We live in a beautiful world. For the first time, I recently saw the great whales of Hermanus. Two of my sons came with me to the official opening of the new shul in Hermanus, and we went down early enough before the ceremony to see the whales. Against the backdrop of magnificent mountains and a clear blue sky, we saw their huge tails smacking the sea, as they sprayed water into the fresh spring air.
“There is no artist like our G-d”, declare the Sages of the Talmud Berachoth 10a). We, who have seen the rising sun over the Sabie River as herds of graceful impala, majestic lions and mighty elephants go down to drink amid the crisp air of the Lowveld winter mornings, know the truth of these words. We, who have seen the magic of the thick green forests of KwaZulu-Natal and its long stretches of golden beaches, or the dramatic imposing Table Mountain as it towers over the crystal blue of the ocean on a perfect summer’s day in Cape Town, know that “there is no artist like our G-d”.
“There is no Artist like our G-d”
Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with the problems and pressures of life and the issues of society that we can forget to appreciate all the goodness around us. Judaism teaches us to appreciate life and notice the beauty of G-d’s world so that we don’t pass it by in cynical absentmindedness. The beauty of everything is the ultimate gesture of G-d’s loving kindness. He could have merely created a functional world and yet He gave us a beautiful world to live in. And its beauty is not only to be found in the great wonders of nature, but even in the smallest parts of it: from rose petals, to butterflies’ wings, to the first smile of a tiny baby, to the smell of fresh hot coffee, to glorious colour and wondrous symmetry. He made different foods with unique tastes, appearances and smells. We acknowledge this in the “birkat hamazon,” recited after eating a meal with bread, in which we thank G-d for giving us food with “grace, kindness and compassion”. Judaism teaches us to appreciate the beauty of the world, and to take nothing for granted. We say a special blessing for many pleasurable experiences with foods, smells and sights, such as seeing the ocean for the first time in 30 days, or on hearing thunder and seeing lightning or a rainbow. And even on the appearance of the first buds of spring there is a blessing which states: “Blessed are You … Who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy.” All of the fine details of our wondrous world combine together in harmony to produce a magnificent tapestry of beauty, which is so much more than the sum of its parts.
The most remarkable dimension of G-d’s artwork, says the Talmud, is that it lives and breathes. Human artists make beautiful but lifeless objects, but G-d created and sustains a vibrant, dynamic world with living creatures, whom He infuses with energy, vigour and spirit. And he went even further. He created creators – living vibrant human beings with the power, intellect and ingenuity to create. The amazing blueprint for all of creation is the ultimate of G-d’s work: the Torah itself. “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world”, says the Talmud (B.R. 1:1). In fact, the Torah is a “shirah” – a song, as the Book of Devarim (31:19) states: “And now write for yourselves this song …;” – a reference to the Mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). The Torah is the song-sheet for the symphony of creation, written by the Master Composer and Conductor Himself, in order to bring joy and goodness to everything. The Book of Proverbs (3:17) says, “Her [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and her paths are those of peace.” Pleasantness is about making the world into a more pleasant place for all to live in, and peace is about creating harmony and order out of chaos. Judaism’s vision is to bring us into alignment and harmony with the Divine design of our lives and of our world.
“Everything is in It”
As the song-sheet for creation the Torah deals comprehensively with everything in the world; and so we are told in Ethics of the Fathers (5:26): “Turn it [the Torah] over and over, for everything is in it.” Judaism deals with every dimension of the human being: physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. Our wide-ranging 613 mitzvoth cover every aspect of human existence. Judaism directs us how to live as individuals, as part of a marriage and a family, and as part of society. It gives instructions on how to pray, to learn, to give, to help, to raise children and to be humble and of good character. Judaism deals with the entire spectrum of human activity: how to govern a country, how to grow crops and care for animals, how to earn money ethically, how to set up courts and administer justice, how to help the poor, how to speak kindly, how to be a good employer and employee, how and what to eat, and how to think. Judaism has a most awesome system of profound intellectual depth, whilst at the same time a most comprehensive program of practical action. Its genius lies in its combination of brilliant ideas and real actions to implement and express them. Judaism holds things together. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, a great nineteenth century commentator from Germany, explains that the Hebrew “shirah” – song – is related to the word “yashar”, which means straight, balanced, having integrity. The Torah is called “sefer hayashar” – the book of “yashar”, since it connects and brings into balance every aspect of our lives in beautiful harmony. By contrast, so much of modern life involves disconnectedness – the separation and alienation of physical from spiritual, of parents from children, of husbands from wives, of work from leisure and from family life, and of people from each other resulting in the break-up of families, communities and wholesome value-based living. Judaism, provides G-d’s model for the deep joy of holistic, balanced and integrated living in sync with the Divine blueprint and song-sheet of the universe. And it gives meaning to and significance to everything we do. We all long for inspiration in a world so often filled with cynical boredom and emptiness. Many people look at life as meaningless, and lacking any lofty purpose, a view that renders human existence pathetic and empty. Judaism teaches that every individual human being constitutes a whole world of importance, and that every action we do is significant. G-d wants us to do good and he records everything we do in order to hold us accountable. He listens to our prayers and hopes, and dispenses successes and failures, blessings and hardships. We may think that making a living, raising our children, and living dayto- day are ordinary, mundane things; Judaism teaches that they are not, and that G-d Himself is interested and involved in our lives – that is the greatest compliment and acknowledgement of our worth by the King of all Kings.
“This is my G-d”
Although G-d created a beautiful world, He also created a world that contains pain and suffering. Nature is beautiful, but it is also hostile to human habitation. Think about how we have to live in houses, wear clothing, use piped water and electricity to function in dignity and protected from the elements. People struggle every day with poverty, disease, and all kinds of other afflictions that make living in this world such a challenge. And then there are the regular struggles of daily life, which are mundane by comparison but nevertheless inflict discomfort on us all. Judaism as the blueprint for the world confronts everything including adversity and suffering. As the song-sheet of the universe it has a framework of ideas and practical laws to deal with hardships and challenges. We can draw inspiration and guidance from words included in one of the great songs of history recorded in the Torah. “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him”, sang Moses and the Jewish people after being so inspired by the great miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. The Talmud reveals layers of meaning of this apparently simple phrase. On one level, the words “I will glorify Him” refer to doing mitzvoth beautifully to the best of our ability, for example, building a beautiful succa, or buying talith of superior quality. When our lives are filled with mitzvoth, performed with loyalty, dedication and beauty, we feel the comfort and upliftment of G-d’s presence. Judaism guides us to have faith in G-d, who controls the world, and teaches us that we are in His protective hands. At this time of year we feel trepidation as we look ahead to the New Year and what it holds. South Africa and Israel have new political leadership, with all the challenges and opportunities that presents; and each one of us on a personal level have our own anxieties and concerns, hopes and aspirations. And yet, the Talmud assures us that Yom Kippur is one of the happiest days of the year. No matter what lies ahead for us in the New Year, Judaism teaches that everything that G-d decrees is for the good even when we can’t see that good for ourselves.
“He is Compassionate”
And in the face of human suffering, Judaism teaches us to reach out and spread the beauty and joy of compassion and loving kindness. Thus, on another level, the words “I will glorify Him” are a translation of a single Hebrew word “anveihu”, which comes from two Hebrew words “ani vehu” – “I and Him”. According to the Talmud, this phrase “I and Him” conveys that we must imitate G-d: “in the same way as He is compassionate so too must you be compassionate”. This is the foundation of one of our most important mitzvoth, that of chesed – loving kindness. The Talmud instructs us in very practical terms: just as G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead, so should we. The way we glorify G-d and bring beauty into the world is to do kindness for others and to help people in need or in pain. We, the South African Jewish Community, can be very proud and grateful to G-d for our achievements in this sacred mission. We reach out to our fellow Jews, and also to our fellow South Africans, realizing that there are so many people who suffer so much affliction. We have the most outstanding welfare organizations, which ensure that no member of our community is left behind to suffer alone and without assistance. In the broader South African fight against poverty, disease and deprivation our outreach organizations and individual congregants continue to do vital work on a disproportionate scale to our numbers. In a world which contains pain, Judaism mandates us to reach out and alleviate human suffering to the best of our abilities, and to create a better world as G-d’s partner in creation. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, one of the great Rabbinic leaders of the post-second world war era, says that the commandment to imitate G-d includes continuing in His path of being a creator. G-d created light, and a physical world for us to live in, so we must continue to build the infrastructure of our world to make it more comfortable for human habitation. Engineering, building, medicine and commerce are all creative pursuits that improve our world. The Talmud says that a judge who dispenses true justice becomes “a partner with G-d in creation”. Law and justice ensure that society can function in a peaceful, moral and ordered way, preventing force and power from being used to oppress the vulnerable. Every activity, from sweeping the streets to fixing the plumbing, that makes the world more comfortable and life more sustainable, is anact of creativity that is a noble fulfillment of theinjunction to imitate G-d. This injunction has a special place in the new South Africa. We as a community are making an incredible contribution with the sacred aim of creating a vibrant successful country. We are involved at every level of society – in law, business, the media, politics, medicine, engineering and others. Our CAP anti-crime project, is now, thank G-d, protecting more than 100 000 people across nine regions of Johannesburg, with expansion in the offing, and has a two year track record of reducing contact crime by at least 80%. Fortresses of Sanctity Judaism spreads the joy and beauty of goodness in the world through building fortresses of sanctity. Returning to the verse, “I will glorify Him”, the Talmud adds yet another layer of meaning to the Hebrew word “anveihu”, saying that it derives from the word “naveh”, which means “abode” or “house”. The response to seeing the power of G-d’s presence at the Red Sea was the commitment to build a home for G-d in this world. That home was our Temple, and today it is our shuls and places of Torah learning, as well as every family in a home based on Judaism. Our shuls and study halls, and our Jewish homes are fortresses of sanctity in a world which is often dislocated from its spiritual and moral roots. We must strive for them to continue to be sanctuaries of kindness and compassion, helping those within, and reaching to those without, and saturated with the dignity and purpose of the mitzvoth, and filled with the beauty and joy of the inspiration of G-d’s presence. We, the South African Jewish Community, can also take exceptional pride in our wonderful shuls across our country. We are famous far and wide for our warm and welcoming shuls and South Africa is the home of the most remarkable return to Judaism in the world. Let us draw strength and inspiration from our fortresses of sanctity, and rise to participate and strengthen them, even as we take shelter in their protective holiness. We must redouble our commitment to creating and nurturing loving, strong and stable families, firmly rooted in Judaism’s world-vision and action plan. Protected and sustained by such fortresses of sanctity we can face with strength and confidence all of the challenges that lie ahead in the new year – the challenges and opportunities of South Africa and Israel under new governments, and the challenges and opportunities confronting us as individuals. Let us all go into the New Year invigorated with the joy and beauty of G-d’s world and His Torah. Let us live with the song of Judaism in our lives, so that we can live with appreciation, balance and togetherness, with inspiration and sanctity. And may G-d inscribe and seal us all for a year of life filled with His abundant goodness.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein
2009 – Reflections | Changing Your World View
Sometimes you see something that changes your world-view. An experience can have a profound impact on your thinking. One of the great Rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, had such an experience when he was on the move as a refugee in the aftermath of World War I. He was travelling in the middle of winter somewhere in Eastern Europe and describes witnessing the following scene:
“I saw a pack of hungry wolves running in search of food. All of a sudden they found the carcass of a small animal lying in their path, and they all pounced on it in ferocious intensity. But they were unable to devour the prey because each one jumped on the other, pushing him aside leaving no room. They bit each other and fought one another until they were all wounded and were bleeding profusely. They fought so hard until they all lay exhausted on the snow and only a few of them, the strongest, at last got their teeth into the carcass. A moment passed, and these too began fighting one another, biting, clawing and wounding; until one of them was victorious, and snatched the carcass into his jaws and ran.
“As I reflected on this savage scene, I observed the victor running in the distance, his path over the snow marked by the bloodstains for the many wounds he has sustained. … Then I took another look at the others. I saw that their wounds were worse … they had lost blood, their strength was gone. What had they gained from all their fighting? The shame of the defeated. They had been beaten by their fellow who had eaten and enjoyed, while they had nothing but their wounds; and their hunger, which had led them to fight in the first place, was still as intense as ever.”
We can live like hungry wolves that attack each other in their selfish desire to satisfy their own needs. Or we can choose to be different. The Book of Proverbs (3:17) tells us the following about the Torah, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are that of peace”. Peace and gentleness, kindness and generosity are at the heart of what Judaism is all about. G-d gave us the Torah so that we can live as elevated, refined human beings and not like wild, selfish animals. Every person is created with a physical, animal dimension and also with a Divine soul, “And the L-rd G-d formed Man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life”. (Genesis 2,7).
Witnessing these wolves in the desolate wastelands of frozen Europe made a huge impression on Rabbi Dessler. Judaism teaches, explains Rabbi Dessler, that there are two primary forces within every human being – the force of giving and the force of taking. All goodness is related to the power of giving and gratitude, of kindness and restraint, and all evil to the power of taking and grabbing for the sake of self-gratification. The wolves tearing each other apart are symbolic of human beings tearing each other apart, financially, emotionally and psychologically, as they snatch from those around them; their story tells us the results of powerful animal forces of cruelty and of being self-centred and selfish, putting one’s own interests first.
Judaism is the philosophy of decent and ethical behaviour, of giving and kindness, it is the philosophy of restraint, self-control and will-power, of transcending a self-centred world-view to embrace a world-view that takes account of and respects other human beings and also, of course, G-d. But it is also about action. It is about making a real practical difference. Judaism takes the most abstract, powerful, moral and spiritual concepts and translates these into dynamic plans of action. That is why there is so much detail in the Halacha – Torah law. Judaism is living wisdom from G-d on how to build a world which is the very opposite of the savagery of animal selfishness exhibited by the hungry wolves that Rabbi Dessler saw. There are two dimensions to creating such a world: on the one hand, ethical, sensitive and decent behaviour, and on the other hand, generosity, kindness and compassion. let’s consider some real practical Torah examples of both.
“Did you deal Faithfully?”
After death, says the Talmud, one of the first questions a person is asked to account for in the heavenly court is, “Did you deal faithfully in business?” Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, a famous Torah scholar and author, writes about the scrupulous ethical halachic standards of his illustrious grandfather, Rabbi Aharon Yitzchak Halevi Epstein:
All those who had business dealings with my grandfather, Jew or non-Jew, recall their relationship with him with the utmost admiration. Not only was he more than fair in paying his workers a proper wage, but whenever the slightest question arose as to whether he owed money, he would immediately agree to pay, no questions asked. He used to say, ‘If a spoon with even the slightest trace of suspicion of being treif became mixed up with many kosher spoons, I would certainly kasher all of them, as the din requires. Why should I treat a monetary question with any less gravity than a question in kashrut? On the contrary, in a question of kashrut the sin is only between myself and Heaven, whereas in a monetary matter it includes both Heaven and my fellow man.’
Sensitivity about causing another person any emotional pain or even discomfort is another important value in Judaism. The book of Kohelet (12:14) states, “For G-d will judge every deed – even everything hidden – whether good or bad.” The Talmud says that “even everything hidden” refers to any inadvertent discomfort caused to another person, such as killing an insect in front of someone who finds such conduct repugnant. Rashi explains that it is “hidden” from the perpetrator, meaning that he inflicts the discomfort on another person inadvertently. The Talmud adds that the phrase “whether good or bad” includes hurting another when trying to do good. It gives as an example dispensing charity to a poor person in public in a way that embarrasses the recipient. The Talmud also says that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins bein adam lechavero – between one person and another – unless one is forgiven by one’s victim and has made amends, if possible, for the harm caused.
Another important aspect of Torah ethics is found in the laws governing speech. This is an extract from a letter written by the Vilna Gaon to his family:
Every word is brought in judgment [before G-d], not even a small utterance will be lost [and not judged by G-d] … because the sins of the tongue are above all else, like the statement of our Sages ZL (Tosefta Pe’ah ch.l) ‘… and lashon hara is equal to them all’. And why should I elaborate on this sin which is the most severe of all the sins? ‘All a man’s efforts for his mouth’ (Kohelet 6:7). [In reference to this verse] our Sages ZL have said that all a man’s mitzvot and Torah will not suffice [to save him from] that which comes out of his mouth … In forbidden matters [of speechl, such as lashon hara and scoffing and oaths and vows and conflict and curses, and especially in shul and on Shabbat and Yam Tov … not even one word will be lost and not written down [by G-d in order to be judged] …
The Vilna Gaon also cites the Talmud’s words that “every moment that a person closes their mouth [so as not to speak lashon hara]they merit a hidden light that no angel or creature can imagine.”
Two crucial mitzvot are “Chesed”- acts of loving kindness – and “Tzedaka”- giving money to those in need. The Talmud notes that ‘chesed’ is so important that G-d chose to place a description of acts of kindness at the beginning and the end of the Torah. The fact that G-d made clothes for Adam and Eve, is recorded towards the beginning, and the fact that He buried Moshe, is recorded towards the end. G-d’s compassion and kindness serve as our guide and inspiration. The Chumash says, “You shall walk in His ways”. The Talmud explains this mitzvah as the obligation to emulate G-d: “In the same way that He is compassionate so should you be, in the same way that He is gracious; so too should you be.” The Talmud also gives specific actions to be emulated. The examples given relate to helping people in need. We are told that G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead and, therefore, so should we do all these deeds of loving kindness.
Some words cannot be properly translated. The word ‘Tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, a term which denotes the discretionary and kindly act of giving money to a needy cause. ‘Tzedaka’ encompasses much more than that. The word ‘tzedaka’ echoes the Hebrew root ‘Tzedek’, which means justice. And so, giving to the poor is not merely charitable but is the fulfilment of the requirement of basic justice. Justice demands that those who have inadequate resources are properly assisted. Tzedaka is not only about personal discretion: it is also about the obligation and responsibility to effectively deal with need.
Moreover, the amount to be given is not discretionary. The Halacha requires one to give between 10 and 20 percent of disposable income as tzedaka. There are many nuanced rules on how this is to be calculated, taking careful account of the unique circumstances of every individual. Generosity is not something that can be based on gut instinct. Judaism teaches that less than ten percent is miserly. And even ten percent is considered merely average. Giving a fifth of one’s income is regarded as real generosity. Very wealthy people are allowed to give more than that, because doing so doesn’t risk impoverishing them.
There is much instructive detail in the commentary of various authorities on how to calculate the ten percent. For example, it is generally held that the ten percent is calculated after tax, and not on pre-tax income. The problem is also addressed of someone who cannot afford even to give ten percent. Another area that requires direction from the Halacha is how to allocate one’s tzedaka money; how much should be given, to whom, and to what causes. The mitzvah of tzedaka needs to be carefully thought out using detailed halachic guidelines and not merely be left to chance. Judaism is the science of morality and truth and science requires precision. A competent halachic expert needs to be consulted on these issues.
Tzedaka has a powerful impact on the world. The Vilna Gaon made the bold claim that if everyone would give their particular required amount, it would be possible to alleviate all poverty and need in society. We express its spiritual power at this time of year at the climax of the Unetane Tokef prayer: “Repentance and Prayer and Tzedaka remove the evil decree.”
The substantial G-d-given rewards for this mitzvah are set out very clearly in the Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 247:2,3,4):
No one ever becomes poor from [giving] tzedaka, and no bad thing or damage comes as result of it, as it states ‘The product of tzedaka shall be peace’ (Isaiah 32:17) “Whoever has compassion on the poor, the Holy One Blessed be He has compassion on him. Note: A person should recognise that he requests sustenance from the Holy One Blessed be He, and in the same way that he requests from the Holy One Blessed be He to take heed of his plea so should he take heed of the pleas of the poor … “Tzedaka sets aside all harsh decrees, and in a famine it saves from death … and it brings wealth. And it is forbidden to test G-d except in this matter [that is, that it brings wealth] …
Much of this is unusual. Normally the world operates in accordance with the Talmudic principle that reward for doing the mitzvot is primarily a matter for the next world, and not for this. Tzedaka is the exception, ensuring reward in both worlds. When it comes to tzedaka we are even allowed to test whether G-d will fulfill His promise of financial reward.
Many people think that giving amounts to self-sacrifice. Tzedaka shows the opposite to be true. It shows how we are enriched – through giving to others. The power of giving underpins all relationships, says Rabbi Dessler. The conventional wisdom is that the more you love someone, the more you give to them. Rabbi Dessler cites from the Talmud to show that the opposite is true. The more you give to someone, the more you love them. The love of parents towards children is based on the fact that they give so much to their children. Love in a marriage is also based on the power of giving, not only the power of practical giving and kindness, but the ultimate gift that one spouse gives to another, and that is the gift of helping them to become a more complete person. Giving leads to loving, and it is the foundation on all relationships, including the relationship that we have with G-d, and so, Rabbi Dessler says that we need to strengthen the force of giving within our hearts.
Drinking Salt Water
The wolves that Rabbi Dessler witnessed that day, through their vicious selfishness and unbridled instinct for self-gratification, harmed themselves. They were worn out and bleeding on the snow. A world of unscrupulous savagery and of taking is a world of destruction. Even the winner in the end is severely hurt. Like the hungry wolves, people often tear each other apart through unethical behaviour, lashon hara, and other nastiness. A world which functions with Torah principles, such as honesty in business, not speaking lashon hara, chesed and tzedaka, is not only more moral, kind and compassionate, but it is also far more peaceful, pleasant and conducive for human civilisation. G-d has created the world in such a way that it functions best when we live in accordance with the moral principles which He has given us in the Torah; as the Talmud says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.
Rabbi Dessler explains that the more a person takes, the more empty they feel, and that is especially so when a person blindly pursues materialism. Materialism brings with it jealousy and competition. Envy and competition often fill people with anxiety and cause much suffering, even sometimes financial, as people buy things they cannot afford so as to keep up with others. Being connected to G-d, and having faith and trust in Him, means realising that everything we have or don’t have, and all our experiences, whether painful or joyful, are part of His plan. And that gives peace of mind – noone else has what I “should” have.
Taking selfishly, paradoxically, leaves an emotional and spiritual vacuum. We all need physical things to live in the world, but they should be there for a higher purpose and the loftier meaning of living a good, moral and spiritual life in accordance with the eternal values of G-d’s Torah. Physical things alone can never fill a person’s soul. You can never bond with an object. The Vilna Gaon compares pursuit of materialism for its own sake to drinking salt water when one is thirsty; it just makes you more thirsty.
A while ago, I discovered a phrase that seeks to crystallise the essence of Judaism. Since I first saw it, it has stuck in my mind. It was a phrase coined by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory. Rabbi Wolbe was one of the great Rabbinic figures in Israel in the last century, where he lived after surviving the war by escaping to Sweden. I had the privilege of meeting him only months before he passed on. He was very frail at the time, and yet he was so kind to me during our short time together. I will never forget his encouragement and warmth at a time just before I was to commence my work as Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Wolbe writes that Torah Judaism can be summed up in one phrase which is the title of one his books “World of Loving Friendship”. This is the phrase that has remained with me ever since I first read it. Mitzvot are not merely a list of do’s and dont’s, but are part of our personal relationship with G-d. Mitzvot make up our world of loving friendship with G-d. Hashem loves us and when we perform His Commandments we enter His world of love.
This refers not only to the type of inter-personal mitzvot discussed above, such as lashon hara and tzedaka, but also to the spiritual/religious mitzvot that relate directly to G-d, such as prayer, learning Torah, putting on tephilin and mezuzot. Shabbat, for example, is a day of loving friendship between us and G-d, and between one another, when families and friends have quality time to connect in a spiritually. and emotionally inspiring environment. G-d’s world of love manifests in the numerous aspects of the laws and principles of Judaism. Rabbi Dessler explains that our relationship with G-d revolves around love, which is expressed through our gratitude, and our loyal service to Him. All of His Mitzvot envelop us with the warmth of purpose and meaning, with the inspiration of giving and compassion, self-transcendence and holiness.
Let us this Yom Kippur rededicate ourselves, as individuals and as part of the special South African Jewish community, to living in G-d’s world of loving friendship.
My wife, Gina and I wish you G-d’s blessings for a good and sweet year, and may we all together be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein
2010 – Reflections | Our Rallying Cry
Sometimes there is a whole world of significance contained in a moment. An incident took place during the Anglo-Boer War which exemplifies so much of what Jewish destiny is all about. An article published in the London Jewish Chronicle of 20 September 1901 (my grateful thanks to David Sacks for his research) reports from the battlefields of South Africa that a British soldier who was Jewish, said that he, together with another British soldier, had taken prisoner a Boer soldier, and that as they had knocked down and disarmed him they heard him call out the ‘Shema’. No further details are mentioned in the article. Stop for a moment and think about this. Here you have two Jewish soldiers fighting each other, one in the British army, and the other in the Boer army. They meet on the battlefield. At a time of maximum danger and vulnerability, the Jewish Boer soldier calls out the words of the Shema. Both soldiers recognise these words. The article in the London Jewish Chronicle unfortunately provides very few details. Who were these two soldiers? What were their names? Why were they fighting in these armies? What happened after this? Did the two embrace in tears? The sketchy details and many unanswered questions add to the poignancy of this story. In the haze of the chaos and the anonymity of a far flung battlefield on the southern tip of Africa two Jews found each other through the words of the Shema.
Somehow the words of “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” have become deeply embedded in the Jewish mind, soul and psyche. There is another incredibly powerful story about the Shema, widely documented in a number of different media. You may have heard of the moving events of 1945 when rescue efforts for survivors of the Holocaust were undertaken by Jews around the world. In May 1945 Rabbi Eliezer Silver of the United States and Dayan Grunfeld of the United Kingdom went to Europe as chaplains to help with the liberation of the death camps. They were told that there were many Jewish children in a monastery in Alsace-Lorraine, where they had been sent when their parents had been taken away for extermination. The rabbis went to the monastery and asked the priest in charge to release the Jewish children in the monastery into their care. The priest refused on the grounds that it was unclear whether any of the children were Jewish, and that without proper proof of Jewish identity he could not release any. Due to the circumstances and chaos of the war years it was impossible to obtain the necessary documentation and the rabbis asked to see a list of the names of the children. They recognised many Jewish names on the list, but the priest persisted in refusing to release the children without any further proper proofs. The rabbis made an unexpected request; they asked if they could return that evening when the children were going to sleep. That evening the rabbis did so and they walked through the aisles between the beds calling out “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”! Many children burst into tears and cried out “mommy” in the various languages they spoke. Many had been in the monastery since 1939, were still very young, and had been raised in the monastery in another religion. The Shema, which their mothers had said with them as they went to sleep each night, was so deeply embedded that they had not forgotten it.
What is in the Shema that has so captured the Jewish soul and imagination? Part of the answer is action based. The Shema is an important part of practical Judaism. The verse, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” is one of the first verses a child learns, and it is the final verse a person should say before leaving this world. It is a mitzvah to say the Shema every day, once in the morning in the first quarter of the day, and then again after dark. This mitzvah includes more than just the first line of Shema Yisrael, but also the three paragraphs that come from the Chumash, and that we are all familiar with in our siddurim. We do not just say the words mechanically. The Shulchan Aruch says that while saying the verse, “Hear O Israel …”, one should have in mind to accept G-d’s authority in our lives and to crown Him as king in heaven and on earth and in all four directions of the universe.
