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October Weekly Musings 2004

Friday, October 15, 2004

It may be a truism that no person has ever declared on their deathbed: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" but I guarantee neither has anyone ever said, "I wish I had had fewer children."

 

In the late sixties, early seventies, a cabal of quasi-scientists spouting pessimistic forecasts of approaching doom managed to sow mindless panic with their scare-tactics about population explosions and mass starvation. The theory then went something along the lines of: "mass-overpopulation is impending, whereupon the ability of the planet to sustain us all would become overstretched and if we are lucky we'll all perish and if not we'll really suffer and until then can you just stop having kids and send lots of grant money to my research foundation so I can live in luxury while researching this imminent disaster while appearing regularly on all the best talk shows to promote my latest book about the problem".

They sucked us in. Empirically, every honest study shows that year by year food is becoming more available, healthier and cheaper to produce. Poverty is being alleviated, with standards of living zooming up worldwide. If anything the single biggest problem looming on the economic horizon is our graying population with not enough young people coming on line to replace the baby boomer generation who believed all that pseudo-babble about population bombs and didn't have enough children to guarantee their retirement pensions.

I can see you shaking your heads and arguing that the reason the environment is improving and resources have increased is because we heeded those clarion calls in time. Reminds me of the guy walking down the street holding the huge magnet to scare away the pink elephants. When informed that there are no pink elephants he smugly observes, "see, works doesn't it?"

 

The reason it works is because that's how G-d wanted it. Last week we read how the first commandment given to (the then childless) Adam was "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the world and take control of it". This week, Noach, after having survived the flood and already the proud father of three grown sons, is given the same instructions. Commentators on the Bible understand from the above that even one blessed with children in one's youth should continue to procreate. Large families are the greatest of blessings with each additional child bringing his or her individual blessings to the family.

 

Nature and the environment were created to serve humankind, not the converse. G-d forbid to gratuitously cause harm to our ecosystem, and true we bear responsibility to protect this world for future generations, but our first responsibility is to humankind.

Last week Australians rejected at the ballot box a policy which, put baldly, would have seen jobs lost and families destroyed to protect trees. How obscene. What a distortion of priorities. Trees, in their natural state are objects of beauty, direct creations of G-d and deserving of respect, but c'mon to promote their welfare at the expense of humans!?

It is time to reject the insidious perversions of contemporary culture, to proudly acknowledge our intention to have as large a family as we can. We are positive that Hashem, the creator of all, can provide for and sustain all His creations. The blessings and pleasure that each child brings far outweigh any economic apprehensions.  Every extra spark of humanity bought to this world, every additional soul enhancing the Jewish nation, brings the world one step closer to its ultimate perfection and justifies G-ds plan for His universe.

Friday October 22, 2004

 

Oy, I’m getting old!

Who among us has not spent time lamenting their lost youth? Even my 5-year-old son has been heard complaining that his kindergarten years are passing too quickly for him to adequately master alef bet and finger painting. I don’t mean to depress you but every day we waste is an opportunity squandered, every year that goes by without growth is a graveyard of abandoned hopes and aspirations.

The only consolation, for mine, is the recognition that it is never too late to climb off the carousel of abandon and to begin the process of self-reinvention. History’s roll call of achievement is crowded with individuals who came to greatness only late in life. Read the biographies of the Rich 200 for instance; for every dot-com teenage billionaire there are 100 others who achieved success only after a lifetime spent accumulating experience.

A relative of mine in his mid-fifties, is just beginning a university course which will one day (hopefully) see him graduate as a psychologist. Not the usual career path for that profession, I agree, but I’d lay good odds that, rather than being a barrier to achievement, his age and past experiences will allow him to bring an unique perspective while caring for his future patients.

The spiritual plane is no exception. Great accomplishments can be realised no matter one’s starting date. The Lubavitcher Rebbe became Rebbe just 2 months before his 49th birthday and proceeded to totally revolutionise the Jewish world. On a more modest basis, so many of our best and brightest scholars, teachers and exemplars worldwide only came to Orthodoxy in adulthood.

