Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Light up the nights

Hanukkah, Hannuka, Chanukah, spell it how you will, it's a fun-filled eight-days of celebration. 

Syrian Hellenists grew frustrated with the Jews because they refused to back down on "illogical" practices like circumcision at eight days and purity laws. 
When they couldn't change the Jews minds with logic, they resorted to violence and trashing the Temple in Jerusalem.
A brave family (the Chashmonaim) launched a guerrilla assault against the well-trained, powerful Greek-Syrian army. 
The Jews one. 
When they reclaimed the Temple, they couldn't find any pure oil to light the Menorah-candelabra (in their anti-purity zeal, the Hellenists had defiled every jug of oil).
When they eventually found a tiny jug, G-d broke the laws of Nature & made the drops of oil burn for eight days. 

From Wednesday 1 December, light your Menorah/Chanukiya each evening after sunset.
On night 1, light 1. Night 2, light 2 etc,
[For the relevant blessings, click here]

A kosher Chanukah candelabra has eight branches in a straight row at equal heights, plus a distinct branch for the "shamash" (lighter).

First prize = Olive oil. Otherwise, those colourful candles are good too.

Your candles need to burn for at least half an hour after dark (that's especially tricky on Shabbat, when you need to light the Chanukah lights before the Shabbat candles).

Sit and watch your candles for a while. 
Women shouldn't work while the candles are burning (that's right, guys, you do dishes...).

During the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon (blessing after a meal), add the "Al Hanissim" paragraph that thanks G-d for the Chanukah miracles.

Give your kids Chanukah pocket money (especially on the 5th night).
Also give extra charity each day of Chanukah.

Chanukah's famous game of spinning dreidel is great fun. 
[How to play]

The Chanukah miracle is about oil- and so are the foods. Latkes and donuts or anything fried will do. 

Chanukah is the festival of Jewish mysticism, take a resolution to study some.

Have a fantastic Chanukah!!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Times Square was buzzing last Wednesday evening. I guess Times Square buzzes 24/7, 365 days a year, but last week was extraordinary. If you've visited New York's landmark thoroughfare, you'll recall the dazzling HD screens that turn night into day and flash commercials in your face.  It's where street vendors tout comedy shows and tickets to heaven to a sea of photo-snapping Asians, star-struck couples and scowling, scurrying locals. The "Crossroads of the world", you'll remember, is bounded by the Theatre Disctrict, One Times Square (from which they drop the New Year's Ball), the New York Hard Rock Cafe and, of course, Toys R Us. 

Last week's action unfolded outside the mega toy-store. We were dedicated parents, foraging for gifts to take home and almost missed  the "You are the controller" shirts that every sales representative there wore. Satisfied with our purchases, we stepped out into the refreshing evening chill, to be accosted by lavender signs on every building flashing "You are the controller". That was when we noticed the line.

The line stretched from the toy mecca's entrance to the end of the block, where it twisted right and continued a few hundred metres down the road. As we watched, it grew. More and more people, dressed for the freeze, some with chairs and blankets, took their places in line. They planned to spend the night on line, so they'd be poised to storm the shop as doors opened in the morning and the newest have-to-have gadget, the Xbox Kinect would come on sale. Kinect technology replaces the joystick or game controller with the player. Instead of pushing buttons, on-screen characters mirror your body's movements as you play. With Kinect, you are the controller of a virtual world.

Half a block away, we boarded the subway for Crown Heights, where I would stand in line to register for the Shluchim Conference- a weekend of spiritual upliftment. It would be a weekend of true connect, one that would empower each participant to be the controller of their piece of this world, to make it a better place.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Just when you were getting comfortable...

Do you also sometimes have those frenetic, dizzying rotor-blade days that sap you of patience, humour and energy? All you want to do after the day's chaos is to settle into your slippers, a hot bath or soft bed and breathe. Only the phone rings incessantly, your daughter needs help with homework or the neighbour's dog starts howling outside your window as you wind down.

Life teases us with all sorts of "just when you thought you were getting comfortable" moments to jolt us.

We are all entitled to gear down occasionally, but for the most part, life keeps us on our toes. Maybe it's G-d's conspiracy to keep us from getting comfortable.

Avraham was the prototype Jew who is supposed to model for us how living as a Jew works. Look at his life, he barely has a chance to catch his breath. As a child he has a run-in with his dad, who hands him over to the cops, who attempt to kill him (miraculously, Avraham survived). When he's 75, Hashem sends him packing to an unknown location and, as soon as Avraham gets settled there, brings famine to the land, sending Avraham on the road again. He tries to get on with his nephew, but Lot dumps him for the emerging markets in Sodom. Not long after that, Avraham has to rush off to rescue Lot (and fight off four kings) from his abductors. Avraham's wife can't have kids and advises him to take a second wife, but when Hagar falls pregnant, Sarah insists that Avraham kick her out the house (and potentially never meet the child he so wanted). Eventually, Hagar and Yishmael return and Sarah later bears a son. When Yishmael starts using his younger half-brother for target practice, Avraham sends him away. Then G-d tells him to take his favourite son and sacrifice him on an isolated mountain.

Avraham's life is a cacophony of upheaval with sprinklings of tranquility here and there. Had Avraham ever wanted to "chill", Hashem would quickly concoct a new speed-wobble to upend his world.

And he was the first Jew.

Because a Jew doesn't get comfortable. A Jew is someone who pushes the envelope and challenges everything that he or she has grown used to. A Jew cannot pat himself on the back or count "achievements". A Jew needs to always look for new challenges, aim for higher spiritual gains and greater impact on society. If a Jew doesn't push himself beyond his comfort-level, Hashem- in His infinite creativity- will.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Back to work...

Feel like you've seen a lot of Shul lately? Yom Tov season shleps us to daven considerably more than we normally would. Then there's all the eating, the family get-togethers, Sukkah visits and Simchas Torah workout- Judaism takes over much of our lives for the month of Tishrei.

All that Yom Toving can be tiring (this year someone asked me why we don't spread the holidays over a few months) or powerful and inspiring. As exhausting as playing rabbi for three triple headers was, I am sorry to see the Yom Tov season go. I'll miss the High holiday bursting-at-the-seams vibe in Shul, the taste-of-nature Sukkah meals with the family and the pulsating energy of Torah-dancing.

