Kosher Sutra Holiday Special
Chanukah 2011/5772

What do the following things have in common: Jelly doughnuts, female assassins, massage oil, and good old-fashioned hard work? Switch on the kettle, make a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea and join me by the fireside for the Kosher Sutra Holiday Special. It all boils down to three topics: Food, Sex and Money. Is there anything else?

There is a universal law that all musicians know. The more you practice your instrument, the better your chance of becoming a musician. A similar law applies to sports, which is why Tiger Woods spent countless hours practicing his swing and Beckham put in his time honing the goals. Of course, this applies to everything in life. Which begs the simple question - why do so many of us get frustrated when we get poor results but we haven’t put in the work?

My yoga teacher Edward taught me how to do handstands, inverted eagles and backbend kickovers, but he always maintains that the hardest yoga move is this: putting on your shorts and standing at the front of your mat in the morning.

It is easy to sit and write New Years’ Resolutions but a lot harder to start doing them. For some reason we find it much easier to write. Actions speak louder than words, but we often prefer to talk rather than act.

There are many epithets which point in the same direction.

-How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
-Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
-‘It’s not talking about it (midrash) but doing it (ma’aser)’ (Ethics of the Fathers).
-You reap what you sow
[Add your own here].

Our Kosher Sutra begins with the dream-interpreting prophet Joseph who meets the King of Egypt. Pharaoh has a dream of seven sickly sheaves and seven healthy sheaves standing next to one another. Joseph also had a dream of sheaves, that he was working in the field binding it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out the difference between the two dreams, in that Joseph dreams of working but Pharaoh dreams that wealth just happens. The latter is a model of spiritual and material growth – we put in the hours and we get results.

“This highlights the fact that all matters of holiness require effort, ensuring that what we receive from God in return should not be unearned ‘bread of shame’ (Jerusalem Talmud 1:3). When a person dedicates himself to serious work, he has the promise of success that ‘you laboured (and therefore) you discovered’ (Megillah 6b). In fact, a person is capable of achieving success far beyond the proportion of effort invested – following the pattern of ‘always ascending when dealing with matters of holiness’” (Likutei Sichot Vol 3. p819ff, in Gutnick Chumash.)

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions the importance of regular yoga/meditation practice, although if we are truly honest with ourselves, surely we know all of this already?

This weekend is Holiday Season in the west and that means Christmas Cake, Chanukah Doughnuts and a whole lot of lip-smacking high-cholesterol snacking. My father refers to the typical Chanukah foods as ‘heart-attack alley’. He’s got a point.

The festival of lights recounts how the Greek-Syrian empire invaded ancient Israel and set up foreign idols in the temple. A group of fighters known as the Maccabbees (‘hammers’) staged a guerrilla-warfare campaign, stormed Jerusalem and reclaimed the capital. The menorah, a ceremonial candelabra, was almost out of oil but a miracle occurred and one day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days. Hence the eight nights of Chanukah.

Oh, and there’s one more thing.

The rabbis teach how it is customary to eat oily foods during Chanukah. That means oily doughnuts, oil-fried potato patties known as latkes and any other artery-busting grub we can get our hands on.

Is tradition always right? Would the Maccabbees have said to themselves ‘hey ho! It’s time to go on a sortie and invade Jerusalem. Let’s have a plateful of doughnuts!’?

I’ve yet to hear a spiritual leader who stands up and says that Chanukah should be celebrated by a week of eating salads with high-quality freshly-pressed olive oil, coupled with organic fish that is rich in Omega-3 oils. Or that husbands should massage their wives with flaxseed or sesame oils.

Back to our ‘regular practice’ principle of spiritual growth. We spend our days eating stodgy oily foods, consuming high-fructose corn syrup and other processed sugars, and then get surprised when our bodies finally start developing problems.

We reap what we sow.

The universal principle of regular practice also applies to relationships. This is something we know instinctively, in that we need to put time into building a relationship rather than just taking it for granted.

There was a famous medieval law known as Droit du Seigneur where a feudal overlord would take the virginity of new brides by sleeping with them on the night of their wedding. Few are aware that this also took place during the Greek rule of Ancient Israel. The Kitsur Shulchan Aruch tells of how the daughter of the High Priest Yohanan put a swift end to this custom when it was her turn to get married.

She cooked a dairy meal for the Governor which made him sleepy and during his slumber she cut off his head and then took it to Jerusalem as proof. Hence the widespread custom for women not to work whilst the candles are burning (Kitsur Shulchan Oruch, 3:1 & 3). Whoever said that Jewish princesses couldn’t cook was clearly mistaken.

It’s easy really, and the summary is simple. If we go to a meditation class and then complain that our minds are racing, we aren’t giving it a chance. We wouldn’t sit down by a piano for the first time and expect to just be able to play one of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

We don’t need New Year’s Resolutions. We just need to make a simple list of our priorities, and then we need to be honest about it. Where do you want to be this time next year, and what do you need to get there? Whether it is learning a headstand, an eight-hour meditation, playing a violin concerto, losing weight, saving more money, or becoming more organised, most things are within our reach if we can remove the blocks to achieving them. We can dream of sheaves of corn being gathered within our storehouse, but the dreams are more effective if we picture ourselves planting and harvesting them in the first place.