Friday, May 7 2004
The Guilty party
A mate of mine was asleep in the passenger seat when a policeman stopped
the car for speeding.
Cop says to the driver "you realise I'm going to have to give you a ticket."
"Give me the ticket?? argued the driver, ?You should give him the ticket"
gesticulating to my mate, just rubbing the sleep from his eyes."
"Why, what'd he do wrong?"
"Well, I did my job, he didn't do his. I was supposed to get us there on
time, he was supposed to watch out for cops!"
Was my mate really
guilty? Course not, just copping the blame in a situation not of his own making. Seemingly the same type of guilt is attached
to a person gossiped about. The Talmud (Erchin 15b) describes the effect of Loshon Horah (malicious talk) as having a 3-way
impact: it negatively affects the spiritual state of the one who indulged in the gossip, the listener, and the one spoken
OK, we can understand how tale bearing, slander and offensive language can
have a deleterious spiritual effect on the gossiper and it?s similarly understood that taking pleasure in hearing the shortcomings
of others stultifies and desensitises a person?s character. However, what did the object of the gossip, the poor schnook
being stabbed in the back behind his back, do wrong?
Words affect and effect reality.
The first word
of tomorrow?s Torah reading, and indeed the colloquial name of the whole section, is ?Emor ? Speak?.
Speech is the
process of disclosing information, verbally divulging that which was previously concealed. This process of exposing one?s
own inner being by articulating one?s thoughts, is parallel to the affect one has on others just by talking about them.
Of the 10 identifying characteristics of a truly virtuous person are the
inability to perceive evil in another and the absolute determination to only portray others in a positive light (Rambam, Tract
on Reason, Chap 5).
Chassidic philosophy explains that this is not self-delusional. This isn?t
the Jewish equivalent of the benighted character in Voltaire?s Candide who believes ?This is the best possible result in the
best possible world?, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Rather, speaking positively about others causes them
to act positively. The very act of ascribing positive rationales to the intemperate behaviours one witnesses, unlocks the
innate, though hereto concealed, goodness embedded in people?s psyche and develops their moral disposition to the point where
they will automatically be driven to live up to your self-fulfilling prophecy.
Man?s essence is a mass of conflicting
unrealised emotions. Give a nudge in a positive direction by awakening someone?s dormant positive capabilities and the flow
on effects can be remarkable. Malicious gossip can have the reverse effect, the object of the conversation mightn?t be present
during the libelous discussion, he might never hear about it, but the untoward flow-on effects awakening his baser characteristics
will have inevitable untoward negative ramifications.
Thus the true implication of this week's portion, 'Speak!' Speak
positively about others, let your words impact the world and let others be affected by those words to live up to up to your
belief in them.
ps. the cop burst out laughing and waived the fine.
Friday, 14 May 2004
Do you count?
A friend of mine, a shy sort of guy, once confided that he was never happier than when in a crowd. The amorphous mass
of chattering strangers surrounding him from all sides gave him a feeling of secure anonymity. He loved the fact that that
no one was paying him undue attention nor intruding on his thoughts. He wasn't exactly "lonely in a crowd", just content to
be an observer on the stage of life.
Others can't stand being away from centre stage. They of flamboyant personalities and loud entrances thrive on the attention
and preen in the spotlight. To them a crowd is an audience and anonymity is equivalent to torture.
My friend and his ilk look at their world as a sum of parts of which they the merest of sub-components, while Type A
extroverts envisage a spinning universe with themselves as the fulcrum.
Count- for yourselves
We are more than half way into our annual spiritual migration, replicating the 49-day journey
from the slavery of Egypt to the liberation that is Torah. The proud nation camped at the base of Sinai bore no resemblance
to the teeming rabble of 7 weeks before. Their sojourn in the desert had been an intensive orientation in eradicating their
slave mentality and assuming a life of freedom. A slave is given orders, free men choose. Choose to live as Jews and connect
with their G-d.
We replicate that experience during the 7 weeks of Sefira, undergoing a process of daily spiritual rectification, culminating
in the reacceptance of Torah anew on Shavuot.
