieve their purpose of "swallowing death into eternal life" with the imminent arrival of Moshiach.