Radical New Idea
Another reason for the Shema’s impact is the power of its ideas. The Shema contains one of the revolutionary concepts of Judaism, that is the unity of G-d, that G-d is one. I say revolutionary because at the time the Torah was given the rest of the world believed that there were many gods, each governing a different force. The ancient people of our world looked at the diverse and conflicting forces and saw within them competing deities. Each divinity had its own sphere of influence. Many people believed in different gods controlling the sun and the moon, day and night, and winter and summer.
When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai a radical new idea arose – that everything you see or perceive, no matter how diverse, different and sometimes even conflicting, originates from one G-d, a supreme and almighty being, Who has no peer or colleague, no equal, no comparison, Who is the source of all life and the original Creator and former of all things. He is the G-d of light and darkness, of joy and pain, of summer and winter, of prosperity and famine, of suffering and contentment, of life and death, of mercy and judgment. That is why we believe that everything that happens, even if we cannot see why at the time, is for a good purpose, and comes from G-d Who is compassionate and loving.
This philosophy means that we look at the world and see an underlying unity of purpose. G-d put everything together to work in harmony like a composer who assembles a diverse orchestra. Through the “Shema” we see a world wholeness and integration, not fragmentation and chaos. G-d also used the principle of unity as the foundation of humanity. There are so many kinds of people with different appearances and cultures and ideas, who live in far flung and different places and yet we are all one family. The Talmud says that G-d ensured the equality of all people through creating us from a single male ancestor – Adam – and a single female ancestor – Eve. He did this, explain our Sages, in order to defeat racism which seeks to claim that there are intrinsic inequalities between different races of people.
G-d’s oneness is also about how to live with integrity. The word “integrity” is related to the word “integrated” or “integral”, referring to wholeness. Judaism teaches that we cannot compartmentalise our lives into the religious and the secular, the moral and the amoral, serving G-d on the one hand and personal pursuits on the other. I have a copy of a letter written in 1954 by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinical thinkers of the 20th century to a doctor who was struggling with his identity as a religious Jew with a medical career. Rav Hutner writes that it is wrong for the doctor to view himself as leading a “double life”, with his secular career on the one hand, and his religious identity and responsibilities on the other. Rav Hutner says that if you have one house and rent a room in another building, and live in both, then one can say you are living a “double life”. However, if you have one house and it has many rooms, and you live in the different rooms but all under one roof you are not living a “double life”, but a “broad life”. The idea behind this analogy is that if the doctor sees his Judaism and his religious commitments to G-d as belonging in shul only, and his medical career as completely separate, then he leads a double life. The ideal is not to lead a double life, but a broad life, which means a life under one roof. Service of G-d has one roof but many rooms, and in each a different dimension. Some rooms are about the spiritual service of G-d. Others are about other kinds of service. One room can certainly house the service of G-d by the practice of medicine which helps to heal people and constitutes acts of kindness; part of one’s G-d-given mandate in the world is to reach out to others as an exemplary ambassador of G-d and His values, and generally to make the world into a better place.
Rav Hutner says the word “Echad”, “One”, in the Shema, in its fullest sense of the word, means this : we are literally under one roof of G-d. In fact, the Talmud says that the letter “chet” in the word “Echad” has a roof with a crown on it, referring to G-d’s kingship over the world. Everything that we do is under His direction. Judaism is not narrow. Judaism is made up of commandments, instructions, philosophies and ideas emanating from G-d that cover every dimension of human existence. As the Misnah says, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it”. And the Talmud says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. “G-d is One” means that He is the one G-d that we answer to, and that we loyally live with His values and principles in shul and at the office, on the sports field and in our homes, on holiday and at work, in our families and with our possessions, in the kitchen and the bedroom, in our marriages and with our children, with our money and with our siddur, with people and with G-d himself. The Talmud says this world is His palace. This whole world is G-d’s home. We live in His home and it is His presence that holds everything together. Every part of our lives and our existence is connected to Him in some way. A lawyer serves G-d through pursuing justice, a doctor by healing the sick and alleviating human suffering, an entrepreneur by building society through providing goods or services and giving people the dignity of work, a mother by nurturing and raising her children and running a household. And it is not only about a person’s job. It is about how we live every minute of every day. Judaism teaches that all human activities – eating, sleeping, walking, working etc – can and should be directed for a higher good and lofty purpose.
Our Rallying Cry
The first verse of the Shema has found its way into the heart and soul of the Jewish people, not only because of the power of its ideas, but also because of the power of its history. Although it appears in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the first verse of the Shema was actually articulated generations before. We have an oral tradition, handed down and eventually recorded in the Talmud, of what happened when the Shema was spoken for the very first time and by whom. The Talmud relates how Jacob was on his deathbed and called his twelve sons together to give them a final message before his passing. It relates how he had a prophecy about the end of days. He could see with clarity the future destiny of the Jewish people and the time of the final and ultimate redemption of the world and he wanted to tell his sons about it. It was a natural human emotion of a father and grandfather, and ancestor looking ahead to the destination of the generations that would follow. G-d, however, took away his prophecy and he could no longer perceive it. He did not know why he had lost his power of prophecy, and the Talmud relates that he thought that perhaps this had happened because one or other of his sons was not worthy. He knew that his grandfather, Abraham, had had a son, Ishmael, who had gone off the path of morality and his father’s noble mission. He knew too that his own father had had a son, Esau, who had also strayed from the divine mission. And so he asked his sons if they were still loyal and committed, and according to the Talmud, at that point all of his sons answered in unison, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”.
Of course, Jacob’s other name was Israel. So, when they said “Hear O Israel”, they were actually saying: hear, our father, Jacob/Israel, we are with you, we are loyal, we are committed; your G-d is our G-d and we are together with you in this important mission for the future of our people. At that moment that sentence became part of the Jewish soul and part of Jewish life. It became a symbol of Jewish loyalty and commitment to G-d throughout the ages, no matter what destiny awaited us. It became our rallying cry. And so when we say the words, “Shema Yisrael”, “Hear O Israel”, according to the Midrash and according to Rabeinu Yonah, we should be thinking of Jacob, Israel, our forefather and the fact that we are still loyal after all of these years, still committed to G-d and committed to the moral vision and values of our people given to us by G-d and faithfully transmitted, from generation to generation.
What a remarkable and miraculous story the history of our people has been. It is a story of twists and turns, pain and joy, destruction and victory, trials and triumphs and ultimately one of miraculous and awe-inspiring vitality and endurance. And it is a story of faith and optimism, with redemption in the end. When we say the Shema we feel the broad sweep of our history and our destiny from its origins in G-d’s promise to our forefathers all the way until the end of days.
Faith in the Future
Jacob was unable to tell his children about the end of days and the ultimate destination of the Jewish people. Jacob was concerned, as we all are, and have been from the beginning of time, about the future. Anxiety about the uncertainty of the future is part of the human condition. . In particular, in these times, as we the Jewish people look out on to the horizon, we see gathering clouds of foreboding, especially in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and, of course, we have our own local challenges here in South Africa, and our own personal challenges. What carries us through all of this? It is our faith, our faith expressed in the words of the Shema, our faith in G-d and our faith in His values as expressed through His Torah which He so kindly and graciously gave us.
Our future as the Jewish people and our future as the South African Jewish community depends on our transmitting the values of “Shema Yisrael” and indeed all of our Torah to our children. When Jacob heard that his children were loyal and committed to these values, he was comforted even though he did not know what the future held. When Jacob heard his sons say these words he said in response, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” He was overjoyed when he heard his sons commit to the Jewish future. He had lost his prophecy. He did not know the future, but he was comforted by the knowledge that his children were with him and that they would continue the values encapsulated in “Shema Yisrael”. That was his guarantee for the future, and that is ours.
The Shema has become the badge of honour and hope of the Jewish people, through which we have bravely and courageously held on to our beliefs with love and devotion, and care, and optimism for the future. Let us make these words of the Shema part of our lives. Let us say them with our children. Let us say them ourselves every day, in the morning and at night, in times of joy and light, and in times of darkness and pain. G-d is with us in all of this. In G-d’s providence and guidance we march forward into the future. That is why at the climax of the Neilah service, near the dramatic end of Yom Kippur we call out the words of the Shema together as a community with reverence, fervour and passion, with optimism and inspiration.
Gina and I wish you G-d’s blessings for a good and sweet year, and may we all together be sealed in the Book of Life.
2011 – Reflections
In a memorable opening passage to his book, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman relates the following:
It’s Friday night, raining one of those torrential downpours that we get in Washington, D.C., and I am walking from the Capitol to my home in Georgetown, getting absolutely soaked. A United States Capitol policeman is at my side, as we make our way up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building toward our distant goal, a four-and-a-half-mile walk. Before leaving my Senate office I changed into sneakers, but now they are full of water. As we slosh forward, a Capitol police car travels alongside for extra security at a stately pace. But I do not— indeed I cannot—accept a ride in the car.
What accounts for this strange scene? The presence of the two policemen is easily explained. As the Senate’s sergeant at arms, who oversees the Capitol police, once said to me, “Senator, if something happens to you on my watch while you’re walking home, it will be bad for my career.” So that’s why the police are with me.
But why am I walking instead of riding on a rainy night?
Because it’s Friday night, the Sabbath, the day of rest when observant Jews like me do not ride in cars. That would violate the letter and spirit of the Sabbath laws as the Bible and Jewish rabbinical opinions make clear. Normally I get home from my work in time for the start of the Sabbath—Shabbat in Hebrew, or Shabbos in Yiddish—at sundown on Friday. But on this occasion, important votes on the budget of the United States kept me from doing so.
Voting in the Senate is conducted the old fashioned way, by voice, and there are no proxies. You can’t vote on behalf of one of your colleagues. If I miss an important vote, it would mean that on that particular issue the people of my home state of Connecticut would lose their representation. They would lose their say in the running of our country, the spending of their tax
payments, or the safety and quality of their lives. That is something my religious beliefs tell me I cannot allow, even on the Sabbath, so when there are votes in the Senate after sundown on Friday, I vote and then I walk home.
I’ve taken this long walk from the Capitol to my home on thirty or forty occasions in my twenty-two-year senatorial career. The police officers who accompany me normally provide not only security but welcome companionship and conversation. Many are devout Christians. The journey takes about an hour and a half, and we’ve had some wonderful discussions about the Sabbath in particular and faith in general. But not tonight. It’s just too wet and miserable to talk much. It is now 10:00 p.m., and my police escort and I take a break and slip under the shelter of a convenience store awning.”
Senator Lieberman’s book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath describes how keeping Shabbat has been so important to him in his busy life as a United States senator. It is a powerful statement of the eternal relevance of Shabbat as an island of peace in a turbulent world; but it is also a testimony to his courage and strength of character, to be a proud Shabbat- observant Jew in a predominantly Christian country.
When he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in the elections of 2000, Senator Lieberman made known publicly that he would not be campaigning on Shabbos and indeed the media questioned his suitability for such a high ranking position given the constraints of his Shabbat observance. It takes enormous courage to stand proudly before the world and declare one’s loyalty to G-d and His Torah. It is this strength of character which has made Senator Lieberman a respected icon of values and principles in America.
The Prime Ministers
Another story: On the 25th of May 1979, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hosted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for lunch. As Begin emerged from his car at the entrance to 10 Downing Street, British journalists were waiting to ask him some questions. The following exchange took place, as recorded by Yehudah Avner, former advisor to four Israeli Prime Ministers and author of The Prime Ministers:
“Are you going to ask Mrs. Thatcher for her support of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?” fired another [journalist], in a la-di-dah accent …
Frigidly the Prime Minister answered “No, sir—under no circumstances.”
“Because, sir, Jerusalem was a Jewish capital long before London was a British capital. When King David moved the capital of his kingdom from Hebron, where he had reigned for seven years, to Jerusalem, where he reigned for thirty three years, the civilised world had never heard of London. In fact, they had never heard of Great Britain,” and he turned on his heels towards the door, where Mrs. Thatcher was waiting to greet him.
It took a lot of courage for Begin to publicly challenge one of the strongest Western leaders of the time, the famous “Iron Lady.” In his private discussions with her he was even more forceful, challenging her on why Britain had refused to bomb the railroads to Auschwitz in 1944-5. Prime Minister Begin was proud of his Judaism; he insisted that any official banquet, such as at the White House, be kosher; he was the one who instituted that El-Al never fly on Shabbat or Yom Tov; and it was these same principles which empowered him to make peace with Egypt when the opportunity arose.
Both Lieberman and Begin drew their strength from Torah principles. Senator Lieberman describes how “Observing the Sabbath is a commandment I have embraced… It feels less like a commandment and more like a gift from G-d. It is a gift I received from my parents who, in turn, received it from generations of Jews before them in a line of transmission that goes back to Moses.” Torah observance frames his worldview and his decisions. So too, in a different context, Prime Minister Begin had the Divine principles of our Torah heritage to frame his decisions and actions in leading the modern State of Israel. These principles gave him the courage and conviction to stand firm in his crucial decisions.
Upon the conclusion of each of the books of the Chumash, the reader says aloud—and the congregation repeats after him— Chazak chazak venitchazek, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.”
We say this sentence because the Torah is the source of all strength in life. It illuminates our path, giving us stability, a sense of direction, and solid values upon which to build our lives. We say “be strong, be strong” because we have to be strong in our commitment to a life based on the values that Hashem has given us. We then add the reflexive venitchazek, “may we be strengthened,” because it works both ways: to live according to Torah principles requires strength, but it is the very same Torah which gives us strength.
There is a famous verse in Psalms (29:11) which says,“Hashem will give strength to His nation, Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” The Talmud asks, what does it mean that Hashem will give His people strength? The Talmud answers that Hashem gives His people strength through the Torah. The Torah represents our relationship with Hashem, the foundation of our strength and courage.
Faith in G-d gives us the confidence to face whatever the future has in store for us and the fortitude to confront uncertainty and adversity with the knowledge that we are not alone and that everything is part of a Divine plan which is, ultimately, for the good. In the Torah we have G-d’s will outlined for us, giving us not only strength and conviction but also motivation; it provides us with a framework of meaning and purpose which elevates everything we do. Principle-based living means we have a firm foundation for everything we do. Thus we say at the conclusion of each book of the Torah, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.”
Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm, said that strength and courage are the central pillars of the service of Hashem. When people feel weakened and discouraged, they lack the strength and resolve to act properly; good morale is crucial for success in any endeavour in life. The Alter of Kelm cites Joshua as an example of this. Joshua assumed the leadership after Moshe—indeed a daunting challenge. Moshe gives him encouragement and says “be strong and courageous.” G-d Himself gives Joshua encouragement as well by saying to him twice chazak ve’ematz “be strong and courageous.”
We see how necessary encouragement is, even for someone as great as Joshua—a man who experienced the Exodus and witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea; who heard G-d’s voice speak at Mount Sinai; who for forty years in the desert saw the manna fall from heaven and the miraculous well provide water; who had the courage and conviction to stand up to the other spies’ false reports about the Land of Israel. If even a great leader like Joshua needed encouragement, all the more so do we need it.
That morale and courage are vital to success is seen in a special mitzvah regarding troops going out to battle. Just before troops go out to war, a special priest designated for this purpose reads out a declaration to the soldiers.
The Torah (Devarim 20:3-4) says,
“When you approach the battle, the priest should come and speak to the nation and he should say to them, ‘Hear O Israel, today you are going out to battle against your enemies. Let your heart not be faint, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them because the Lord your G-d is walking with you to do battle against your enemies in order to save you.’”
An integral part of the preparations for battle was that the designated priest had to encourage the people. The verse has four expressions for “do not be afraid.” Hebrew, G-d’s holy language, is indeed very rich; each word refers to a different kind of fear and the commentators discuss what is meant by each expression.
Rashi on this verse quotes the Talmud (Sotah 42a) which says that these four expressions refer to four different tactics that were employed by armies in those days: “Do not be faint of heart” refers to the neighing of the horses. The armies back then would stir up their horses so that they would neigh and the noise would intimidate the enemy. “Do not be afraid” refers to the clattering of shields. Armies would scare their opponents by rubbing their shields together to make a terrible noise. ”Do not panic” refers to the trumpets which the enemy would blow to induce fear. “Do not be broken before them” refers to the shouting of the enemies, who would scream to scare the soldiers. These different methods of making noise were used to intimidate the opposition. The designated priest would therefore read out a declaration to the soldiers, saying: you are going into battle and you are going to hear all these noises; the enemy is trying to intimidate you, but don’t be afraid for G-d is with you.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, says the idea behind this mitzvah applies not only to war but to the battlefield of life. On an individual level, when we face temptation or the challenge of doing the right thing, we can feel very intimidated and end up doing the wrong thing simply because we are too weak to have the courage to stand up to the evil inclination.
All the mitzvot we do require courage and inner strength. The Talmud brings Shemittah as an example of this—the Sabbatical year when the farmer has to let his land lie fallow and allow anyone to come and take of the produce. Other examples are tzedaka, which necessitates parting with between 10% and 20% of our disposable income; not speaking lashon hara; observing the Torah laws of business ethics; eating kosher; or closing one’s shop on Shabbos—these all require inner strength and resolve.
The Chafetz Chaim also applies this concept on a societal level: following the principles of the Torah means we are committed to a Jewish worldview, which requires courage because it is not easy to go against the popular view. The enemies of long ago employed various methods to intimidate soldiers—neighing horses, clattering shields, trumpets and shouting. Today, similar tactics are employed though the “noise” is different. People try to intimidate us to go against our beliefs and what we know is true. We are surrounded by many noisy voices which seek to change our minds by employing bullying tactics; they do not deal with the issues at hand, but just create a lot of noise. In the face of such intimidation it is not easy to stand up for the truth of the Torah. It is rather poignant that the Chafetz Chaim said these words in the early part of the 20th century; how much more so are they applicable today, when the world we live in is indeed very noisy and where we get put down when we stand up for our beliefs.
A case in point is the State of Israel, which has been subjected to an ongoing international campaign of deligitimisation. Those who stand up in defence of Israel’s right to exist are hit hard with powerful intimidation. Our response and resolve must be based on the essential principles of our Torah, which eloquently shows that the Jewish People are not colonialists in Israel but have a far deeper Divine and historical connection to the Land of Israel than any other nation on earth has to its country.
Similarly, there are public attacks launched by prominent atheists against our fundamental beliefs. At other times this noise appears in more subtle ways through the values of materialism and instant gratification which bombard us constantly. The Chafetz Chaim says we must ignore the noise so that we can firmly listen and adhere to our Torah principles. Quietly and confidently, we must maintain our moral and intellectual clarity to be able to refute, and stand up to the prevailing conventional wisdoms.
Our faith is supported by powerful arguments from science and logic, and from history itself. We must realise that our faith and our Torah came to us directly from G-d Himself some 3,323 years ago, and have been passed down through the ages, from generation to generation. We are a people with a rich history rooted in Divine revelation; we have had many prophets and scholars throughout the ages who have passed on our tradition from one generation to the next. We must stay focused on our moral, intellectual and spiritual heritage, which has stood the test of time. This requires clarity and courage; we must ignore the noise and follow the path of true conviction without being intimidated.
Heroes on the Battlefield of Life
This struggle—be it internal with ourselves or external with the world at large—extends to all aspects of life. We are all soldiers on the battlefield; every person must fight to earn an honest living, to be a loving and faithful spouse, to raise children and support a family, and confront the potential dangers of ill health and poverty whilst maintaining loyalty to our Torah principles.
To face these challenges requires determination and bravery. Those who do so—who live productive, mitzvah-filled lives, building families and communities—are indeed heroes, no less than great military heroes who have triumphed in battle. Even more heroic, sometimes, are those who battle serious illness, physical disability or financial crisis, and do so with dignity, faith and strength.
The famous Unetaneh Tokef prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur says, “All mankind pass before You like bnei maron.” Bnei maron is a phrase from the Mishnah, which the Gemara says can have at least two meanings: flocks of sheep or soldiers of King David. Perhaps such diverse interpretations convey the message that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we come before G-d to be judged on whether we live like weak following sheep who give in to the pressures of the moment or whether we live bravely and courageously, like soldiers, prepared to fight for our Torah principles.
Perhaps this is why the Gemara refers specifically to King David, a man well known not only as a powerful king and great military leader, but also as a Torah scholar and righteous soulful man who authored the Book of Psalms. King David, a brave defender of the Jewish people and Torah truth, also struggled heroically with many painful challenges throughout his life, incurring the anger and persecution of King Saul, and then facing enormous personal tragedy including the death of his newborn son and the military rebellion started against him by another son, Absalom, who forced him to flee for his life. King David also fought the battle of true repentance following the rebuke of the prophet Nathan. We seek to emulate King David and as strong soldiers we battle internally, with ourselves and our shortcomings, striving to become better people, to repent and return to Hashem.We also do battle externally, with circumstances and events, as we work to earn an honest living, nurture strong and loving marriages, raise good children, keep halacha, do the mitzvot and help those in need. Those who fight valiantly and do their best to live good, productive lives in accordance with the will of Hashem are true heroes.
Do not “melt the heart”
We are social beings. One of the greatest sources of encouragement that we receive is from each other. We are always looking around to see what other people are doing, which can be intimidating but can also be encouraging.
There is another fascinating law, regarding who can be conscripted as a soldier in a war of discretion (i.e. not a milchemet mitzvah, which is an obligatory war of self-defence or securing the boundaries of the G-d-given borders of the Land of Israel, for which everyone is required to go out to war). There are certain categories of people who are exempt from a war of discretion (which, incidentally, the king could only wage with the permission of the High Court of 71 judges), one of which is a person who is “afraid and soft of heart.” Such a person should go home, so that “he should not melt the heart of his brothers like his heart [is melted].” (Devarim 20:8). If he is afraid and his heart is weak within him he must go home because he will melt the heart of those around him and lower their morale.
If one person is afraid, it is contagious; everyone is looking to the other for support. It is very important that we not dishearten each other and this is why the Gemara says it is forbidden to tell anyone gratuitous bad news, namely, information which others have no practical reason to know, as opposed to a situation where they need know what happened in order to comfort the mourners or visit the sick.
On the positive side, courage and conviction are also contagious and easily spread. We therefore must encourage each other—our spouse, children, friends, fellow congregants; we need to exude positivity, energy and courage which in turn will strengthen and uplift everyone around us.
“You shall strengthen him”
The Torah says (Vayikra 25:35) that “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters, you shall strengthen him, the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.” Rashi, based on the Talmud, says this verse means that we must strengthen such a person before they have fallen because once a person falls down completely it is much harder to help him stand up.
Our morning prayers describes G-d as the One “Who supports those who are falling.” It does not say He supports those who have already fallen; the idea is to support people before they fall because once they have fallen they are disempowered, and it is much harder for them to recover. If a person’s business is starting to fail, we must help him so that it does not collapse entirely to the point where he requires welfare money. If a couple’s marriage is starting to fail, we must help them so that it does not collapse and end in divorce. If a person’s health is starting to fail, we must help him on his way to recovery.
Part of our task in this world is to strengthen people. Acts of kindness such as visiting the sick, comforting mourners, burying the dead, clothing the naked and giving charity all give strength to those in need. But care should be taken not to do these acts in a condescending manner, which makes the recipients feel despondent and disempowered, dependent on the goodwill of others and unable to help themselves.
“Hope in Hashem”
Courage comes from hope. The Torah strengthens us by giving us hope. The Psalm (ch.27) we say at this time of year concludes with the verse “Hope in Hashem, strengthen yourself and He will give you courage; and hope in Hashem.”
The Malbim explains that only hope in Hashem—as opposed to man—leads to strength and courage. The repetition at the end of the verse “and hope in Hashem” indicates a cyclical relationship: courage comes from Hashem and in turn leads to a life of hope, which leads to greater courage.
Faith in Hashem gives us real hope, knowing that whatever happens is part of His ultimate plan for the good. This hope is fundamental to a believing Jew. The Gemara (Shabbos 31a) says that when we leave this world we are judged before G-d on how we lived our lives. The Gemara lists specific questions with which the judgment process begins, one of which is tzipita li’yeshua, did you long for the redemption?
This question relates to one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith set out by Maimonides, based on the Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin which enumerates the principles of faith that every Jew has to embrace in order to gain entrance into the Next World. These principles are the basics of Judaism, including belief in one G-d; belief in reward and punishment; and belief in the fact that G-d gave us the Torah. Included in these principles is the belief that the Messiah will bring the Final Redemption to the world.
The question of tzipita li’yeshua, did you long for the redemption, relates to the principle of faith that there will be a Final Redemption. The Hebrew word tzipita, from the root tzopheh, means not only to look but also to hope, to long for something, as we do when we are waiting for someone to arrive and keep looking down the road, wondering when they are coming. This is what the question tzipita li’yeshua is really addressing: did we look out towards the horizon, waiting for it to happen? In other words, to be a Jew is to live with hope and faith.
The Chafetz Chaim says that belief in the Final Redemption gives a person hope, which is the most powerful motivation and gives us the strength and courage to do the right thing. Human beings need hope for a better future, a better tomorrow. This applies not only to the Final Redemption of the entire world, but also to our everyday lives. Our daily prayers are filled with references to hope, such as the famous Aleinu where we say “therefore we place our hope in You Hashem …” When there is faith, there is always hope. We must have hope in Hashem that He will give us the strength to see us through difficult times, and that He can change things for the good at any moment, or as our Sages say “the salvation of G-d comes in the blink of an eye”. And that, of course, whatever happens in the end, even if it is not what we wanted, it nevertheless is, as our Sages say, “for the good”.
As South African Jews our goal must be to continue to nurture a strong community filled with hope. Our strength is rooted in our deep connection to our Torah, the source of all courage and hope. Over many decades, with our Torah values we have established strong shuls and schools, a strong Beth Din and halachic infrastructure, such as kashrut, strong welfare, political, Zionist, youth and security organizations. The key to our future, as individuals and as a community, is the strength, courage and hope we receive from Hashem, from His Torah and from each other. The secret to life is strength and courage, and Torah is the source of strength and courage. Let us give each other encouragement and let us go forward together in faith and hope, chazak chazak venitchazek!
2012 – Reflections
In his memoir Out of the Depths, Chief Rabbi Lau tells the heart-wrenching story of how he and his brother, Naphtali, lost their parents and how they survived the concentration camps together. Rabbi Lau describes the moment when they were separated from their mother (p20):
Mother and I stood on the train platform, which was crowded with terrified Jews and shouting Germans … following their usual organized procedure, they directed men to one group of cars and women and children to another group of cars … within a few short seconds, my mother realized what this separation meant. In another moment I would be entering the car with her, so she made an instantaneous decision. With the pillow on my shoulders separating us she grasped my back with both hands and shoved me in the direction of the men. I didn’t understand what was going on. I only heard her say “Tulek [Naphtali], take Lulek [Israel Meir]. Goodbye, Tulek; goodbye, Lulek.” And I never saw her again.
