Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dovid in the Docklands News: 'Rabbi takes a leap of faith...'

Rabbi takes a leap of faith

Image and article by Shane Scanlan (Editor of Docklands News)

28 Feb 2012

Rabbi takes a leap of faith Image
He’s the skateboarding rabbi and he’s not afraid to take a leap of faith into the best street skating that Melbourne can offer.
Rabbi Dovid Tsap articulates what all Melbourne skateboarders know – that outside of the many skateboard parks, Docklands offers the best skating around.
He can be found skating Docklands until 3 am some mornings, taking care to avoid residential areas so as not to disturb sleeping residents.
Rabbi Tsap, 34, is a mystic who spends his intellectual energy exploring the “more conspicuously spiritual side of Judaism”.
He writes a blog ( and communicates his thinking with people from all over the world. And he has recently published a book exploring the depths of Kabbalah.
Being a skateboarder has dual benefits for Rabbi Tsap. Apart from the health and wellbeing benefits he derives from the demanding sport, he clearly opens a respectful channel of communication with young people.
“The kids have some degree of admiration for me and pay attention to what I say,” he said. “They think of me as a friend. There is affinity and rapport.”
And while he has been a Rabbi for many years, he has only been the “Skating Rabbi” in recent times. Rabbi Tsap explained that he skated as a kid but gave it up when he was 15 years old.
He was encouraged by his friend Raph Brous to get back into skateboarding less than two years ago.
Since then he has seen the barriers between himself and young people diminish drastically.
“It was almost like they had too much reverence for me then,” he said. “It was a barrier to effective communication.”
He said it was now very easy to speak with young people about life, drugs and God.
“At last now I am starting to feel like a real rabbi,” he said.
Rabbi Tsap said that he wouldn’t have any particular credibility with youths if he was merely just able to just ride a skateboard around.
“I’m actually quite good at it and can land a number of difficult tricks,” he said.
He said skateboarding was cathartic for him.
“It's an aggressive thing to do and you need a lot of guts to attempt lots of these tricks. When I land a trick it just feels so good. The accomplishment makes me feel so happy,” he said. “And so I can transfer these feelings into other aspects of my life.”
He said the camaraderie and affinity between skateboarders was a revelation. He said when he was at Melbourne’s skateboarding parks he had friends from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
“Skaters have a strong capacity for brotherhood,” he said.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tortoise x Hare

        Some people develop over long periods; others develop rapidly. Joseph, for instance, went from wasting away as a slave in an Egyptian dungeon to become the 'prime minister' of Egypt overnight. Jacob, in contrast, was the paragon of gradual progress and development.

The names of Joseph's two sons reflect these two styles. Menashe connotes jumping, while Efraim, connotes fruit. When one jumps, one breaks the orderly and incremental approach of walking and covers much ground. Fruit, however, ripens gradually.
It was for this reason that Jacob and Joseph were in conflict concerning which of Joseph's sons is the greater. Jacob favoured Ephraim, while Joseph had stronger ties with Menashe.
Each style has its pros and cons. Menashe may progress very quickly, yet often skips stages along the way and thus lacks solid foundations. In contrast, while Ephraim progresses slowly, whichever level he attains he is really there.

However, a third path exists. Some people manage to combine both approaches. Lewis Carmichael, only 15 years of age, is a good example. In the year since I've resumed skating, I've observed Lewis advance prodigiously in his skating ability. Every time I meet him at Prahran skate park he amazes me with his quantum leaps in progress. But don't mistake him for a Menashe who skips levels in his haste, for Lewis's skating has the consistancy and solidity of Ephraim.
When I asked him what his secret is, he gave me two answers:
a) 'I've picked up many hobbies in the past but dropped them after some time. Skating, however, is different. I love it so much that I can't imagine ever tiring of it.'
b) 'All I do in my spare time is skate...'
His formula: (intrinsic motivation x all-consuming devotion) = (tortoise x hare)  

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Curb

The Crew:
 Richard, Cain, and Seb.B
Today I spent a few hours at the Riverslide skate park in the Melbourne CBD.  An excellent park loaded with quarter pipes, boxes, ledges of all sorts, rails, stairs, humps - you name it.  The skaters shredding the park were amazing; one from   the Adidas team alongside other sponsored skaters. They were performing 5-0's down a large steep rail, landing tre flips down sets of stairs, and performing highly technical tricks like kickflip to tailslide to 180 out on ledges. It was veritably a professional demo and I could have spent the entire day watching the gnarly action.