Yom Tov is uplifting- a pause in the mayhem; a time to reflect, reframe, recharge and resolve. It infuses you with new life and a fresh perspective. All too soon, it's over and you're back to work and a spiritual dry spell, wondering if perhaps you could have made more of the Yom Tov season.

From Rosh Hashanah until Simchas Torah you are like Adam & Eve in Eden, a foetus in the womb. Life is beautiful, yet detached from reality. Today is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, when we are birthed into the challenges of "real" life, expelled from G-d's protective Ark into the drudgery of earning a living "by the sweat of our brow".

Cheshvan is a far from exciting time on the Jewish calendar (there's not a festival in sight all month). We all want some excitement or inspiration to spice up our lives, but real life happens in the doldrums of everydayness. Stepping from high octane Tishrei into plain old Cheshvan challenges us to bring some of the Yom Tov spark with us into ordinary life.

Take a moment to think about one thing that inspired you over Yom Tov. If you can hold that experience or even just recall it from time to time, you'll have a meaningful- and please G-d blessed- year ahead.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let's go green (Your guide to Sukkot)

Welcome to the time of year when all Jews Go Green, sit under the stars and feel the joy. Happy Sukkot!

Here are some tips for the holiday:

For 40 years in the desert, G-d protected us with the "Clouds of Glory". For eight days (starting Wed. eve 22 Sep.), we'll step out of man-made comforts and remind ourselves to trust G-d (that he'll hold off the rain, keep the mozzies at bay and protect us from sukkah-breakers).

Stick your sukkah under the stars. No overhanging trees or eaves allowed. (If you're in a complex/ apartment building, make sure you have permission before erecting your Sukkah, or it won't be kosher).

You can use just about anything for Sukkah walls (including existing walls), as long as the walls don't flap like sails in the wind.

Minimum wall layout: 2 full walls + 1 mini-wall (about 1/2m).

Sukkah walls should reach from the floor to the top (you can have a gap of about 10cm at the bottom or top of the walls).

No, your Sukkah will not be waterproof. The roof needs to be made of vegetation that's been cut down (a creeper over the roof is no good).

Popular options for "shach" include: Palm, bamboo or unfinished lumber.

You know your Sukka's kosher when it's shady inside at noon. Rather have too much schach than too little. Do you need to see the stars? Yes (assuming you can see them through the city smog), but only from one spot in the Sukkah (feel free to set up a telescope through the branches).

- Make sure that your lights are waterproof.
- Create openings for ventilation, but make sure you can close them when it gets chilly.
- Pots and pans don't belong in a Sukkah, so prep the food inside and serve on platters.
- Anyone can build your Sukkah, but a Jew must place the schach leaves on top.

Let your kids paint pictures to hang in the Sukkah. Feel free to add decorations of your own.
Chabad custom is not to decorate the Sukkah, because the Mitzvah should be beautiful enough.
Whatever you do, the main decoration of a Sukkah is lots of guests.

Eat all your meals in the Sukkah (you don't have to eat snacks there, but it's ideal).

If you eat bread or wine, add the brocha:
      Boruch Atoh Ado-noy E-lohaynu Melech haoilom asher       kid'shonu bemitzvoisov vetzivonu layshayv baSukkah.

You should eat your meal in the Sukkah on first night Yom Tov, even if it rains (you can wait for the rain to stop, obviously). Any other time, you may eat inside if it rains.

Women are not obliged to eat in the Sukkah.

Spend as much time as you can in the Sukkah (take your laptop or favourite book in there).

Every day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) you should start the day with shaking the Lulav and Etrog.

Your lulav (that's the tall green palm branch) should stand straight and stay compact. If it's bent or starts to fan out, check with the rabbi if it's still ok.

BTW, the Lulav represents your spine & how you should stand tall as a Jew.

Lulav care:
Keep it moist, not too wet, and in a cool spot.

No, an Etrog is a citroen, a unique fruit grown in Israel, Morocco and Italy. It tastes much better than a lemon & smells better too.

The mitzvah is to have a beautiful Etrog, so spare no cost ; ) Look for one that's yellow, symmetrical and clean (no black spots or blotches).

BTW, your Etrog represents your heart- keep it healthy and strong.

Etrog care:
Keep it dry and safe (dropping it could make it unkosher).

To the right of your Lulav, you'll bind three branches of myrtle (a.k.a. Hadassim).  To the left you'll bind two branches of willows or Aravot (NOT weeping willows).

The myrtles represent your eyes and the willows your mouth- make sure what goes into your eyes and what comes out of your mouth is kosher.

Leafy care:
Keep them moist and cool. If the leaves fall off, check with the rabbi if they're still ok.

Do your daily Lulav-waving workout every morning (first prize: In the Sukkah).

Start with the brocha:
1. Boruch Atoh Ado-noi Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam asher kid'eshanu be'mitzvosov ve'tzivonu al netilas Lulav.

When you shake it for the first time, add:
2. Boruch Atoh Ado-noi Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam she'he'cheyanu ve'kiymanu ve'higi'yanu lizman hazeh.

All Jews point the four-species combo in all six directions (right, left, forward, up, down, back), but not all communities do it in the same sequence.

If you've got a Lulav set, share it with others. It's an easy Mitzvah to involve your family, friends and work colleagues in.

Have fun!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Anyone see the sky lately?

In keeping with the Elul spirit of "the King in the field" (and to treat my wife's family from the U.S.), we escaped to the bush for a few days last week. Technically, there's so much to take care of just before Yom Tov that it is not the ideal time for a bush-break. Philosophically, it's perfect. Nestled under azure skies in the tranquil embrace of nature, a myriad exotic bird species flitting about, is tailor-made for introspection. As your every taut muscle unknots and your metabolism slows, you allow yourself to forget life's stresses and instead focus on its blessings.

I had two Rosh Hashana-esque realisations in the warm glow of the African sun.

We had hoped to see loads of game, but the sightings were relatively limited (to be fair, we did drive right through a 500-strong herd of buffalo and had a close-up with two hyena in broad daylight). But, driving with the wind in our faces, game-seeking in an open Landrover, I noticed the sky. In the evening, we gazed at the stars and revelled in the light of a brilliant full moon.

Have you looked at the sky lately? I'm not asking if you have noticed the blue haze in your peripheral vision. How often do we actually look at and appreciate the sky? We spend the majority of our time indoors and drive around stashed away inside a car. Unless you walk a lot, you could go for weeks, maybe months without noticing the sky!