Naphtali was also entrusted by his father, to look after his younger brother, Israel Meir, who describes how this mission was conveyed to his brother (p17,23):
Naphtali recalled his last conversation with Father, in which Father had counted 37 generations of rabbis on both his and my mother’s sides of the family. He did this in order to demonstrate the great responsibility of whoever would be saved from the horror to continue the chain of our heritage. Father read verses from Jeremiah: “There is hope for your future, the word of G-d, and your children will return home.” He emphasized that if we escape this inferno safely we would know how to find our home, which was not this home or any other on this enemy land. “Your home will be in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel], even if you have to acquire it through suffering,” he said, and Naphtali and father cried on each other’s necks …
Although I was too young during the war to appreciate this heritage, Naphtali was old enough to realize its weight. Thus he took to heart our father’s parting words, instructing him to protect me so that I could carry on the family tradition [of 37 generations of Rabbinic leadership]. This was part of the drive that led him to push for our survival.
Years later, Naphtali shared his feelings standing beside his brother Israel Meir, just a short while before the latter assumed the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel (p62):
For fifty years, I carried the responsibility passed on to me by my father before he went to his death in Treblinka. He placed in my care a weak child, who was five years old but looked like he was only three or even younger. For three years, I served as father and mother, guardian and protector, to my younger brother Israel Meir, or Lulek, as we called him.
I often felt despair attacking me, flinging me helplessly to my destruction. I think it was the mission my father gave me, to bring my younger brother to safety and to ensure the continuation of our family’s rabbinic dynasty, that kept me alive and gave me the will to continue fighting for our lives, rather than succumb to the horrible fate that befell the rest of our family.
On the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar, February 21, 1993, I stood with my younger brother in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in the world for Jews, and we recited the afternoon prayers together. Forty eight years earlier, when we first arrived in Jerusalem, we had stood in this same spot. Then, young Israel Meir had gazed at the stones of the Wall without understanding what he was seeing. This time, he was praying, just two hours before his anticipated election to the highest rabbinical post in Israel.
My younger brother, who had risen from the piles of ashes in the death camps, was chosen that day to serve as the chief rabbi of the State of Israel. I looked at him from up close, and felt tears welling up in my eyes. As I left the Wall, I felt profound relief, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders and my conscience. At last, my almost impossible mission had been fulfilled.
Chief Rabbi Lau and his brother Naphtali’s unimaginable ordeal tested their physical, emotional and spiritual resolve to the extreme. They displayed superhuman strength and tenacity, and with Hashem’s help were able not only to survive but indeed to go on to achieve inspiring things. Rabbi Lau rose from the depths of Buchenwald to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, becoming one of the great Jewish leaders of our time.
Tests and Ordeals of Great Leaders
Many great leaders of the Tanach faced ordeals and challenges which tested their faith, resolve and strength. The Mishna (Pirkei Avot 5:4) teaches, “Avraham our forefather was tested with ten tests.” Some of these were tests of his courage and conviction; at the time he was the only person in the world who believed in one G-d, and he was pursued by the tyrant Nimrod, who cast him into a fiery furnace, from which he miraculously emerged unscathed. Some of these tests were of his commitment and dedication to G-d’s will, such as when he was commanded to leave his home and travel to an unknown land, and when he was commanded to circumcise himself at the age of 99.
Avraham’s faith in Hashem’s justice and promises was also tested: when, after much personal sacrifice, he arrived in the Land of Israel, there was a famine in the land, which forced him to go down to Egypt, where his wife was abducted by Pharaoh. Sarah and Avraham were childless for many decades. This, too, tested their faith in G-d and His promise that a great nation would come from them. When they finally did have a child, Avraham was tested with the akeidah, when G-d called on him to sacrifice his son Yitzchak.
Yosef famously withstood many tests of his moral principles and integrity. Potiphar’s wife attempted time and again to seduce him, and though he was an anonymous young slave far from home, and with no future prospects, he withstood the temptation and maintained his integrity.
King David was a leader who passed many tests of his faith in Hashem’s justice and compassion. He was pursued by King Saul; he lost a child; he lead the Jewish people in many battles against ferocious enemies; and his own son led a military coup which forced him to flee his palace.
These Tanach examples of Avraham, Yosef & King David, & the modern-day examples of the Lau brothers, serve as beacons of light for us, whose lives are also filled with challenges and tests of our faith in G-d and our dedication to His Torah. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as the Ramchal (1707-1746, Italy), explains in his classic philosophical work Mesilat Yesharim that all situations in life challenge and test a person’s integrity and resolve. Poverty, illness and suffering challenge a person’s faith and ability to be close to G-d without bitterness and resentment. However, wealth and health test a person’s ability to remain humble, without smug
satisfaction, and to recognise that all success and achievement are blessings from G-d which need to be used for the good. Indeed there is a battle on all fronts; every situation we find ourselves in presents challenges to our faith, commitment, values and basic integrity, as defined by our Torah principles.
The Meaning of Tests
What is the purpose of a test, and what does it mean in the context of our relationship with G-d? It is important to accept that we can never fully understand the rationale behind G-d’s workings in this world. The Gemara (Berachot 7a) describes how Moshe asked Hashem why some righteous people suffer and some wicked people prosper. G-d answered by saying “no man shall see Me and live”, (Shmot 33:20) which means that human beings, constrained by the physical world, can never fully comprehend the depth of the Divine plans for our lives. Despite these limitations, our Sages guide us on how to understand the idea of tests and challenges in general terms.
Conventionally, the purpose of a test is to assess the abilities of the one being tested. In the context of G-d, however, this makes no sense: G-d knows everything, and does not need to give us a test in order to find out more about us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. What, then, is the purpose of being tested? Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (11941270, Spain and Israel), known as the Ramban, explains (in his commentary on Bereishit 22:1), that life tests from G-d are for the benefit of the person being tested; to give the person being tested the opportunity to transform his or her inherent potential into actual good deeds, thus ensuring he or she can be rewarded not only for having good intentions but also for good actions.
Every situation tests our faith and resolve, as a person has to draw on his or her emotional, spiritual and physical reserves in order to meet and overcome the challenge. These inner resources often lie dormant until a person accesses them to face the tests, and in so doing transforms potential reserves into action and fortitude. The capacity to overcome daunting challenges is inherent within every person. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979, Lithuania and Israel), one of the great leaders of the Mir Yeshiva, proves from Talmudic sources that G-d only gives a person tests and challenges which he or she is capable of overcoming.
If we are successful in rising to the challenge, we emerge stronger, more elevated and with greater merit for our good deeds. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) says that the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is related to the word נ.ש.א, spelt nun, sin, aleph, which means to raise or to elevate, as well as to the word נ.ס.ע, spelt nun, samech, ayin, which means to travel or to move forward (see his commentary on Bereishit 22:1). Every challenge is an opportunity to move, grow and become stronger and more elevated, as one draws on the latent powers within his or her soul.
Not only do challenges uncover hidden strengths, they can also be the impetus for creating new resources; indeed the human soul has miraculous capabilities beyond what we can rationally comprehend. The Torah (Bereishit 1: 27) tells us that man was created “in the image of G-d”, which refers to the Divine soul within. G-d is all-powerful, and hence our souls contain miraculous Divine-like strength and awesome potential.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 55:6) relates the word nisayon also to the Hebrew word nes, which means a banner or a flag. The miraculous, superhuman strength exhibited by people who withstand severe tests with faith and resolve, is a sign and a flag to the world, hoisted high to inspire us all. When facing life’s challenges, the superhuman strength and courage of Avraham, Yosef and King David inspire us, as do our modern-day heroes like Chief Rabbi Lau and his brother. We need to have faith in G-d to give us strength and guidance to withstand our tests, but also to have faith in ourselves and the inner power and potential of our G-d-given souls.
Journey of the Soul
The idea of converting our inner potential into good deeds is fundamental to understanding our Divine mission and purpose in life on earth. The Torah calls the first human being Adam, which comes from the Hebrew word adama, the ground. The Maharal, (1520-1609, Prague) asks, why this name that refers to the earth, when the essence of human beings is, in fact, the Divine soul from G-d? He answers that humans are similar to the ground in one important respect: they are both pure potential. Whether or not a piece of land will produce fruit depends on what is done with it. Even the most fertile piece of land will not produce fruit if it is left to lie fallow; only if the land is ploughed, fertilised and developed will it produce fruits. So too, the human being is pure potential, and to produce the fruits of good deeds and other accomplishments, requires great and continuous efforts. We come into this world as pure potential and through the process of life we actualise that potential. What we do with that potential is up to us; we have been given free choice to turn that potential into good deeds through a life of Torah and mitzvot or
Before the soul enters the physical body and begins its life journey on earth, it is unrealised potential. It dwells in a perfect spiritual world of undisturbed bliss, and does not want to leave. As the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:29) says: “Against your will you are conceived, and against your will you are born and against your will you die.” According to the Midrash (Tanchuma Pekudei 3), at the moment of conception the soul, dwelling peacefully and happily in the upper world, is brought before G-d and informed that it is time to go down into the physical world. The soul objects because it does not want to leave such a perfect, spiritual and pure world and enter an imperfect, physical world full of trials and tribulations. Nevertheless, G-d sends the soul down into the womb of the mother and an angel is assigned to teach the baby Torah.
The Gemara (Niddah 30b) says that the days in utero are the best days of one’s life. Everything is taken care of and the foetus experiences nothing but peace, comfort and security. At the moment of birth, when the baby is about to begin his or her life of challenge, again the soul is reluctant to leave. Just as the baby is about to leave the womb, the angel, on behalf of G-d, makes the soul take an oath: “be a righteous person and not a wicked one.”
The paradigm of tests is crucial to understanding why the soul comes down into the world in the first place. Prior to its descent into the physical world, the soul dwells in a place of purity and clarity, with no possibility of sin. However, there is also no free choice, and therefore no opportunity for the soul to do mitzvot either, and consequently, there is no opportunity for the soul to be rewarded by G-d.
Freedom of choice – bechira chofshit – in this world is given to each and every individual, and is one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. In fact, the Rambam (1135-1204, Spain and Egypt) says it’s the basis for the entire Torah, for without free will the concept of mitzvot is meaningless (Teshuva 5:3-4). The soul comes down into this world to exercise free choice and thereby convert its heavenly potential into actuality, so that it can eventually be rewarded in the next world for its actions in this world. The Torah is G-d’s guide for us to successfully accomplish our personal and collective mission. It is the model for converting the potential goodness of the soul into actual good deeds.
The Ramchal explains that G-d wants to reward us with goodness, and that the only way this can be done is when we earn such reward through our mitzvot which we do with our complete free choice. Although the heavens are a place of perfection, it is only through life on earth, where there is free choice, that the soul’s potential can find full expression in actual good deeds, and be rewarded with eternal goodness in the next world.
The Midrash says that moments before death the same angel that taught Torah to the soul in the womb and made it take an oath to be righteous in this world, appears before the soul and says that the time has come to leave this world. Again, fearful of change, the soul does not want to leave; “against your will you are born and against your will you die.” The purpose of life is to ensure that the soul fulfils its mission on earth as successfully as possible; “to be righteous and do not be wicked” and then to be rewarded by G-d in the next world. Our mission in a world where although G-d’s presence is hidden, is to follow the Torah’s path and with complete free will to do good, thus converting our soul’s awesome potential into actual good deeds. In a broader sense, then, tests are not just something we encounter from time to time but the whole of life is an on-going test of exercising our free will in a physical, imperfect world and transforming the soul’s awesome potential into an actual life of good deeds and mitzvot, for which G-d promises eternal and profound reward in the next world.
“Lose a Battle, Win the War”
Through struggle and even failure, a person can transform their inner potential into actual greatness.In response to a student who had written to him complaining of the tests and challenges he faced in his personal development, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980, United States) wrote the following (Igrot Pachad Yitzchak 128): …
A failing that many of us experience is that when we focus on the lofty level of accomplishments of great people, we only focus on how they are complete in this or in that area. At the same time, we omit mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the land of their Creator in ideal form.
Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles, and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Choftez Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara [evil inclination]? There are many such examples to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule. The result of this misconception is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls, and slumps, he imagines himself unworthy …
Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the yetzer tov [good inclination], but rather in the battle of the yetzer tov. And your precious, warm-hearted letter “testifies as 100 witnesses” (see Gittin 40b) that you are a worthy warrior in the battalion of the yetzer tov. The English expression, “Lose a battle and win the war,” applies to this phenomenon. Certainly, you have stumbled and will stumble again (a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended), and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, however, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with laurels of victory upon your head and with the fresh prey quivering between your teeth. Lose battles but win wars.
[King Solomon,] the wisest of all men, has said, A righteous man falls seven times and rises again (Proverbs 24:16). Fools believe that the intent of this verse is to teach us something remarkable: the righteous man has fallen seven times and yet he resiliently rises. But the knowledgeable know that the source of the righteous person’s ability to rise again is precisely through his seven falls…
When you feel the turmoil of the yetzer hara within yourself, know that by experiencing that feeling you resemble great men far more than if you were to experience the feeling of deep peace, which you desire. In those very areas where you feel yourself failing most frequently – particularly in those areas – do you have the greatest potential for serving as an instrument of distinction for the honour of G-d … Had your letter told me about all your mitzvot and goods deeds, I would have said that I have received a good letter from you. Now that your letter tells about the slumps and falls and obstacles, I can say that I have received a very good letter from you.”
Another aspect of converting potential into actuality is found in the writings of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005, Germany and Israel) one of our great modern rabbinic thinkers, who explains that throughout life a human being goes through the process of assuming more and more responsibility, thereby expanding one’s horizons and spirit. A child is concerned only with him- or herself. As the child grows older, he or she takes on more and more responsibilities.
From a secular point of view, adulthood is about achieving freedom. From a Jewish point of view, however, adulthood is about embracing responsibility. The term “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah” connotes the status of adulthood, namely, accepting the commandments. Judaism teaches that, ironically, following the commandments and taking on responsibility brings the greatest joy in life because when we live in accordance with the Torah we are in harmony with the deepest purpose and mission of our souls. The knowledge that we are fulfilling our mission here on earth brings with it great and profound satisfaction.
Rav Wolbe explains that the whole process of life is an expansion of the spirit, converting the potential into actual through accepting more and more responsibility. Earning a living tests our faith and principles: will we follow the Halacha’s principles and standards of business ethics? Will we adhere to the laws of tzedaka? Marriage, too, expands our horizons and responsibilities; are husband and wife able to remain forever committed to each other in a spirit of love and kindness? Raising children further expands our horizons, as it requires a tremendous amount of dedication and self-sacrifice. Old age is a test of how we confront increasing physical weakness and the fragility of life.
Our final test is death itself. When a person moves on from this world onto the next, he or she is presented with a great challenge of how to cope with the transition. Rav Wolbe explains that death is an opportunity for a vast expansion of the spirit if the challenge is properly embraced. He quotes from Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171, France) who describes the process of death as follows:
This world is like a cave in the desert beneath the ground. One who dwells in this cave thinks that there is no world beside it because he does not see what is outside. If he were to go outside of the cave, he would see expansive lands and heavens, great luminaries and stars. So too man in this world thinks that there is no other world, but if he were to leave he would then see the expansiveness of the next world and the precious, glorious greatness of it.
Death is the final journey of life, the point when a person expands to see reality from a very broad perspective.
Deciphering the Messages
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873-1936, Lithuania), one of the great leaders of the Mir Yeshiva, says (C.M. 2:49) that any situation we encounter should be viewed through the prism of a test. As an example, he cites the Torah case of a false prophet (Devarim 13: 2-4): “When a prophet or a person who has visions in a dream arises among you, he may present you with a sign or miracle and on the basis of that sign or miracle, say to you, ‘let us try out a different god.’ Do not listen to that prophet or dreamer.” This is indeed a strange scenario: a false prophet comes to lure us away from the path of Torah and mitzvot and uses signs and miracles to prove his authenticity. Where did he get the power to perform these miracles? Were they simply optical illusions?
Many commentators say that these were actually real miracles which G-d enabled the false prophet to perform. Why would G-d enable him to do so? The rest of the verse provides the answer: “because G-d your L-rd is testing you.” From here Rav Yerucham gleans a major life principle and that is that every situation can be viewed as a test. Rav Yerucham says: “The secret of the entire Creation is in order to be able to withstand a test [of our faith], for this is everything.”
The paradigm of tests is an important framework for viewing everything we experience. Without trying to explain G-d’s plans and reasons—for we will never fully understand them—any situation of success or failure, bereavement or celebration, achievement or setback, needs to be assessed from the perspective of what the test is.
This principle applies to world affairs as well, not just in our personal lives. Take, for example, the international campaign of delegitimising Israel. We do not know what G-d’s plans are, but this campaign is certainly a test for the Jewish people. Modern generations have been blessed to witness and benefit from the miraculous return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. Now, however, we are being tested to see if we really appreciate this gift, and even more so, if we are even conscious of who gave us this gift in the first place.
An international campaign led by extremist groups who dispute Jerusalem’s status as a Jewish city and Israel’s capital, and who dispute the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel forces us to return to our history and the Torah’s values to reaffirm our right to Israel; its borders are delineated by G-d in the Torah, and there has been an unbroken Jewish presence therein since the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua about 3 300 years ago. But we are being tested. If we view Zionism as merely a secular ideology with no connection to Hashem and His Torah, then there is nothing of real strength to bolster our Zionistic philosophies in the face of such hostilities.
Furthermore, throughout the centuries of exile, we endured the test of being a people without a country; now, we confront the test of being a people with a country. It is a test as to whether or not we will build and govern a modern country according to the Torah’s eternal values and principles. As South African Jews we were tested by apartheid. How would we respond to living in a country filled with injustice? And now we are being tested by the new South Africa: are we doing enough to help rebuild a country afflicted by poverty and other suffering?
We can view all of Jewish history through the paradigm of tests. In generations past, our faith in G-d and our commitment to His Torah were tested in the crucible of antisemitism and hatred, in the ghettos and pogroms of Europe. In modern times, we face another test, and that is the test of freedom: how do we maintain our Jewish values in a free society? In 1937, Rabbi Yitzchak Kosovsky (1878-1951, Lithuania and South Africa), head of the Johannesburg Beth Din at the time, responded to an article published in one of the local Jewish newspapers, which had attacked the foundations of Judaism. One specific question posed by the article was:
“Do you honestly believe that there is a realistic chance that Orthodox Judaism … can survive in countries of freedom?” In response, Rav Kosovsky confidently said (Ikvei Yitzchak p115) that it would survive and thrive. And now looking around us we see how since then Torah Judaism has flourished in our hearts, homes, schools and shuls across the length and breadth of the community. Of course, our test is far from over, and our journey of growth and improvement in Torah learning and mitzvot must continue. Let our great achievements so far, inspire us to rise to even greater heights of living our Torah values.
This is a test not only for South African Jewry, but for Jewish communities around the world. Following the destruction of the Holocaust, with so many yeshivot and Torah centres wiped out and with assimilation rampant in the free societies of the West, it seemed that the Jewish people and its Torah value would be lost. And yet, there has been a remarkable revival of Torah Judaism in South Africa, America, Israel and many other countries. This is indeed a manifestation of the eternity of G-d’s Torah and His commitment to His people. But it is also a manifestation of the human capacity to rise above all challenges.
G-d placed us on earth to fulfill the sacred mission of bringing our awesome potential to fruition. Our lives are filled with many opportunities to do so, through the tests and challenges we face and the good deeds that we do. Let us proceed with confidence and with faith: faith in G-d who is with us at all times; faith in ourselves, knowing that G-d has endowed each of us with the strengths and abilities we need in order to achieve greatness; and faith in the Torah – our guide as to what we need to accomplish, and how to achieve it, before we return to our Father in heaven to present Him our life’s work.
2013 – Reflections
The train dragged on with its human freight. Pressed together like cattle in the crowded trucks, the unfortunate occupants were unable even to move. The atmosphere was stifling. As the Friday afternoon wore on, the Jewish men and women in the Nazi transport sank deeper and deeper into their misery.
Suddenly an old Jewish woman managed with a great effort to move and open her bundle. Laboriously she drew out – two candlesticks and two challoth. She had just prepared them for Sabbath when she was dragged from her home that morning. They were the only things she had thought worthwhile taking with her. Soon the Sabbath candles lit up the faces of the tortured Jews and the song of Lekhah Dodi transformed the scene. Sabbath with its atmosphere of peace had descended upon them all.
This is how Dayan Dr I. Grunfeld describes what an eye- witness told him about what they saw on a train to the Nazi death camps.
Shabbos has accompanied us through all our journeys, from the horrors of the Holocaust to the remarkable birth of the State of Israel, which actually occurred on a Friday night. In his book The Prime Ministers, Ambassador Yehuda Avner describes the scene of a small group of soldiers from the Haganah, who were out on the battlefields that Friday night as the historic news filtered through:
“David Ben Gurion declared independence this afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Jewish State comes into being at midnight.” There was a dead silence. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. Midnight was minutes away … Every breast filled with exultation as we pumped hands and embraced, and roared the national anthem at the tops of our voices … “Let’s drink to that,” said Elisha with delight, breaking open the bottle of wine and filling a tin mug to the brim. “
A l’chayim to our new State …”
“Wait!” shouted a Chasid whom everybody knew as Nussen der chazzan—a cantor by calling, and a most diligent volunteer digger from Meah Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. “It’s Shabbos. Kiddush first.” Our crowd gathered around him in a hush, as Nussen der chazzan clasped the mug and, in a sweet cantorial tone began to chant “Yom hashishi,” the blessing for the sanctification of the Sabbath day.
As Nussen’s sacred verses floated off to a higher place of Sabbath bliss his voice swelled, ululated, and trilled into the night, octave upon octave, his eyes closed, his cup stretched out and up. And as he concluded the final consecration—“Blessed art thou O Lord who has hallowed the Sabbath”—he rose on tiptoe, his arm stiffened, and rocking back and forth, voice trembling with emotion, he added the triumphantly exulted festival blessing to commemorate this first day of independence— “Shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu vehigianu lazman hazeh—Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”
Shabbos was there on the battlefields when the State of Israel was born; it was part of the moment, as it has been at so many of our most precious and significant moments of history.
The fact that Shabbos is still around—and thriving—is a mystery: the ancient, primitive world—a world of camels, pyramids and dusty roads, with no electricity, cars, aeroplanes or internet—into which Shabbos was introduced by G-d 3326 years ago resembles little that we know today. And yet, in today’s world of cell phones, space travel and keyhole surgery, Shabbos is still a vibrant part of Jewish life. Indeed, Shabbos has withstood the test of time.
How? How has Shabbos sustained generations of Jews through every imaginable (and unimaginable) circumstance—in poverty or wealth, acceptance or hatred from others, through hardship or ease, in ancient and modern times, on every continent and in every era of history? Why have Jews kept Shabbos in every generation since it was given? What is the secret power of this G-d-given gift?
The answer to these questions is encapsulated in a beautiful phrase we recite in Lecha Dodi, the prayerful song with which we welcome the Shabbos on Friday night: Ki he mekor haberacha, “For it [the Shabbos] is the source of blessing.” The word “blessing” encompasses all the good things we seek in our lives. Shabbos is the Divine formula for a life of blessing and that is why Jews have clung to it, always.
How does Shabbos fill our lives with blessing? And what are our most precious blessings? What do we really want from life, more than anything else? What are the blessings of Shabbos?
I. The Blessing of Freedom
Shabbos gives us the blessing of freedom. In the Ten Commandments we are told in connection with keeping Shabbos: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that I took you out.” Having experienced slavery in Egypt, we can better appreciate the freedom of Shabbos.
Shabbos is the universal equaliser: when Shabbos comes in, everyone, rich or poor, man, woman or child has the day off and is completely free to enjoy the day as royalty. Of course, some people can afford more lavish clothes and finer food, but everyone experiences Shabbos. And historically, if we look at life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where even though anti-Semitism, poverty and suffering were rampant, when Shabbos arrived everyone was uplifted, finding dignity, joy and comfort. It doesn’t matter what burdens you carry and what your social or economic status is: on Friday afternoon, as the sun sets, you can leave all your worries behind and be king or queen for the day.
The End of Days
Shabbos is about freedom from all forms of slavery. To understand this blessing, we need to have a glimpse of what the world will look like when the Messiah heralds the Final Redemption for all humankind—what is called “the End of Days.”
There is a very deep connection between Shabbos and the End of Days. Shabbos is called me’ein olam haba, a microcosm of the World to Come, a microcosm of a time when the world will experience the ultimate Shabbos—the Final Redemption.
According to our tradition, the Messiah will come by the seventh millennium. The 6000 years of history parallel the six days of Creation, and the seventh millennium parallels Shabbos—the Messianic Era when the world will reach its final destination.
The Rambam writes of this time that, amongst other things, “there will be no famine and no war, no jealousy and no competition.” The description of the relief and perfection of the Final Redemption is in stark contrast with the state of the world today, which is rife with suffering, war and famine, jealousy and competition. Rav Matisyahu Salomon explains that the Rambam is comparing two forms of suffering: the physical suffering of famine and war, and the emotional suffering of jealousy and competition. In the shtetls of yesteryear, suffering was the result of poverty and persecution, famine and war. But in the abundance and technological complexities of our modern world the mental anguish of jealousy and competition are also a form of suffering.
For those who suffer grinding poverty or other deprivation, Shabbos is a relief from the pain of dire physical circumstances. Shabbos is also a relief—from the competition and the struggle to find our place in society; from a materialistic world which lacks values, where people are searching for meaning and happiness and finding neither. Shabbos brings us freedom from the fast pace of life and the enslaving shackles of over-work and the other burdens of the modern world, enabling us to reconnect with our families and find meaning and happiness. This is why Shabbos is a zecher leyitziat Mitzrayim—a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, of the blessing of freedom.
Stealing a day out of life to live
How does Shabbos free us from the shackles that burden our day-to-day lives?
Paradoxically we experience the freedom of Shabbos by embracing the restrictions of the day. The illustrious Supreme Court Chief Justice Brandeis expressed his amazement at the beauty of Shabbos:
In the home of my parents, there was no Jewish Sabbath, nor in my own home. But I recall vividly the joy and awe with which my uncle, Lewis Dembitz welcomed the arrival of the day and the piety with which he observed it. I remember the extra delicacies, lighting of candles, prayers over a cup of wine, and quaint chants, and Uncle Lewis poring over the books most of the day. I remember more particularly an elusive something about him which was spoken of as “Sabbath Peace” and which later brought to my mind a passage from Addison in which he speaks of “stealing a day out of life to live.”
Justice Brandeis went on to complain bitterly about what he called the “restrictions” of Shabbos, without understanding that those very restrictions enabled his uncle to experience the peace and freedom of the day he so admired. The Torah commands us to stop “work” on Shabbos, work being defined as any of the 39 categories of melacha—physically creative actions. Justice Brandeis didn’t realise that the beauty of Shabbos which he so envied in his uncle’s home was the result of the laws of Shabbos which free us from the daily burdens, distractions and pressures and allow us the time and space for peace, connectedness and the opportunity to ‘steal a day out of life to live.’
For example, not being able to drive a car on Shabbos may seem restrictive but it actually frees us to enjoy a day without frantic travel, traffic and errands; it enables us to take a leisurely stroll with family and friends. Not being able to go to work means that we can enjoy a day without appointments and commitments; we can take the day off to spend it with family, community and Hashem, recharging ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Shabbos halts the pressures and slavery of life’s burdens, and gives us the freedom to put everything aside and focus on what is truly important in life. Shabbos gives us the blessing of freedom from the relentless demands of daily life, refreshing and redirecting our lives.