However, the highlight of my day was a curb. Yes, a plain old common curb. A curb similar to the one in my driveway. Now, you may be thinking, 'Why would this meshuganeh (Jewish for crazy) travel to a high quality skate park and focus on a curb?!' Well, it's not just a curb... at least not for the three skaters using it.   
Richard, Seb, and Cain were taking turns performing tricks on the curb that are typically performed on a mini ramp. Now let it be clear that these skaters are not beginners limited to skating tiny objects. I observed Richard bs 180 flip and tre flip down a set of stairs; Cain casually land bs 360 no-complies up a ramp and 360 ollies over a large hip; and Seb, a fearless speed demon, warm up by boardsliding down a handrail and execute a two meter long nose-grab tailslide. 
         Yet, here they were skating a 10cm high curb.
 Now their attitude had a flippant overtone as they imitated many manoeuvres normally performed on larger obstacles and they were having a blast.

The message is obvious: with a little bit of imagination and creativity, combined with a fun attitude, even simple, small, and ordinary objects can become veritable amusement parks and great sources of joy.   

Frankly, I've seen skaters have sessions on ostensibly banal objects before, in fact, many times. But there was something striking about this particular instance: the curb was located immediately outside the skate park, directly under the skate park sign. Viewed from the correct angle, it appears that the sign refers to the curb...and in a sense, it does!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The game of SKATE: The circular and the linear

SKATE is a game of elimination where a skater performs a trick of his choice and, if successful, other competing skaters  try to copy it. If a player fails to successfully imitate the trick, he moves through the letters of the word SKATE. Hence, after a first fail he's on the letter 'S' of SKATE, after failing again, he moves to 'K', and so forth. A skater that reaches the E of SKATE is eliminated. When the leading skater fails to land his trick, the next skater has a turn to lead.

But how is the first leader of the game selected? Through 'stone, paper, scissors', where two players hold up their right hands at precisely the same moment. Held as fist, the hand represents a stone; fingers in a 'V' represent scissors; and the open palm represents paper. Stone blunts scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper wraps stone, so if fist and palm are held up at the same time, the palm is the winner, and so on.

As simple as this game seems, it has tremendous depth. It is reminiscent of a teaching in eastern philosophy where it is taught that their are five primary elements in the world: fire, water, earth, metal, and wood, and that each element is conquered by one another. Thus wood, in the form of a plough, conquers the earth; the earth, in the form of a dam, conquers water; water extinguishes fire; fire melts metal; and metal can shape wood into a plough. The idea suggests  a circular relationship between the elements in the physical universe.

The game of SKATE, itself, however, has a linear theme. Players pass from letter to letter until they are eliminated and only one skater is left - the winner.

I like to imagine that the circular introduction to the game, which highlights the equality of elements, serves to remind the winner of the linear game of SKATE that he may be better than his competitors this time, but there will always be someone who can outdo him. And if not in flatland tricks, in mini ramp skating, and if not in mini-ramp, in academia or kind-heartedness, etc. This notion helps temper the egotism that may arise from being a winner, and helps maintain a sense of equality and camaraderie amongst the competitors.

This interpretation is definitely my own. And perhaps I conceived it to console myself whenever I lose (which is often!). But hey, lets not psychoanalyze me too much!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On learning from students

'I learned much from my teachers;
More from my colleagues;
But my students taught me the most of all'
[The Talmud]
On Sunday, Raph Brous and I took a group of kids skateboarding. An initiative of Rabbi Shlomo Nathanson, Chabad of Port Melbourne. 
We sat around together assembling their skateboards...

...then went to a local undercover skate park for some fun...
  usual, I drove Raph up the wall...
  ...I expected we'd all just skate together, but, as most of the kids were beginners, I was informally asked to teach them some basic skateboarding skills. I was also invited to share some Torah...
      ...OK so we got a little distracted... 

 .. however, the experience brought my attention to the wonders of teaching; a time to reflect on the ancient truism that one learns more from one's students than one's teachers.
       Indeed, why is this the case?