Chassidus teaches that an advantage humans have over animals is that we walk on two legs. Creatures that walk on all fours can't easily see the sky, humans can. Ironically, in the bush animals see the sky, while in the cities humans don't. For that matter, we don't feel the open air because we're confined by the man-made spaces we spend most of our time in.

Yesterday, I visited a doctor who is unwell. He commented on the high rate of malignancies in society and how he felt that radiation must be a big contributor to tumours. As we chatted, we wondered if maybe living cooped-up as we do is an equally relevant factor. Humans are supposed to step out into nature from time to time to release our stuff. We're supposed to "see the sky" to remain healthy.

And that means more than taking a holiday. It means seeing that the world is bigger than my issues. It means appreciating that Hashem takes care of innumerable ecosystems, which He manages perfectly, so surely He can take care of ours too.

We need to look at the sky, step into the open to feel the breeze on our faces and to relinquish control to the One who really is in control.

That was the second realisation I had. You can stress in the game reserve too. "I have to see lion", "I hope we see all the Big Five", "Let's try that area, maybe we'll see Rhino there". Or, you can relax and enjoy the experience, knowing that you have absolutely no way to determine which animal will walk into your path.

Admittedly, we were dismayed to find fresh leopard spoor and no leopard. But, we soon realised that we could do nothing to see one animal more than we were meant to see. It is easier to accept fate, or Providence as Jews call it, in the serenity of the Savannah. It's a more challenging in the office or at home, especially in tough times.

Yet, that is the challenge of the Jew: To accept that Hashem is in control and that He knows best, and to focus on becoming the best person each of us can become, because that is in our hands.

So, here's a thought for this Rosh Hashanah. Look at the sky to remind yourself that there are always higher and greater things to aim for in the coming year. And relax. Trust that Hashem will take care of everything you need when you concentrate on trying to do what He expects.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can we keep the flag flying?

My flag blew off my car last week. My sister's flew off her car this week. Whether they blew away or were taken down, those symbols of patriotism that adorned thousands of vehicles and hundreds of buildings are mostly gone. So is the enthusiasm and goodwill that they brought with them.

Euphoric South Africa seems to be reverting quickly to cynical SA. The calls to "keep flying the flag" and to "lead SA" battle to be heard over the country's top-cop's corruption conviction and violent crime that is back on our streets. It is no surprise that many of us have started muttering things like, "Where are all those cops we saw during the World Cup?" and "We should've known they couldn't keep it up".

Now the finger-pointing starts. We bemoan the "useless" government that impressed the world short-term, but can't protect or service its citizens long-term.

We have just started the month of Elul, when we start gearing up for Rosh Hashanah. Elul is a time for honest self-assessment, a stock-taking for the soul. Unless you assess yourself truthfully, you can't realistically plan for a better next year.

In a perfect world, our country's government would "do Elul" and become introspective for the next thirty days. But, before we criticise, let's actually do some soul-searching and see if we could stand up to the scrutiny that we put our leaders through.

Over the Elul/Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur period, we will do our best to be model citizens. We will spend extra time at Shul, treat people better than usual and resolve to do things differently in the coming year. Hopefully, we will get caught up in the inspiration and spirit of the holiday season.

But, once it's all over, can we maintain the inspiration? Can we feel the tingle we get at Kol Nidrei on a regular Monday?

It would be unrealistic to imagine that any of us can carry the high spirits of Yom Tov for an extended period. We accept our own limitations, yet we condemn them in others.

If you want Yom Tov to be meaningful, then prepare to feel inspired and prepare to make realistic changes in the long-run. Be honest. Accept that euphoria must expire and that success is a series of small, consistent improvements. That's true for ourselves and it's true for the country we live in. Small, consistent improvements- we can all make them.

Friday, August 06, 2010

It's how you look at it

Have you ever wished you had a little more room at home? Maybe all you want is some extra storage space so you can put away those miscellaneous items that tend to pile up. Or perhaps you would like a breakfast nook, study or guest bedroom. You dream and ponder, but ultimately concede that you just don't have the space- or the budget- to expand your home.

Now imagine living in Hong Kong, one of the world's most densely populated cities, and trying to find additional living space. If you think your home isn't large enough, you may sober up when you hear that the average apartment size in that city is 56 square metres. Hong Kongers could fit their homes into some Sandton dining rooms!

Enter designer Gary Chang. Chang has lived his whole life in a 32 square metre apartment. Like many of us, he also dreamed of putting in a guest bedroom, state-of-the-art kitchen and more storage space. Buying a larger apartment was prohibitively expensive and he couldn't imagine splitting his existing home into more rooms.

So, he decided to turn the concept of living on its head. Instead of adding more rooms, he designed a brilliant series of movable panels and pull-out furniture to turn his single room into a twenty-room apartment. Slide the TV out the way and you'll find the kitchen. Pull down the back of the sofa to set up a double bed. In a flash he can transform his office table into a dining room and, when you pull back his CD rack, you find the bath.

Chang appreciated that he couldn't expand the space that he had, so he chose to see the space differently and use it accordingly. The result: A spectacular prototype for multi-functional space that will soon become available to Hong Kong's residents.

Tomorrow's Torah portion begins with G-d saying: "See, I have placed before you a blessing and a curse". Besides the obvious message, that our choices determine what happens in our lives, Hashem also offers us a great tip on how to approach life. "See". The way you perceive your circumstances will decide whether your life is a blessing or, G-d forbid, the opposite.

Hashem advises us to look for the positive in everything. He assures us that what we look for in life will determine what we find. Look for the good in a situation, and you will find opportunity. Look for the good in another person, and you will discover their goodness. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tiger on the loose

Panjo is home safely and the residents of Bronkhorstspruit can now breathe easier. Over the past two days, I will admit to enjoying telling friends abroad that wild animals do roam the streets of South Africa.

Trackers, sniffer dogs and local farmers combed a wide area in search of the young tiger, while the rest of the nation followed developments closely. The prospect of a tiger on the loose had us all a little uncomfortable. Now that he's back home, the questions have started. Do the big cat's owners have the appropriate legal documentation? Did they conform to safety standards when transporting the tiger to the vet? You really need to know what you're doing if you own a powerful predator like Panjo.

Of course, we're all experts on how they
should have secured the great animal en route to the doc. Many of us are quick to condemn "irresponsible" people who "clearly" don't have the correct permits to own an endangered animal. "A tiger as a pet?" people ask incredulously.

