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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings June 2004
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Friday, June 4 2004

I'm not a pyromaniac. I've never (yet) been tempted to burn down a school building, nor do I follow fire trucks, but I must admit to a lifetime fascination with fire. I don't know, but the dancing flames, the interplay of subtly different hues of light and the heat produced as wood slowly smolders has always had me enthralled.

I certainly picked the religion with sufficient outlets to satisfy my attraction conventionally. How many of our festivals and observances revolve around fire? Off hand I can think of Friday night candles, The Havdala service marking the conclusion of Shabbos, Chanuka, Lag BaOmer bonfires and burning chametz before Pesach not even to mention baking Matza, lighting candles the night before a bris and the lantern-bearing procession to the chupa.

Apparently there's a psychologically recognised condition, Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) where, in winter, people become depressed due to lack of sunlight. The presence of light and fire in all their brilliance, warmth and beauty directly influence our feelings of health and contentment.

 

Tomorrow we read Torah portion Beha'alos'cho, which begins with the Divine command for the High Priest to kindle the seven-branched candelabra. The Temple was the source of splendor and enlightenment for the physical world; The Cohen's responsibility was to ignite these flames of glory and thereby illuminate the universe. We have a similar mission in our daily struggles in this gloomy world, to transmit the radiance of G-d from within ourselves, to brighten our surroundings and illuminate the lives of our families, friends and acquaintances.

Aharon was commanded to light the wicks 'until the fire blazes up by itself' As anyone who has ever battled a coal barbeque or laboured to start a campfire without fire starters or kerosene would attest, there is more to kindling than just holding a match up to the fuel. It takes skill to find the right spot, determination to keep the lighter there till the fire catches and sometimes it takes a few tries (and a half-dozen matches) to guarantee the flame spreads. Once well lit however, the new fire is incomparably more powerful and useful than the puny matchstick from which it was ignited.

It's not easy to reach out to others. We often feel shy or awkward, worried about interfering and unconvinced of our ability to be of any use. Far easier to hide out in one's own little huddle and let the world take care of itself. We can't, we mustn't; the exponential effects of inspiring others, the good engendered and inspiration effected have such powerful consequences that to abnegate our responsibilities would be to condemn both ourselves and others to a sterile, frosty existence.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Jews don't do idolatry

 

I am Hashem your G-d (Bamidbar 15:41).

Jews don't do idolatry well.

It's not that we haven't had the opportunity. Flip through the pages of our history to find that prostelysing Jews has always been high on the agenda of our non-Jewish neighbours.

Missionising, forced debates, threats and financial inducements are just some of the many means attempted in the millennium-long struggle to convert Jews away from our faith.

However, were the apostles of faith to subject their business plan to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis they would probably be appalled to discover that their efforts have, on the whole, been far from cost effective.

Consider the untold millions of missionary man-hours expended through the ages. Add up the rivers of cash poured down the conversion drain. Now, quantify the results: Very little to boast of. A few misguided youths seeking to circumvent University entrance restrictions. The occasional town drunkard besotted by the prospect of the monastery cellars. Or, most commonly, Jews forced by torture or threats to kiss the cross and half-heartedly embrace the "religion of compassion and love" to save their lives.

This is not to say that the occasional renegade Jew didn't appear, or to deny the terrible sufferings often caused by the schemes and manipulations of some of these apostates, but Jews on the whole have stayed loyal to their faith in the face of all temptations and dangers.

 

What was all the fuss about? Why have so many Jews allowed themselves to be slaughtered on the altar of religious intolerance when, often, even an insincere conversion could have saved them? Faced with the choice of bowing to an icon or being shot, why did so many take the bullet?

 

The Jewish soul has been hard-wired with an emergency cut-off switch. The normal Jew, no matter his level of religious observance, no matter how culturally sensitive or ethnically inspired he may or may not be, will never deny G-d nor sever his connection to our common destiny.

This stubborn, bloody-minded refusal to even consider apostasy is instinctive to our race and a function of the one factor common to us all; our soul.

This spark of the Divine persuades a Jew, in the face of all persuasion and threats, even to the point of irrationality, to remain faithful to our path.

Even an insincere acceptance is impossible. Judaism is not some feel-good-sit-on-a-mountainside-contemplate-your-navel creed where all that counts are one's intentions and salvation can be attained by belief alone. Actions count. Positive actions, following G-d's instructions, change the world into a G-dly zone and, by converse, any wayward action, even artificially inspired, is to deny G-d.

In truth, every sin is in some way severing one's connection to G-d. The Torah and commandments are the soul-strings which bind us to our creator and to reject any aspect of Judaism is to, at least momentarily, reject G-d (G-d forbid).

However, we delude ourselves. At every step one can still subconsciously rationalize that the connection is still there. "I'm still Jewish, I'm not rejecting G-d, just contravening a minute part of a greater whole".

It is only when faced with a final and ultimate act of renunciation such as publicly accepting another religion is one forced to confront the yawning abyss of apostasy that looms ahead. This, no Jew can bring himself to do.

 

That was in the past. Tragically, in the last few decades, Judaism has witnessed a phenomenon unparalled throughout history. Thousands of us have voluntarily left the fold. Jews for J, Hebrew Christians and Jewish Buddhists et al. have lured away too many.  

What changed? The Soul? Our connection to G-d? How come that which for thousands of years was verboten has now become common?