 Here are a few reasons:

a. Articulation: In order to communicate a thought, one must fragment it into its parts and then translate it into words. As a result, one ends up focusing on the details and nuances of the thought. Concerning this, Kabbalah teaches that speech and thought create a feedback loop of mutual enhancement. Normally, speech is fed by thought - for one communicates what one thinks - however, in articulating thoughts in the speech act, thoughts are amplified and elaborated within the speaker's mind.

b: Questions: In asking their teacher questions, students force the teacher to dig deeper into his conception of the subject in order to provide his students with adequate answers.
c. Preparation: Knowing that one will have to share ideas with students encourages one to comprehend subject matter thoroughly and viscerally. For only then can one effectively share it with students.

d. Insights: 'A small spark can ignite a large fire.' This quote from the Talmud is said in reference to a teacher learning from his students. A student may have an insight into a topic which, on the surface, may appear simple and inarticulate, even confused. Yet, an adept teacher can see the potential in the insight and expand upon it, revealing its sophistication and profundity.         

Monday, February 6, 2012

A soul of life - skating with a missing leg!

There are two sources of life, one external and the other, internal. The external source includes air, water, food, clothing shelter, etc; while the internal source consists of energy flow from the soul: motivation, inspiration, creativity, love and kindness, etc. These energies animate and invigorate the body.

Clearly, both are indispensable, but which is primary?

Describing the creation of Adam, the first person, the verse states, "...G-d fashioned Adam from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils a soul of life." Before Adam inhaled his first breath - or ate his first slice of pizza! - he was already a living being on account of his soul. This indicates that the soul is the primary source of human life.

These sources of life find their parallel in 'skate-life'. The internal life-source constitutes a skater's motivation and passion, hope, courage, psychological resilience, etc. Whereas the external source is a skater's physical health, agility, muscle strength, etc.

Of course the two are interdependent and reciprocal. The health of the body influences an individual's courage and motivation, and one's enthusiasm and hope typically inspire one to develop one's physique. Nonetheless, it's apparent that the two are separable. Some skaters are physically healthy and strong but, lacking passion, determination, and courage, remain mediocre skateboarders. On the other hand, there are skater's lacking a sound body, but whose determination, optimism, and creativity lift their skating to the highest of heights.

One would assume that healthy legs are essential for a skater's performance. A missing leg in 'skate-life' is almost analogous to the absence of oxygen in life proper. Ostensibly, it should preclude or bring an end to a skateboarding career. Joe Comer, a world class skater with only one leg, proves this wrong! His incredible story proclaims that life resides predominantly in the soul; it brings the notion of a 'soul of life' to life..                                

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The soul's soul and the trick's trick

'Behind every trick lies a trick!'

Typically, people imagine soul to be a white ghost-like entity that mysteriously enlivens the body and survives the body's demise. Though there's some truth to this notion, overall it's  simplistic and misleading. In fact, soul consists of several layers, each serving as soul for a more external layer.

This concept is not as mysterious as it may initially sound. Actions, for instance, are motivated by emotion. Hugging a friend, for instance, may be motivated by affection; helping a stranger in strife may be motivated by compassion; while raising a fist may be incited by feelings of anger. Emotions are the soul of action. 

However, emotions themselves are guided by intellect. How we frame an event strongly determines our emotional response to it. Furthermore, once emotion has been aroused, intellect guides it to find expression in a refined and meaningful way rather than as a raw and unmitigated impulse. Intellect is soul to emotion.

But what causes one to understand experiences in particular ways? What generates the first thoughts that pop into the mind and largely shape our first impressions of things? This is the subconscious. The subconscious is soul to conscious intellect.

If we observe some of the key terms for 'soul' in Kabbalah literature, we find they relate to the element of air. For example, Ruach denotes wind, and Neshamah denotes breath. Why is soul compared to air?

Compared to the other central elements of fire, water, and earth, air is imperceptible. We live within air and yet are largely unaware of it. Even when we 'see' a strong wind blowing, it's not the air per se that we see, only its effect on denser and more conspicuous objects. Hence, we don't see the air in a tornado, only the debris which surrounds it. Analogously, soul in itself is invisible, its energy is felt only in its influence on the dense and visible body.

Every skateboarding trick also has layers of 'soul', detected only through the concrete actions of a skater's execution of a trick. One level of soul is the skater's knowledge of the correct footing and landing, alongside other information concerning correct technique. These are usually learnt from trick tips or by observing others performing a trick.

However, a deeper, more elusive soul exists. After one practices the explicit details of trick tip instructions many times, one develops a unified sense of how to perform the trick, one which no longer requires conscious thought about how to perform it. It simply flows from the skater in his unique style, his personal rendition of the trick. Though this level of soul is clearly visible in an adept skater's performance, it cannot be communicated through language or grasped through analysis. It is captured only through personal experience, through repeated performance of the trick. This apect of any trick is truly elusive like air. All of an observer's perceptions of it are akin to seeing the debris surrounding a tornado...