Judaism prefers that we direct questions inwards, rather than point fingers. So, besides the fact that we should ensure that our own pets pose no threat to the public (admittedly, I'm extra sensitive since our neighbour's dog went for Mendy last week), what else can we learn from the tiger on the loose?

We all possess a wild animal. It lives within us and is usually docile. Over time, we start to believe that our inner-animal is just so cute and friendly and would never hurt a fly. Then, when we least expect it, our animal breaks out and starts running wild. Our animal may be anger, pride, stubbornness or passion. We won't now how it got out and we probably won't know how to get it back in.

Prevention is best, of course. Every person needs to be honest enough to learn the nature of their own animal. Anger and pride need to be restrained in the right cages and stubbornness or passion must be trained to express themselves appropriately. Without the right safeguards, you could have a disaster on your hands. Animals need owners to control them. G-d gave us an inner-animal and challenged us to become responsible owners.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Don't just sit there.

I've just seen the results of a new study commissioned by the American Cancer Association. Popular thinking used to insist that one hour's excercise per day would keep you healthy, but new evidence debunks this theory.

The study, done on more than 120 000 healthy participants over thirteen years, shows that prolonged sitting is serious health risk. That's right- sitting. Women who sit for six hours a day were 40% more likley to die younger than those who sat for less than three hours a day. Men who sat long hours each day had a 20% increased chance of dying young than their more active counterparts.

Of course, the study didn't factor in sitting and
shockling as we do during davening, nor did they study the benefits of working up a sweat and gyrating your thumb while studying Talmud in Yeshivah.

Logically, when you sit around you tend to snack more than when you're active. But, long sitting sessions also supress your immune system and slow blood circulation. When you sit for long periods, you also alter your body's metabolism, which can increase cholestrol.

The message is clear: Keep moving.

Our bodies and souls operate in a very similar fashion. You need to keep your body active to keep it healthy, and you need to do the same for your soul. One hour's "excercise" for the soul each day doesn't keep you spiritually fit, much less so a couple of hours on weekends.

When you stimulate your soul- which you do when you get up and join a shiur, hop over to Shul or do an extra mitvzah- it comes to life. If you wait for your soul to wake up and inspire you before you'll actually do anything, you'll find yourself sitting for along time. And sitting spiritually still for prolonged periods leads to premature death of inspiration.

Keep moving!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Extra time

"And the game goes into extra time," announced the commentator. Spain & Holland, each vying for soccer's most coveted trophy were still 0:0 at full time. Fit as they may be, those players had to have been pretty tired when they faced an extra thirty minutes of play. Having fought so hard for victory and seen none, you might imagine that they would have started to slack as they headed back to the field for more. 

Instead of slowing or growing despondent, each team attacked the ball with renewed vigour. The game picked up pace. Adrenalin. Action. Speed. Nobody slows down when the stakes are high, regardless of how long this thing takes. With every passing minute, the game becomes more urgent. Everybody fights harder. One goal, just one, will make all the difference. You only need to hit the target before the ref blows the final whistle.

Our team, the Jewish nation, has been working to score G-d's goal for Creation. It's been a long match. We had expected it all to end long ago, but we're now in extra time. It's not time to slow down or to become complacent, but to up the ante and shoot to win. One goal, just one, is all we need to make the world a better place. Take a shot now, before the final whistle blows!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The morning after...

Tonight is the World Cup final at Soccer City, just a few miles away from here. We can already hear the sirens of VIP motorcades heading out of Sandton. Choppers are circling overhead and the ubiquitous vuvuzelas blast away on the streets. Once again, you can feel electricity in the air as South Africa gears up for the climax of a spectacular month. As Holland and Spain warm up to face off in the ultimate soccer meet, there is another group of people who faces an even greater challenge than the finalist teams.

We have floated on a cloud for weeks and now this spectacular time is about to end. Tomorrow's Monday morning blues will likely saturate the whole nation. Pick 'n Pay tellers and Eskom phone operators will resume their deadpan, slow-mo service. Window-washers will harass you at intersections and taxi drivers will cut you off on your way to work with nary a cop in sight to stop them. Whities will become cynical again. The great hangover sets in tomorrow. 

Or not.

Anticipation, celebration and the inevitable letdown that follows are not unique to the World Cup. I remember the day that I graduated high school; how my friends and I had so looked forward to that great celebration of freedom, and how the day had turned out to be unusually ordinary.  Weddings, births, graduations- life is full of wonderful moments to look forward to and enjoy, before they slip by. 

Life is actually not about the wonderful moments. It's after the excitement dies down that life truly begins. 

Yesterday we read the twin Torah portions Matos-Massei, which teach us how to deal with the "morning after" syndrome. 

Matos means staffs or tribes (the singular being "mateh") and Massei means journeys. The synonym for "mateh" is "shevet" (which also means both rod and tribe). The difference between a shevet and a mateh is that, while both are branches that have been cut from a tree, the former is still moist, fresh and flexible, while the latter has dried out and hardened. A shevet is inspired, whereas a mateh has lost its excitement. 

We all have our brief shevet moments and "real-life" mateh periods. 

A shevet still has its freshness and inspiration, but a mateh has strength and resilience. And that’s exactly the point. Inspiration is wonderful- while it lasts. It is not the stuff of achievement.

By linking the twin portions of Matos-Massei, the Torah illustrates a critical lesson about life: You will always feel better when you are inspired, but you will achieve more when you are resilient. Matos, determination- not excitement- produces Massei, journeys, movement and true progress.

South Africans could tomorrow make the all-too-natural mistake of cleaning up the party mess and moving on. Or we could learn the recurring lesson that good times are there to open our eyes to life’s opportunities. And then it’s up to us to realize those opportunities.

We are blessed. We have hosted and impressed the world. We have tasted national pride and national unity. Tomorrow is not the day to reminisce on how good the last month has been. It is the first day of working to grow the goodwill, spirit and positivism that our country forgot it had.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part IX: "The winning team"

All too quickly, it’s almost over. The World Cup hype has stoked our country for almost a month, and hopefully the positive vibe will continue beyond next Sunday night. We’ve seen some of soccer’s greatest names disappoint and some dark horses make good. Now it’s time for the best teams of the tournament to face off at Soccer City on Sunday night. 