Interestingly, the Torah commands, ?count - for yourself?. The 49-part process is intensely personal; each person
counts for himself or herself based on their own individual time frame. Were a person to cross the date line during Sefira
he adheres to his own original reckoning, calculated in days experienced since beginning his count on Pesach. Thus, a Yank
visiting Australia would be a day behind us (some would argue that that's about normal J), while an Australian touring the
USA would finish his count, reach Shavuot and celebrate Yom Tov a day earlier than the natives.
While Shavuot, the festival of weeks, may be the culmination of our annual individual efforts, the Torah
was given on the 6th of Sivan 2448. This date is memoralised every year by gathering in Shul for the reading of the 10 Commandments.
For the vast majority of people the two dates, Shavuot and Sivan 6 are synonymous, but for our lonely traveler, dressed up
in his Yom Tov finery and eating in solitary splendour, though he's celebrating Shavuot he still needs to join with the local
community on their Yom Tov to commemorate the Giving of the Torah.
Thus the synthesis between the introvert and the extrovert; G-d needs, accepts and expects both types of service - the
individual and the communal operating in synch. You count, you matter, and your individual efforts are unique and exclusive
to self. But ultimately it is as a collective, the multitude of individuals cooperatively committed to changing the world
who ultimately succeed in inspiring Hashem to acknowledge our efforts and grant us His gift, the Torah.
Friday, 21 May 2004
this once, and never again
Why is it that many supposedly reformed parolees are really just on a revolving door to their
next stint in the slammer? What defeats dieters and smokers no matter their resolutions? If everyone knows that the odds favour
the House, why are casinos packed?
Answer: People have a phenomenal ability
to fool themselves. "This time I won't get caught," "Nobody ever died from one cigarette/piece of chocolate cake" and "Hey,
someone's got to win and you've got to be in it to win it." People allow themselves to believe that their minor actions don't
really count, and that they'll always have a make-up chance.
That so, then why has apostasy never
been a major problem in Judaism? Think about it, thousands of years of persecution and cruelty and only a tiny percentage
ever succumbed. Rather than let themselves be burnt at the stake, thrown to the lions or pogrommed, what prevented the vast
multitudes of martyrs from pretending to kiss the cross or embrace the Koran? Sure that'd be wrong but wouldn't you think
some of them might have fooled themselves into believing that they could get away with it? If people are willing to risk death
for one more puff on a cancer-stick; if you can convince yourself "Nu, I'll restart my diet tomorrow," why not risk G-d?s
momentary displeasure, resolve to repent later and choose to keep on living.
Clearly there is something innate to
every Jewish soul, which prevents one from separating self from G-d; even in pretend, even momentarily.
A Constant Count
The theme of tomorrows
reading, and indeed of much of the 4th book of the Torah, is Hashem counting the Jewish people. Rashi, greatest of all commentators,
describes how G-d is constantly counting and re-counting His folk.
Does G-d really need to count heads to
compute how many of us there are? Surely an All-Seeing, All-Powerful, Infinite G-d knows how many of everything He's got without
going through the motions.
How do I love thee, let me count
a miser pawing through his wealth, delighting in the feel of each and every coin, Hashem constantly examines and assesses
His chosen nation. Why however does he express that love through counting?
A census is a crude way to gauge the
pulse of the people. Differences in tastes, temperaments and personalities are disregarded in the final tally. A sum total
of numbers allows no scope to demonstrate the uniqueness of each individual. Great and small alike are subsumed under a common
It is only by emphasising the commonality
between us: the soul's an identical spark of pure G-dliness enervating our existence, can we validate Hashem's count.
At a soul level we are truly indistinguishable and it with that soul that G-d delights.
Hashem's constant count serves to reawaken
in each Jew a reciprocal commitment to Him. That Jews throughout history have defied persecution, torture and death; refusing
to abandon their G-d even under the direst circumstances, is a direct result of Hashem initiating the connection. G-d's love
for every individual cannot be denied and thus no Jew can allow himself to deny Him, even momentarily.