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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings 2004
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Friday, July 2 2004
Mind your own business
On my infrequent walks with my wife we enjoy sticky-beaking at the building styles and architecture of the houses we pass. It's fun to speculate about their age, to debate what we would change given the opportunity, and we are usually in agreement over which houses are just begging to be bulldozed. Isn't it fascinating how one pest with too much time and money can completely deface the streetscape by erecting a monstrosity totally out of keeping with the rest of the neighbourhood?
Just do us one favour; please close your blinds. I don't care about the décor of your kitchen, I don't want to know if you're fighting with your partner and, if insist on plate-glass windows, invest in a hedge.
We live in an age of revelation. Gossip mags compete for saucy scoops, underwear is overwear and privacy is passé. When popular culture reeks from a "if you've got it, flaunt it" mentality, can I really expect people to have enough sensitivity to keep their family lives private?

The moral high ground
This week, Parshas Balak, we read about the evil prophet Bilaam, the mouth from the South, who was employed to curse the Jews.
Contrary to the rhymes of your youth, words as a weapon hurt worse than sticks and stones. If speaking well of others can have positive ramifications, (see my musings 7 June 2004) then ascribing evil intent or cursing others must have untoward negative consequences. Bilaam was the world expert in inciting Hashem's anger by finding and describing the weak chink in his victim's spiritual armour and viciously exploiting it.
Bilaam climbed a mountain lookout and gazed down at the Jews camped unsuspectingly below him. He was primed for his task and really to unload a bucketful of vituperation?.
"How goodly are your tents (sons of) Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Bamidbar 24:5)".
Bilaam couldn't do it. Overwhelmed by the spectacle of respectability arrayed before him, he could only praise the virtues of this People.
Hundreds of thousands of tents set up in orderly rows, separated into tribal groups, in a wide circle surrounding the Mishkan- Tabernacle, the temporal dwelling place for G-d during their journeys through the desert..
It was the orientation of all the tents that excited Bilaam's admiration. No two tents had front entrance flaps facing each other. The prevailing cultural sensitivity dictated that each family's privacy was inviolate, leaving everyone minding their own business.

Eye in the sky
The average punter makes sure that his house is well built; with firm foundations and space to breathe. Check out the same guy's campsite while holidaying and it's a radically different set-up. Can you blame him, home is for keeps, a caravan park is just for the night. The Jews were camping, in tents, in the desert. And yet the same standards of modesty and sensitivity prevailed.
It is so tempting sometimes when just passing through, to drop our standards and live life loosely. Sure, you think, toss the can out the car window, let it all hang out in the back yard, nobody's looking, no one will know.
The Jews in the desert could never have dreamed that there was an enemy overhead scooping their every move. They acted decently and modesty not because they worried about being watched but because that was who they were. When next tempted to cut a corner on the highway of life, hold back this once, not because someone may catch you but because it is the right thing to do.

Friday, July 9 2004
 
Australians love to gamble. Many of us are only interested in sports so we can have a flutter on the result. We're intensely competitive, have tickets on ourselves, and ready to take the punt that our nag will get up even when the chips are down. Just try to start a conversation, on any topic, and I wager that you'll quickly find someone who disagrees with you and is willing to lay any odds that he's right.
The egalitarian nature of our society dictates that you've got to be ready to pay up in good spirit if the luck of the draw goes against you. Only an absolute wowser would welsh on a bet, even if secretly convinced that he'd been done over. Unless you can full-on prove that the mug on the other side of the table has gypped you, you bite your tongue, cough up and don't forget to shout your round before you leave.

I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I can't sustain the flow of slang till the end of the piece. I basically just said that though we enjoy gambling, it's important to accept the vagaries of fate with good grace. We now take you back to our usual programming.

We read in tomorrow's Torah portion, Pinchas, of the equitable division of the land of Israel. Every single Jew had and has a portion in the Land. They first divided it into 12 regions, one for each of the tribes, and then further subdivided the country such that every family was allocated an individual block of land for a homestead.

Parenthetically, this gives the lie to those who would foolishly relinquish parts of your inheritance in exchange for some meaningless promises and vague international approval. Putting aside the stupendous irresponsibility involved (fool me once- shame on you, fool me twice- shame on me, fool me repeatedly- I must be a politician), the land being discussed isn't theirs to give away. It is yours. Your inheritance, from your parents, and no politician, whether cynical or just stupid has the right to rob you of your birthright.

It was the method of division of the land of which Australians would approve. They held a lottery. Equal chances for all. I can just imagine the scene "Roll up, roll up, where are you and your children going to live and work? Who fancies the mountain region? How about a cottage by the sea? Take your chances. Come one, come all!" Your name along with all your neighbours went into the same pot and as the shards inscribed with the subsections of land were plucked out, the corresponding name would be announced, settling the question of where to settle.
We've all looked around on occasion and asked, "How did I end up here? Is this really what I'm supposed to be doing? Placed in a situation not of my choosing, facing odds seemingly stacked against me; why shouldn't I just walk away from the table"
Life is inherently a lottery. Try as we might to influence the odds in our favour, Hashem still fixes the game the way He wishes. It's neither fair nor unfair, just the way G-d wants it. You can complain and criticise, you can moan and mourn, but it won't change the facts, so you might as well play the hand you've been dealt.
And because Hashem is the dealer, we're guaranteed that if we play the game by His rules; live up to our potential and His purpose, then, come the end of the game, we'll definitely be left holding onto the jackpot.