The sangomas and psychic octopus are working hard to predict who will walk away with the trophy, while the bookies put Holland ahead of Spain to win. Either way, history will be made. Netherlands has never won a World Cup and Spain has never made it to the finals. 

So, what does it take to be a winner? 

Casino ads often carry the disclaimer that “winners know when to stop”,but it’s the other way round in competitive sports. Your biggest mistake in a contest of this magnitude is to stop or even slow anytime before the final whistle. Even if your team has one goal up on your opposition, you should still push for another goal- and then another. Watch the pros play and you’ll see they don’t relax when they take the lead, they keep pushing.

In business, too, winners don’t slow when business is good, they power on harder. Regardless of how spectacular profits may be, a successful businessman will strive for even more. Winning artists keep honing their skills, top musicians practice and practice and scientists consistently push the envelope of research and innovation.

As one of my high school teachers was fond of saying: “Keep on truckin’!”

Everyone accepts the winner’s attitude to sport or business, but we often overlook this approach in the core areas of life. A few years into our marriages, we are likely to feel comfortable, maybe complacent. We tend to get by with giving our children just enough attention and love, but nothing that ejects us from our comfort zone. We hardly tackle our Judaism with winner’s enthusiasm.

This week we’ll read the Torah portion called “Masei”, meaning “journeys”. Note, the name is “journeys”, in the plural. Judaism is about constantly progressing; always improving. As soon as you plateau, you are not living as a Jew should. 

Judaism is built on the winner’s attitude. Make sure you don’t take second place.

Lessons from the World Cup part VIII: "There's no I in team"

As the World Cup tournament progressed, we saw team after team leave the field. We saw  some of the hottest teams unceremoniously dismissed. France is seething at their team that fell apart, English fans want to know why their players are paid so much (they didn't even make the quarter-finals) and South America's giants bowed out early.

In the build-up to the games, people ogled over Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka and Messi. None of them will play in the final game on Sunday. Having a celebrity sportsman on your team doesn't guarantee success, because one man cannot win a soccer game. It's a team effort, where everyone has to play in harmony or everyone goes down. It's those teams who have played as a cohesive unit who have made it to the finish line, not those that boasted the fanciest names of football.

Judaism is team effort. You can't connect to G-d on your own; you need to join a team. You can't rely on a professional Jew (your rabbi) to look after your spiritual needs. No matter how good your rabbi is, one man can't win the game. For that matter, you can't expect your child's school to insure his child's spiritual wellbeing. Sure, you send your youngster to an excellent school, but his teachers need you on the team to ensure that he turns out a success.

Lessons from the World Cup part VII: "Spectators"

Watching soccer is interesting. Watching people watch soccer is more interesting. At times they sit on the edge of their seats, beer suspended pre-swig in midair, breath held. They chorus in collective groans at the near-misses and yelps of "Yes! Yes!" when their team scores. It's understandable. Your adrenalin pumps as the excitement on the field rises. 

What I don't get is when people shout instructions to the players. I understand that technology has come a long way from the old flickering TV screens and you can now watch the game in HD or even 3D. I didn't know that the new-fangled sets allow the players to hear you.

Ok, we all know they can't hear you. We all know that fans play the game vicariously through the footballers they watch. But, seriously, why the screaming?

It gets more extreme than that. 

When we realized that we would battle for a Mincha-Maariv minyan on the evening of the South Africa- France game, I arranged for the guys to watch the game together at someone's house and we'd daven Mincha during half-time (I can be pragmatic, sometimes). 

Mincha took a little longer than expected and the guys got back to the game a few minutes into the second-half. Nothing serious had happened in the first few minutes of play, so everyone should have been happy. What nobody noticed was that one of the guys had slipped into the room ahead of the pack and PVR'ed the game back to the beginning of the second half. When the others found out, a raucous debate ensued: Some wanted to watch every minute of the action, while the others argued that there would be no point in watching a live game if they were not going to watch it live. 

In life, there are times when you are the player and times when you're only a spectator. When you're the player- when you can do something about a situation- play with everything you've got. When you're a spectator- when things happen that are beyond your control- don't scream and shout, because it won't help. Don't try control what you can't control and don't live in the past, because the live game will pass you by.

Some people live life as players. They get things done. Others are spectators. They make no meaningful contribution, but have plenty of advice for everyone else. If you find yourself feeling critical of everyone else, it may be a symptom that you're living as a spectator. When that happens, get up and do something proactive.

Lessons from the World Cup: Audio link

Lessons from the World Cup part VI: "Keep your eye on the ball"

I'm not a soccer aficionado, nor do I follow professional sport, but having the world's largest sporting event in my backyard this month has piqued my interest in soccer.  

One lesson from the beautiful game that seems pretty obvious is that a player must keep his eye on the ball. During the game, it's all action. No player can afford the luxury in mid-play to stop and check the score or ball-possession stats. 

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was a leading Talmudic sage. As he lay dying, his students gathered at his bedside, the great man reflected on his 120 years. 

"I don't know which way they will take me, to Heaven or to purgatory," he commented. 

Here was a man who had dedicated his every breathing moment to G-d. He had studied every aspect of Torah, had taught hundreds of the greatest Jewish scholars and had single-handedly ensured the survival of Judaism in the face of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. And he didn't know where he was headed in the next world?

Rabbi Yochanan had spent his whole life working, with his eye on the ball, and had never stopped to ruminate over what his scoreboard looked like. Rabbi Yochanan's wanted to teach his students (and us) that life is all about playing the game, not worrying about how good we look while on the field.

Lessons from the World Cup part V: "Encouragement"

Bafana Bafana, South Africa's national team, was ranked 83rd in the world soccer-rankings. France, their final opponent in the opening round, was ranked 6th. By that game, every South African knew their team stood almost no chance of making it into round two. All they wished for was that they should go out winning a game. But, the odds were steeply stacked against an SA victory.

Our opening game appearance wasn't too promising either. Mexico is a strong team and we genuinely feared that we'd make history as the first World Cup host nation to lose an opening match.

The South Africans only had one thing going for them: Spirit. Lots of it. South Africans exuded more positive energy in the opening day of the 2010 World Cup than in recorded history. I sat in traffic for two-and-a-half hours, creeping along to collect my kids from school on that Friday. Joburg had never witnessed so much traffic. Thousands of motorists rushing home to catch the game crawled alongside busloads of fans, all blocked every few minutes by motorcades whisking dignitaries along (Joe Biden's passed me on the road). There were concerns that the South African team would arrive late at the game due to the congestion. 