II. The Blessing of True Happiness
People think Shabbos is a day of rest—and it certainly is. However, it is not just a “day off”; if that’s all that was intended, it would not have been given the prominence of being included in the Ten Commandments. What, then, is Shabbos really about?
To understand the meaning of Shabbos, we have to understand the concept of rest and leisure. What constitutes leisure? What counts as a holiday, as taking “time out” to get refreshed? What is it that inspires us and makes us happy?
The key to answering these questions lies in the words of Lecha Dodi, which describes Shabbos as a bride. The Midrash says that when G-d finished creating the world, He looked at
everything and said that there was one thing missing: menucha, rest; and so, He created Shabbos. The Midrash compares this to a king who prepares a magnificent hall and a wedding canopy with the only thing missing being the bride. When G-d created the world, the whole of Creation awaited the bride—Shabbos.
Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, asks the following: if Shabbos is simply a day off, an absence of stress and difficulties, how is it symbolised by a bride? A bride is very much a presence at a wedding; she is the beauty, the meaning and purpose of the whole event. If we understand Shabbos as simply rest and leisure, an absence of stress and challenge, why is it compared to a bride?
Rav Elya Meir answers that Shabbos is not simply the absence of stress; rather, it is an active presence of something positive and creative. Just as a bride is a positive presence filling the whole wedding, so, too, Shabbos fills the world with meaning and beauty.
True peace and tranquillity
Conventional wisdom maintains that the way to achieve happiness in life is to eliminate stress. Western culture promotes this attitude: the dominant message in society is that happiness means freedom from responsibilities. The ultimate haven is envisioned as a perfect beach on a deserted island, where there are no responsibilities. In such a culture, life becomes focused on the removal of stressors. The goal of working is simply to get to a point where we have made enough money to be able to retire and not have to work anymore. Happiness will be found, so the philosophy goes, in the absence of the burdens of responsibility. This culture is pervasive. This is why, for example, in today’s world marriage is not as popular as it used to be; neither is having children. People are getting married later; they are postponing having children or having as few as possible—or having none at all. Western philosophy seems to suggest that in order to find fulfilment and a sense of happiness, one needs to avoid responsibility so as to preserve oneself and not be drained by the burdens of life.
Judaism maintains just the opposite: paradoxically, we will find happiness and wellbeing not by running away from good deeds and responsibilities but by embracing them. The Torah teaches us that we should do the right thing not only because it is the right thing to do but because that is the best way to live. This is in our own best interest and is what will ultimately bring us fulfilment and happiness. How do we understand this apparent paradox? How do we find happiness and inner peace from fulfilling good deeds and carrying responsibilities?
Connecting with our ultimate purpose
Rav Elya Meir answers these questions with the analogy of a river. A river flows downward, on a certain path towards the ocean. If we try to divert it off course or block the water from flowing, it causes tension; the river becomes filled with rapids and currents.
Rav Elya Meir explains that just like a river naturally flows downward toward the ocean, so too does each person’s neshama, soul, naturally “flow” upwards toward G-d. Hashem created us with a neshama, a soul, and He created us for the purpose of doing good in this world, shouldering responsibilities and fulfilling mitzvot. All things yearn to return to their source; when we try and stop that natural flow, the result is tension. Our soul naturally flows heavenward and wants to act in accordance with G-d’s will. When we accept responsibility, do mitzvot and good deeds helping others, we give expression to our natural inner calling.
A great, strong river flowing towards the sea is at peace; its waters are tranquil even though it is flowing. But if one tries to block it, there is tension which you can see as waves and currents as the river struggles to flow through and over rocks or other obstacles towards its natural destination. So, too, with the human soul: when it flows in the direction for which it was created, there is an inner peace. But when we try and block it, when our goal is simply to get rid of stress and responsibility and to avoid doing mitzvot and good deeds, we don’t find any peace of mind. In fact, we become disturbed by the quiet, because that is not the purpose for which we were created. Many modern social ills are caused by the boredom and emptiness of a life without meaning, good deeds and responsibilities.
When we do what we were created to do, we are at peace with ourselves. This, says Rav Elya Meir, is the menucha – the rest and tranquility – of Shabbos. Shabbos is not just a “Jewish Sunday” of the pursuit of leisure. It is a day filled with meaningful good deeds like spending time with family, going to shul, enjoying the festive meals and the singing, sharing words of Torah around the Shabbos table and engaging with the community. Of course, it is also a mitzvah to relax and rest, but all in the context of a very active and engaged day of emotional and spiritual connection. It’s a day filled with positive, productive mitzvot which bring real happiness.
The message of Shabbos is that we attain inner peace and true happiness by doing that for which we were created. We refer to this in the Mincha prayer on Shabbos, which describes Shabbos as menuchat ahava unedava, “the rest of love and generosity.” Rav Elya Meir asks, is it possible to achieve love and generosity by doing nothing, by resting? Do love and generosity in marriage, toward children and in all relationships come easily? Of course not, they require constant effort; it is not easy to be kind and giving to people. Yet there is menucha, a profound inner peace and happiness, which comes from investing in these relationships: we know we are doing something good in the world, and that we are in harmony with our natural calling.
The Mincha prayer further describes Shabbos as menuchat emet ve’emuna “the rest of truth and faith.” Truth and faith, says Rav Elya Meir, also do not come at leisure, and we do not typically associate them with rest. Truth refers to the study of Torah. Delving into Torah study, applying mental and emotional effort is not easy. Faith in G-d develops and deepens over a lifetime of experiences and learning. Truth and faith require work and energy, and yet they bring tranquillity. The message of this prayer is that through investing in these worthwhile, productive mitzvot, even though they are challenging, we find inner peace and the blessing of true happiness in life.
III. The Blessing of Physical and Spiritual Pleasure
“And you shall call the Shabbos [a day of] enjoyment” (Isaiah 58:13). We know that physical pleasure is an important part of Shabbos: the kiddush on Friday night is said over wine; there is a mitzvah to have three festive meals, to wear our best clothes, to sleep and relax. Shabbos is a day of physical pleasures but it is also a day of holiness. How do we reconcile this seeming incongruity between physical enjoyment and spirituality?
Shabbos is a day of creating balance in our lives by integrating the two powerful forces of the human being—the physical and the spiritual. The Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, says that the concepts of holiness and pleasure are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are interlinked. Although we tend to think of the two as incompatible, the holiness of Shabbos actually manifests itself in the physical pleasures of the day.
Connecting the physical and the spiritual
Judaism does not have a negative view of the physical; G-d created it so that we can use it to serve Him and thereby uplift it. It is not second-best but is integral to fulfilment of mitzvot—the very purpose for which we were created.
This is why so many of the mitzvot involve physical actions— for example, taking a lulav, building a succah, lighting Shabbos candles or putting on tefillin. These are all mitzvot that are fulfilled through objects and actions. Even prayer, which is a very spiritual act, is not just about mental meditation but has physical components to it: we use a siddur, and in fact we are obligated to articulate the words so that we can hear them; we have to pray with a minyan, in a shul. Torah is not an esoteric system divorced from the physical world. Judaism is about
taking the physical world and harnessing it to the service of G-d, uplifting and transforming it and thereby bringing out its latent spiritual energy.
Finding satisfaction in the physical—through the spiritual
The holiness of Shabbos is expressed through the physical world. Shabbos is so holy, and yet it is a day filled with physical pleasures. This theme is evident on other holy days as well. For example Rosh Hashanah, although the Day of Judgment, is still considered a Yom Tov: we eat special food and wear fine clothes. Similarly on Yom Kippur, even though we fast, there is still a mitzvah to wear Yom Tov clothes. And as we know, there is a special mitzvah to eat on erev Yom Kippur. There is always a balance between the physical world and the spiritual world, provided we use the physical to serve G-d. Shabbos represents the idea that pleasure and holiness can go hand in hand, and this is why Shabbos is a major pillar of Judaism.
Materialism on its own can never satisfy us; on the contrary, it leaves us feeling empty. The Vilna Gaon compares the physical world to drinking salt-water: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. Shabbos teaches us that physical pleasure on its own will not bring us happiness; it has its place, but without channelling it to spiritual purposes, there will always be emptiness and dissatisfaction, a thirst for something else, a void that is never filled. Shabbos, though it has special food, fine clothing, sleep and all of the pleasures of the physical world, is nevertheless a day of holiness, of davening and learning, connecting to family and to G-d. There is a reciprocal relationship between the physical and the spiritual: the more Torah and spirituality there is, the more one can enjoy the physical world; and if one enjoys the physical world through spirituality, one comes to a higher level of Torah.
Shabbos is a model for us on how to live, and can have a profound impact which spills over into the rest of the week, bringing with it the blessing of physical and spiritual pleasure.
IV. The Blessing of Family
For thousands of years Shabbos has held Jewish families together in love and loyalty. Strong and loving families have been the source of strength of the Jewish people. The oxygen of healthy families is uninterrupted time together to talk, share and bond. Shabbos creates the shared time and space for parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, family and friends to connect with one another in a real and loving way.
Shabbos also nurtures the Jewish family’s connection to our enduring Torah values. In today’s world, where alienation and dissociation are evident on every level—be it personal or societal—Shabbos serves as a constant source of bonding and connection.
Two commandments which are next to each other in the Ten Commandments and other places in the Torah are Shabbos and honouring parents. The Kli Yakar explains that both give respect to the creators of life. The Gemara says that a child is the product of three partners: father, mother and G-d. Shabbos is about acknowledging and paying tribute to G-d as the Creator of everything. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that honouring parents and Shabbos are the two mitzvot that give birth to us; they are the spiritual foundations of the Jewish people. These two mitzvot strengthen and reinforce one another. Parents hand over the heritage of Shabbos to the next generation, and Shabbos holds families together.
In the modern world there is a pervasive sense of alienation and fragmentation; or, as one thinker put it, “the atomisation” of the world. When atoms come apart, everything disintegrates. In today’s society, as families have fractured, so too have the bonds connecting us to G-d, to community, and to ourselves.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says the word zar, which means foreign or estranged, is related to the Hebrew word achzar, which means cruel. Cruelty occurs when there is estrangement between people. Achzar, cruel, and zar, alien, are two aspects of the same phenomenon. To combat this we have the Torah, which creates what Rav Shlomo Wolbe terms olam hayedidut— the “world of loving friendship.” When G-d gives us commandments He is not instructing us as a legislator imposing laws upon his submissive and fearful subjects. Rather, He is like a loving parent who instructs and guides out of care and concern, to give us, His children, the best opportunity to live the best life possible. When we keep His mitzvot, it is within the context of this world of loving friendship. Just as we do things for people we love – a husband for a wife and a wife for a husband, parents for children and children for parents – so too, says Rav Wolbe, we keep the mitzvot in the context of our relationship with G-d, in the world of loving friendship.
Rav Wolbe says that Shabbos in particular is a pillar of this world of loving friendship, when we have the space and time to reconnect with our loved ones. Shabbos nurtures our sense of connectedness, creating a wonderful, warm, loving atmosphere at the centre of our lives, giving us the blessing of family.
V. The Blessing of Faith
The two challahs on our Shabbos table remind us of the double portion of manna that fell on Friday during the 40 years when the Jewish people were in the desert. In fact, one of the reasons we cover the challahs is as a reminder of the layer of dew which covered the manna. The people were told that a double portion would come down on Friday, and that they were not to go out and collect the manna on Shabbos, because Shabbos is a holy day.
The Jews in the desert did not know where their daily bread was going to come from; they had to wait for the manna, from day to day. The manna and Shabbos remind us that while we are obligated to do our best to earn a living, nevertheless we are in G-d’s hands. Day by day we rely on the “manna”—G-d’s blessing—coming down from heaven. Shabbos enhances this peace of mind: during the week we have many stresses and are troubled about where our parnassah, livelihood, will come from. But on Shabbos our refraining from work helps us realise that we are in G-d’s hands. Shabbos also attests to the fact that G-d created the world and liberated us from Egypt, two foundational facts of Judaism, which are expressed during Kiddush. These facts remind us of Hashem’s interest in and care for us historically and today. Knowing that Hashem is always with us frames our worldview as Jews and gives us comfort and confidence. Keeping Shabbos testifies to our faith.
Life can be very daunting; oftentimes our faith is put to the test. Maintaining fortitude in the face of a test of faith is crucial to success. In fact, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains that every situation in life presents challenges to our faith, commitment, values and integrity. Poverty, illness and suffering, for example, all challenge a person’s ability to be close to and have faith in Hashem without bitterness and resentment. Equally, health and wealth test a person’s ability to remain humble, without smug satisfaction, and to recognise that all success and achievement are blessings from G-d which need to be used for the good.
Shabbos teaches and instils in us the power of faith to pass the tests of life. On Shabbos we stop working for a livelihood. That requires a leap of faith. By doing so we remind ourselves that ultimately we cannot control the outcomes and that we are in G-d’s hands. On Shabbos we learn to embrace and even celebrate this fact, because we realise that by doing so we give ourselves the chance to rest, and to “catch our breath”. Shabbos imbues us with the blessing of faith, which gives us a spirit of strength and confidence to face the uncertainties, challenges and opportunities of life.
VI. The Blessing of Belonging
We are not alone in the world. We are part of something much greater and larger: the Jewish People. Shabbos holds the whole Jewish People together: it unites Jewish communities around the world. We all read the same parsha and there is a natural rhythm built into the Jewish week. We go to shul and feel part of a community. We feel a sense of belonging in a world of fragmentation.
When we sit around our Shabbos table, we also connect with all the generations of Jews who have kept Shabbos for thousands of years in so many different places and circumstances. We relive the great Shabbatot of history – the first Shabbos of creation; the first Shabbos the Jewish people spent in the desert, when the double portion of manna fell from heaven; the Shabbos when the Torah was given. We think about all these events as though they are with us today, because the holiness of time means we experience time not as something fixed and linear, monotonously following one minute after another, but as something living and dynamic.
On Shabbos, Jewish history and destiny collide. Past, present and future blend. We reflect on our rich history, celebrate in the present and build a bright future. As we lit candles on death trains to Treblinka, or raised Kiddush cups in the trenches of our independence, we felt the comfort and belonging of being connected to thousands of years of Jewish history and destiny.
Shabbos has been a vital part of Jewish life since G-d gave it to us 3326 years ago. It has been our mainstay, guiding us throughout our journeys across continents, historic eras, political upheaval and amidst an ever fluctuating world.
We have worn it as a badge of honour and it has rewarded us with countless blessings. May we continue to be blessed, through the magical gift of Shabbos.
2014 – Reflections
On 7 December 1942, the following telegram arrived for Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky, the then Rosh Beth Din of Johannesburg, from Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin a leading figure in world Jewry at the time:
It is a painful telegram to read. It reflects the horror and helplessness during the Holocaust years, with its pitiful plea to South African Jewry to intercede with General Jan Smuts, the then Prime Minister of South Africa, do something, anything, to save European Jews from annihilation.
This next telegram comes at the end of the war, and this time it is from the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, Chief Rabbi Hertzog and Chief Rabbi Uziel, again to Rabbi Kossowsky:
On the one hand, these two telegrams belong to another universe of Jewish experience, a universe which is utterly foreign to the world we know, and yet on the other they are deeply familiar. They belong to a different era of communication which seems light years away from the instantaneous and ubiquitous channels of communication that we live with today. Long gone are the days of the broken and cryptic telegram, as lines of communication – visual, verbal and written – are now free flowing and instant.
Of course, what has also changed since then is the great blessing that G-d gave to the Jewish people: The re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after almost two thousand years. In spite of all of the dangers and challenges that the State of Israel faces today, it does so, thank G-d, with all of the power and strength that come with sovereignty – an army, embassies throughout the world, finances and the might of six million Jews living throughout Israel. It is important that we step back and give thanks to Hashem for these great blessings, even as we grapple with many of the daunting challenges the Jewish people are facing in Israel and throughout the world,. . Sometimes it takes telegrams from the heart of the darkness of the Holocaust to appreciate our blessings.
Unity born from pain
And yet, despite the vastly different world we live in today, these two historic telegrams resonate powerfully with us, because they capture the eternal ties that bind Jews all around the world into one global people with a shared history and destiny. We have felt the closeness of those ties in our times, and especially over the weeks of the Gaza War, as Jewish communities, thousands of kilometres away from Israel, found themselves on the frontlines of the anger and hatred of the enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people. Just as the two telegrams signified Jewish unity in times of crisis and fear, so did we recently experience remarkable levels of Jewish unity throughout the world during the Gaza War.
And yet, it has been a unity born of pain – the pain of the abduction and murder of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal the pain of the sirens warning of the rocket barrages into Israeli cities; the heart-rending funerals of lone soldiers and the unbearable loss of children like Daniel Tragerman; the agony of the deaths of all the brave IDF soldiers, who gave their lives defending the safety and freedom of the people and State of Israel, and indeed of Jews all around the world. It was during this time of crises that we realised what our sages describe as the ultimate unity – “like one person with one heart.” But we were brought together through external forces of hatred directed at us by our enemies such as Hamas and its allies, and by a global movement of vicious anti-Semitism, masquerading as opposition to Israel.
Unity born from love
Now is the time to redeem our unity and uplift it from a place of necessity to a place of choice; from being externally imposed to being internally embraced; from a unity born as a response to hatred to a unity that emerges out of love for each other. But how? This is something we have struggled with for generations. Our Sages teach that it was baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty, ushering in a long and bitter exile. If we the Jewish people can find an answer to this challenge, we will indeed have the opportunity to transform two thousand years of history since the destruction, as well as our eternal destiny. Where do we begin? How can we truly create a unity of choice and not necessity?
The quest for answers to these perennial questions leads us to another more profound question – how do we redeem Jewish identity from being defined by anti-Semitism? Our history is so blood-stained with the hatred we have endured from others. If we raise our children to believe that to be a Jew is to carry the weight of anti-Semitism, persecution and isolation from the rest of the world, it will destroy the inspiration and sense of mission so central to a thriving future.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great Torah sages of the twentieth century, witnessed a generation of Jews emigrate from Eastern Europe to America, many of whom assimilated into the New World, abandoning their Jewish commitment and identity. He suggested that a major contributing factor to this is captured by a popular Yiddish phrase heard in homes during those times: “es iz shver tzu zein a Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew”. He believed it was this sense of negativity and burden that discouraged and distanced the new generation of Jews born into a free society.
This is the very same conundrum facing us today – how to create Jewish unity and identity that is not forged from the enmity of others, but rather is a positive and inspiring affirmation of our noble and ancient legacy. It goes to the heart of charting a path forward by understanding what it means to be a Jew – that being a Jew is a privilege, rather than aburden. We need to regroup as a nation and realise what it means to be one people with one unique and treasured heritage. We need to unite under the banner of love and a shared moral vision and destiny, as opposed to that of bloodshed, war and antiSemitism. But how?
Finding answers to all these questions actually begins with answering the most basic question of all. In one of the most popular TED talks ever, author Simon Sinek argues that history has proven that those who start with ‘WHY’ succeed. On 17 December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first people in history to invent and fly an aeroplane. It was an unlikely success because they were working in their home town in Dayton, Ohio, without significant funding, political connections, or a single team member with a university education. At the same time, Samuel Langley was trying to be the first to invent and fly a plane. He had large government funding, a team with the most respected academics in the world, and yet it was the Wright brothers who achieved success.
Sinek says the difference between them was that, “The Wright brothers had a dream. They knew WHY it was important to build this thing. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it would change the world. … Langley on the other hand was consumed with acquiring the level of prestige of his associates like Alexander Graham Bell, fame that he knew would come only with a major scientific breakthrough.”
The Wright brothers inspired themselves and their team with a vision of building a machine that could fly not just to achieve fame and fortune, but rather to uplift human civilisation and change the course of history with an invention of unprecedented transformative power. Sinek argues that successful people, organisations and societies have a clear vision of why they exist and why they are working towards their goals. Many people get entangled with the ‘How’ and ‘What’ of life before understanding ‘Why’.
Another example that Sinek uses to illustrate this point is that of the remarkable success of Apple computers. He claims that the secret to Apple’s success hinged on their selling a vision that was broader than just the technicalities of a machine. Apple’s message was not “We make great computers. They are beautifully designed and simple to use . Want to buy one?” Instead, Sinek sums up the Apple vision as follows: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge this status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, and user friendly. And we happen to make great computers.” Sinek claims that true success comes from a clarity of vision which is inspiring, one which begins with a very clear understanding of an overarching and meaningful journey.
So often Jewish leaders and communities around the world get entangled in the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of Jewish life, without understanding the WHY. Why are we here? Why are we Jews? In times of conflict and stress, Jews become obsessed with survival and the technical functioning of our organisations and communities. It is at a time like this that we need to lift our heads and realise an elevated vision of what it means to be a Jew, one which is not defined simply by basic functioning and survival. If to be a Jew is merely to live as an ethnic, cultural and religious group in the world, with our own set of customs and values which we work hard to preserve, then we have painted a functional, flat picture of what it means to be a Jew. Now is the time to articulate an inspired and grand vision of the ‘WHY’ of being Jewish, to live with this vision and to share it with a new generation of Jews who are searching for something more than mere functional survival.
The mission statement of the Jewish People
Of course, the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of being Jewish is also vital, but it all must begin with the ‘WHY’.
If there is one mitzvah which brings together the multi-faceted dimensions and symbolizes with compelling coherence the inspiring vision of what it means to be a Jew, then it is the mitzvah of Shabbos. It is a day in which we contemplate, celebrate and articulate the founding history, values and destiny of the Jewish people. Each week in our homes as we recite the ancient holy words of kiddush to usher in Shabbos, we reaffirm and articulate what it means to be a Jew and why we are here, we proudly proclaim our connection to the basic foundational principles of why we are Jewish and what that means. We stand together with family and friends at our tables and sincerely and lovingly declare that G-d created the world in which we live and that He took us out of Egypt and that He gave us exalted values by which we live.
We stand together and proclaim the words of the kiddush:
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, Who has favoured us, and in love and favour gave us His holy Sabbath as a heritage, a remembrance of the work of Creation. It is the first among the Holy Days of assembly, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. For You chose us and sanctified us from all the people, and in love and favour gave us Your Holy Sabbath as a heritage. Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies the Sabbath.
These words contain the most important dimensions of the mission statement of the Jewish people, the ideas at the heart and soul of being Jewish, the ideas which frame the way we see the world and our very identity, which we proclaim and celebrate on Shabbos: That G-d created the universe with purpose and meaning; that we were slaves in Egypt until He redeemed us for the purpose of giving us His Torah as our moral and spiritual blueprint for life. Thus, to be a Jew is not merely to maintain the survival of a cultural and ethnic group. No, it is to be part of a people who have an inspiring G-d-given mission and purpose to bring the light and warmth of Torah and mitzvot to our lives and the world around us. This mission is national and personal, and infuses everything we do with meaning. We live in a world created by G-d with love, brilliance and purpose. We have been born into a people who have experienced the grandest miracles of history, who witnessed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and who heard G-d’s voice at Sinai. And on Shabbos we relive and reaffirm all of these uplifting truths, as we remember who we are, where we have come from and what our mission is.
The final destination of the world is also called Shabbat
The Tur, one of our great halachic authorities from the Middle Ages, writes (Orach Chaim 292) that the three main Amidah prayers of Shabbos correspond to three great Shabbatot in history: the very first Shabbat of creation, the Shabbat when the Torah was given and the time of the Final Redemption, which is called the Shabbat of history.
The Ramban explains, based on the teachings of the Talmud, that the six days of creation parallel the six thousand years of history, a day for each millennium. World history is 7,000 years long, paralleling the seven days of creation. Just as the six days of creation culminated in Shabbos, so too the six thousand years of world history will culminate with the coming of the Messiah and the Final Shabbat of Redemption . Shabbat embodies the destiny of human civilisation and of the Jewish people in particular. It underpins all of human activity: The world’s history began with Shabbat, as it was the very first thing man experienced after he was created The pivotal, historic event of the giving of the Torah was also on Shabbat; and the final destination of the world is also called Shabbat, when G-d will redeem this world from its moral confusion and pain.
Shabbos is a time that we understand that to be a Jew is not merely about functioning, but about a holy mission; not merely about survival but about carrying the light of this glorious and inspiring mission. Shabbos is the mitzvah that gives us the framework and platform to experience on every level – intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical – the grand vision of the profound importance of being a Jew.It is a time when we stop and reconsider why we are here, and where we are headed.
A day for clarity
The Gerrer Rebbe, known as the Sfas Emes, says that one of the central ideas of Shabbos is remembering. This is expressed in the fact that in the Ten Commandments, the mitzvah of Shabbos is introduced with the words “Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho” – “Remember the Shabbos day to make it holy.” From this, the Sfas Emes learns that Shabbos is a day of memory, specifically remembering the purpose for which we were sent into this world. When a soul is sent into the body for the purpose of serving Hashem in this world out of free choice, one of the great dangers is that a person may forget why they were sent here in the first place. But when it returns to Hashem after death, it is then confronted with the absolute clarity of what it had forgotten during its time in this world. It is only at that moment of death, with the separation of the soul from the body, that a person achieves such clarity. That’s why, as the Sfas Emes explains, at the giving of the Torah the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies. The Sfas Emes says that it was because a moment of absolute clarity like that can only be experienced in a soul that is not embedded in a body.
This physical world is a barrier which hides the truth of our purpose and the clarity of mission of every person, and of the ultimate purpose for which G-d created the world. The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that that is why Shabbos is called “me’ein olam haba” – “a reflection of the essence of the next world”. This world is a world of materialism and forgetfulness and the next world is a world of clarity of purpose. This then is the “great kindness” that Hashem did in giving us Shabbos, explains the Sfas Emes. Shabbos is a day for remembering our purpose, with the clarity of the “next world”. It is a day when the powerful physical forces of this world are cast aside to create a space that brings with it freedom. This is achieved on a practical level by freeing a person from the burdens and responsibilities of work.
Often the noise of human creativity and every-day busyness is so loud that it drowns out who we are and what our ultimate purpose is. The cacophony of life must recede so that we can actually discern our true purpose in the world. And so G-d created Shabbos, the one day a week when the noise fades. He stopped creating and we, too, cease from physically creating; hence we refrain from doing melacha, the thirty-nine categories of work forbidden on Shabbos. Melacha is concerned with human creativity controlling nature; on Shabbos all of that physical creativity ceases. The world quietens. Once the noise and distraction disappear, the hidden, spiritual reality of the world emerges for us.
A new face
This spiritual reality is most visible on the human face. The human being, like the world, is a physical being. Yet we know that each person has a spiritual reality, and that is the neshama. The neshama is buried deep within a person, but we get a glimpse of it through their facial glow. The neshama shines from the face, and this is why when a person dies, their face becomes ashen. Anyone who has seen a dead body can tell you that the departed’s face turns pallid the moment the neshama, leaves the body. The glow of life is unique to human beings. Animals have a life force, but they don’t have a neshama, reflected in the glow of the human face.