Friday, July 16, 2004

 

Remember that scene in "The Fiddler on the Roof" where Tevye looks up and asks "G-d, you know how we're the chosen people, couldn't you choose someone else for a change?"

Isn't he right? Have you studied any Jewish history lately, it's not light reading. Start from Abraham, the first Jew, being ganged up on by all the surrounding tribes, trace the story through millennia of brutality and aggression towards our ancestors and unfortunately it doesn't even end with the Holocaust. We currently suffer our fair share from scum who haven't been exactly shy about displaying and inciting hatred and bigotry towards us.

Let me state at the outset that I don't know. I can't explain the phenomena referred to as anti-Semitism. No one can, not even the Jew baiters and haters. Ask any ten bigots and how many mutually exclusive self-justifications will they come up with. It's almost as is there is some subliminal programming in their sick minds allowing them to rationalise their aggressions.

Stop! I'm not justifying them, nor providing excuses. Their guilt is their own, they've made the choice for evil and you better believe G-d will be punishing them. I'm just pointing out that Jew hatred is such a wide spread and accepted practice, no matter the time, no matter the clime, that there simply must be some factor at play which is greater than the individual mindset of those making up the mob.

This being so, why waste time fighting to change their mentality. Are you really surprised to learn that out of millions of examples of racism, genocide and prejudice the only condemnation the U.N. has to spare is for Israel? Do you lose sleep wondering how the World Court could tacitly encourage murder of Jews but officially censure the Fence? We are "a nation that dwells alone' (Bamidbar 23:9), they hate us, get over it, and do what you have to do, in spite of them.

 

We are currently half way through the Three Weeks. 21 days a year devoted to national introspection and remembering the tragedies of our past. The season culminates on Tisha B'Av (this year Tuesday 27 July) where we spend the day fasting and mourning.

Last year, around this time, I met a totally assimilated Jew. Forget Shabbos, Kashrus or Yom Kippur, intermarried on three different occasions to three different non-Jews, this guy was so far gone that he'd probably have reversed his Bris if he could.

His justification for leaving the fold might have been slightly self-serving but some truth rang through. He'd grown up in post-Holocaust Melbourne. Never received any sense of joy of Judaism, no background, no rationales. ?Be Jewish because of the Holocaust?, was all he got while growing up. He arrived at a different conclusion; ?If they hate Jews, then I won?t be Jewish?.

Nice theory, but the reason I'd met him was that he'd called to speak to a Rabbi after suffering depression from being tossed out of the house by his latest wife. He could cope with the rejection, it'd happened before, but what he couldn't handle was that as she'd thrown him out she had called him ?a bloody Jew?.

He couldn't get over it. He'd changed his surname. He swore that throughout the relationship the word "Jew" had never been mentioned. He'd been positive that not one person in his life knew his dark secret. He'd spent his life running only to find that you can't run from yourself.

Nothing he or we can do can hide reality. We are Jewish, there are people out there who hate us. I can?t change either of those facts. All I can do is be the best Jew I can be. Obviously I?ll defend myself to the best of my ability. I?ll fight anti-Semitism and try to educate against bigotry but ultimately my responsibility is to change myself, not to change them.

These three weeks aren?t just spent mourning our painful history. We remember the past and look to the future. To know from where we?ve come and what they did to us is important, far more crucial is to guarantee oneself a future.

 

Friday, July 23, 2004

 

The Synagogue Nightclub

It was a mistake. They just didn't plan ahead. When the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation were building their new Shule in the Jewish part of town and found themselves in the invidious position of having to sell their old one to fund the construction, who would have imagined that through a string of miscalculations and on-selling the original Shule would be bought by such an unsavoury bunch of characters?

To have a place of worship turned into a nightclub is about as upsetting a occurrence as can be imagined; that the new owners kept so many of the furnishings on display is a travesty; and the insulting headlines reporting on a shooting at the club: "Slaying at the Synagogue" is enough to rip one's kishkes out. More than a mistake, the whole saga has proved to be an all-round unmitigated disaster.

 

In truth, can the South Australian trustees be accused of anything other than lack of foresight? Shule committees and Boards volunteer their time. They generally do a sterling job under less than ideal conditions and are chiefly motivated by concern for the public welfare. When they get it right it goes unthanked and unnoticed and it is only their very occasional stuff-ups that earn them publicity.

Not so G-d. Being Divine might have its privileges but also carries responsibilities. If you're going to claim immortality and the ability to foretell the future, then you can't hide away from the results of your actions. Hashem allowed the Beis Hamikdash, (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), to be destroyed. Through a long and bitter history, control of the site has passed from nation to nation until now, when the present occupants have turned it into a meeting place for bloodthirsty depravity and foul ideologies.