It was chaos. 

And everybody loved it. 

Poeple waved, sang, blew vuvuzelas and danced in the street. Everyone smiled. When the team bus eventually snaked from its hotel towards the stadium, the crowds went wild. When they entered the stadium, the crowds went wild. Eleven men, who weren't really cut out to take the international stage, walked onto the field as heroes. And they played beyond expectation. 

SA drew with Mexico. In fact, a South African player scored the opening game of the tournament (and boy, did the crowds go mad! It was already Shabbos when he scored, but we knew all about it from the roaring vuvuzelas.) Uruguay outdid the South Africans, but the home team managed to beat the French- achieving the impossible.

Ok, so we didn't make it to the second round. But, we learned a great lesson in positive energy and how much you can do for someone with a little encouragement.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part IV: "Eleven men"

What do a soccer team and a minyan have in common? Not much, I hear you say (although players do occasionally pray on the field). 

Ten men make a minyan, eleven a soccer side. (Admittedly eleven men make the minyan more pleasant, because then one can use the bathroom without stopping play).  On the face of it, there's no meaningful link between the Jewish prayer quorum and a traditional football squad. 

Besides, ten is a big number in Judaism. G-d used ten utterances to create the World, Judaism is based on the Ten Commandments and Ten Sefirot or Divine energies form the framework of Creation.

Eleven is, apparently, insignificant. 

On closer inspection, eleven connotes an interesting spiritual mystery. One of the most sacred rites of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was the ketoret incense. Ketoret was the only offering ever brought into the holiest inner sanctum of the Temple. Unlike the other offerings that were essentially food, the ketoret was a fragrance. Smell is the sense that the mystics associate most strongly with the soul, so this incense is considered especially spiritual. When a plague threatened hundreds of thousands of lives in the desert, Moses sent his brother out with the Ketoret to stop the dying. Ketoret is powerful stuff.

The recipe for the Ketoret spice calls for eleven ingredients. 

Remember, ten is the number of holiness. It is considered a whole, or perfect number. Ten represents the organised system of life in balance. A system made of eleven elements seems to carry something tagged on to an otherwise complete system. Kabbalah calls it the number of the unholy. 

"Holiness" means harmony between Creator and creation. It is the symbiotic relationship between our Maker and us. "Unholiness" implies a disconnect, where a person feels detached from the source of his own life. Such an individual sees his life as a complete entity and G-d as distant "great uncle", who occasionally drops by with an inappropriate gift. To be "unholy" is to live an eleven-part life, ten parts of integrated self that live tenuously linked to a remote power source called G-d. It is to breathe each day and forget the value of oxygen.

To combat the negative "eleven", you need to invoke a healthy "eleven". Either way you look at it, eleven expresses a deviation from the wholesome system represented by ten. A corrupt "eleven" means that someone has detached from G-d. A positive "eleven" means that someone has transcended the normal ten-point system and now operates with super-rational dedication to G-d. The ketoret was that "holy" eleven, an offering strong enough to stop death itself in its tracks.

In 1980, the Lubavitcher Rebbe shared a valuable life's lesson that we could all learn from soccer. He compared the ball to the Earth and the goal-posts to the gateway to G-d. We have been put on this Earth with a mission, to get the world through the "king's" gateway and into G-d's palace. Achieving our goals has its challenges, most notably the negative forces (the corrupt "eleven") that block our spiritual progress. Often, the other side appears to be more powerful than we are, and we may feel we're not up to the task. It's at those times that we need to recall that G-d empowers us with our own "eleven", the supernatural wherewithal that ensures we will win the game.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part III: "Team colours"

For the past couple of months, hundreds of thousands of South Africans have worn Bafana Bafana shirts to work ea ch Friday to show support for the national side.  In Sandton City on Sunday, we passed waves of green-shirted Mexican fans eyeballing blue-and-white clad Argentinian supporters ahead of their respective countries' clash later that evening. We've seen proud Brazilians in yellow and green, Dutch fans in orange, Portuguese with red-green-yellow wigs and Spaniards in yellow and red face-paint. Wherever you go in Johannesburg, you can tell where in the world the tourists are from.

Even after their teams have crashed out of the game, fans wear their colours proudly.

As Jews, we should wear our team colours- the dress-code that shows everyone who we are- with pride. Get your yarmi and tzitzit on, so that the world will know who you support.

Lessons from the World Cup part II: "Rules of the Game"

When FIFA comes to town, they sorta take over. Locals here joke that we're living in the "Republic of FIFA" during this month of the soccer World Cup. The football federation insists on strict control over ticket sales, marketing, merchandising and more around the tournament. They take a zero-tolerance attitude and have established special "World Cup" courts that sentence offenders with lightning speed (something we're not used to in SA). 

This fixation with rules and compliance got me thinking. Imagine what would happen if a group of concerned individuals approached FIFA with the following:

"A professional soccer player will header the ball regularly during his career. Preliminary studies show that the force of the ball hitting a player repeatedly on his head may cause brain damage. We propose changing the rules of the game to allow players to use their hands to deflect the ball, rather than butting the ball with their heads. We are confident that the game will remain as exciting as always, and the players won't harm their health."

It's unlikely that FIFA deign to respond to such a suggestion. If they did reply, they'd probably say something like this:

"Thank you for your concern. Soccer is a game where the players traditionally use their feet, chest and heads to control the ball. A player may not use his hands during the game (with the exception of the goalie, of course). If you wish to play a sport where you control the ball with your hands, we recommend that you join a Volleyball league. Or, should you wish to invent a new game where players may use their hands instead of their heads to control the ball, go ahead. Just ensure that you don't call such a game soccer, because it is not soccer."

FIFA would have no qualms about telling us that soccer follows age-old, non-negotiable traditions. 

Judaism's traditions are older (and more meaningful) than soccer's. Well-meaning people sometimes try to change the rules of Judaism to suit modern needs. To them we say, "If you want to invent a new religious protocol, be our guests. Just don't call it Judaism, because Judaism played by a new set of rules is simply not Judaism."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part I- "It's never gonna happen"

South Africa is one big party these days. I had to complain to the electricity company the other day, and the operator was unusually effervescent and couldn't help chatting about the soccer while he was processing my complaint. Wherever you go- the malls, on the street, the airport- people smile, joke and toot their vuvuzelas. Even the notoriously aggressive taxi drivers are jubilant. People use expressions like "rebirth of our country" and "crossing the racial divide". It is nothing short of miraculous.

