Teamwork – 2 February 2014
Shi’koku is the 4th largest of the Japanese islands. Because it’s separated from the mainland by the Inland Sea, it’s not widely inhabited and has remained unspoiled in many ways.
About 20 years ago while enjoying a study-year abroad in Tokyo I had opportunity to visit Shikoku. At the time I was an avid cyclist, and University holidays provided opportunity to travel to remote parts of the country.
One blustery day, along the flat western coast heading up to the thermal-spring town of Matsuyama, I came across a team of Japanese riders. Like me, they were training during half-term. Feeling an unspoken affinity, I joined their ranks from behind and rode with them for about 40 miles.
In bicycling there is a skill known as ‘drafting’ employed when facing strong headwinds. The lead rider sets the pace and takes on the full brunt of the wind. The riders following – form a single line, their tyres separated by only inches. This reduces the wind friction felt by the rest of the team. To avoid the calamity of a pile-up – drafting requires great synchrony and immense trust.
It’s a thankless task to be in the lead and uses-up much energy. So at a certain point, the leader signaled to the others, pulled to the side and dropped back to the end of the line. The team continued this way in alternation until the terrain changed.
Hillel the Elder, who lived more than 2000 years ago, wrote ‘If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?’
Cycling up the western coast of Shikoku taught me there is selflessness in being a leader as well as a follower. To most efficiently achieve our common goal – one person needed to take on the brunt of the challenge and the remainder had to follow closely.
Community – 8 February 2014Humans: Mostly we like each other’s company and do our best to avoid loneliness. We all belong to ‘communities’ of one sort or another.
In Latin, the word community means ‘the gift of togetherness’. Belonging to a ‘community’ offers us a sense of identity, security, and even meaning. Too often, those in an alien land without such connections – are the first to be exploited or abused.
In Judaism, the Torah commands us to ‘love the stranger as ourselves, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.’
In the mid-1990s I worked in Tokyo and among the suppliers I dealt with was Mr. Yamada. Unusual for a Japanese man he was large-boned, nearly 180 centimeters tall, with a round face, warm smile, large hands and powerful shoulders.
Japanese society is homogeneous and hard to penetrate socially. But Yamada-san was uncharacteristically interested in other cultures and welcoming to those from outside his own.
Within a few months Mr. Yamada and I developed a close working friendship, and one week – after casually mentioning my love of baseball – Yamada-san invited me to a Sunday practice with a group of his colleagues & friends.
As a child, baseball was a key part of my identity and many hours were spent practicing, playing, or watching the sport. Other than America, Japan is one of very few countries in the world so feverishly consumed by a love of the game.
Our first Sunday practice went so well – it led to the forming of a team, captained by Mr. Yamada. We eventually bought uniforms, adopted a team name and entered an amateur league. For many Sunday morning’s to follow, Gyosen Park became my home-away-from-home.
In 2000, I moved to the UK – but still keep in contact with Mr. Yamada. Our team went on eventually to win the local area championship, and then to disband. But in the lower drawer of my closet, a uniform still occupies pride-of-place, reminding me what it means to belong to a community, prodding me to always remember G-d’s command to love the Stranger.
Love – 16 February 2014Recently during a conversation with a colleague from California, he wistfully remarked about his eldest daughter; ‘… this beautiful little girl we’ve nursed from birth, tolerated during adolescence and grown to admire in adulthood – will soon be moving out. One day, bringing home a perfect stranger, she’ll announce: “Mom, Dad this is the most important person in my life.”’
And, then he added, ‘all I’ll want to do is strangle the young fellow.’
It reminded me of the first meeting with my father-in-law-to-be, a career bureaucrat with a life-long passion of playing golf. We went to a very small, very crowded noodle shop filled with office workers in Yokohama. It was so popular there was just enough room to awkwardly squeeze onto a bench sitting side-by-side.
Instantly, 2 large bowls of steaming noodles appeared in front of us. The custom was to shovel the noodles into one’s mouth as quickly as possible while slurping loudly. Within minutes, his bowl was empty while I had hardly begun, leaving me still chewing quietly and affording him the opportunity to do all the talking.
Expecting a conversation about his daughter, quizzically instead he spoke at length about his love of golf. More surprisingly, once I’d finally finished my meal our meeting abruptly ended.