How could He? How could Hashem evict us from our Synagogue and allow those vicious thugs to cavort in our spiritual home?

  

There comes a time in the affairs of all men when they are forced to admit that much as they may try they cannot understand G-d. In my article of last week (see my musings July 17) I discussed anti-Semitism and postulated that no one can explain nor rationalise the phenomenon. All we are left with is our faith that G-d who is good and does good has a mighty good reason for the suffering and cruelty He has visited on us through the ages. Who knows, maybe the thought of those unspeakable murderers and the sight of the suffering they cause is supposed to awake in us the determination to reunite with Hashem and then demand He restore us to our rightful heritage. We don't know, we may never know, all we are sure of is that Hashem knows what He is doing, is doing it on purpose and has our ultimate advantage at heart.

 

Back to Adelaide: OK so they made a mistake. However, instead of playing the blame game to discover who was responsible for allowing a shule to fall into the hands of a conman with a liquor license, why don't we query anyone's right to sell a Shule in the first place. Would it be better if they'd turned the site into an office tower or a parking lot as the Board had probably envisioned when they voted to sell in the first place?

Jewish law is unequivocal on this point. You may only sell or demolish a shule in a few limited instances, mainly to trade-up in Judaism, as it were. More important to a community than a Synagogue is a mikva and thus you can sell the city Shule to fund the purchase of a mikva. Similarly, we can buy a sefer Torah with the proceeds of aSynagogue sale; and one last exception: you can sell or demolish one Shule to build a bigger or nicer one to replace it.

 

Tomorrow's haftoro is Chazon Yeshayohu the inspiring prophecy of the eventual rebuilding of the Temple. When Hashem allowed the Beis Hamikdash to be destroyed His intention was that a new Temple would be built there to replace it. The troubles and travails we've experienced throughout our long and tortured history are the psychological equivalent of digging the foundations for that new Temple. It has taken a long time to prepare but we are ready, willing and assured that the foundations have been laid, the Messianic era is immanent and the Temple in Yerusholayim is on the verge of being rebuilt. 

 

Friday, July 30, 2004

"Don't get me wrong Rabbi, I know that Judaism is important and all, but I just don't have the time. And I can't afford it. And I don't want to look hypocritical. Besides, my parents were good people and they didn't see the need to go so over the top. And also I did business once with a religious person and he robbed me blind."

Fact or fiction, explanation or excuse, who among us hasn't trotted out some justification or other to rationalise our inability or unwillingness to do more?

I challenge you to poll the attendees in Shul this Yom Kippur, I guarantee that 100% of them, even those one day a yearers, care deeply about Judaism, want to know more about their religion and hope and pray that their kids keep the faith

In theory we all wish to be good Jews with more of the same for our children. In practice, for most of us, most of the time, the price of commitment is just too high. People are creatures of habit, we tend to fall into a rut and it would take the proverbial crowbar to prize us out of our pattern.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not just having a go at the congregants, Rabbi are no better and frequently worse. On one of my travels for a bris I was told about a past Rabbi to that community who didn't attend Shul while on vacation; after all, he was on holiday!

Is a frum person who keeps Judaism out of the habit of his upbringing, never subjecting his observances to self-analysis, for no better reason than his having been born to a religious family, that much more commendable than his irreligious neighbour who adheres to his own family customs or lack thereof?

The Law of Inertia states that "objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion". Humans are the same; it is the rare individual who has the vision and courage to voluntarily make wholesale changes to his lifestyle. Those exceptional example, the seekers and the searchers among us, blaze a bright trail on their journey through life while we lesser mortals scurry around in their shadow, vainly eking out a humdrum existence.

Unfortunately, for many people, only when faced with hardships or tragedy do they examine their existence. At times of maximum vulnerability, people tend to gravitate to the sanctuary of their faith, hoping to ride out the hard times under Judaism's shelter. This time of crisis becomes the impetus for a rapprochement with their G-d.



We read tomorrow the first paragraph of the Shema, the basis credo of Jewish belief. "Hear O Israel, the L-rd, Our G-d, the L-rd is one." The verses continue to describe our love for Hashem and some of the basic commandments. Twice a day, "night and morning", we are instructed to reaffirm that commitment. This obligation is fulfilled by the recitation of the Shema.

I would like to posit an alternative explanation for this verse. The love of G-d is the basis of our faith, as a feeling of connection to one's creator drives one to live up to His religious expectations. This connection must be a constant, both during the blackness of night, when all is dark and turning to Hashem for succour comes naturally, and under the bright lights of daytime when the average man feels no need of reassurance.

Connecting to G-d during the hard times comes easily, but how many have the intelligence to hop off the gravy train while the good times still roll? Don't wait for the cold shower of tragedy to shock you into conformity, the verse advises, reconnect to G-d now, during the good times and take pleasure in choosing your path not under duress but because it is the right thing to do.