Upon reflection, few people were optimistic about SA's readiness to host the World Cup. Cynics sneered that we'd never have the stadiums, roads or hotels ready in time (striking builders almost proved them right). Doomsayers predicted that our disorganised airports, lack of public transport and crime-epidemic would surely scare off potential tourists. Table talk was peppered with dire predictions against a chorus of "it's never gonna happen". Everyone "knew" about FIFA's backup plan to move the tournament to Oz when Africa would fluff its first shot at hosting this spectacular sporting fest.

South Africa defied the skeptics. 

As H-hour approached, the stadiums took shape, roadworks wrapped up, hotels installed furniture as they laid paving and even the Guatrain came online. We tentatively allowed ourselves to hope- maybe we could pull this thing off after all. Still, the doubts persisted, clouding our optimism. We've been let down as a nation so many times that we battle to be positive. We've missed a good number of opportunities in the past, how could we be sure we wouldn't wreck this one too?

All that changed in an instant. Doubt evaporated in an explosion of sound and colour at 12p.m. on Wednesday, 9th June. Hundreds of thousands of black and white South Africans united in Sandton, Soweto and Cape Town to show support for their B-rated national soccer side. People danced in the streets, vuvuzela'd and toyi-toyed, grinned and embraced. Our impossible moment had arrived, sparking an unstoppable celebration that still continues.

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It's been over 2000 years that we Jews have been waiting for our "Impossible moment", for the better world that our prophets and sages promised. But, we're skeptical. It's been so long and we've been let down so many times. We "know" that life will plod along, blighted with antisemitism and a growing Jewish apathy. Moshiach would never actually come. 

World Cup 2010 reminded me that everything can go right in a nanosecond. It showed how it's human nature to doubt that change will come, even when the signs are there. Watching my neighbourhood erupt into exuberance was a foretaste of that wonderful moment that will come out of the blue and transform all of us in a flash from uncertainty to unbridled joy. May it come very soon!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life's too easy

They urged, cajoled and warned us not to miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch South Africa play in the Soccer World Cup, but I did. Even having our Mincha minyan at halftime didn’t get me there in time to see our two historic goals. South Africa charged onto the field, fired by a burning urge to score and, within 20 minutes tore through Le Bleu’s defence, throwing our country into delirious euphoria. The next miracle came quickly, seventeen minutes later, as team SA plowed on at full throttle. Unbelievably, it began to look like we would win this game and maybe, just maybe, we would even make it through to the next round. But the wind was out of our sails by the second half, we lost our burning drive and faltered on the field, conceding a goal and our chance to move on to the next round. 

Between the shouting through the screen (I’m sure the players can’t hear your instructions, but you all scream anyway), someone made a profound observation: If not for the half-time break, Bafana would most likely have kept up their winning streak. Something happened inside that dressing room. Our guys had the chance to stop and reflect on the state of the game. They had time to realise that they were doing well. They faced the danger of becoming complacent.

Today, the 12th of Tammuz, commemorates the day that the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was miraculously released from Soviet prison after having being indicted on the capital offence of crimes against Stalin’s Motherland (his “crime” was strengthening Judaism in that country), To live as a Jew under the Communists was dangerous at best, yet thousands of Jews rose to the occasion and kept the flame of Yiddishkeit alive under the most challenging circumstances. If you were Jewish in Stalin’s prison-State, you knew that if you didn’t fight hard to keep your family Jewish, your Jewish line would die with you.

Ironically, when those hard-nosed Russian refuseniks eventually reached the safety of Israel or the United States, many of them became secular. They quickly exchanged the Judaism that they had fought so hard to maintain in the U.S.S.R. for the easy life of the U.S.A.

We’re living through the second half of Judaism’s campaign for survival in the 20th and 21st centuries. During the first half, our zaides and bobbas fought for Jewish values with the urgency of people who knew their lives depended upon it. 

We are their priveleged grandchildren who don’t face the crisis of survival against overwhelming hatred. Our challenge is to keep pushing as hard as they did, even as we feel comfortable with our position. We’d better not do a Bafana in G-d’s grand game of making our world a holy place.a

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We don't do religion

Wayne Rooney was cut off mid-interview yesterday, while discussing his faith. The English striker began explaining why he wears a cross and rosary beads, when Mark Whittle, head of media relations for the English Football Association, stopped him. “We don’t do religion”, the official declared.

Well, Mr. Whittle, I beg to differ. Besides all those players who praise G-d after scoring a goal, soccer is a religion in itself. 

You soccer people live by a strict and demanding code. Itumuleng Khune ( for the soccer-challenged, that’s Bafana’s goalie) can tell you what happens to someone who breaks one of those laws- even if it’s in the heat of the moment. 

Then there’s your dress code. Players (are they the priests in the temple of foot ball?) must wear the right uniforms, and all self-respecting supporters dress pretty much the same as they flaunt their team’s colours at games. 

Professional matches must be played at official stadiums. You could play six-a-side at your local school field, but it won’t have a fraction of the appeal of a pro-match and it certainly won’t attract global attention. 

Kick off at a game can’t be late and play may not stretch on longer than the legally allocated time. Fans know that they need to be there when the whistle blows or they will miss the action.

So, Mr. Whittle, you guys do religion. Big time. 

In fact, our religion could learn a thing or two from the beautiful game. We could learn to wear our Jewish uniforms with pride- even should our team lose a game. We could learn to appreciate that the game of life cannot work without a clear, unbending set of rules. Soccer’s pilgrims should inspire us to get together at our spiritual stadiums, because playing alone at home doesn’t grab  G-d’s attention in the same way the “real game” at shul does. We also need to learn that the team that plays better on the day, wins. Plus, we can learn how to focus on the next shot- not the scoreboard- while on the field. And we can appreciate that every move we make on the field carries a consequence for when the game is over. Lastly, we need to learn to be enthusiastic about the game we’re playing.

When we will live our religion as the soccer stars live theirs. the whole world will win gold.

Friday, May 07, 2010

This oil is slick

Volcanic ash dissipates quicker than crude oil. Well, at least that's what authorities in the U.S. are learning this week. We were all so busy gaping at the European air-travel shut-down that we missed the “minor” explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Well, now Heathrow is operational and the oil spill is no longer so minor.