Our Patriarch Jacob willingly worked for 7-years to marry his beloved Rachel and the Torah says ‘they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her’. Thinking back, that may have been the message my father-in-law was trying to show us. Fortunately for me, it only took 5 years for him to consent to our marriage.
Love is not just an irrational impulse but requires persistence & endurance. Unlike loving golf, real love requires reciprocity and commitment even when difficulties arise.
He and I are both older and wiser now; thankfully this year will be 20 years since my wife and I married. And although golf is still my father-in-laws favourite conversation, I know he also loves his daughter deeply. Thankfully, he can now just about tolerate me.
Looking in the Mirror -22 February 2014Teenagers spend much time in front of the mirror. Interrupting this process as any experienced parent knows, is about as dangerous as disturbing a sleeping crocodile. But a healthy amount of vanity is good for young people.
What many of us don’t realise is that adults require reflection as well. Unfortunately, like Snow White’s wicked step-mother, I’ve learned that mirrors can too easily be used to tell ourselves we’re ‘the fairest of them all’.
A story from the Book of Samuel often reminds me of the dangers of self-deception.
G-d was greatly displeased with King David, who already had several wives, but plotted to marry Bathsheba, someone else’s wife with whom David had already had a liaison. Nathan the Prophet was sent to rebuke David, conveying to him the well-known parable of ‘selfish cruelty’.
‘There were 2 men who lived in a city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had many flocks, the poor man had but one small ewe. A traveller came seeking food and shelter from the rich man. Reluctant to take from his own flocks, instead he took the poor man’s ewe to serve to the visitor.’
King David immediately pronounces judgment: ‘death for the rich man’ — only to discover the Prophet was speaking about David himself. Seeing a reflection of his behaviour in Nathan’s words, caused David to accept G-d’s rebuke — he fasted and prayed for a week.
Often as adults we rationalise bad behaviour or act-out uncontrollably on impulse but then cover-up, usually by placing the blame on others. For me this tends to happen when I’m rushed for time – losing patience, snapping at a colleague or worse, letting work pressure boil-over into our home life.
In days of old, Biblical Prophets like Nathan helped people reflect on the moral issues of their day. Sadly today this doesn’t happen; all the more reason to ensure that each of us gets a daily dose of healthy self-reflection.
Life’s Not Fair – 2 March 2014Not long after we moved to England, my wife and I were blessed with children. It didn’t occur naturally, and to this day we are immensely grateful to the doctor who helped bring about our first pregnancy.
As inexperienced new parents we over-reacted to the slightest cough, whimper or sigh. Then 2 ½ years later our 2nd child arrived.
The first words a baby produces can be telling. Accustomed to having favourite toys snatched away by his older sister, our son’s first syllables were ‘mine, mine’. I’m not sure when the phrase ‘it’s not fair’ entered their lexicon, but eventually we found ourselves measuring out food portions at snack times so each would feel they received the exact same amount.
One day, my wife who is the more active parent, decided we should teach the children the truth — indeed, ‘life is not fair’.
We began showing them how adverse weather and diseases caused indiscriminate suffering close to home; and, how children born in one part of the world might have better food, clothing and housing than those born somewhere else. ‘Is this fair?’ we asked.
Perhaps it is the notion that G-d created the world that leads us to believe life should be ‘fair’. But in time, our children began to comprehend ‘fairness’ is a relative value; that the world around us is made up of lots of differences and some are not ‘fair’!
One might at least expect that G-d’s vision of life in the Promised Land would be Utopian & Fair, yet the Torah states ‘There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward all those who are poor and needy.’
These words urge us to see ourselves as children of the same G-d in whose image we are all created. The message we’ve tried to impress upon our children as they grow, is this: Precisely because ‘life is not fair’ – it’s all the more reason for each of us to help make things better!
Temptation – 8 March 2014Driving home after collecting our 11-year-old daughter from the train station, I asked what she thought about the word ‘temptation’. Without hesitating, she answered ‘Mums freshly-baked warm cupcakes with lots of icing and extra candy sprinkles on top.’ Unknowingly, she helped me realise there is a growing gap between her generation and mine.
In days gone by, temptation meant ‘desiring something we might enjoy immediately or in the short term – but will later regret!’ or more practically ‘a lack of self-control’. The goal when I was her age was to ‘resist’ temptation. To the contrary, today ‘giving-in’ to ‘temptation’ is considered ‘good’. It almost seems as if we want to be tempted more and more.
