Mr President, Honoured Rabbis, Communal leaders, friends
On behalf of the South African Jewish community, I am honoured and delighted to welcome His Excellency, President Cyril Ramaphosa to the Gardens Synagogue and into the heart of our community.
Mr President, your election as leader of the ANC and your elevation to President of the Republic of South Africa is a great victory for freedom and democracy, and the hope for a brighter future for us all. Your victory is a rejection of the ghastly attempted state capture for the personal enrichment of a select few. I use the word attempted because South African society rose up to defend our freedom and integrity of our institutions.
The very first gift that G-d gave the Jewish people at the birth of our nation was the gift of freedom when He liberated us from Egypt. Freedom is the most important blessing because it is the source of all other blessings. When a society is truly free, like South Africa, it is ultimately able to overcome great challenges. With freedom, light can overcome darkness and good can overcome evil.
We South Africans used our freedom to fight state capture. An independent judiciary held those in power accountable. The media fearlessly and bravely uncovered corruption, exposing it to the light of public opinion and relentlessly pursued its perpetrators. Feisty opposition parties and a resilient civil society resisted.
Mr President, we commend you for bravely and resolutely leading the fight against corruption and heralding a new era of integrity for South Africa. Those who for too long held our country to ransom, are now being pursued by the law through judicial enquiries, through prosecution and investigation, so that they will be held accountable.
Friends, I want to start by telling you that we have a President who is a true mensch. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I had been up and down with the President to set up a time to meet with him, and the night before I was due to travel to a family simcha, I got a personal sms from the President to ask if we could meet the very next day, which would mean disappointing my family. Nevertheless, I messaged him back immediately to say that I was looking to change my flights and that I’d confirm with him as soon as I’d managed to do so. He messaged that I should not change my plans. I responded that I would like do so anyway. And then he called me personally himself on my cell phone to say that he insists (those were his words!) that I must go ahead with my plans and that he would see me instead the following week. He didn’t want to inconvenience me to such an extent. I remember saying this to him on the phone, “When the President calls you to a meeting, you just go!”. To which he said, “don’t worry”, and that he would meet with me when I was back in Johannesburg the following week. I was so moved by his humility, and his personal call. It’s a small example but it says a lot about our President.
We did get to meet soon after I returned. I brought with me a volume of Talmud so that we could also learn something together. Possibly the first time the Talmud made an appearance in a presidential meeting! I came over to sit next to him and we looked inside the Talmud together and looked at the passage which refers to the verse in the Torah which says, “And you shall surely heal”. The Talmud says that from this verse we learn that the doctor was given permission to heal.
Why should a doctor need permission to heal? Surely healing is a mitzvah? The commentators explain that one would have thought, that in healing a doctor is undoing the will of G-d because if G-d wanted the person to be well, they would be. The Talmud gives us a radical new idea: We are called upon to be partners with G-d in creation. The doctor works as G-d’s partner to heal the sick. Because there is pain and human suffering in the world and our mission is to collaborate, in partnership with G-d, to make this world into a better place.
Rosh Hashana marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. The idea of being G-d’s partners in creation touches on the very essence of the universe and defines our relationship with G-d in the most radical way. The Book of Genesis describes how G-d said in a world filled with darkness and chaos and void, “Let there be light”, and so too are we called upon to confront the darkness and chaos in this world and to bring light to it. In the same way that G-d created a world in which human beings could live, so we are called upon to exercise our creativity and ingenuity to create a world where human civilisation and the human spirit can thrive in dignity.
Mr President, we all have a sacred mission to be G-d’s partners in nurturing, building and creating a great country together. It’s our sacred task and a holy mission. We are all partners with G-d and that makes us partners with each other. South Africa faces a legacy of human suffering inflicted by centuries of colonialism and apartheid and we must partner with G-d, to build a better country for all, to alleviate poverty, to grow the economy, to ease all forms of human suffering and to ensure that all have the dignity of housing, education, health care, safety and a job. Our partnership is about creating an environment in which the Divine soul within all can flourish and thrive, unleashing awesome genius, creativity and the full potential of every South Africans.
