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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Being a Winner

I recently took part in a competition for a table-top game called X-Wing Miniatures. It’s a Star Wars themed game that involves spaceships from the Star Wars films. In this National competition with the top prize of a flight to America, there were 60 people playing. I brought a completely unique squad that had never been flown before and came joint 27th. So no flight to America although I did win a playmat signed by one of the game designers. I left the competition feeling fairly happy – I had won three games and lost three games in my first ever tournament where I had tried something risky, made a couple of mistakes and just wasn’t lucky with the dice.

As the days passed, I started to realise that I could have done better (although I probably wouldn’t have reached the lofty heights of the very impressive 7th place achieved by David Sleet, BRS’s Community IT Director). The joy of coming in the top half of the table started to give way to frustration of not doing better. Then I read an online post by someone who said that he was pleased to have come 51st because he’d never played the game against other people before! If he was happy with his 51st place, what was my problem with 27th? What finally helped resettle my mind was putting it into a larger context. Yes, of course in the grand scheme of things, the ability to move spaceships around a table effectively is utterly meaningless. But I was 27th in the whole of the UK – that’s 27th out of around 62,470,000 people who could conceivably play X-Wing Miniatures if they wanted. Being a winner is really a matter of perspective, it seems.

So what’s the Jewish perspective on competition? Well, the Rabbis of the Talmud weren’t into competition because they felt it took away from a life completely dedicated to Torah study, so they don’t have too much to say on the matter.  Perhaps we can say that Jewish tradition doesn’t focus on winning and losing but, rather, on the encounter with God which is something that by definition isn’t competitive. I think that sometimes we need to compete for the excitement, so long as we remember that in the eyes of God we’re all winners, albeit with varying degrees of closeness of relationship to God. And maybe next time I compete I’ll say a little prayer… not to act as some kind of magical enchantment of good fortune but, rather, to remind me before I compete on what’s important in life and why I’m already a winner.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

We Were Slaves And Now Others Are Instead

The whole point of the seder service is to bring the Exodus from Egypt, an event from our past, directly into present day relevance. “We were slaves to Pharaoh,” “This is because of what the Eternal did for me when bringing me out of Egypt.” This isn’t a commemoration but a re-enactment. As we read of the Exodus, we take part in it. We become free and explore with food and questions what it is to be free. We are guided through the Haggadah to consider those who are not free and we open the door and invite all those who are hungry to come and eat. Then we close the door, either to keep out the cold or possibly because subconsciously we don’t know what we would do with ourselves if some impoverished person turned up on our doorstep at that moment asking for food.

As a child I always thought the message of the seder was that we are free but actually I think it’s more complex. I think more accurately the seder is a theological exploration of what it is to be free in a world where others are not. The seder doesn’t just say “We’re free!” but, rather, “We’re free…. so now what?” As information becomes globalised we now know more than ever of millions of people who are anything but free. There are people who are oppressed politically, who are oppressed because of their gender or sexuality, who are restricted because of starvation. There are those who have jobs but who are all but slaves in the most obvious sense, earning a pittance so that companies can make the largest profit providing us with the latest trainers, electronic gadgets or designer labeled clothes. The more we learn about this world the more it seems that freedom is the exception and not the norm.

The Seder service demands a choice from us - will you sit around and drink wine, or will you use your freedom to liberate others? Coupled with the Divine call for justice in the Torah – “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) – the Seder service is the enactment of a theological imperative to recognise our own freedom and to use it to liberate others. Yet we spend so long planning the eating, drinking and reciting that we easily forget the urgency of the imperative. This Pesach, let us also hold the enactment of that imperative to be as important as any other aspect of Pesach. Let it be not just “This is what the Eternal did for me” but also “This is what I did for others.”

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

To Have Or To Hold - A Tu BiShevat Thought

When Zafra walks past a flower, there are two things that she likes to do - to pluck it or to smell it. Sometimes they're mutually exclusive - she'll sometimes pluck but not smell or sometimes smell but not pluck. Sometimes, she does both, in either order. It's rare that she doesn't at least pluck or smell. But this very simple act of plucking a flower (or not) always leaves me conflicted for a number of reasons.

Very rarely before I can stop her, she actually breaks the law. I know... seriously? If you're in park land then according to UK law it's illegal to pick deliberately planted flowers. Normally, though, this isn't an issue because it's normally wild flowers she goes for, but if something is really pretty then she can sometimes really want it. She doesn't terrorise local parks tearing up daffodils, so it's not normally the law I'm worried about.