There’s a wonderful painting of a grey-haired, frail-looking Moses in flowing brown robes, seated on a mountain top, arms supported by his brother Aharon and slightly younger nephew Hur. Below out of sight the Amalekite war is in progress. It is entitled ‘Victory O’ Lord,’ and was painted in 1871 by John Everett Millais.
Of the many battles fought by the Israelites, the Amalekite War, occurring shortly after leaving Egypt, enigmatically ended without a conclusive victory!
In the book of Exodus it says that ‘when Moses lifted his hands the Israelites prevailed, but when he lowered his hands the Amalekites grew stronger.’ Despite a full day’s effort, Joshua on the battlefield was only able to ‘weaken the enemy.’
Some commentators believe the Battle with Amalek symbolically represents our on-going battle against temptation – and as such it was never won. Looking at Millais’s painting, one can’t help but sense the world-weariness in Moses’s body.
The list of pressures and temptations my daughter will face in her life includes problems far greater than resisting her mother’s cupcakes.
Overcoming temptation is a battle we will fight forever. But knowing we’re in the battle and seeking help from others when we need it – is the first step in overcoming them.
Women in Leadership – 16 March 2014The religious community in America which I come from has a history dating back to the mid-1600s. It began when 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil landed at the docks in New Amsterdam. Not long after that the town was handed over to the British and renamed New York.
Throughout the past 3 ½ centuries there have been many remarkable women who were members of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in New York. And one that I am always impressed by is the 19th century Poet Emma Lazarus.
She descended from a colonial family who had settled in the United States in the 1700s, her ancestors having fled Portugal in search of religious freedom some time before that. As a student, she showed enormous intellectual promise, studying American & British literature as well as mastering 3 European languages. Her work included adapting the German poetry of Heinrich Heine and Goethe, and publishing her own stories, plays and poems.
Eventually, she used her skills and position to champion the cause of those less fortunate, writing about the attacks – known as pogroms – on Jewish peasants in Russian villages. In New York she founded a vocational school to help those newly arrived immigrants become self-supporting.
In 1883 Emma Lazarus submitted her now famous sonnet ‘The New Colossus’ as part of an auction to raise funds to build the Statue of Liberty – which represents the freedoms upon which the United States is based.
Today, on a plaque at the base of the pedestal on which the Statue stands, the lines she wrote are still clearly visible:
‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Emma Lazarus was well ahead of her time as a poet and activist. Today when refugees from many countries still seek a better life elsewhere, I can’t help but hear her words resonating in my ears.
Renewal – 22 March 2014Last June, a very good friend and I spent 6 days hiking along roughly 120 miles of the South West Coast Path from Lime Regis to Poole. With the exception of one or two wet mornings, the weather was perfect for walking 8-10 hours each day.
We saw some of the most delightful land- and seascapes; we walked through working farms, stayed in an assortment of B&B’s, visited ancient Abbeys and castle ruins, and mainly disconnected from our regular routines for a week. The crisp air and outdoors was immensely refreshing and so were the trees.
Springtime is the season for Renewal. The winter ground which has lain dormant starts to again yield colorful grasses and flowers. Blossoms begin to appear and the dark days of December seem far behind.
Two months ago in mid-January, Jews celebrated Tu B’Shvat, a day of Thanksgiving for the Trees. In the 2nd century Tu B’Shvat marked the beginning of the tax year. But more recently, it became a day to recognise the Wonders of Nature.
A traditional Tu B’Shvat celebration sees the table, laid-out with all varieties of fruits, nuts & berries, in a rainbow of colour. With a few cups of wine and the recitation of some verses, the ceremony is brief and delightful. Children in particular are impressed by species from around the world – jack fruits & guava, custard apples & mangostines, dates, tamarinds, and lychee – to name a few.
The Festival for Trees symbolically also refers to humans. Trees have their roots, trunk, and fruit. In humans our roots are those earlier generations whose achievements ‘hold’ us in place, our trunk & branches represent our daily lives, and our fruit are the children we bear.
The sub-text of Tu B’Shvat is in knowing G-d created a magnificent universe for us to enjoy – that renews itself annually. There is a folk tradition that when a person passes on and their soul comes before G-d, one of the first questions asked will be ‘so, did you enjoy My fruit?’
It’s never too late to stop and celebrate who we are and to remember to taste the wonderful fruits available to us (world around us).