The Midrash comments that G-d sanctified Shabbos with Maor panav shel adam, “the shining face of man.” On Shabbat the world goes quiet because every-day freneticism and physical creativity abate, thus allowing for a person’s true reality – the soul – to come to the fore. The body of the world is the physical world which was created by G-d with ten statements; but the world’s “soul” is the Torah symbolized by the Ten Commandments. Similarly, the body is the physical aspect of a person whilst the soul is the spiritual dimension which G-d has placed within each of us; on Shabbat that shines through. A person becomes truly human on Shabbat. During the week we are so busy, distracted by, and caught up in the noise of the world, that the true essence of who we are, is often smothered. But, on Shabbat as we put aside the frantic activity of the week. the neshama can shine. This is, Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains why Shabbat is called panim chadashot; a “new face.” On Shabbos everyone becomes a new person, everyone has a “new face”; indeed it changes the world. It enables our true selves and the true reality of the world to shine forth in all its glory.
This insight into the importance of Shabbat is particularly relevant in today’s times. During the week we often become busy and disconnected from those around us and from Hashem and His values to the extent that we lose touch with who we are and what the purpose of life is; we can lose our sense of direction. We lose touch with our neshama, our true essence, with our loved ones, with our community and with G-d. But then comes Shabbat, enabling us to find our sense of self, to look past the physical externalities and return to the inner reality of our souls and the world around us.
It is the one day a week in which we can become ourselves again and reconnect with family, community and G-d. We realise again that a human being is not just a physical body; that we are so much more than the clothes we wear and the possessions we own. Within all the physical externality lies a soul, whose ultimate purpose it is to see past the physical world whilst striving to become the best version of ourselves.
Certainly, Shabbos brings with it physical rejuvenation through sleeping and eating well, but more importantly, it brings too a deep and profound spiritual invigoration. This is why, as the Gemara teaches us, on Shabbos we get a neshama yeteira, an extra soul. The extra soul is a manifestation of the spiritual reality that comes to the fore on Shabbos. By reconnecting us with the true spiritual reality of ourselves and of the world, Shabbos uplifts us and renews our energy for the upcoming week, allowing us to emerge as new people, revived and ready to meet the challenges and opportunities of life. Shabbos reconnects us with our true identity and mission as Jews. It reconnects us with the grand and inspiring of what it means to be a Jew.
A rallying cry for our generation
The mitzvah of Shabbos can be the rallying cry for our generation as we search for ways to reconnect with an inspiring vision of Jewish unity and identity. It can direct us to our ‘WHY’. This is the simple yet compelling idea driving an international movement for our times, which was born right here in South Africa: The Shabbos Project. We South African Jews inspired Jewish communities around the world last year with our unity, with our loyalty to Jewish values, with our Shabbos Project. Our experience touched the hearts of Jews around world, , and as we prepare for this year’s Shabbos Project, there are partner groups in more than 340 cities over 33 countries across the world who are doing everything they can to unite us under the banner of one shared Shabbos. This year, on the Shabbos of 24/25 October 2014, parshat Noach, Jews throughout the world will come together in a spirit of unity to keep one complete Shabbos together. The breadth and depth of support for the Shabbos Project so far has been quite astonishing, with an outpouring of positive, enthusiastic responses. All around the world, Jews of all ages, from all walks of life, across all levels of Jewish observance and involvement have joined hands to keep this Shabbos together.
Shabbos can be the beginning of an answer to the way forward for us today. Perhaps, it is the first step in forging unity that is born from love not fear, and identity that is defined by inspiring vision and privilege, not burden and persecution. It brings together in one day everything we cherish about being Jewish. In a world of fragmentation, it is a day of connection to faith, family and community; in a world of dislocation it is a day of being rooted in the grand sweep and meaning of our history and the power of our Divine destiny; and in a world of cynicism and selfishness it is a day of spirituality and love.
For thousands of years, since the very inception of our people at Sinai, Shabbos has accompanied us – nurturing us, holding us together, connecting us to our divine mission and giving us our collective identity as a people. It is a unique gift given to us by G-d , and has been our source of strength and vision. It has refreshed and uplifted our spirits throughout the centuries, in good times and bad, in peace and war, in times of prosperity and times of deprivation, in times of tranquillity and times of turbulence. Shabbos has been there for us. As Ahad Ha’am famously observed, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
And so now at this time, when we are grasping for a way forward – for a way to transform the unity born of our collective pain and isolation into something inspiring and life-changing – Shabbos provides the Jewish world with the gateway to Jewish unity and identity, of joy and meaning, of privilege and inspiration. Let us all rally together under the banner of Shabbos, and in so doing merit a year filled with Hashem’s greatest blessings.
2015 – Reflections | Leadership
High drama often accompanied the dramatic rescue efforts carried out by a small band of American Jewish activists who did everything in their power to save Jews during the Holocaust.
One man in particular stands out – Irving Bunim. There is a remarkable incident which captures his passionate zeal to save Jews from the murder and mayhem of that horrific time.
It was November 1940. After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the city of Vilna was, for a short window of time, free from both Nazi and Soviet control, and had become a temporary safe-haven for close to a hundred thousand Jews, many of them refugees fleeing Poland. But by 1940, that safety net was rapidly disappearing, and by November of that year, things had reached a critical stage. The city’s Jewish inhabitants, like those just about everywhere else in German-occupied Europe, would end up being massacred by the Nazis. But, at that moment in time, there was still the smallest window of opportunity to escape.
Thousands of miles away, Bunim was sitting down to Shabbos lunch with his wife and three children in his Boro Park home in New York. Suddenly, a car screeched to a halt outside. Car doors slammed. And to his amazement, Rabbi Boruch Kaplan and Rabbi Alexander Linchner, two prominent New York rabbis, burst into his living room. Breathless, their hands shaking, the two of them sketched out the plan to extract a thousand Jews from Vilna, before the Soviets – who had now overrun the city – would close the borders, preventing anyone from leaving. In order to do so, they would need to raise $50 000 in less than 24 hours in order to pay the Soviets for permits, visas, and safe passage from Vilna to Vladivostok then on to Japan.
Half a century later, Bunim’s son, Amos, in the book, A Fire in His Soul, describes the aftermath of this scene:
Bunim … sat speechless at his own table … Rabbi Linchner gestured at the taxi waiting at the curb. ‘… Now! There’s no time to wait until after Shabbos. Every day, every minute that we lose, can mean lives.’ Bunim was stunned by the thought of riding in a taxi on the Sabbath. He knew the Torah precept, that saving a life supersedes all of Torah law, but Shabbos is the core of Torah life. Yet here were two of Brooklyn’s most noted young rabbanim… commanding Bunim to violate the same Sabbath he would give everything to preserve. Apologising to his family, his cheeks wet with tears, Bunim bensched (recited Grace) with great difficulty, cried again and followed the two rabbanim to the taxi. He and his companions were too upset to speak and the cab sped on. Bunim checking the long list on his lap, gave the driver an address and waited until the cab pulled over. Before anyone could speak, Bunim was running down the walk. There was no time to lose … Even after Shabbos, they collected pledges. By morning they had nearly what they needed, $45 000 in pledges and loans. They would bring it to the Joint’s New York Office which added $5 000 and in turn released the amount in Vilna.”
“The End of Big”
This story teaches us something very powerful and important about the idea of leadership. But before exploring it, let us consider how dramatically the world has changed. In The End of Big, Nicco Mele captures the essence of the paradigm-shifting times in which we live. He writes:
“Look around you. Bloggers rather than established news outlets break news. Upstart candidates topple establishment politicians. Civilian insurgencies organised on Facebook challenge conventional militaries. Engaged citizens pull off policy reforms independent of government bureaucracies. Local musicians bypass record labels to become YouTube sensations. Twenty-something tech entrepreneurs working in their pyjamas destabilise industry giants and become billionaires. Radical connectivity … has all but transformed politics, business and culture … The End of Big is at hand.”
What does this mean for us? One of my favourite quotations comes from a great twentieth century leader of American Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Taitz, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who was fond of saying, “The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.” What he meant is that there are some ideas in the Torah which we may not fully understand until the world has developed to a point where we can grasp their impact and significance. Hashem gave us His Torah for all times and all places. And there are some Torah ideas which are so advanced that to fully grasp their depth, we have to wait for the world to “catch up” with Torah thinking. “The end of big” is such an idea.
How so? Let’s examine the Torah’s understanding of the concept of leadership. If you go into any bookshop around the world, you will find shelves of books on the topic of leadership. It is one of the most popular subjects today. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, there are no classic Torah books dedicated exclusively to leadership. This is puzzling, since the Torah itself – in the Chumash, the Talmud and all of our holy sources – is replete with wisdom on how to be a good leader. Why, then, are no books dedicated to this topic?
I think the answer lies in the fundamental discomfort that Judaism has with the very idea of leadership. Firstly, the word “leader” implies followers, who by definition are of secondary importance to the leader. And yet a key teaching of the Torah is the equal and inherent value of every human being – as the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 3:18) says, “Beloved is the human being created in the image of G-d.” Every person is created in G-d’s image – that is, with a G-d-given soul and an innate royalty and dignity. And so, no individual has the right to rule over or impose on another. In Torah law, authority is always delegated and never intrinsic or assumed by right. For example, the obligation to honour one’s parents is dependent on the fact that Hashem commanded it. In other words, a parent’s authority is not inherent, but rather conferred by G-d, and consequently if a parent exceeds those G-d-given parameters of honour and authority – by instructing a child to commit a sin, for example – then the child is freed from the duty to obey the parent. The same goes for any position of political leadership, which is created, and therefore, is constrained by our supreme Constitution – the Torah and its laws and principles.
Another reason why Torah philosophy is uncomfortable with the notion of leaders and followers is that every single Jew has direct and equal access to Hashem and to His Torah. We do not engage with Hashem through intermediaries. The most dramatic example of this is prayer: we pray directly to G-d. We address Him in the second person (“You”). In fact, one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is that we are prohibited from praying through a person, or even an angel. Another example is Torah literacy and knowledge, which, over the generations, has not only been made accessible to one and all, but even promoted as one of the central values of Jewish society. History is replete with examples of other societies who reserved the vital skill of literacy for its elite members as a way of entrenching their power and position. By contrast, the Talmud states that a child – every child – should learn to read as early as possible, and describes the valiant efforts to establish what was probably the first national education system in the world, more than 2 500 years ago. Learning Torah is the calling and privilege of every Jew, not just the rabbis.
When G-d established a covenant with the Jewish people to keep the Torah, it was not through their leadership structures; it was rather a covenant with each and every person, treated as an individual of equal importance. As the Torah states: “You stand here today – all of you – before Hashem your G-d, the leaders of your tribes, the elders and officers, every person in Israel … from the choppers of wood to the drawers of water, to enter into the covenant with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim 29:2-11). We never go through another person in order to reach Hashem. There are no gatekeepers of the system. Each of us holds the key to G-d and His Torah.
The third reason behind the Torah’s difficulty with the concept of leadership is that we are all called on to be leaders. As the verse says, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests [Kohanim]” (Shmot 19:6). In the same way that the Kohanim represent G-d’s word and play a leadership role within the Jewish people, so too is each and every one of us called on to represent Hashem, and to teach and lead and make the world a better place. G-d wants us all to become great leaders, illuminating the world with His wisdom and uplifting His entire creation.
Resolving the Puzzle
But there is a dichotomy here. On the one hand, Torah philosophy is sceptical of hierarchical structures which create leaders and followers. And yet, on the other hand, the Torah creates very definite leadership roles. There is the mitzvah to respect Torah scholars and turn to them for leadership and guidance. There are the Kohanim and Leviim tasked with running the temple services, and other responsibilities. There is the judicial leadership of the Sanhedrin, the executive leadership of the King, and the religious authority vested in the Kohen Gadol (the high priest), among many other official leadership positions. How do we understand this? How do we reconcile this deep scepticism of authority with a system that builds authority and leadership into its very foundations?
The answer is a paradigm shift. It requires us to explore a completely new paradigm of leadership. There are, of course, different ways to understand leadership. There are many within Western thinking that view leadership in a very political, hierarchical sense – top-down. On the other hand, there are certain African traditions in which leadership is structured bottom-up, guidance from the people. A classic example of this is the Imbizo custom: in certain African tribes, before the king can make any decision, he needs to call a gathering of the tribe – an ‘Imbizo’ – where everyone states their opinion, and from those opinions the chief formulates a consensus for the way forward.
Leadership in Torah philosophy is neither ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom-up’. What is it? It can best be described as ‘inside-out’. What does this mean? One of our great rabbinic leaders and thinkers in pre-war Europe, Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch (1860-1930), the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, questions whether any notion of absolute leadership is even possible. He points out that a person requires the consent of others to rule, and he bases this argument on his own eyewitness account of the state of affairs in Czarist Russia, which, to put it mildly, was certainly no democracy. But, even in such an authoritarian, totalitarian regime, he notes that there were certain people, such as the police and army, without whose support the czar could not have governed. Even the most tyrannical of leaders at the very least need the support of the security forces in order to maintain their rule. And so no human being can rule over others without the consent of at least some portion of the governed. In a democracy, it is with the freely given consent of the majority, whereas in an autocracy, it is with the consent of a powerful few. Because each human being is created in the image of G-d, authority cannot simply be imposed; it has to be granted, at least to some extent, by the governed.
There is one person in the world, however, observes Rabbi Bloch, that every single one of us can truly rule over – ourselves. The starting point for real leadership, he explains, is self-leadership – self-mastery, personal integrity, inner greatness. That is the starting point of leadership. And it is only once we’ve mastered ourselves that we can become leaders of others, through a process of ever-widening circles of influence. In other words, we lead from the ‘inside-out’ – first ourselves and then outwards to others
The ‘Inside-Out’ Model
One of our great thinkers of the twentieth century, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), explains that as individuals progress through life, their circle of influence expands. In their early stages of life they merely focus on themselves and on achieving self-mastery, and as a they grow older and become married and start a family, the circle of influence expands to include a spouse and children, and can then widen further toinclude friends, community and society. Life is a journey from the inside out – from achieving greatness within ourselves to the point where we can start to positively influence the lives of the people around us.
Now we can solve the puzzle of the Torah’s philosophy of leadership. We are all called on to be leaders – to lead and influence the people around us. Those who have been given official leadership positions merely have a wider circle of influence than do others, but they do not constitute an entirely different category of individuals. Every leadership position entails only the responsibility to impact on a wider circle to make the world into a better place. That is why even an official leadership position is defined by the Gemara (Horiot 10a-b) as “not power, but service”. Leadership is not about exercising power over others, but about serving Hashem and making the world a better place.
There isn’t any qualitative difference between a person who occupies an official leadership position and one who does not. Every person is called on to lead. And that leadership begins with oneself, and progresses, in ever-expanding circles of influence, to include others. The question is just how wide our circles of influence are. For some, it includes oneself and perhaps one’s spouse and children, and for others it expands ever wider to encompass a community and a society, and even a world. It all depends on what opportunities for influence a person is accorded by Hashem. People with official leadership positions have merely been given a wider circle of influence, but there are not two categories of people, leaders and followers. We are all called on to lead.
“The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow,” and has always advocated “the end of big” – a world in which every individual feels the power and responsibility to effect change. This is what is so powerful about a person like Irving Bunim, who came to the fore in the war years. He was a textile merchant who didn’t occupy an official communal position of national authority, and yet felt a burning responsibility to save as many Jews as possible from the horrors of the Holocaust. He didn’t sit back and let the official leaders of American Jewry take care of the situation. He leapt up and took responsibility. Torah literature does not feature specialised books for leaders, because we are all called on to be leaders, not merely a select few; such books would absolve “followers” from their duty to make a difference. Leadership for the few would deprive the world of the energy and initiative of the many. It would deprive the world of people like Irving Bunim.
Changing the world begins with changing oneself, because, as the mishna (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches, to save one life is to save a world. Leadership begins with self-mastery. This is best captured in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from all people … Who is powerful? One who is able to conquer his own inclination … Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot … Who has honour? One who gives honour to others.” This mishna recounts all that people strive for in life: wisdom, power, wealth and honour. The common denominator, explains the Maharal, is how the mishna makes the attainment of all of these goals dependent on personal mastery rather than on comparisons with the attainments of others. Conventional thinking defines wisdom, power, wealth and honour in relative terms, in comparison to the achievements of others. The mishna defines these concepts using internal, personal criteria, giving us aspirations that we can live by, and which are in our own hands to fulfil. With self-mastery, we have the humility to learn from every person, and so become truly wise. With selfcontrol, we can transcend the temptation to do things which are wrong, and so become truly powerful. With serenity and gratitude, we can find joy in what we have, and so achieve true wealth. And with generosity of spirit, we can give honour to others, and so achieve true honour ourselves.
Self-leadership is also about the mitzvot. Personal integrity is the starting point of everything. The mitzvot are the essence of Hashem’s blueprint for every part of our lives: monetary ethics, prayer, speaking kindly to people, Shabbos, kashrut, tzedakah, Pesach, how we speak, how we conduct ourselves in business, how we eat, how we treat others, how we allocate our time, and just about everything else. Torah philosophy empowers people to become leaders in a very real, practical and personal way. True Jewish leadership is about actively, through Torah living, becoming better people – better in character, behaviour and thinking. So much of Yom Kippur is about heightened selfleadership. We go through a deep process of introspection and confession before G-d.
We are all leaders
Leadership begins with the self, but doesn’t end there. We are called on to lead others through the impact of our social influence, which is so much more powerful than we can imagine. Dr Robert Cialdini, a ground-breaking academic in the field of human behaviour, says in his book: Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, that social influence is one of the most powerful forces in driving human behaviour. We are a very powerful source of influence on the people around us, even if we often don’t realise it. One of the most significant motivating forces for human beings is the behaviour of the people around them. We are consciously or sub-consciously always looking to other people for guidance. Cialdini writes about a very interesting experiment in which a student faking an epileptic seizure received help 85% of the time when there was only one bystander, but only 31% of the time when there were, in addition to the subject under observation, five bystanders present. In other words, if someone collapses in front of a single individual, then that individual springs to the rescue most of the time. But when there is a group of people at the scene, the natural instinct is to look around and see if and how others are reacting – and to take one’s cue from there.
Cialdini refers to another interesting study – morbid and frightening, but also very powerful – which demonstrates that if a suicide is reported in the press, the suicide rates for the city increase for three months (spiking in the first month, reducing slightly in the second and third, but still remaining much higher than the average). Human beings are social creatures and we look to those around us for direction.
Because of the power of social influence, we all are leaders. To get married is for husband and wife to accept their leadership roles for each other and then later for their children, who themselves should be raised to be leaders in the family. Every parent is a leader within the family. Every child too. And because we all influence each other, we have to take responsibility for our homes and our families. We have to set the tone in our home and lead by example. Whatever a child grows up with, they will consider to be normal and natural, and whatever is absent from their home will come to be considered abnormal and unnatural. If a child grows up in a home in which people speak aggressively and unkindly, then that will become their norm; but if a child’s home environment is one in which people speak to each other kindly and respectfully, and without disparaging others – then that is what they will learn to do. The same goes for a child growing up in a home with kashrut and Shabbos. What do we want our children to value? What kind of home do we want to see them build one day? The power of influence goes beyond family, of course. Just by being among a group of friends, and, for example, refusing to speak lashon hara – negatively about another person – is influencing those around us for the good.
Leadership extends to community and society. The Torah philosophy of leadership finds particular expression in a few crucial mitzvot. The mitzvah of learning Torah, for example, is defined by the Rambam (1135-1204) as “learning and teaching”. The mishna in Pirkei Avot says “establish many students”. This, explains Rabbi Israel Lipschitz (1782-1860), is referring not only to the official rabbis and teachers of the community, but to each and every one of us. Obviously we have to teach with integrity and not profess knowledge and expertise we do not have – but, subject to such limitation, we have a responsibility to share the wisdom of Torah with as many people as possible.
There’s also the mitzvah to love Hashem, which the Gemara (Yoma 86a) defines as “making the name of the Heaven beloved to all”. In other words, we have an obligation to inspire as many people as possible to love Hashem. The Gemara explains that this is achieved by speaking gently and kindly to people and showing respect for their dignity, as well as by conducting ourselves with integrity; when others see how those who subscribe to Torah values live their lives in such an elevated manner, then they want to be a part of it.
Then there is also the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying Hashem’s name. It is a mitzvah for every single one of us to promote Hashem’s reputation in the world. Of course, the most fundamental way to do this is to set an example – living an exemplary, G-dly life can be a beacon to our family, our friends, our community and greater society.
The people’s movement
One of the most dramatic examples of this kind of leadership is The Shabbos Project phenomenon, which started here in South Africa in 2013, and in 2014 spread to 465 cities and 65 countries, involving approximately a million Jews, across eight languages. How did it happen? Here in South Africa, the home of The Shabbos Project, our magnificent community embraced the initiative and came to the fore as leaders. People arranged special festive Shabbos meals in their homes, streets and shuls.
Last year, a worldwide movement developed in a few months because The Shabbos Project has never been a large bureaucratic organisation run from the top-down, but rather a people’s movement driven by personal leadership. The philosophy of The Shabbos Project is to empower people to lead within their own communities, and that gives the project the power
There are “people’s partners” throughout the world. People such as Daniel Cohen in Seattle, Washington – a college freshman – who decided to bring The Shabbos Project to the city of Seattle, and with the assistance of the head office in Johannesburg and the educational and marketing materials that were made available, he was able to galvanise an entire community to take part. Here in South Africa, Doron Harbera, a 14-yearold student at King David Linksfield High School, came up with the idea that any school kid who signed up three friends or family members to The Shabbos Project would receive a luminous yellow shoelace they could wear at school. It was an enormously successful campaign, which is now being shared with communities around the world.
The Shabbos Project is about making it happen, not waiting for others to do it, or some institution to lead the way. It is about the power of individuals to take the lead and make a difference.
An amazing example from Jewish history is that of Elkana, the father of Samuel the prophet. He lived at a time, before our first temple, when the mitzvah of going up to the tabernacle for the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot had become sorely neglected. So what did Elkana do? He didn’t wait for the official leaders of his generation to take action. He decided to do it himself. He took his family and a few friends, and they travelled from place to place in a caravan, creating awareness of this mitzvah, telling people they were on their way up to the tabernacle for the pilgrim festival, and inviting them to come with. Slowly but surely a people’s movement sprang up, to the point where the mitzvah of aliyah leregel – of going up to the tabernacle for festivals – was returned to the Jewish people.
Community of leaders
Building a great South African Jewish community together is all about living this Torah philosophy of leadership. If every member of our community feels empowered to make a difference and assume the responsibility of leadership, we can achieve anything together – with Hashem’s help.
Take education and security, for example. The Torah outlook on schooling is that a school is delegated by parents to fulfil their responsibility, but the responsibility ultimately remains that of the parent. The Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) explains that originally all children were home-schooled by their parents. And then a national education system of schools was established to ensure all children would have the opportunity of proper schooling. This means that the primary responsibility to educate a child is that of a parent, and parents need to actively support the Torah education of their children as full partners. And they need to take the lead in this respect. Parents cannot expect a child to get a good Jewish education by sitting back and thinking they are absolved. It is the responsibility of the parent to complement the work of the school by reinforcing, at home, the values and learning taught at school.
Similarly, the power of Community Active Protection (CAP) comes in no small measure from every resident taking personal responsibility and leadership for the safety of their neighbourhood. If people feel the presence of patrolling vehicles absolves them from taking an active role, then crime cannot be defeated. When every person embraces their role as a leader, then there is sufficient community partnership in key areas, such as calling in suspicious activity, taking necessary safety precautions, and providing financial support. CAP is a proactive, people-driven crime fighting entity that is rooted in all residents assuming personal leadership responsibility, and it has successfully reduced contact crime by more than 90% across vast areas of Johannesburg.
These two examples capture the spirit we need to nurture in our community. We need a community of leaders, not followers; people who embrace personal responsibility and do not wait for others to provide solutions, but who come forward optimistically and dynamically to create a better community for all.
“If I am not for myself…”
At the heart of leadership is personal empowerment and personal responsibility. This idea is perhaps best captured in the famous mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
What does this mishna mean? Rabbeinu Yona (1210-1263), a great Torah sage, known for his famous commentary on the Mishnah, explains: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” It means: if I do not inspire myself to do mitzvot and good deeds, if I do not take ownership of my own personal growth, who will do it for me? There are so many people who are waiting for inspiration from others; people who ask: “When will the Rabbi inspire me?”, “When will my parents inspire me?”, “When will my shul or school inspire me?” These are the wrong questions. Personal empowerment means personal responsibility. And it begins by saying I will take responsibility to inspire myself and make a difference in my own life.
That, too, is what Yom Kippur is about. On Yom Kippur, we stand before G-d with a real sense of personal responsibility. The very fact that on Yom Kippur we say the viduy – the confession – and go through a teshuva – repentance – process, is an acknowledgment that we are responsible for our own actions and that we can make a difference in our own lives; that we can become better people and that we do not have to wait around for others to change us.
Not only do we not have to wait for others, we cannot wait for others. It is our responsibility, because if we don’t do it for ourselves, who will do it for us? No one else can do our mitzvot for us. Some people feel that mitzvot are for the rabbis to do; the rabbi can keep kosher and keep Shabbat and give tzedakah and perform all of the other commandments that we have, and he will do it all on our behalf. But the Torah’s philosophy is that we have direct and immediate access to Hashem. There are no intermediaries. We pray directly to Hashem. We engage in the mitzvot, directly connecting ourselves to Him. The power is in our hands. And so is the responsibility.
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” We are not alone and cannot be concerned only with ourselves; we all need to become leaders, to influence others in a positive way and spread goodness and light in the world. We can make a real difference to the lives of those around us by embracing leadership responsibilities, even if we do not have an official position. Everyone is empowered to make a difference to the world and to make the world into a better place.
And then, finally: “If not now, when?” There has to be a sense of urgency, a real self-empowerment, we need to commit to making a difference to ourselves and to those around us, now. We cannot postpone it for another day. Yom Kippur is filled with that sense of urgency. As the day approaches, we feel the intensity building and building. Neilah is suffused with the feeling of “if not now, when”, the real sense of the urgency of the moment, in which each one of us stands before G-d, answerable for our own actions. No one else can do it and no one else is our intermediary and no one else can protect us at that moment.
The urgency of Neilah typifies our lives because our time in this world is limited. Even if a person merits to live to 120 years, it is a limited period of time and the clock is ticking. We are only able to do mitzvot in this world, not the next. The next world is a world of reward. This is a world of action. And action arises from empowerment, from accepting the call to lead. We are all leaders. Let us change the world together!
2016 – Reflections
As we gather together in our shuls over this Yom Kippur, let us cast our minds back to 1841 when a small group of Jews in Cape Town assembled on Yom Kippur to make a minyan, to daven together and to establish the very first shul in the history of the South African Jewish community. Their nineteenth century world was completely different from anything we know. They could not even dream of the technologies and advancements – cars, planes, antibiotics, shopping malls, smartphones, WhatsApp and Facebook – of our twenty-first century society. Can you imagine how they felt that Yom Kippur, living in the Cape colony under British rule, far from their families in Europe, looking towards an uncertain future in a new country, with a new language and a new culture?
175 years young
This year is the 175th anniversary of the South African Jewish community, which marks as its beginning that very first shul established on Yom Kippur all those years ago. It is an appropriate time to reflect. What is our future in South Africa? How do we see ourselves? What is our identity? What is our role here? What is our connection to this country? What is our connection to those Jews who made that very first minyan on Yom Kippur 175 years ago? How do we chart our way forward into the future with confidence and clarity? This significant anniversary is an important opportunity to reflect on these fundamental questions which touch on our very identity and destiny.