 

In tomorrow’s Torah reading we are introduced to our ancestor Avraham (Abraham the first Jew) with Hashem’s command: Leave your land, birthplace and father’s home to (travel to) the land (Israel) that I will show you. (Lech Lecha 12:1)

These words were directed to Avraham at the age of 75 after a lifetime spent discovering G-d and propagating the religion that was to become Judaism. Interestingly, none of his previous life experiences; his self-sacrifice, his power struggles with the entrenched hierarchies of the day, or his successes to date in spreading monotheism, was deemed important enough to be worthy of mention in the Torah. It is almost as if the lifework of this major historical figure and progenitor of our race began only then.

Herein lies the difference between Judaism and other philosophies. Most people think that to come close to G-d you must first understand Him. Spend years studying the dogmas and theologies of faith, and then, once convinced of the rectitude of your chosen path, you may embark on a lifetime of devotion.

Not Judaism, not Avraham. Hashem’s first directive to Avraham that is relevant to us is “go!” “Leave”, he was being commanded, “leave your past behind, set aside logic, preconceived notions, tribal affiliations and just go wherever I direct you and do whatever I say.”

Faith is fine, logic is lovely, but a Jew serves Hashem first and foremost by actions and deeds. Mitzvos, Hashem’s commandments, are our way of approaching G-d. Hashem chose, for whatever reason, these specific actions to complete that connection and we, by fulfilling these mitzvos, justify our existence.

Avraham, at the age of 75, was embarking on a new campaign. From now on he would follow Hashem wherever, whenever and however he was ordered.

Whatever one’s age, background or previous experiences, we, Avraham’s descendants and spiritual heirs, have inherited this capacity for self-creation, as our each and every action is accomplished for no other reason than because Hashem He wants it so.

Friday, October 29 2004

It was while backpacking around Europe that I first appreciated that the spontaneous hospitality practiced among Jews that I had hereto taken for granted was in reality truly exceptional. The friend who we had been relying on to provide Shabbos accommodations in Paris was unexpectedly out of town. There were only a few hours till nightfall and we had no place to stay.

Weeknights we didn't mind roughing it in a hostel, but for Shabbos you really need a more salubrious standard of lodging.

To the surprise of the other backpackers in the train carriage who had overheard our conversation we weren't worried. We ascertained the address of a nearby Shule and headed over.

Within minutes we had received 3 separate offers of hospitality and it was just a matter of determining with whom we wished to stay. Our eventual host gave us the keys to his house, described the layout of his kitchen in case we were hungry and urged us to hurry home to shower and prepare while he, totally unconcerned, stayed behind studying in Shule.

 

In truth, I too was raised to consider such behaviour totally natural. I remember many a Friday night in my youth being stationed in the back of Shule under strict instructions from my father that "anyone walking in looking as if they have no place to eat, you get to them and invite them first,". Hospitality is ingrained to the extent that on the rare occasions when my parents had no one at the table outside of family, the table felt empty, almost as if one of the essential ingredients was missing.

 

We read tomorrow how our father Avraham rudely interrupted a conversation with G-d in order to chase after 3 itinerant strangers and invite them home with him (Vayera 18:2). They turned out to be 3 angels in the guise of men, bearing prophecy of the impending birth to Avraham and Sarah of a son, Yitzchak.

Avraham, however, had no way of knowing this in advance. When he abandoned G-d to offer hospitality to what he had to assume were mortal men, he was demonstrating to us, his descendants, a clear set of priorities.

In fact, it is from this interlude with the angels that the Rabbis derive many of the laws governing hospitality. Interestingly, of all the attention to his guests' comfort that Avraham displayed, (he ran to invite them, he personally prepared their meals and served them, he was sensitive to their culturally specific needs, he provided lodging as well as food etc.) it is the fact that he accompanied them on their way that most excites Rabbinical admiration. Why so? Why should the seemingly paltry action of walking them out be treated with such significance?

Have you ever been the recipient of generosity or kindness from someone who clearly resented having to make the effort? A begrudged consideration is sometimes more unpalatable to the receiver than having to go without altogether. Avraham could have contented himself with providing his visitors with food and lodging thereby satisfying their physical needs but would that have demonstrated pure hospitality Jewish style? It was with the simple, seemingly unnecessary act of honour of accompanying his guests that Avraham demonstrated his true priorities; an instinctive love for one's fellow and a true desire to help for no other reason than that it is the right thing, the G-dly thing to do.