Nothing changed. The Neshama-soul still exists. The cut off switch is still poised. They?ve adapted their tactics that?s all. Nowadays one further stage in the process of Jewish self-delusion has been invented. The modern-day Big Lie goes like this; " You can be a Jew and a Buddhist. A Messianic Jew. A Hebrew Christian.  By embracing our beliefs you haven't separated from the G-d of the Jews, you've just amalgamated some new ideas into your essential Judaism". The age-old process of a Jew refusing to disassociate from Judaism still holds true but some have been snared by this falsehood, enticed onto alien trails.

 

And a lie it is. Judaism and their beliefs are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, only untainted Yiddishkeit satisfies.

Jews don't do idolatry well.

Friday, June 18 2004
 

Korach

 

The world 'aint fair

Why did Hashem create the world in such an inequitable fashion? Inherent differences in religion, gender, race, pigmentation and class are only the most obvious examples of inequality. In a way, while one can question the methods of those who riot during World Trade Organisation conferences or throw pies at politicians can we really fault their motives? Faced with a world where the country and Post-Code one is born to has so much effect on one's prospects, it is easy to be seduced by arguments in favour of tearing down the entrenched barriers which artificially segregate between people.

It was with this argument that Korach, the rebel-with-a-cause confronted Moshe in the desert. "All Jews are holy and G-d is equally present among them, by what right do you set yourself up as leader" (Bamidbar 16:3) Who needs leaders, a priestly caste, subdivisions between tribes and other artificial distinctions? Tear down the wall of discrimination and let us relate to each other and G-d, united under the banner of our common humanity.

Moshe accepts the challenge to his authority: "In the morning Hashem will demonstrate and select his own holy ones." (16:5) Moshe is hinting to the band of insurgents that He who partitioned time into morning and eve, day and night, who created spatial, temporal and spiritual demarcations has also assigned specific roles to disparate individuals.

 

Korach didn't get it. By his reckoning the knowledge that we are on a common quest with shared aims and commonality of purpose was reason to demand uniformity. He and his followers demanded either the abdication of Moshe and Aharon or an opportunity to challenge for the throne.

They had their chance. They failed. They died. A huge pit opened beneath them and swallowed them alive.

 

Can't we all just get along?

It is tempting to believe that were we all to be equal in ability, opportunity and purpose, then true peace would prevail. Reflect however upon this prospect and you'll agree, that while an uneasy peace may indeed reign; that there would be no overt conflict or jealousy as no-one would feel threatened or have anything to prove; neither would much be accomplished. Cutting the tall poppies down at the knees and subjecting the smart ones to a lobotomy isn't a recipe for a more relaxed lifestyle but for universal misery.

And that is the point; everyone has some area of expertise, a sphere where they shine and the unique opportunity to share that gift with others. By categorising people into distinctive sub-groups and factions, by setting for each individual an exclusive task and mission, Hashem accentuates that which is singular about each of us and allows every one of us to lend our voice to the choir of global harmony.

Friday, June 25 2004

But Why????
If you've ever parented a toddler, admit that nothing is as calculated to raise your bristles as that infuriatingly nasal whine responding to your every clarification with those rotten two words "But Whyyyy"
You've asked, explained, clarified and justified for ages and the little brat still isn't having any of it. Forget empathy, sharing and all the caring skills you practiced while pregnant, how quickly do you degenerate into a pathetic mimic of your own folks, the quote you swore you'd never stoop to, as you trot out the hideous line; ?Because I said so, that's why!?
You've lost it! Goodbye "Great communicator"; Let's welcome "King of the household, rigid ruler of the little people".

Hashem, our wise and caring parent, established the world with a set of guiding principles- the Mitzvos. Much of the time He graces us with explanations and we appreciate the wisdom of fulfilling His will. Daily living demands regulation. Every society, in every age has coped by enacting laws to order and direct society.
Occasional Mitzvos, known as Chukim, are of the "Just-do-it!" variety. For whatever reason, Hashem wishes us to exercise self-abnegation and do His bidding for no other purpose than satisfying G-d's desires.
I'm willing to bet that the same child who ignored your most persuasive entreaties has a far harder time refusing the heartless logic implicit in "do it because I'm your parent? or else!" Similarly, we are expected to knuckle down and obey Hashem's commands even without comprehension, secure in the knowledge that "Papa knows best".

OK you might guarantee obedience, but is there any hope of the little tyke growing into a well-adjusted specimen of humanity if his natural curiosity and playful urges are squelched in such a calculated manner? By my understanding; yes. Children (or so I've heard) need to be taught the concept of limits. Anyone can browbeat a child into momentarily giving in, but the challenge is to inculcate into one's child the acceptance of parental authority such that they accept your instructions willingly. Eventually an intelligent kid might even begin to trust you to the extent that he does whatever you ask of him just to make you happy. It's not easy for anyone, let alone a child, to cede control but with good will, patience and trust on both sides, progress can be accomplished.
From a religious perspective the challenge is slightly subtler. At first glance it seems easier to accept G-dly authority if you understand His purpose rather than blindly following some concealed master plan. To commit to obeying Hashem's commandments, even without understanding, is an equivalent challenge to training a child to conform to family rules willingly. In time, after a lifetime of mutual devotion between Jew and Creator, we might even be able to achieve such a degree of faith that we undertake even those rational, self-understood parts of Judaism with the sense of sacrifice and surrender to G-d as when conforming to the chukim- for no other reason than just to make Hashem happy.