First, some perspective. Looking across these years, we can only be struck by the sheer enormity of the course of events – events that those davening on Yom Kippur in Cape Town in 1841 could not have imagined in their wildest dreams: the Anglo Boer War, which shook the country; the establishment of the Union of South Africa; followed by the outbreak of World War I; the rise of Hitler; World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust that devastated our people; and then the exhilaration of the miraculous re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in almost 2 000 years; the National Party coming to power in South Africa, the beginning of the era of apartheid injustice which caused so much suffering; the inspiring miracles of the Six-Day War; the frightening peril of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. So much has happened in South African history and Jewish history during these 175 years.
We were privileged to witness the birth of freedom and democracy in South Africa, first with the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and then with the first democratic elections in 1994. 2016 has been another momentous year. It has seen the first shoots of healthy mature democracy emerge as opposition parties gain power and voice through some remarkable election victories in the leading cities of South Africa. It has also been a time of an intense power struggle between the forces of corruption and good governance.
What does it mean to be a Jew?
To find real perspective, let’s go back to the beginning. Who are we? Where do we come from? We are Jews. But what does it mean to be a Jew? We are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and the twelve sons of Jacob who became the twelve tribes of Israel, who were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt until G-d liberated us through Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai. He cared for us in the desert for forty years, and under Joshua’s leadership brought us into the land of Israel. We are the children of those heroes. We stand on their shoulders. Everything that we are and everything that we do is built on those who preceded us.
And so, when trying to gain perspective on the last 175 years of the South African Jewish community, our starting point is that it is actually a tiny part of the vast sweep of almost 4 000 years of Jewish history, which has seen our people traverse continents, historical eras and bear witness to all of the greatest epoch-making events in world history. Over these thousands of years our people have seen so much. Our history began with the slavery in Egypt and our forebears witnessing the incredible miracles of the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, as G-d liberated our people. We experienced the revelation of G-d and His Torah at Mount Sinai, and we entered the Land of Israel. We saw mighty world empires invade the Land of Israel, and we went into exile and wandered from country to country until our ancestors found their way to South Africa. And so, our starting point is that we are not merely a community of South Africans. We are an ancient people, whose forebears have seen it all, and remained faithful to the long and distinguished chain which forms our noble nation.
Why are we here?
But there are more questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our mission in this world? The answer is simple. It is to be found in the most important event of all of Jewish history, and indeed all of human history, which took place exactly 3 328 years ago, soon after we left Egypt, when G-d revealed Himself and His Torah to approximately three million men, women and children. They witnessed G-d’s presence themselves, and with their own ears heard His voice at Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai we received our mission, our marching orders, our sense of purpose and direction for eternity. G-d gave us His Torah, His mitzvot and our direction for life.
From that moment on, our purpose and mission in life was set for us by G-d Himself. It was the experience at Mount Sinai that changed everything, and so the Torah cautions us: “Only be careful and guard your soul exceedingly, lest you forget the things your eyes have beheld and lest you remove it from your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children that you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Sinai.” (Devarim 4:9-10)
“Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it.”
From the Torah we have G-d’s plan and mission for us, and we have our sense of purpose and direction, our understanding of the past and our vision for the future. As Pirkei Avot (5:25) teaches, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it.” Whatever direction we need is to be found in the Torah. The Talmud says G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. It’s the blueprint for life. Through the Torah, we know how to live as individuals, families, communities and as a nation. It guides and directs us on how to define our goals, how to confront our challenges, and how to do the right thing on every level.
The Torah has given us our perspective for how to live as Jews here on the southern tip of Africa, and its values have informed what we have done to build a Jewish community here. Over these 175 years, we have invested enormous time, effort, financial resources and so much more in the building of shuls, schools, welfare organisations, security, political and Zionist organisations. This vast communal infrastructure has been built up to help us give expression to the Torah values which have been part of our people for all of these thousands of years. We have built shuls in which to daven and learn Torah. We have built schools for our children to be educated in Torah values, Hebrew and Jewish literacy. We have created welfare organisations to look after those in need. We have created security organisations to protect us from danger, a Beth Din to oversee the halachic infrastructure of this community, and Zionist organisations to connect us to Israel. And so our Torah values have suffused our lives and have informed how we have lived as a community in this country for 175 years.
Respect for one another
“Turn it over and over for everything is in it.” During the dark times of apartheid, it was the teachings of the Torah that showed us the way in understanding the immorality of racism. G-d chose to create all of humankind from one man and one woman, even though other species of plant and animal life were created en masse. The Talmud teaches that the reason for this was to eradicate racism from the world: ensuring human beings were descended from one man and one woman made us, hence, all brothers and sisters of each other. Our Torah teachings declare the evil of racism, as the Mishna says, “Beloved is the human being created in the image of G-d,” which means that every human being has a soul, from G-d, which reflects in some way the awesomeness and greatness of the Creator Himself. And so, it behoves each of us to treat every human being with great care and respect, regardless of race, colour, creed or gender, and regardless of their station in life. These Torah values have been part of Jewish consciousness for generations, which may explain why Jews were disproportionately involved at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, in every way possible.
And then, when the new South Africa was born, the teachings of the Torah again guided us in understanding the promise of this country. After the destruction of a corrupt world in the flood, from which only Noah and his children were saved, G-d says in the Book of Genesis (9:16): “The rainbow will be in the clouds and I will see it to recall the eternal covenant between G-d and every living soul in all flesh that is on earth.” Since that flood, the rainbow has become the symbol of a covenant between G-d and the world to build a brighter future for humanity, through societies, based on respect for G-d and all human beings. The rainbow was designated by G-d as a symbol of hope for the world after the enormous destruction of the flood, just as our very own rainbow nation has emerged from the vortex of the brutality of apartheid. The new South Africa demonstrates to the world that racial conflict and intolerance can be peacefully overcome with respect and compassion for all.
Israel, our land
“Turn it over and over for everything is in it.” Our Torah teachings also help us understand our relationship with Israel. Zionism did not begin 100 years ago and the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel did not need legitimacy from the Balfour Declaration, nor any United Nations resolution. Our ancient connection to the Land of Israel has deep historical, and more importantly, covenantal roots.
Nearly 4 000 years ago, our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, lived in the Land of Israel which G-d promised to them and to their descendants. That promise was confirmed at Mount Sinai and was delivered upon by G-d, through Joshua, after the death of Moses. The Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel for 850 years, from the time of Joshua until the destruction of the First Temple and their expulsion by the invading Babylonians. They returned in large numbers 70 years afterwards to rebuild the Second Temple and to rebuild the land, where they remained for a further period of many centuries, until their eviction by the Roman Empire after the destruction of the Second Temple less than 2 000 years ago.
At every wedding, we say, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”, as we break a glass; and at every funeral, “May the Almighty comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”; and in our bensching and in our daily prayers, we constantly refer to Israel and Jerusalem. Through our Torah values we understand the importance of the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel; we understand the significance of seeing the fulfilment of the prophecies of the ingathering of the exiles after almost 2 000 years; we can appreciate the incredible miracles that led to the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel in the War of Independence in 1948, the spectacular miracles of the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, and the miracles which prevented Israel’s destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. From the Torah we understand what it means to be a Zionist and what our bond with Israel means to us.
“Turn it over and over for everything is in it.” The Torah is also a blueprint for how we, personally, live every day. It guides and directs us on wisdom, faith, character, personal meaning and purpose, charity, kindness, family, relationships, marriage, raising children, business ethics, spirituality, prayer – every aspect of what it means to be a human being. In an increasingly fragmented and pressurised world, Torah values have become, if anything, even more vital. Only the enduring, eternal Torah values have the power and the strength to hold us together and inspire us through the confusion and flux of modern life.
And so, as we look back over the last 175 years of the South African Jewish community, it is significant that the South African Jewish community was born on Yom Kippur with a small minyan of hardy souls. With great foresight, they realised that if they were to build a new Jewish community in Africa, it would need to be based on the eternal Torah legacy of our people, which has kept us together and given us purpose and inspiration for thousands of years.
And now, what about the future? How do we go forward? What lies ahead? At the outset, let us acknowledge, with gratitude to Hashem, that we are in a much better position than our forebears were 175 years ago. We live in a world in which advanced medicine, industry and technology make life longer, more dignified and of better quality. We live in a thriving, supportive and vibrant Jewish community with shuls and schools, and which has every Jewish facility and service available to meet any need.
South Africa as a country is also much better off. It has rid itself of the twin evils of colonialism and apartheid, and we now live with freedom and democracy. For all of its imperfections and for all of the challenges the country faces, it is truly a free country. It is this freedom that gives us the greatest hope for development, change and the promise of a better future. It is the robust, free and independent institutions of a free judiciary, free press, free elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of association that ensure there is a constant drive to improve and to become a better country. With freedom there is always the prospect of a better tomorrow, because a free society has the power to correct itself. The most recent municipal elections are a perfect example. The ANC lost significant support and was humiliated by losing the leadership of South Africa’s top cities. The election showed that the ANC cannot rely on the unconditional support of South Africans and that the 2019 general election will present a real threat to its power.
When it comes to Israel, we see that, despite its many enemies, Israel is stronger than ever before in every area – economic, military and technological. Our forebears in 1841 lived in a world without a Jewish state. We live in a world with a sovereign, powerful Jewish state with six million Jews living and thriving in the land, with a sovereign and strong Jewish army, government and parliament. These are enormous blessings, for which we give thanks to Hashem.
What about the future?
What does the future hold? People attempt to predict the future. It is natural to want to know what lies around the corner. But I think that it is the wrong approach. Who can really know what tomorrow brings? Only Hashem knows. There is, also, something disempowering about trying to predict the future. It often amounts to acknowledging that we are merely passive recipients, waiting for our future to happen to us. Instead, we should try to identify and create the future we want. Let us proactively work at creating the kind of family, community and society we want to live in. How do we do that? G-d looked into the Torah and He created the world. Let us look into the Torah and create our world and our society. Let us use the Torah as a blueprint for everything we want to achieve and for the kind of future we wish to create. We cannot possibly control local and international political and economic forces, but we do have the power to create the kind of community, families and lives that we need and want for ourselves. That is within our grasp. That is within the realm of our free choice. And we have the perfect blueprint to do it.
South Africa and Israel today
“Turn it over and over because everything is in it.” The Torah gives us a blueprint for how we go forward and live as South African citizens. Torah ethics forbid any involvement in corruption. On a very practical level, this means we must never cheat on our tax forms or pay a traffic officer a bribe to squash a ticket, even if we are enticed to do so. No member of the Jewish community should be involved in the grand-scale state capture and corruption we are witnessing today. We need to add our voices to the debate in the country and speak out against the corruption of President Jacob Zuma and all those associated with him. Our Torah teaches us that we need to “be a light unto the nation” – a beacon of light, integrity, honesty, respect and compassion.
There is so much to do in the area of poverty alleviation, but there is much that we can already be proud of. It is doubtful whether any other community makes an equivalent proportional contribution to alleviating human suffering in this country than our own Jewish community. We do so in the finest Torah traditions of active compassion and kindness, which is included in the mitzvah ‘to walk in the ways of Hashem’, which the Talmud teaches us means that we must be compassionate and alleviate suffering in the same way that G-d does. This is such an important mitzvah for our times.
Our Sages call on us to pray for the welfare of the government, which we do during every Shabbat morning service; and prayers are about hope and aspiration – about asking for and dreaming of a better tomorrow. We share the hopes and dreams of the new South Africa, and are called on to actively contribute to its progress and welfare. We all can make a contribution to building the new South Africa by simply living as law-abiding, hard-working citizens, who productively strengthen the economy and society. Indeed, the contribution of the Jewish community to every area of human endeavour – medicine, business, law, politics, sport, the arts – in South Africa is staggering in its scale.
When it comes to Israel, we, the South African Jewish community, have a noble record as a proudly Zionistic community. Our Torah values teach us that we need to harness all our efforts to ensure this proud tradition continues by educating our children never to be embarrassed of the State of Israel, no matter what her enemies say, to believe passionately in the justice of the cause of the State of Israel, not out of ethnic solidarity, but because Israel’s cause is just and moral. It is our Torah duty to fight the anti-Israel forces of boycott and delegitimisation which seek to undermine our beloved State of Israel, and we need to proudly proclaim the true facts of the proud history of the State of Israel, whose defence forces, judiciary and other sectors of society have, together, created the only free democracy in the Middle East. We live in a world of increasing danger and pressure on Jews and other people of the civilised world. Radical Islamic terror has reared its head in South Africa recently, serving as a reminder that we all need to work closely together to ensure we can do our utmost to create a safe environment for ourselves and our children.
Blueprint for life
The Torah is the ultimate wisdom and relates to every aspect of life and to every aspect of what it means to be a human being. It has a blueprint of action and thought for every dimension of our existence – emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, financial. It uplifts and transforms our relationships, our marriages, our families and our societal interactions. It does this through a programme of action we call the mitzvot. Let us embrace this programme of action in our day-to-day lives.
Let’s speak kindly to one another, avoiding lashon hara, slander, at all costs. Let’s make every Jewish home kosher. It’s who we are as a people.
Let us remember to give tzedaka. The Torah has a remarkable definition of minimum generosity, which is the requirement to give between ten percent and twenty percent of disposable after-tax income to charity. Through the power of tzedaka, we can ensure that those who are less fortunate have financial support. We can also ensure that our shuls and schools and other worthy organisations have the financial resources to do the important work they are doing.
Let’s set time aside to learn Torah every day. Setting aside time each day allows Torah wisdom to have a profound effect on our lives. Let us remember the mitzvot to honour our parents, and respect the elderly.
We must strengthen our families. The pressures of modern life have caused the bonds of family connection to be seriously weakened. We need to teach our children the importance of marriage, of building a Jewish home, of marrying within the Jewish faith, of continuing the proud legacy of our forebears and being connected to the Torah values that we received from our parents and grandparents. We need to ensure that our children go to Jewish day schools and we need to support those schools in every way possible, because they are the guarantors of our Jewish future. We need to learn Torah with our children as a way of connecting with them and with the generations of Jews who came before us.
The Torah has principles and laws which bring husband and wife closer together, which allow families to remain connected and which give a person a rooted sense of meaning and spiritual connection in an increasingly materialistic and lonely world, often empty of meaning and significance. The mikvah is an important part of Jewish marriage, and enhances the bond and connection between husband and wife on a physical and emotional level.
At the heart
And at the heart of the mitzvot is Shabbos, which holds everything together. It is testimony to the fact that G-d created the world and that He created us all for a purpose. It possesses the energy, the light of family unity and bonding, nurtured in the warm and embracing environment of a true Shabbos experience. Shabbos comes with its healing and revitalising power to reconnect us with our family, community, Hashem and even ourselves. It is the connection to generations of Jews who came before us, and it is our connection and bond to Hashem, and indeed to ourselves, in an often chaotic and fragmented world.
Our communal home
Our shuls, in particular, are important and precious institutions. It is significant that a shul was the very first Jewish institution established in South Africa. A shul is not only a building, it is our home where we can reconnect with Hashem, with the community and with our families. It is a home to fulfil the great mitzvah of prayer and of learning Torah. The South African Jewish community has a proud tradition of regular shul attendance throughout the years. We cannot afford to allow that to weaken, and it is up to us to come forward and to get involved in our shul committees, in shul programmes, and in shul services, because our shuls are the basic building blocks of our community.
The final redemption
We cannot forget that in the future lies the promise of the final redemption of the world, with the coming of the Mashiach, who will herald a better world filled with peace, kindness, happiness, safety and acknowledgement of Hashem by all. Until then, we live by our blueprint for the future, the Torah. It can carry us until the world is finally redeemed. With Hashem’s miracles and blessings, the Jewish people have outlasted every other ancient civilisation and fearsome enemies, not through our military might, but through the might of our values, which have been faithfully handed from generation to generation. It is around these Torah values that we need to rally as we chart the way forward in twenty-first century South Africa.
If we live with the Torah blueprint, we can face the future with strength and confidence. When we conclude a book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek” – “Be strong, be strong and let us take strength.” The Torah is the source of our strength. As it says, “Hashem will give His people strength and bless His people with peace.” And the Talmud says that “strength” in this verse refers to Torah. May Hashem bless us to go forward together into the future with strength and confidence. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!
2017 – Reflections
A big debate once took place. It was between one of our great Jewish leaders and a Roman general – Rabbi Akiva and Tunusrufus,. It happened almost two thousand years ago, but its implications reverberate to this day. According to the Talmud (Midrash Tanchuma Tazria 5), Tunusrufus put forward a seemingly straightforward question: “Which are greater, the deeds of man or the deeds of G-d?” There is an apparently obvious answer. And yet, Rabbi Akiva turned the debate on its head and answered that the deeds of man are greater. How could he say that? What did he mean? Rabbi Akiva spotted the trick in the question. He saw where it was all headed; Tunusrufus was aiming at one of the foundation pillars of Judaism and the Jewish people: circumcision, brit mila.
An unexpected move
His philosophical question posed to Rabbi Akiva was simply this: If the deeds of G-d are greater – and surely they must be – then what gives you the right to circumcise your sons? Surely, if G-d had wanted a baby to be circumcised, then he would have been born circumcised? And the fact that a baby is born uncircumcised show that this is the will of G-d, and what right then do we have to circumcise apparently against the will of G-d? And, of course, circumcision is a mitzvah written in the Torah. But, philosophically, how does it make any sense?
Rabbi Akiva went on to prove his point in a dramatic way – he held in his hands stalks of wheat and a loaf of bread, and he asked Tunusrufus: “Which would you prefer? The stalks of wheat or the loaf of bread?” Obviously the stalks of wheat are inedible and any person would choose a loaf of bread. And yet, the stalks of wheat were made by G-d and the loaf of bread by man. Does this mean that the deeds of man are really greater?
A radical idea
Rabbi Akiva was, in fact, presenting one of the most radical ideas of our Torah. It is an idea so radical that, had our sages in the Talmud not conveyed it to us in the Oral Torah, which they received through the generations from G-d at Mount Sinai, we would not have had the audacity to articulate it. To explain this idea, the Talmud coins a phrase which is breathtakingly bold. It does so in the context of a statement about a judge who brings true justice to the world and says that such a person becomes “a partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in Creation” (Gemara Shabbos 10a). Our role in this world is to be a partner with G-d in creation. This means that we work together with Hashem as our partner to create a better world, to create goodness, righteousness, justice and wisdom in partnership with Hashem.
Now we can understand Rabbi Akiva’s response to Tunusrufus. He used the stalks of wheat and the loaf of bread as a tangible example of what partnership with G-d means. G-d created the world in such a way that he called upon us to partner with Him to continue the process of creation and to make the world into a better place. And so, G-d could have created a world in which, if you wanted a loaf of bread you would go down to the river and take out a loaf of bread. He could have created rivers of loaves of bread ready to be taken and eaten.
Instead, He created the world in such a way that to make a loaf of bread, a farmer would have to plant the wheat, he’d have to irrigate and fertilise his field, he’d have to harvest the stalks of wheat, separate out the kernels, grind them into flour, add water to the flour, turn it into dough, assemble an oven, put the dough in the oven and bake it. To make bread is a long and arduous process, which requires incredible ingenuity, creativity and resilience on the part of human beings. Why did G-d do that?
G-d wanted us to become His partners in the creation of the world. And so, in this partnership to make bread, Hashem creates the seeds and the ground and the water and He gives human beings the intelligence and the creativity, and then we are called upon to combine all of these elements to create bread. And so bread becomes a symbol of this partnership.
Rabbi Akiva was pointing out that, in fact, this partnership extends to mitzvos – to the good deeds of the Torah. Is it the will of G-d that the child be circumcised? Yes. If so, why was the baby born uncircumcised? In order that we could become partners with G-d in the creation of the baby and we circumcise him to fulfil the will of G-d and to be His partners. So when Rabbi Akiva said that the deeds of man are greater, what he meant was that the deeds of man, in partnership with G-d, are greater. G-d specifically created this world in such a way that we would become His partners.
Permission to heal?
This applies in all human endeavours. It applies to all mitzvos, and particularly the mitzvos of alleviating human suffering. Take a doctor, for example. The Talmud (Bava Kama 85a), expanding on the verse: “He shall surely heal him” (Shmos 21:19) teaches that permission is given by G-d to a doctor to heal. Why does a doctor need permission to heal? Because of the same philosophical problem that Tunusrufus raised with Rabbi Akiva. If G-d had wanted the sick person to be well, then he or she would be well. The fact that they are not shows that it is G-d’s will that they be sick. If it is indeed G-d’s will that they be sick, then how can a doctor heal them, apparently against the will of G-d? How do we get out of this philosophical problem? The answer is partnership. G-d created the world in such a way that the doctor becomes His partner in the creation of a better world, in the alleviation of human suffering. It is G-d’s will that the person be sick and it is also G-d’s will that the doctor join Him as a partner to make the person better. A doctor can only heal with the blessings of Hashem in partnership with his medical expertise.
It’s the same with tzedaka. The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) records a similar debate between Rabbi Akiva and Tunusrufus about tzedaka, where Tunusrufus asks Rabbi Akiva how you can give money to the poor. If G-d had wanted that person to have money, then they wouldn’t be poor. Their poverty is clearly the will of G-d, so how can we give charity to the poor? The answer is partnership. G-d invites us to join Him as partners in creating a better world by alleviating the human suffering of poverty through giving tzedaka.
And then there is the mitzvah of chesed – of loving kindness, defined by the Talmud (Gemara Sotah 14a) as a mitzvah of “walking in the ways of Hashem”, and one which is actually counted as one of the 613 commandments. This means that we are called upon to imitate G-d – “in the same way He is compassionate, so too shall you be compassionate”. The very source of the mitzvah of chesed – of loving kindness is G-d’s acting with loving kindness. The Talmud learns the mitzvah of visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, burying the dead, and clothing the naked from emulating G-d’s behaviour. He performs these acts of kindness, so we too are called upon to do so. But every act of kindness is seemingly reversing the will of G-d. How can one comfort the mourners, and alleviate the distress of a person who is sick, when it is G-d in fact who wished them to be in that state? And the answer is the same. We are in a partnership with G-d. And in this partnership we are called upon to act like Him, to perform acts of kindness like He does, and to alleviate human suffering in this world. It is significant that this mitzvah is framed as following in the ways of G-d, emphasising the partnership dimension – in doing acts of kindness, we are actually doing the work of G-d.
This 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. Conventional wisdom would say that we are G-d’s servants or employees, not His partners. What is the difference between an employee and a partner? It can be distilled into one word: ownership. Rav Yeruchum Lebowitz (Daas Torah Bereishis 4:1) explains that as partners, we have an ownership stake in the world, and in G-d’s enterprise in it – the enterprise of creating a world filled with wisdom and kindness, righteousness, justice and goodness. We are called on to take the initiative, seizing opportunities to make the world into a better place. What we are really talking about is entrepreneurship, which comes from the French word meaning to “undertake”. The essence of entrepreneurship is about taking initiative, it’s about ownership, it’s about identifying and connecting with G-d’s enterprise in this world. Being G-d’s partner is to enter the arena of spiritual entrepreneurship, where we become stakeholders and owners of the enterprise of creating a better world for all.
At the heart of being spiritual entrepreneurs, G-d’s partners, is the power of creativity. We are called upon to be creative. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Halachic Man Part II) explains it as follows. The Torah begins by telling us the events relating to the creation of the world. The story of creation seems to give us facts without giving us instructions and without giving us a mitzvah. Yet the Torah is a book of mitzvos. What is the mitzvah of the story of creation? Rav Soloveitchik explains that it is the mitzvah to be a creator like G-d. One of the commandments is to imitate G-d. It is the source of the mitzvah of chesed – of loving kindness. But Rav Soloveitchik says it is also the source of another mitzvah and that is of being a creator like G-d.
Just as the Book of Genesis describes how G-d said to a world filled with darkness and chaos and void, “Let there be light”, so too are we called upon to confront the darkness and chaos in this world, and bring light to it. In the same way that G-d created a world in which human beings could live, so are we called on to exercise our creativity and ingenuity to create a world where human civilisation can thrive. We are called on to build societies and create spaces where human life can exist in dignity and safety and security, to build homes, to create infrastructure, to practice medicine, to do all of the things necessary to create a hospitable world, and to do so with enormous creativity. This is all about being an entrepreneur. G-d essentially created a world from nothing. The universe in which we live is the very first “start-up”. We are called upon to imitate Him and entrepreneurially create “start-up” goodness in the world.
Spiritual entrepreneurship emerges from these two ideas – that we are partners with G-d in creation and that we are called on to be creative like Him. It also involves risk-taking and giving everything we’ve got to do good. To be a true entrepreneur is to take risks to achieve great things. When we live as spiritual entrepreneurs we do bold things to make a difference. Every mitzvah means investing a part of ourselves and giving of our time, efforts, financial resources to do good. It means always embracing the doing of mitzvos, no matter what we are called on to do.
Partnership and creativity are at the heart of our relationship with Hashem. Entrepreneurship is about being creative. It’s about risking and giving our all. It’s about taking the initiative. It’s not about waiting for instructions. Of course, we have a governing framework for our partnership with Hashem, and that is the Torah itself with all of its laws, principles and morality. We operate within this framework. But within it we are called upon to be creative partners with G-d in making a better world. This creative partnership touches on every aspect of life, from the most personal to the most universal.
On a personal level, raising a family is an act of spiritual entrepreneurship, which brings together both creativity, risk-taking and partnership with Hashem. Creating a great marriage is also about spiritual entrepreneurship requiring commitment, innovation and partnership. It’s a partnership between husband and wife, and it’s a partnership with Hashem. When we bring Hashem and His mitzvos and love and loyalty into our marriages, we elevate our relationships and make them special.
The Talmud (Gemara Nidah 31a) says: “There are three partners in the creation of a human being: Hashem, his father, his mother”. To conceive and give birth to children is one of the greatest acts of creativity of a human being. It is the power to create human life in partnership with Hashem. Raising a family is also a great partnership with Hashem. It’s also about exposing ourselves to risks and being vulnerable. There is the act of creativity required to go out and earn an honest living, which requires initiative and energy. Whether it’s to take the position of a paid employee or a self-employed business person, both require courage and tenacity to achieve. To care for children, to clothe and feed them and protect them from harm is a heavy responsibility. And then there is the educating of our children to grow up with good values, to be menschen, to learn about and continue the process of the study of Torah. A child comes into this world without any knowledge, understanding or training and it is the holy task of parents to instil values and refinement in the wonderful souls entrusted to them by Hashem. It is a tremendous act of spiritual entrepreneurship to raise children properly.
Living a life of Torah and mitzvos is also to live with spiritual entrepreneurship. Our Sages explain that doing mitzvos brings refinement to a person. The Maharal explains this process as follows: the first human being was called Adam from the Hebrew word “adama”, which means the ground. The Maharal asks how is it that a human being is compared to earth and to soil? Surely the defining essence of the human being is our souls, not our bodies? And so why that name?
