Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Are we in Crisis?

Here's my latest for the Sephardic Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:

Are We in Crisis? – A Response from Israel

As I read Mr. David Albeldas’s article, Are We in Crisis?, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “When aren’t we in crisis?” While there is a growing sense of unease within the Jewish world for many reasons, it seems that’s just part and parcel of being a Jew – in Israel and abroad. Despite the positive aura continually surrounding Israel for reasons ranging from the positive emotions generated by tourists to the medical and technological contributions the country makes, we are ourselves struggling through very uncertain and worrying times.

Southern Israel has become target practice for Hamas rocket crews, with our government struggling to end the problem. To make matters worse, the security concerns on our northern border with Hezbollah and with the Hitler wannabe in Iran are edging closer to a full confrontation. Our education system is a mess, with the average scores of many age groups dropping to appalling levels, partly because we have an Education Ministry refusing to improve negligible teacher salaries. The violence throughout the country is increasing without an end in sight; not a day goes by without another innocent human being taking his or her last breath. Traffic accidents continue to take far more lives than terrorists. While ordinary civilians haven’t lost hope for positive changes, most are becoming frustrated with an incompetent, corrupt government. How do we push through during these tough times? How do we build a positive future? A few helpful tips for continued survival and growth through this seemingly perpetual crisis can be learned from Yaakov Avinu.

Before spending 20 years in Paddan-aram, Yaakov studied for 14 years in the academy of Shem and Eber. After so much time studying with Yitzchak, why would a man of such spiritual stature need extra study? Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that Yaakov needed the Torah of Shem and Eber to cope with the dishonest and corrupt world he’d be entering for the first time. Those 14 years allowed Yaakov to survive and remain true to his faith and values during his sojourn with Laban in Paddan-aram. The lesson here is clear: We should take time to educate ourselves (and our children) so that we are fully aware of Jewish history and the Jewish value system. It will stand us in good stead as we forge ahead in an often-cruel world that demands a different value system for success and ‘survival.’

When Yaakov returned to Canaan, he was confronted by a surprisingly friendly Esau, who requested to “proceed alongside” him (Vayishlach, 33.12). Yaakov refused the offer twice, making his way to Shechem with his family but not with Esau’s escort. This short encounter between the two shows how important it is to have the right influences around your loved ones. Yaakov didn’t want Esau’s presence near him, not only because he feared for his own life, but also because he realized how negative an effect Esau could have on his family. Although we cannot eliminate all the bad influences around us, or around our family, we can strive to limit them.

Lastly, before Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt for the first time, he questions them, “Why do you make yourselves conspicuous?” (Mikketz 42:1). Rashi comments that Yaakov warned the brothers that acting as though they had plenty would lead to envy and ill will amongst those they would encounter along the way. In his old age, Yaakov’s question defined the necessity to not flaunt one’s wealth and success as it attracts negative attention – we should in fact find the middle path as Rambam and others would later comment. In essence, the advice here is to shy away from unnecessary attention and live a humble life.

Yaakov’s three ‘lessons’ to us are three great starting points in handling and overcoming the crises that will occur in our personal lives, as well as within the Jewish nation:

1. Reinforce the lessons of Torah, especially when amongst those who would take you away from its teachings.
2. Detach yourself from those that would influence you negatively and lead you astray.
3. Live your life humbly to limit unnecessary negative attention.

In my opinion, living by these teachings will breed a strong respect for family, tradition and Jewish values; three pillars that allow us to remain steadfast in our beliefs despite external pressures. This is just a start however - I am not implying that one has to be religious to ‘survive’ this world – religious observance is a personal decision that should be made solely by the individual. However, one doesn’t have to be an observant Jew to learn to utilize the lessons passed on to us for millennia to better our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of those in our community.

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