The facts are staggering. Almost 800 000 litres of oil spews daily from the burst well into the ocean. Coast Guard planes have already dumped over 500 000 litres of chemicals onto the spill, which can't be great for the environment either. And the gooey slick has already overwhelmed two wildlife refuges on uninhabited islands as it threatens hundreds of species of marine and bird life in the area. Experts propose that massive oil globules could contaminate entire food chains beneath the surface. Special boats scoot out each morning to try suck oil off the sea or simply set sections of the dark liquid alight. BP is scurrying to drop a massive concrete/steel box over the burst oil-well to contain the flow. U.S. Homeland Security admitted this week that they will be dealing with a “long-term” disaster.

Basically, it's clear that oil doesn't go away easily.

Torah is called water. You need water to survive, but it’s unlikely you'll drink it for its taste. Knowing what you need to do as a Jew will keep you on the right path, but may not inspire you. Our Sages suggest adding some wine to your diet. Wine is a pleasure-drink. You can survive without it, but it makes life more enjoyable. Learning the why’s behind the what’s of Judaism helps bring your Judaism to life. (Ta’am is the Hebrew world for both reason and flavour, implying that understanding the reasons behind what you know makes it more palatable.)

Mysticism is called the oil of Torah. You shouldn’t swig oil straight from the bottle, but it does wonders for a salad and is useful to cook and fry with. Jewish mysticism on an “empty stomach” (or mind) might make you ill, but added to the Judaism you already know, it creates a paradigm shift.

More importantly, once you get that “oil” into your system, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get it out. Once you’ve tasted the inspiration of Jewish spiritual teachings, most notably Chassidus, Judaism will seep into your mind and heart. BP drillers unleashed a powerful jet of pollution that they are struggling to control. Imagine if you could unleash an equally powerful stream from your soul? Study Chassidus on a regular basis and your Judaism will gush to life.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Everybody loves a parade

You could see frost on the grass when we gathered at Yeoville Park thirty years ago. I wasn’t sure if I was shivering from excitement or simply from the cold. Luckily, they handed out wooly hats to keep us warm. They also distributed slogan-bearing placards for us to carry into the streets. Now that I think about it, I was a little young to join public action. A TV news crew covered the proceedings (we were later featured on the 8pm news) as journalists fanned out to interview members of the crowd. This was South Africa’s first ever Lag B’omer parade.

I remember the mayor speaking (not that I recall any of what he said) and the military marching band striking a high note. Kilted bagpipe players meandered between the floats that depicted Shabbos, kosher and “flying high” with Mitzvos (that full-scale model plane stood for months after at my friend’s house, and we’d hop into the “cockpit”, spin the propellor and “fly off” to imaginary destinations).

Parades are exhilirating. New Yorkers crowd Manhattan’s streets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and thousands flock each year to Rio’s Mardi Gras. Yesterday, Cape Town hosted a different parade as our national security forces flexed their muscle ahead of the Soccer World Cup. A more chilling parade is Ahmadinejad’s annual “Army Day” military hardware display.

Lag B’omer parades are decidedly unique. Decades ago, the Rebbe launched Lag B’omer parades as a way of uniting Jewish children and encouraging greater Jewish involvement.

The earliest Lag B’omer parade must date back over two centuries earlier. The Ba’al Shem Tov, as a young man, would travel incognito to various shtetls to uplift the spirits of the Jewish community and encourage Jewish observance. He once visited a village just as a marauding gang of peasants arrived to loot and terrorise its citizens. All the Jews fled to caves in the neighbouring hills to wait out the storm. On Lag B’omer morning- much to the terror of their parents-the Baal Shem Tov gathered all the children to parade in honour of the special day. They sang and he offered them treats. As soon as they finished, the looters ran in panic from the village, leaving the goods they had planned to steal.

Nations use parades to show their might. A Lag B’omer parade is more than a simple kiddies fun day, it’s a show of Jewish might. The Rebbe often related the children’s parade to King David’s words in Tehillim: “From the mouths of babes, You have established strength, to neutralise the enemy.” He often emphaiszed that Lag B’omer is an auspicious time to garner Divine protection for our People, it’s a time when our enemies’ plans can be defused through our unity.

As Iran flaunts its strength and the world criticizes our every move, let’s get together and parade our Jewish pride and unity through the streets.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Time to pull together

Flight delays are always frustrating, but tensions must have sky-rocketed in airports around Europe over the last week, thanks to Iceland’s drifting ash-cloud.

Imagine you’ve been away on business, or even a leisure trip. You’re all ready to head home and they cancel your flight. Indefinitely. You had budgeted your stay, and even the contingency cash you have left won’t cover the extra few days accommodation. Besides, all the hotels nearby are now fully booked (you lingered in the airport, hoping they’d open the air to traffic). Europeans airports offer precious little in the way of kosher food, so you start rationing chocolate bars and the two sandwiches you packed for the flight (because they never have the kosher meals that you order). Now, Shabbos is coming and you grimace at the thought of spending it in the airport...

I chatted to a friend in London yesterday. His Chabad House hosted 120 stranded Israelis last Shabbos. A colleague in Denmark could hardly fit all his guests into his home last week. In Marseilles, a Chabad rabbi rounded up the Israelis at the check-in counters to help him distribute biscuits and sandwiches. Dalia Itzik, previous speaker of the Knesset, was one of the grateful recipients of the kosher refreshments.

We Jews are one big family. We complain about each other, criticise each other and sometimes overreact in the way we censure bad behaviour. But, when it comes down to it, we’re all family and we care for each other.

Rabbi Akivah identified one line from this week’s Parsha that he felt encapsulates all of Judaism: “Love your fellow Jew as yourself”.

We shouldn’t need an eruption (volcanic or communal) to test how well we treat each other. The first Rebbe of Chabad taught that extra love to your fellow Jew can never be a mistake. Ideally, it will draw that person closer to you. If not, at least you’ve done the mitzvah of love.

This is the time of the year when we’re meant to think of each other and how we can treat each other better. The Omer period is dedicated to self-improvement and relationship-building. Now is an ideal time to fix a faribel, volunteer to visit a hospital or aged home, or to simply lend a hand to someone you know who’s going through a rough patch (here's something practical to do right now, visit www.justiceforsholom.org/).