The Maharal explains that the human being has in common with the earth that both are pure potential. A piece of land is pure potential – it depends on what you do with it. Soil can be ploughed and fertilised and irrigated and planted and it will produce great fruits. On the other hand, it can just be left to lie waste. So too the human being is pure potential. When a baby enters this world, he or she is pure potential. The purpose of life is to convert that potential into actual; it’s to transform a person into a being who is elevated, refined, moral, spiritual and holy. This process is achieved through the mitzvos. The mitzvos – whether prayer, Shabbos, kosher, mezuzah, or anything else – are the ways that a person can transform themselves into the highest possible version of who they can be. And so the very act of doing mitzvos is an act of spiritual entrepreneurship in which we achieve self-creativity. We create ourselves and become great people. We fulfil all of the awesome potential which is within each one of us.
The model of spiritual entrepreneurship provides the framework to create a great Jewish community. If you think about what we, as the South African Jewish community, have done over these years, it has been entrepreneurial, filled with creativity, risk-taking and partnership. When the first Jews arrived here 175 years ago there was no Jewish infrastructure. There were no shuls, no Jewish schools, no kosher infrastructure, no Beth Din, no security organisations, no Zionist organisations, no welfare organisations. All of this had to be created from nothing. All of this required tremendous spiritual entrepreneurship to create the infrastructure for a great Jewish community. All of this we did in partnership with Hashem, who gave the blessings needed for the success of all these endeavours.
Spiritual entrepreneurship has also being the governing paradigm of the Jewish world. We, as the Jewish people, have a long and proud history of spiritual entrepreneurship, but let us examine the relatively short period since 1945, the end of the Holocaust. Within three years , the Jewish world in partnership with Hashem, created the modern State of Israel. Clearly the Jewish world has demonstrated the most awesome powers of spiritual entrepreneurship, entering into a partnership with Hashem to create awesome things.
Israel is often referred to as the “start-up nation”. This refers not only to its remarkable business community, but indeed to the entire enterprise of the State of Israel, which is an entrepreneurial start-up. In partnership with Hashem, the Jewish people have created a Jewish army, economy, government and national infrastructure. It has truly been a truly great partnership with Hashem, requiring amazing ingenuity, creativity, risk-taking, boldness and courage to ward off ferocious enemies, to create industry and technology, to revive a land and a language and to create a thriving modern society. This has been in partnership with Hashem. None of these awesome achievements could have occurred without the great miracles of Hashem. As Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, once noted: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles”.
There has been another great act of spiritual entrepreneurship in the Jewish world since the Holocaust, and that is the rebuilding of the vibrant yeshivos which were destroyed in Europe. When the Germans murdered six million European Jews, the great yeshivos of Europe were destroyed too. And then, in a remarkable act of courage and boldness after the war, these yeshivos have been rebuilt in Israel, the United States, South Africa and across the Jewish world, to the point where today it is said that there are more people learning full-time than possibly ever before. The famous yeshivos of Telz, Mir and Ponoviz have been rebuilt and Torah learning is once again thriving in the Jewish world. It was a remarkable act of partnership. On the one hand, it required unprecedented courage for the survivors to rebuild Jewish life after they had lost everything – family, friends, colleagues and their life’s work. On the other hand, it was also Hashem’s great blessings that inspired and enabled this initiative to succeed.
As we, the South African Jewish community, look towards the future, I would like to suggest that this model of spiritual entrepreneurship of a creative, dynamic partnership with Hashem can provide us with our overall framing vision for what we need to achieve. Being partners with Hashem in creation reminds us that we are also partners of each other. And that we, as individual members of the community, are actually brothers and sisters of each other, and that we are working together in a dynamic partnership to make our community, this country and the world into a better place. The key is partnerships – partnerships with each other, partnerships with Hashem. It is about living as spiritual entrepreneurs.
This means on a personal level we must continue to raise great Jewish families in accordance with the Jewish values of being menschen and doing mitzvos. We must become true spiritual entrepreneurs by living lives of Torah and mitzvahs. We must also commit ourselves to working in partnership with one another to continue to strengthen the institutions of Jewish life.
Our Jewish day schools are partnerships between parents and teachers, between pupils and school leadership, and between all of us and Hashem. Educating a child requires creativity. Every school is a bastion of spiritual entrepreneurship, and we all need to get involved in our schools to make them the best that they possibly can be. We must work in partnership with our welfare organizations by supporting them with tzedaka, but also by doing acts of kindness for people in need at every opportunity, and not merely outsourcing to our institutions. Together we can continue to nurture a community of kindness and generosity.
We have recently embarked upon a new shul renewal project called “Bright Spots”. Our shuls have always been an important part of creating a dynamic environment for our Jewish community in South Africa. But we are living in changing times and our shuls need to stay ahead of the curve in order to remain relevant and engaging. Bright Spots is about finding the strengths in our shuls and expanding them, and expanding the areas that work to reinvigorate every aspect of shul life. Bright Spots is an initiative to future-proof our shuls and can only succeed if we all see ourselves as partners of our own shuls and if we get involved in an active way, as active partners and partners with each other and partners with Hashem. The same applies to all of our wonderful communal institutions.
Security is a partnership with each other and with those who are tasked to protect us and with Hashem. The communal organizations of CAP and CSO rely heavily on the partnership with all of us to be vigilant, and on the partnership with Hashem, in whose hands is our ultimate protection.
South Africa and Israel
We should also be engaged in a framework of spiritual entrepreneurship in making South Africa into a better country. Each and every single one of us, as a law abiding productive citizen, can make a difference, in whatever endeavour we are involved. The South African Jewish community’s partnership and contribution to the rebuilding of the new South Africa is legendary.
In our relationship with the State of Israel we also need to become partners and spiritual entrepreneurs in the fight against BDS and in defending the reputation of the State of Israel, as well as in nurturing the bonds of love and connection that we have with Israel.
And then there is the partnership and spiritual entrepreneurship to spread Torah values in our community. So many of the projects that I have been involved in, have all been dependant on partnership with the community, where together we create magic. The community has come in its thousands to create an electric atmosphere of inspiration at Sinai Indaba. Parents have come in numbers and strength to learn Torah with their children at Generation Sinai, and The Shabbos Project has been possible because we all came together as partners and spiritual entrepreneurs to make it happen in our homes, shuls, and streets, which, in turn, inspired Jewish communities in 1152 cities in 95 countries around the world to follow us.
It is these and other projects that seek to nurture that connection so that we can be knowledgeable, proud connected and inspired Jews, who live with Torah values and make the world into a better place. Without a deep and real connection to Torah values nothing in our community is sustainable. In the United States, the inter-marriage rate is more than 70% and generations of Jews are being lost. We cannot afford to allow that to happen here in South Africa, and that is why nurturing our bonds to the Torah is so vital for us to survive and thrive. We cannot sit back and let the natural forces of apathy and drift take their course. We must all get involved and become active partners in these Torah projects, and in our shuls and Jewish-day schools; and most important of all we must make Torah an integral part of the daily life of our families. Judaism begins in the home.
The greatest compliment
Seeing life as a grand partnership of spiritual entrepreneurship with Hashem and with each other means that we do not live alone. We have the partnership and love of G-d Himself. It means that we have the company and love and dedication of the people around us to make this world a better place. If we are all G-d’s partners then we are also each other’s partners. As our Sages (Gemara Sanhedrin 27b) teach us, every Jew is responsible, one for the other. We stand surety for each other. We stand responsible for one another and we look after one another and we are all fellow partners in this inspiring and exciting endeavour.
It is the greatest compliment of all that G-d wanted 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 and spiritual entrepreneurs. That is the greatest compliment of all. And it is a compliment which fills us with optimism. Because being G-d’s partners in the world means that there is also the promise of a better tomorrow. There is also the promise of creating a better world together.
2018 – Reflections
My sense from speaking to many people in our community is that there is concern and anxiety about the situation in South Africa. This is understandable. On the one hand, we have, thank G-d, left behind the Zuma presidency, which saw corruption reach an epic scale. This was a great victory for freedom and democracy, and yet, even under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has brought integrity back to the presidency, the country faces many serious challenges. The economy is struggling, unemployment is too high, and this is affecting the financial security of so many people. We are paying high taxes, and still bearing the costs for private medical, security and educational services, making it harder for people in our community to make ends meet. There is justifiable upset at the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment in the ruling party affecting the debates around the potential downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel, as well as anti-Semitic outbursts on social medial. We are not immune to the threat of global terror. And then, of course, is the issue of crime, and the concern about the political forces in play which may shape the future of the country, including issues of land redistribution. All of these factors are combining to create a challenging environment for us all. What should our response be? What is the way forward for our community? How do we find our way to a better future?
When confronting our problems and difficulties, the first thing is to take a step back and look at the big picture; to appreciate the world in all its complexity. This world we live in is not a one-dimensional fairy tale – it is a mixture of joy and pain, blessings and challenge. To acknowledge and appreciate our blessings is not to deny the existence of our problems. And recognising our problems and difficulties should not prevent us from appreciating the good things in our lives. We need to embrace both. We should not obsess on the bad, wallowing in disconsolation, and we should not exaggerate the good, turning a blind eye to the challenges we need to confront. In short, we cannot fall prey to binary thinking.
Our ancestors offer us a cautionary tale on the dangers of binary thinking. The generation of Jews who lived more than 3 300 years ago – who were slaves in Egypt and who were freed through the amazing miracles of G-d – also confronted many challenges. Soon after leaving Egypt, they were surrounded by the Egyptian army at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, and throughout their journey in the desert, there were times when they didn’t have food and water. The Torah is a book of truth and it doesn’t hide from us the mistakes that our ancestors made. Time and again the people of that generation made catastrophes of their problems, failed to appreciate their blessings and see the big picture. Too often, they suffered from this binary attitude to life.
We can learn from them. We can learn to look at life holistically. We can choose to embrace our many blessings. The blessing of family, of friends, of community. The blessing of the simple things in our lives, the things we should not take for granted, but do – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the roof over our head. Let us choose to embrace the blessing of simply being alive, of being able to draw breath.
Being part of a unique, extraordinary Jewish community that continues to be the envy of other communities around the world is another blessing. And so is living in a country that, despite its problems and challenges, continues to be a bastion of freedom with a robust democracy, which last year saw opposition parties capture key cities in the elections. We also have fiercely independent press, a world-leading constitution, and a supreme and independent judiciary. South Africa has a world-class infrastructure, abundant minerals and other natural resources, and sophisticated financial, legal and telecommunications sectors. Progress has been made over the years. Since 1994, the government has provided housing, electricity and running water to millions of people who never had these basic necessities. 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 1-4 categories, the lowest income categories, has halved since 1994, and the black middle class today is bigger than the white population.
South Africans are resourceful, tenacious people with a track record of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, a history of miraculous turnarounds and a capacity to solve conflicts peacefully.
South Africa is a country of inspiring natural beauty, with majestic wildlife and the magical Lowveld bush, the awesome Highveld lightning storms, the colossal Durban waves, the lush, green Garden Route, the fairest Cape… everything. With its relatively close distances, comfortable lifestyle and good weather, South Africa provides us a wonderful quality of life.
I have known and interacted with our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, for many years, long before he became President. We have recently reconnected and I spent time with him, one on one, in a warm and positive way, to discuss issues affecting the country and those specifically affecting our community. I recently learned a few relevant Torah ideas with him and we plan to continue learning together more regularly. All my experiences with the President lead me to believe that he is a true mensch, who sincerely wants the best for our country, appreciates the important role and place of the Jewish community in South Africa, and is passionately committed to uprooting corruption. Of course, there are some matters of policy that we will disagree on with the President, and sometimes even strongly, but it is important to appreciate that there is a man of integrity and ability at the head of our country, who will also be held accountable by the institutions of freedom and democracy enshrined in our Constitution.
To embrace these blessings and to give thanks to G-d for them is in no way to deny the problems we face. Our existence is complex. Bliss and pain, joy and sadness, comfort and discomfort, sit side by side. That is the nature of the world we live in, wherever in the world we live. Only the World to Come is, as our sages say, a world which is entirely perfect.
Vision and values
Appreciating our blessings and recognising our challenges and difficulties is one thing. But how do we navigate those challenges and difficulties? How do we move forward? As a community, we need a vision for the future, a vision driven by values. And, as ever, we can turn to our Torah for direction. In this case, there’s a particular Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:5 – the approach to the Mishna in this essay is based in part on the commentary of the Maharal, 1520-1609) which, I believe, can give us the values we need to navigate these challenging times, a blueprint to move forward through a world in flux.
The Mishna reads:
“Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not believe in yourself until the day of your death; do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place; do not say something that cannot be heard to happen, for in the end it may be heard to happen; and don’t say that when I be free, then I will learn [Torah], for you may never be free.”
A blueprint of values emerges from this Mishna, which can guide us on our path into the future: community and the power of pulling together; embracing innovation and rejecting complacency; nurturing compassion, tolerance and kindness; living with faith in G-d and seeing a world of possibility; and proactively learning Torah. Let’s go through the Mishna and its implications to understand our blueprint for the future.
The first of the Mishna’s five statements is: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
In a world of change and transition, community is a pillar of stability and strength. We are so much stronger when we stand together, as the South African Jewish community. This is a time when the power of community is more important than ever. When we come together in partnership, collaboration and solidarity, then we can – with G-d’s blessings – confront and address all our problems and challenges. With our combined power of innovation, resources, tenacity and determination, we can rise to the challenges of our times. We are part of something greater than ourselves and have the opportunity to attach ourselves to something which is more enduring than any one individual.
Friends, I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the important and holy work that so many communal organisations and individuals are engaged in daily to ensure our future here together is bright. We are blessed with an extraordinary network of organisations devoted to driving and maintaining a pulsating Jewish life, and with G-d’s blessings, to tackling our challenges.
Take the anti-Israel sentiments within the ruling party. The current debate around downgrading the Israeli Embassy is obviously a challenge for our community. But, this challenge is being met. Millions of South Africans want to see a close relationship between Israel and South Africa. The South African Zionist Federation and the organisation it created, the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI), have reached out and created a coalition of these supporters, giving Israel-loving South Africans a voice. The recent SAFI rally bears testimony to that in a dramatic way. Throngs of supporters of Israel, led by Christian leaders, marched to the Union Buildings, where they handed over a petition with 40 000 signatures to a representative of the President’s office, demanding the government cease its efforts to cut ties with Israel. These efforts are sending a very strong message that Israel has millions of friends and allies in South Africa.
It’s also worth pointing out that, ultimately, whatever route the ANC and the South African government decide to take with regard to its relationship with Israel, it does not affect our own proud connection with our beloved State of Israel. No declaration or policy statement of any party can diminish that in any way. And so, perhaps, we should not be so desperate about this matter. We need to fight it, we need to give it our all, but what others say does not have to define our self-identity, nor diminish our self-respect in any way. It is up to each one of us to be a spokesperson for Israel, when we go to work and when we engage with people outside of the community, to help educate and present a different side of Israel than they see in the headlines.
Another issue we, as a community, need to keep our eye on is the threat of global terrorism. In the wake of rapidly evolving security risks, the CSO has been on the ball with a number of innovative measures to ensure the community is well protected. Among a host of new projects, the CSO partners with all Jewish institutions to ensure around-theclock protection, and has rolled out numerous training courses empowering individuals and organisations to protect themselves. We have a responsibility to be involved; to be vigilant and report suspicious activities; to undertake a basic CSO training course; to be prepared to stand shift outside our schools and shuls. We owe it to each other.
As a community, we have in fact created numerous organisations to confront other life-threatening challenges.
To counter the slow response of general emergency medical services, Hatzolah leapt forward with leadership and determination to confront that challenge. It boasts state-ofthe-art ambulances and highly trained paramedics, who can reach someone in need with real speed. In Cape Town, Ezra is fulfilling this role for community members.
CAP is another example of the power of coming together as a community to address problems. Over the course of 10 years, CAP has broken up hijacking syndicates, dismantled home invasion gangs, flushed out underground criminal networks, and put hundreds of violent criminals behind bars. Contact crime has been reduced by between 80% and 90%, depending on the area. Beginning in Glenhazel, CAP has now expanded to 45 suburbs, protecting upwards of 250 000 people in Johannesburg. We can be partners in this work by reporting incidents and suspicious activity, and by supporting all they do.
Anti-Semitism needs to be tackled head-on. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies has been working tirelessly to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms. It has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude, pursuing justice at the highest levels of the South African court system, and utilising state organs such as the Human Rights Commission. Lately, the SAJBD’s focus has been on tackling the hate on social media, and the organisation has done amazing work in bringing to book a number of serial offenders, and in ensuring a culture of hate doesn’t become normalised in our country. We should all be involved in this fight and be vigilant about reporting any anti-Semitic incident.
But, we can’t lose sight of the big picture: South Africa is not an anti-Semitic country. On the contrary, we are a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural society in which diversity is celebrated.
The Jewish community is a welcome and important part of society. We have one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world. Of course, one incident of anti-Semitism is one incident too many and we must, as a community, continue to fight every incident with full vigour – but this should not blind us to the macro environment which is welcoming to Jews.
This past year has presented real challenges to the administration of kashrut in our community. On the one hand, the BD Kosher Department of the UOS is an example of how we have harnessed the power of community to create a thriving Jewish infrastructure for us all. There are hundreds of companies and thousands of products under the BD hechsher available throughout South Africa and clearly marked. There is an abundance of kosher butcheries, bakeries, restaurants, delis and caterers.
On the other hand, this year saw a crisis emerge. This is something that is obviously enormously distressing for us as a community. In response, there are a number of exciting things happening. The Kosher Department is going through a complete review of all operating procedures, personnel and strategy. A process of upgrading and revamping every aspect of its functioning is taking place, from the training of mashgichim to new surveillance technologies and implementation of international best practices, among many other initiatives. There are detailed plans in place that are being implemented on various timelines, some within three months, some within six months, and some within a year. The BD Kosher Department is determined to meet these challenges, and is already making good progress to deliver to the community a world-class kosher system, and one we can all be proud of.
The UOS ensures we, as a community, have a Kosher Department and a Beth Din. Jewish life in South Africa would be unthinkable without an internationally recognised and highly respected Beth Din, which oversees not only kashrut, but also ensures that marriages, divorces, conversions, and monetary disputes can all be dealt with in accordance with the halacha, which is the bedrock of Jewish life. There is a transition taking place at the Beth Din, as one generation of dayanim – to whom we are grateful for their decades of loyal service – hands over to the next. We are one of the only Jewish communities in the world with one unified Beth Din for the entire community, and this is a blessing we must continue to protect and treasure.
Shuls in South Africa are bustling, vibrant hubs of inspiration and creative Jewish expression, and the fulcrum of the South African Jewish community, vital to nurturing thriving Jewish life here. And while it’s true that our shuls are having to contend with the new, imposing challenges of the modern world, they are the life-blood of our community and are created from and embody this idea of coming together. Fresh thinking is needed to ensure they remain relevant, engaging and inviting, but our dedicated, insightful and compassionate rabbis are ready to meet these challenges, in partnership with hard-working and passionate shul committees. In fact, we all need to get involved. We all need to strengthen our shuls. We need to attend more regularly, engage with our rabbis, with the youth directors, with the services. The vibrancy of our community depends on it.
Over the last number of decades, South Africa has seen unprecedented growth in Judaism, with so many people returning to a Torah way of life. This has been driven by our wonderful shuls, and also by outreach organisations such as Aish haTorah, Bnei Akiva, Chabad, Mizrachi, Ohr Somayach, Ohrsom Student, and many others who are on the frontlines of educating and inspiring the next generation of South African Jews to be Jewish, to be connected and to live with mitzvot. They are also now doing crucial work in confronting the existential threat of intermarriage and assimilation. We have some remarkable organisations doing remarkable work. We need to do more in this area. Anecdotally, it seems that intermarriage rates are on the rise. We need to confront this as a community as a matter of extreme importance. We all have a role to play in this area. We need to ensure our Jewish values are strong and vibrant in our lives and those of our families, and to teach our children about the importance of marrying Jewish.
Over the decades, we – as a community – have created outstanding Jewish day schools, with the aim of equipping our young members with a strong sense of Jewish identity, a good Torah education, giving them the skills to be literate Jews, and providing them with the best general educational grounding, priming them to be able to go out and thrive in the world. Our learners continue to excel, and our young continue to emerge as society leaders.
Jewish kids in South Africa attend Jewish day schools in one of the highest proportions in the Diaspora, with estimates at around 90%. Our schools continue to flourish. But, we should not take this for granted. As Jewish parents, we have a responsibility to provide our children with a Torah education, and we need to sustain our commitment to this ideal.
The challenge of the affordability of school fees needs to be met, bearing in mind that this is a problem that not only affects us in South Africa, but is a global one, and in fact one of the biggest challenges facing American Jewry, for example. We need to apply our minds as a community, come together, brainstorm. Perhaps we need to explore ways to utilise shared resources and work out how collaboration between the schools can reduce costs and make the financial burden more manageable for families and for the community as a whole. Galvanising and inspiring our youth is crucial, and in this regard our schools, together with our youth movements, play an important role in nurturing our future leaders.
Poverty and other vulnerabilities are an area of great challenge in our community. Fortunately, we are so blessed to have an amazing system of social welfare organisations doing holy, heroic work.
For sheer scale – for its depth and breadth of involvement – the Johannesburg Chevrah Kadisha is in a league of its own. The city’s oldest Jewish organisation, the Chev has grown from a burial society to become one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive Jewish welfare organisations in the world. From financial assistance to care for the elderly, healthcare to housing, job creation to educational support, the Chev is responsive to the basic needs of the community, whatever these may be – an expertly run organisation delivering worldclass services across the board. In terms of budget and reach, it’s responsible for an astounding 80% of charity work in the community, helping everyone from newborns to centurions.
In Cape Town, there is the United Jewish Campaign (UJC) which remarkably funds the communal organisations of the city. Jewish Care Cape, one of the UJC’s beneficiaries, oversees the needs of the community in taking care of the aged and vulnerable, through world-class institutions like Glendale, Highlands House, Oranjia and Astra. There is also outstanding and compassionate care being given to the most vulnerable in Durban, with Beth Shalom, Masada and Jewel House, and in Pretoria, with Jaffa.
It’s time for all of us to come together and work more closely with one another. In this spirit, I recently convened a meeting to bring together a number of chessed organisations, such as SOSA, Union of Jewish Woman, Koleinu SA, Rambam Trust, Hatzolah, WIZO, ORT Jet, Bikkur Cholim and Yad Aharon. Each of these organisations is doing holy work. Yad Aharon, for example, has a soup kitchen which provides two hearty meals a week to around 380 needy recipients. It was so interesting to see ideas for collaboration emerging from the discussions; how, for example, Bikkur Cholim made Hatzolah aware of the fact that it assists people with transport for non emergency medical treatment. This was beneficial and eyeopening for Hatzolah. The more we can come together as a community, with innovation and collaboration, the more we can achieve. The solutions to our challenges are there, waiting for us to work together to discover them.
In terms of the financial sustainability of the community, there is much to be done. Too many families and individuals are struggling financially. But, there have been some great efforts in recent years. In 2005, ORTJet – an organisation dedicated to nurturing, supporting and growing young Jewish entrepreneurial talent and enabling the businesses they build to blossom – was established with precisely this mandate. The organisation has since come to play an indispensable role in rearing the next generation of Jewish entrepreneurs.
The mandate of Staffwise, meanwhile, is to slash Jewish unemployment. The organisation assists everyone, from new graduates and young mothers returning to work, to highly skilled retirees looking to re-enter the workplace, from highpowered professionals to job seekers with severe mental and emotional disabilities. Job by job, individual by individual, Staffwise is bringing dignity and hope to what can otherwise be a difficult, disheartening endeavour.
Then there’s the Rambam Trust, which gives people access to interest-free loans, assisting borrowers who are unable to obtain credit from other sources.
But, as Jews, we don’t just focus inwards on our problems. As the South African Jewish community, we need to look out at the world around us, at how we can assist society as a whole. Of course, one of the greatest areas of challenge in South Africa is to confront the legacy of apartheid, and alleviate the crushing poverty and inequality that continues to blight our nation nearly a quarter of a century after apartheid ended. I’m so proud to say that we have risen to that challenge over the years through organisations like Afrika Tikkun, Mensch, the Union of Jewish Women, ORT and many others. These organisations are about the moral imperative of poverty alleviation, and about building bridges between the Jewish community and the wider South African landscape. They are also about developing a sense of communal pride in Jewish civic involvement; a deeper awareness of the connection between our social impact work and our Jewish identity. Each one of us can get involved, each one of us can make a difference.
In general, when it comes to the political and economic issues in South Africa, we must make our voices heard. We are a community that punches above its weight because of the enormous impact we have on the economy and other areas of South African life. We must reach out to politicians and other influential people, speak up in the media and contribute to the debates about the future of the country. The Jewish Report, Jewish Life, Chai FM, the Cape Jewish Chronicle, Tradition and many other communal media platforms are giving voice to Jewish community perspectives and are impacting the national debate. It was imperative that we, as a community, actively joined in the public campaign against Jacob Zuma and his attempted state capture.
“Do not separate yourself from the community” guides us on how to go forward. Participating and collaborating as a community to confront our challenges is the path to a better future. When we come together as a community, we can truly achieve great things, with Hashem’s blessings. In times like these, it is nothing less than an imperative. We all have a role to play. Every challenge that is troubling us can be met, with G-d’s blessings, if we stand together.
2019 – Building half a house
Disaster struck close to midnight on a warm Chile night in February 2010. The earthquake was one of the biggest in recorded history. But for the residents of Constitución, a small industrial enclave on the west coast of the country, the real damage hit precisely 18 minutes later. A giant tsunami, cresting at around 15m high, came crashing down on the city. Buildings were obliterated. Hundreds were left homeless.
And yet, out of the rubble and ruin, something extraordinary was birthed. It’s called “Half a House”, and it’s the radical new design concept created by prize-winning architect, Alejandro Aravena.
The idea is this: a government with a limited housing budget undertakes the construction of the minimum basic infrastructure of a house, including concrete foundations, walls, a roof, plumbing and electricity. But every other aspect of the house is left unfinished: no flooring or tiling, no furnishing or finishing, no paint or plaster – in other words, “half a house”. It is then up to the occupants themselves to finish the houses, personalising the process, taking ownership of the project, turning a series of concrete blocks into a set of well-loved homes.
Essentially, the “Half a House” concept, based on research by MIT Professor John Turner on building design in developing countries, views housing as a process of “incremental building”, with maximum community involvement, and it has already proven highly effective.
After a smooth pilot in the northern Chilean port city of Iquique, Aravena was commissioned to draw up a masterplan for the reconstruction of Constitución. He and his team were allocated just $10,000 to spend on each house. But the project has been a resounding success. Hundreds of “half-houses” have been built, and then completed by the community. In some ways, the city is in better shape than it has ever been.
Aravena’s partner has now been appointed deputy-Minister of Housing in Chile. Aravena himself was recently awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel. “Building half a house,” he declared in his acceptance speech, “might just be the best way to make a community whole.”
The power of “Half a House” and “incremental building” derives from the community’s involvement as active participants rather than passive recipients of government welfare. It transforms citizens from consumers to producers; from users to creators. It gives people a sense of pride and fulfillment, of dignity and independence, of ownership and responsibility. And that is why it is successful.
Here in South Africa, I believe this model of government support in partnership with active community participation can be a game-changer. For housing, and for many aspects of building our society. We are a country blessed with so many talented, creative, hard-working people, who would jump at the chance to make a difference.
I believe, also, that we should be applying this idea to our own community. We can harness this energy of active participation to make our precious South African Jewish community more vibrant, more colourful and more fit-for-purpose.