What I'm more concerned about is what message she'll get from the flower. Are flowers for her to pluck, take with her and enjoy with the family for a few days (before they wither and die) or are they for her to smell and enjoy without taking ownership? I'm reminded of Shel Silverstein's classic text The Giving Tree which is a clear critique of a utilitarian approach to nature. In essence (at least the way I read the book), it reminds us that we can't just take from the natural world according to our own wishes but, rather, have to live with the natural world. So, I want her to not pick the flower and just leave it be.

And yet, if she can take the flower home, enjoy it, and then watch the consequences of an uprooted flower, isn't there the potential for an even more powerful lesson? A lesson, perhaps, in how short-term pleasure isn't as satisfying as long-term pleasure, or that short-term human pleasure can often come at the cost of long-term existence of nature? A bit heavy for someone not yet three years old but definitely there can be the foundation of that lesson.

Then I think to myself, am I overanalysing this? This is a young girl, not an eco-Rabbi like me, simply living in the moment enjoying nature. Can't I just enjoy her enjoyment? So I put the thinking to the side and just live in the moment as she does. And then she goes to pluck the flower and I instinctively cry out "No!" I can't help it.

I share this personal inner debate on Tu BiShevat because while we may wonder about children, I think there can be no doubt about adults. We have passed so many ecological thresholds already that we cannot continue a utilitarian approach to nature. We have to put our short-term pleasures to the side whenever they contradict the long-term health of the natural world.

For me, Tu BiShevat is not just about celebrating trees or, even, planting a tree and helping us feel like we've offset all our paper usage and carbon emissions for the year (!).  Tu BiShevat has to be a call to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. We can have it in our lives for perpetuity or we can try to hold onto it, grasp it, use it, exploit it for a brief while before watching it wither. Let's have nature exist for it's own sake, not for our own. Let it exist because it attests to its Creator not because it's useful for us. Let Tu BiShevat remind us that our relationship with nature does not have to be utilitarian and exploitative but can be, should be... must be mutual and sustainable.

Chag Sameach!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Symbols of the Past, Present and Future

I was talking with someone the other day and they mentioned the Liberty Bell in America. I made some remark about how when I went to see it, I was one of those wise-guy tourists who loudly says, "But it's cracked!"

When I think about it, though, that isn't my overriding memory of the Liberty Bell. There are two things I particularly remember. The first was the security, the extraordinary security designed to protect a bell. The second thing that I remember was that outside in a street lamp a squirrel had made its home! The lamp obviously no longer worked and the squirrel had brought leaves and the like into the shade in order to make a very comfortable bed. I took more photos of that squirrel in the lampshade than I did of the bell, the actual tourist attraction.

This evening, I just heard that Jurgen Moltmann said that the future is more important than the past. I have much sympathy with that position. And yet the present is more important still. The Liberty Bell is an artefact of the past - an important symbol of freedom but a symbol nonetheless. The squirrel was alive, vibrant, a part of the great web of life. Yet the people around us paid more attention to the bell than to the living, extraordinary being in front of them. You might think "But there are millions of squirrels!" To which I would reply "But there are millions of bells." "Ah," you might think, "but there's only one Liberty Bell." "True," I would reply "but each squirrel is unique, too."

I don't intend to demean the Liberty Bell by comparing it with a squirrel... obviously not! Rather, what I'm saying is that the Liberty Bell is a symbol from the past that affects the present and the future. The squirrel is alive in the present, in the here and now. Although, of course, strictly speaking it was in the past, an event many years ago, and that squirrel may no longer even be alive today. Interestingly, the bell endures, a symbol of enduring freedom, in theory, at least. Indeed, the only way I can blog about this entire event is by reflecting back into the past to try to make it alive today.

So the past is important and can be brought into the present and the future, like the Liberty Bell. It can teach us valuable lessons, such as the importance of Freedom. And yet the past is not alive and neither is the future. Only the present is alive, alive as that squirrel I saw on the same day. Life is something so extraordinary even though we so often take it for granted. It is wondrous, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Just as the Liberty Bell is a symbol, so, too, is every living being - a symbol of the glory of life, the wonder of existence and the need to never become complacent in the face of pure being. Those are the symbols that none of us can ignore.