Mr President, on this occasion, on this Rosh HaShana of 5779, on behalf of the South African Jewish community I would like to pledge our partnership with you in building this country. Mr President, our sleeves are rolled up and we are ready to work with you. We are here for South Africa, and we are all partners with G-d and with each other. We as a community have breadth and depth of talent and resources and have already contributed so much to the ongoing development of South Africa. But today we commit to continue the partnership and deepen and broaden it in everything that we do. Partnership is how we can turn South Africa around.
This partnership has much going for it. We South Africans are resourceful, tenacious, warm and good people with a track record of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, a history of miraculous turnarounds and a capacity to solve conflicts peacefully. South Africa has a world class infrastructure, abundant minerals and other natural resources, and sophisticated financial, legal and telecommunications sectors. Much progress has been made over the years. Since 1994 the government has provided housing, electricity and running water to millions. The South African economy is four times bigger in nominal terms than it was in 1994 and double its size since then in real terms. The proportion of people in the LSM one to four category which is the lowest income category has halved since 1994 and the black middle class today is bigger than the white population.
But with all these blessings there comes great challenge, the challenge of an economy tilting towards recession, high unemployment, especially among youth, the challenge of too many people mired in poverty and deprivation.
As the Jewish community we are ready to partner with you on these challenges. We have many members of our community who are involved in business, brave entrepreneurs who are helping to create jobs for our society. Growing our economy is crucial for the future well-being of all South Africans. We are proud to have many members of our community who contribute to the great fields of human endeavour – medicine, law, politics, science, technology and culture. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the sheer number of humanitarian efforts led by members of the Jewish community. Our contribution to growing the economy and creating jobs, and to initiating humanitarian outreach projects, is completely disproportionate to our numbers.
Our destiny as a community is intertwined with that of all South Africans. So many members of our community have borne the brunt of the slow South African economy and are under tremendous financial pressure. As your partners, Mr President, we turn to you to direct and lead the South African economy to a new cycle of growth which we all so desperately need. We will play our role, but all South Africans need an environment and policies which will catalyse robust and sustained economic growth.
Mr President, as our trusted leader and partner we have a duty to let you know that we love and cherish the State of Israel. It is part of who we are. Israel is the land that G-d promised to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and since Joshua entered the land with our ancestors about three thousand three hundred years ago there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in the land until today. Three times a day in our prayers we mention the city of Jerusalem, and in our Grace After Meals, and at every wedding and every funeral. Mr President, we feel privileged that in our day we have seen the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. It is the fulfilment of Biblical promises and it is also crucial to the survival of the Jewish people in the world. During the dark days of the Holocaust the Jews of Europe had nowhere to run and nowhere to turn. Israel is part of our spiritual heritage, our emotional identity and our historical destiny. We cannot be separated from it.
Mr President, our opposition to the threatened downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel is not only based on our deep relationship with Israel, but on our sincere conviction in the justice of her cause. To accuse Israel of apartheid is a libellous defamation of the Jewish State and an insult to the victims of the real apartheid. It is also based on the deep conviction that it is in South Africa’s best interests to form strong ties with the only free democratic country in the entire Middle East, that it is in South Africa’s interests to partner with the robust economy and technology of Israel to create jobs here and alleviate suffering. And that it is indeed in the interests of peace and also of Palestinian national aspirations for South Africa to retain an involvement and a relevance. To downgrade is to become irrelevant and is to give up on the South African dream of dialogue and discussion.
And so, Mr President, I take this occasion to say on behalf of the South African Jewish community that we are loyal partners in the noble and holy endeavour to uplift and transform and renew and reinvigorate South Africa, a precious country which has given us all so much.
Our mission is be G-d’s partners in this sacred task. It is the greatest compliment of all that G-d wants us to be not merely His servants, but His partners; that G-d who is the King of all kings, immortal and all powerful, chose us, mere mortals of flesh and blood, to be His partners. It is a compliment which fills us with optimism. Because being G-d’s partners in the world means that there’s also a promise of a better tomorrow, a promise of creating a better world together, a better country together. To live as G-d’s partners means to live a life of boldness and innovation of courage and tenacity. It is to live with optimism, to live with a belief that we have within our grasp the power to create a better country today.
Mr President, we are ready to partner with you, and with our fellow South Africans in the march towards the truly great South Africa of the future. May G-d bless our holy endeavours with abundant success for the sake of a beloved country that has cried for too long. May G-d bless you Mr President and all of us and all South Africans with a good sweet year. Shana tova umetuka!
Mr President – it is an honour to invite you to address us.