The Half a House model applies to our personal lives, too. In fact, the cutting-edge work of Alejandro Aravena echoes one of the foundational aspects of the universe. Judaism teaches us that G-d, so-to-speak, builds “Half a House” for us.
G-d provides the basic foundations of our lives. He gives us the physical infrastructure of our bodies, and the natural world in which we live, with all of its materials and products. He also gives us the spiritual and moral tools we need in the form of the mitzvot of the Torah, and all of its values and principles and wisdom. And then He gives us free choice and leaves the rest to us to build. He calls on us to become active participants and co-creators of our lives.
It is no coincidence that building is the analogy the Talmud employs to describe the highest levels that great Torah leaders attain – they are called “builders” because “they are involved in the building of the world.” (Shabbat 114a). Our lives are a process of building. G-d gives us the basic infrastructure, and then we build our own home in this world.
On a literal level, human beings harness the raw materials that G-d has provided and build the physical infrastructure of civilisation – we build roads and factories and houses and systems that enable society to function optimally.
But our lives, too, are a process of “incremental building”. We build ourselves using the architectural blueprint of the Torah to guide our actions and refine our characters, supplementing G-d’s guidance with our own creativity and emotional involvement. We build families and homes and careers, using the base G-d has given us – our talents and life circumstances.
We build with mitzvot. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the last century, explains that every mitzvah is a separate building block in perfecting the world and in constructing the unique masterpiece that is our lives. Each Divine directive that we fulfill, every good deed we do, is another brick in an edifice that materialises in this world and the next. Brick by brick, tile by tile, ceiling board by ceiling board, we build a monument of spirituality and morality in this world, and a monument of reward in the next. Every act of kindness we do, every word of Torah we learn, every cent of tzedakah we give, every moment of Shabbos we keep, every word of prayer we utter – and every effort of moral restraint we exert – is another component in the beautiful building of our lives, in this world, and for eternal merit in the next world.
We see that Judaism is a way of life for active participants, not passive spectators, for drivers not passengers. It’s a framework for builders. For making things happen. For change-making and refining and improving. For constructing our lives and our societies and being the masters of our destiny. Judaism isn’t sitting back in shul; it’s about leaning forward, getting involved in the services, pouring our hearts out in prayer, actively engaging in Torah study. Learning Torah is an especially powerful way for us to become active participants, because when we learn, we understand and are empowered.
And we need to be active participants on a communal level, too. No matter the challenges that South Africa is going through at the moment – the stagnant economy and the financial strain that comes with that, and all the various social and political challenges the country is facing – as the South African Jewish community, we need to continue to build and create. We need to ensure that our shuls and schools, our places of Torah learning, our welfare institutions and security organisations, continue to thrive, continue to grow and develop, continue to meet our needs. We should always view our community as a work in progress. That work progresses through incremental building, and each of us has a role to play.
And beyond our community, there is the work of building the country at large. That, too, is our home. As the South African Jewish community, we need to look out at the world around us, at how we can assist society as a whole. Of course, one of the greatest challenges in South Africa is alleviating the crushing poverty and inequality that continues to blight our nation. Each one of us should get involved, each one of us can make a difference.
Israel is also our home, whether we live there or not. Even here in South Africa, we can be active participants by speaking up in defence of the justice of her cause, particularly when we engage with people outside of the community. It is our duty to educate and present a different side to the Israel they see in the headlines.
We need to be aware that the time we have to do all of this building is limited. There is plenty to remind us of this fact. But there is no more sobering reminder of the finite nature of our lives than a tombstone.
A tombstone (in Hebrew, a matzeiva), is characterised by a single slab of stone. This stands in stark contrast to another stone edifice mentioned in the Torah – the mizbeiach, the altar which stood in the Temple and was the focus of the offering brought in service of G-d. The altar – the mizbeiach – was constructed from various pieces of stone, put together to form the whole, and the Torah does not allow it to be made from one solid slab of stone, like the matzeiva.
There is incredibly rich symbolism here. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that the altar, assembled in pieces, represents work in progress, while the solid piece of rock of a tombstone represents completed work. While we are alive on this earth, our lives are, indeed, a work in progress. We are in this world to toil, to accumulate as many mitzvot as possible, to build, brick by brick, a beautiful edifice bearing testament to a productive, fulfilling, meaningful life. Only when we leave this world is our task complete – represented by the complete, fully formed slab of stone that is our tombstone. There is a finality to it. The matzeiva is a monument to a life that is now at rest.
This world, however, is a world of doing. The world of the mizbeiach. We need to use our time on this earth to build, to accumulate as many mitzvot as possible, because they are all we will take with us when we leave it. In the next world, the world of the matzeiva, there is no doing, no building, only being, only living in the edifices of merit we built in this world.
But while we are still here, the work is never done. This is why the simple fact of being alive is so precious. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pray for many things. We pray for a good year, for a sweet year, and we pray for all of G-d’s blessings. But, most fundamentally, we pray for life itself. The words of the machzor are filled with so many rich examples. We ask Hashem: “The King, who desires life” to “remember us for life” and “write us in the book of life”.
Chayim, chayim, chayim. Over and over again – that is what we pray for. We recognise that life is a privilege and we should never take it for granted. Because where there is life, there is the opportunity to grow and develop and do more good. We have mitzvot and we have life. We have possibilities. We have the raw materials, and we are expected to do something with them, to build something. Something no one has ever seen before, something new, and imaginative and creative. Something that is uniquely ours – that enables us to fulfill our sense of purpose. The altar of our lives is waiting to be built.
And each altar, each life, is unique. That is the other crucial message of Alejandro Aravena’s “Half a House” and the architectural philosophy of incremental building. If a government builds the home completely, then everyone’s home is the same, there’s no room for individual expression. But when people are empowered to customise and accessorise and enlarge on the basic infrastructure, then every home becomes a unique testament to the individuality of its inhabitants.
It’s an exciting task. An invigorating task. To build, to be the creators of our lives, to, please G-d, be able to step back at 120 and admire a masterpiece of our unique making, a building only we could build, and the legacy of which we take with us when we leave this world for the next one, which is eternal.
As the Mishna says, every person is obliged to say to themselves, “For me the world was created”. Each one of us is special enough that G-d could have created the entire universe, just for us. And each one of us has a Divine mandate to perfect that universe, to gather up the scattered stones of an imperfect incomplete world. To make our half a house, whole.
Opportunities: Be Real
We are nearing the end of the Ten Days of Repentance. This is a very important time for introspection and repentance.
These Ten Days of Repentance are a gift from Hashem because they require us to take stock of our lives. Yom Kippur itself is a gift from Hashem as well, because it is a day of forgiveness. In fact, the Mishnah states that Yom Kippur is one of the two happiest days of the year; as the Gemara explains, this is because it is a yom selicha umechila, “a day of forgiveness.” Hashem has given us a unique opportunity to repent, change and be granted forgiveness. Of course, forgiveness does not come for free; it is the result of a process of repentance.
What is repentance?
On a very practical, halachic level, genuine repentance must include the following four elements:
1. Regret for the specific sin committed
2. Resolving not to do it again in the future
3. Desisting from it in the present and
4. Confessing before G-d.
The confession – viduy – that we say on Yom Kippur, which is such a central part of the service, is really the culmination of the repentance process that we have embarked upon during the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur. We have been given these days to think and introspect, so that the viduy on Yom Kippur will not be just an external mouthing of the words but something which is sincere and which reflects the internal process of change we have undergone.
Resolutions for the New Year
Repentance on Yom Kippur also has to entail a practicable commitment. As we go through the confessions we need to think not only about what we regret but about our resolutions for the future, and what practical steps are we going to take to ensure we keep those resolutions.
I personally have found very useful advice in the biography on Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, one of the greatest rabbis in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Rav Chaim Ozer was a rabbi in Vilna, but his influence spread throughout the world. In the years between the First and Second World War he was the address in Eastern Europe for so many people looking for guidance and spiritual direction. In his biography is a list of things that he had undertaken one Yom Kippur a few years before he passed away. He had written down the resolutions that he took on for the new year, and one can see from this list how he chose such practical steps to take, as this is what will ultimately lead to change.
As you think about the things you want to do in the coming year, which mitzvot you want to take on and in what areas you want to improve, write them down and keep the list with you, so that you can check it from time to time and see how you are progressing. It makes the whole process of change so much more concrete, and that is part of our preparation for Yom Kippur – to make repentance something which is real.
The prerequisite to repentance
The Gemara distinguishes between the two categories of mitzvot: the commandments bein adam laMakom, between us and Hashem, and the commandments bein adam lachaveiro, between us and our fellow human being. For a transgression affecting the mitzvot between us and Hashem we can simply go through the process outlined above – regret for the past, resolve for the future, desisting and confessing. But if the transgression involved harming another person – financially, physically or in any other way – one cannot simply go through the process of repentance and ask Hashem for forgiveness; one first has to undo the damage that was done and ask for forgiveness, and only then can one truly repent.
The halacha is that Yom Kippur only atones for sins between us and our fellow human being if one has taken the necessary steps to repair the damage and has asked for forgiveness from the person harmed. We cannot go through the repentance process without fixing what we have done wrong. We cannot ask Hashem to forgive us when we still have unpaid debts or have caused harm to another’s property or hurt their feelings. And so we have to think carefully: are there people we may have hurt over the last year? If so, we need to ask them for forgiveness; and only once they grant us forgiveness can we then proceed to the atonement of Yom Kippur.
It is important to do this before Yom Kippur arrives, so that we can maximise the power of atonement on the day of Yom Kippur. Atonement is not automatic; we do not simply stand there on Yom Kippur and have our slate wiped clean. It requires effort on our part and has to be a genuine, internal process of repentance.
Rewriting the past
The process of repentance, though it is contingent on us putting in effort, is nonetheless a Divine gift. When we have done something wrong, there is a sense that we cannot undo it. But repentance gives us the opportunity to change, and that is the beauty of Yom Kippur. Normally cannot go back and change the past; yet G-d’s gift of repentance and Yom Kippur enables us to time travel and rewrite the past. But do we fully appreciate this gift?
Sometimes we take things for granted and do not realise their true value; discovering a gift for the first time can indeed be a great surprise. Imagine you never knew the concept of repentance, that through the process of teshuva you could actually change the past. What would it feel like to discover this gift for the first time?
The Midrash relates how Adam HaRishon, the very first man, felt when he first discovered the possibility of repenting and being forgiven for sin. He did not know that such a concept existed, that one could actually repent after doing something wrong. The Midrash says that when Adam discovered teshuva, he was so overwhelmed with gratitude and joy that he could repent, and so he composed a song of thanksgiving to Hashem, which we all know well: it’s the Psalm we say every Friday night and Shabbat morning, Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat, “The psalm in honour of the Shabbat Day.”
Why did Adam sing about Shabbat in this song of thanksgiving for the gift of repentance? What is the connection between the two?
Teshuva – returning to our source
In order to understand this connection we must first understand what repentance is all about. Although we use the English word “repentance,” the Hebrew word for it, “teshuva,” actually comes from the Hebrew word lashuv, which means “to return.” Repentance is about returning to our source.
The Gemara (Yoma 86a) says, “R’ Levi said: Great is repentance, for it reaches the Heavenly Throne.” The Gemara says further, Amar R’ Yosi HaGelili, gedola teshuva shemevia geula laolam, “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption to the world.”
The Maharal, one of our great philosophers, says that these two statements teach us about the nature of repentance. Repentance, says the Maharal, is the process of returning to our origin, of going back to our source, returning to Hashem and to who we really are. There is a technical dimension to repentance, which we mentioned earlier – regret for the past, resolve for the future, desisting and confession. But the spiritual and psychological dimension of teshuva is about returning to our source.
This is why the Gemara says, “Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory.” Of course, G-d has no body and does not “sit”: the Throne of Glory refers to the highest spiritual levels in the heavens, from where every soul emanates. Our soul comes into this world pure, from the highest levels of holiness; but when the soul enters the body and lives in this world and sins, its purity is sullied. The process of repentance brings us back to the original purity with which our soul came into this world, and that is why the Gemara says, “Great it repentance, for it reaches the Throne of Glory.” Repentance is a journey back to who we really are. When we do teshuva, we are actually returning to our real nature and are reconnecting with Hashem.
The Maharal explains further that this is why the Gemara also says, “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption to the world.” Redemption, too, is about returning to our source. The great Prophets talk about the redemption of the Jewish people and describe it as the “ingathering of the exiles.” Galut, exile, is the ultimate punishment – a dispersal of the Jewish people; geula, the redemption, is the ingathering, the coming back to our source – to G-d, to the Land of Israel, to our calling as a people. Repentance, like redemption, has the power to bring us back to our source.
Repentance and Shabbat
Now we can understand the connection to Shabbat and why Adam sang Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat when he discovered the incredible gift of repentance. On Shabbat we return to our source. Once a week we come back to our core values, and to our connection with Hashem, with our families, with our communities and with who we really are, as individuals and as a people. Adam composed a song specifically in honour of Shabbat because repentance is about returning to our source, just as Shabbat is. The two go hand-in-hand.
Taking Responsibility For Our Own Growth
We are in the midst of the very special days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, “the Ten Days of Repentance.” The Aseret Yemei Teshuvah are the most intense days of the year. The Shabbos that falls out during this time is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbos of Repentance, which takes its name from the first word of this week’s Haftorah, which begins, Shuvah Yisrael, “Return, Israel”; it is a time for reflection and for repentance.
There are two aspects of the Ten Days of Repentance which the Rambam mentions in his Laws of Repentance. In chapter two, law six, he says that even though repentance and prayer are good throughout the year, the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur are especially potent for repentance and prayer. We say about this time (Yeshaya 55: 6), Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo, “Seek out Hashem when He is close by.” During this time Hashem is particularly close to us, and our repentance and our prayers are more easily accepted.
It is also a time when the stakes are much higher. This is conveyed by the Rambam in chapter three of the Laws of Repentance. The whole theme of this chapter, specifically law four, is that we have to view the world as though it is suspended, hanging in the balance between fifty percent merit and fifty percent sin, and that the next thing we do will tip the scales for ourselves, for our community and for the world at large. This is especially important to have in mind between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with our judgment to be sealed on Yom Kippur. Therefore, says the Rambam, it is customary for the entire House of Israel to increase their acts of charity and good deeds and to be involved in mitzvot from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, more so than during the rest of the year. This is also a time for extra davening because we are trying to add as much merit so as to tip the scale in our favour as we approach Yom Kippur.
Taking Responsibility for Our Own Growth
The Mishnah in Pikei Avot (1:14) says, Hu [Hillel] hayah omer: im ein ani li, mi li? U’che’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav, eimatai? “He [Hillel] used to say: if I am not for myself who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The Noda B’Yehudah, one of the great sages in recent generations, says that this Mishnah is particularly important when approaching the Ten Days of Repentance.
According to some commentaries this Mishnah is talking about a person’s performance of mitzvot. Rashi says that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” means that if I do not do my mitzvot, no one can do them for me. The Maharal explains that one can transfer most material things on to other people, but a mitzvah cannot be transferred – one has to do it himsef. Parents can leave a great monetary inheritance to their children, but they can’t leave an inheritance of mitzvot. Their children have to do mitzvot on their own. Ultimately, we have to take responsibility for our own lives. We are judged by Hashem and have to give an account for our own mitzvot. Each one of us has to do our own mitzvot: no one else can do it for us.
Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rambam explain the above Mishnah as referring to attaining inspiration, namely, if I don’t rebuke, encourage and inspire myself, who will do it for me? Although it is true that we get inspiration from the outside through the encouragement and prodding of our rabbis and teachers, Rabbeinu Yonah teaches us that this kind of external inspiration will only last a short while. We each have to be self-motivated, take responsibility for our own growth and be proactive, for example, finding more opportunities to learn, buying new Torah books or putting more effort into davening, whatever it may be. These Ten Days of Repentance are about taking responsibility for ourselves.
Rav Yisrael Salanter shares an interesting, practical piece of advice in one of his letters. He suggests making resolutions for the New Year in the areas which are easiest for us. This seems to go against conventional wisdom, which maintains that we should work on those things with which we struggle with the most, not the “easy” areas. But Rav Salanter suggests we work on the easier areas, saying that one is more likely to succeed when making a resolution about a relatively easy, practical step in mitzvah observance. Success will generate momentum, and will push us further. Furthermore, we are held more accountable for the easy changes we could have and should have made, because they were easy to do.
Following Rav Salanter’s advice, let us start with the easy things. Let us think of practical, easy, changes we can adopt.
We are not alone
Although we are responsible for our own actions, we must realise that there is a balance between taking responsibility for our own growth and needing Divine assistance. This is expressed in the second statement of Hillel, u’che’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani, “if I am only for myself, what am I?” Although we have to take the initial steps towards self-improvement, we can’t do the job on our own. One of the students of the Shla, known as the Lechem Mishna, quotes a Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3) where G-d says to us, pitchu li petach echad shel teshuvah k’chuda shel machat, v’ani poteiach lachem petachim she’yihiyu agalot u’kraniyot nichnasot bo, “open for Me one opening of repentance like the point of a needle and I will open up for you gateways [so huge] that carriages will be able to pass through.”
G-d is saying that once we take the first steps He will help us. Sometimes this journey to becoming a better Jew feels so daunting – there is so much to do. However, if we start with the first few steps we don’t have to worry about how we will scale the mountain since G-d will help us the rest of the way. We don’t have to do it on our own, we just have to start on our own and then Hashem will help us.
In this vein, there is another encouraging statement from the Gemara (Yoma 38b), ba litaher mesayin oto, “a person who comes to purify himself, G-d helps him.” And not only G-d, but His messengers in the form of the community, rabbis, teachers. All of the support that’s out there is to help us on our journey but we still have to take the initiative. We must own the process and take those first steps, even if they are small steps, and then we will receive the great support from Hashem and from our rabbis and teachers and community, which is built into the process because if I am on my own what can I possibly achieve?
Making Every Minute Count
The third and final statement of Hillel in the Mishnah is, v’im lo achshav, eimatai, “and if not now, when?” The best way to understand this statement is based on a halachah in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 23:1), the Code of Jewish Law, which says that if you are in a cemetery and you normally wear your tzitzit out, you have to tuck them in. Although a funeral is a religious service, unlike at a bris, no tallaysim are worn by any participants. Even when the dead body is wrapped in a tallis, the tzitzit are cut off the tallis. Why? The Gemara (Brachot 18a, Menachot 41a) explains that this is called loeg la’rash, “mocking the poor.” Only when you are alive can you do mitzvot. When you flaunt your tzitzit in a cemetery, you are effectively saying to the dead: I can do mitzvot and you can’t, and that’s painful. It’s like a rich man taking a wad of money and waving it in the face of a poor man who wants it but can’t get it.
But why would a reminder of the inability to do mitzvot pain those who have passed on? After all, the next world is Gan Eden. It’s a world of spirituality, a world of perfection, a world of complete justice and accountability. We see from this is the value of every mitzvah and the preciousness of life on this earth. For every mitzvah that we do, we have an opportunity to accumulate merit for all of eternity. Once we leave this world we can’t do it anymore and therefore there is an element of sensitivity to the dead even though they are in a higher world.
A story is told about how the great Torah Sage, the Vilna Gaon was crying on his death bed. His students said, why are you crying? Can you imagine the Gan Eden, the tremendous reward that is waiting in the World to Come, for a person of the spiritual stature of the Vilna Gaon? In answer, the Vilna Gaon picked up his tzitzit and said, “in this world, for a few coins I can fulfill a mitzvah; when I go to the next world I won’t be able to do mitzvot any more and that is why I am crying.”
It is so important to have a sense of the preciousness of every minute of life because whatever we do in this world lasts for eternity. It is the merit of the mitzvot that we do in this world that is going to sustain us in the next. Rashi on these last words of the Mishnah compares it to Shabbos. If you don’t prepare and cook on Friday, you are not going to have anything to eat on Shabbos. The next world is like Shabbos, Rashi says. You can’t cook, you can’t work. Whatever you do on “erev Shabbos” – which is this world – is what will sustain you in the next world. So our time here is a time of potential to build what we will live on for eternity in the next world. When Shabbos comes in, when we leave this world, the account is frozen. We leave with whatever mitzvot we did when we were alive – and that’s it. In some circumstances, children can do mitzvot on behalf of parents and continue the merit, but in general there is nothing else one can do to increase one’s merit in the next world.
Therefore, every minute of life is precious. Im lo achshav, eimatai? if not now, when? Because now is the time. Rabbeinu Yonah points out that we can’t get back a day that passes. So even if tomorrow we’re still in this world and can still do more mitzvot, if we missed the mitzvah potential of today, it is lost. When they told the Chofetz Chaim the saying, “time is money,” he corrected them. No, he said, time is life. The minutes and the hours can slip through our fingers if we don’t pay attention and take advantage.
We Want Life
At this incredibly powerful time of the year, we feel the urgency of the moment. During these ten days more than anything else, we are begging Hashem for life. We say Zachreinu l’chaim melech chafetz ba’chaim v’chatveinu b’sefer hachaim, “remember us for life [the] King who desires life and write us in the Book of Life.” Life is so precious because if we get another year of life from Hashem we can do so many mitzvot with that.
In its three statements, this mishnah gives us the direction for the Ten Days of Repentance and for the whole year. If I don’t take responsibility and do my mitzvot, nobody else can do them for me. I don’t have to worry about being alone; if I start the process G-d will help and my rabbis and teachers and community will help. But I have to start the process. And finally, if not now, when? I have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me today.
As we look towards the New Year, we need to take on practical resolutions to improve the different areas of our lives. We need to do this with a sense of urgency, with the awareness of how precious life is, and if we take this step, G-d will help us scale great heights.
Finding the Joy in Yom Kippur
Thank you for listening. I hope you had a good Rosh HaShana and a good beginning to the New Year.
We are now in the ten days of repentance that connects Rosh HaShana with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these special days we prepare ourselves for the Day of Atonement.
Conventional wisdom is often the greatest obstacle to understanding what Yom Kippur is all about. We know that it’s a day of physical deprivation. The Talmud lists five forms of affliction that one has to undergo on the day – no eating, no drinking, no marital relations, no wearing of leather shoes and no anointing oneself with oil. It’s a day on which we spend most of it– if not all of it – in shul praying and confessing our sins.
On the other hand, the Talmud tells us something completely different. Firstly, we know that Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov – a good day and a day of celebration. That is why when women light candles for Yom Kippur the brocha of Shehechiyanu is said thanking Hashem for giving us this day. We say Shehechiyanu at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service on Kol Nidre night thanking Hashem for bringing us to this day. This brocha is always said on a mitzvah that is related to simcha, to joy. It is a day like any of our other festivals such as Pesach, Shavuot or Succot and a day of holiness.
The Talmud says that there were no two better days for the Jewish people than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is an obviously happy day, from the perspective of the Talmud, for two reasons: It is the day of forgiveness from G-d and it is the day that the second set of tablets was given. To understand these reasons we need to consider the history of Yom Kippur.
History of Yom Kippur
Each festival occurred around a specific event. Pesach was the event of the Jewish people leaving the land of Egypt. Shavuot was the giving of the Torah and the revelation at Mount Sinai. Succot focuses on living in the tabernacles in the desert. Rosh HaShana, as we learned last week, is the day which celebrates the creation of man and woman. Each one of our festivals is linked to a specific event in history and the lessons that can and must be learned from that event which impact the present. We don’t view history as events of the past at which we passively look at and try to draw some lessons. Rather these are events which live with us in the here and now. For us time is not divided clearly between past, present and future. The events of the past live with us in the present. When we experience the Pesach Sedar on Passover night and remember the going out of Egypt we feel as if we now are leaving Egypt. Each of these events lives with us as if we are experiencing it here and now, today. It is part of living with time.
So what is the event that occurred on Yom Kippur which gives us the history and the framework for understanding it? When the Israelites left Egypt they went from there to Mount Sinai. The journey took seven weeks and on the 50th day they reached Mount Sinai. That was the 6th of Sivan on which today we celebrate Shavuot. Moshe went up the mountain the day after the revelation on the 7th of Sivan and spent 40 days and 40 nights there. During that time he was taught many of the details and principles of the Torah. When he came down the mountain on the 17th of Tammuz he found that the people had been worshipping the golden calf which was a form of idolatry. He smashed the tablets and returned up the mountain for another 40 days and 40 nights begging G-d to forgive the people. The first set of 40 days and 40 nights was to receive the principles of the Torah while the second set was to beg G-d for forgiveness for the terrible sin of the golden calf. Our Sages compare the sin of the golden calf to a bride committing adultery at the chupah, at the wedding canopy, because the Jewish people had just received the Torah and already they were worshipping the golden calf. Moshe begs G-d for forgiveness which is refused. He then comes down the mountain, downcast, but G-d calls him back the next day – which is the first day of the month of Elul – and he spends another 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain after which his prayers are accepted. He comes down with a sign of G-d’s forgiveness. Forty days after the first day of the month of Elul is Yom Kippur – the 10th of Tishrei. Moshe came down the mountain on the 10th of Tishrei which is Yom Kippur with a second set of tablets, after the first had been smashed, as a sign that G-d had forgiven the people for the sin of the golden calf because they had repented.
Yom Kippur is rooted in that experience of receiving forgiveness from G-d. And on that day on which they were forgiven for that sin, a principle was created in the world and that was the principle of teshuva, of repentance. That is why Yom Kippur is the festival of hope. It is the festival that says no matter what we have done, we can repair the damage. The Talmud says that it is a day of forgiveness. It is the day the second set of tablets was given – almost as if a new Torah was given. It was the same Torah as before but it was new in the sense that it was born from the teshuva, the repentance, of the people. It was a Torah which was created after a terrible sin and after repentance of it, proclaiming that there is a second chance, that we can begin again. In that sense it was a new beginning for the people and it was almost as if the Torah had been given again.
Getting a second chance
There is a custom to have a 24 hour candle burning throughout the period of Yom Kippur because the flame represents the light of Torah. As it says in a verse in Proverbs, “A mitzvah is the flame and the Torah is light”. We light that candle because Yom Kippur is a day of the giving of the Torah. Incidentally, we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Shavuot in the same way. We celebrate a dimension of it also on Yom Kippur in order to remind us that this is a Torah that can be there for us even after we have sinned and have repented. And G-d is there before the sin and after the sin. That’s why the famous verse which describes G-d’s Mercy reads Hashem Hashem Kel rachamim ve’chanun. The Talmud asks why the name is referred to twice? It answers that once is for before the sin and once for after the sin. G-d is there for us even after we have sinned, so long as we repent. Yom Kippur is about G-d’s forgiveness, it’s about G-d’s mercy and its message is that we have the capacity to begin again and to have a second chance.
How do we take that second chance after we have stumbled? The Talmud tells us that a person who says I’ll sin during the year and then will sort it out on Yom Kippur is not granted the opportunity to repent. That challenge is to us. That’s why it is a day of introspection and it’s a day where we have to repent and do teshuva.
Teshuva or repentance has a structure. The Rambam, Maimonides, explains based on the Talmud that there are different components of repentance : regret for the sin that we have committed; stopping to sin right now here in the present; and resolving in the future not to so sin again. Those are the three components of repentance, relating to the past, the present and the future. That is how we build a proper framework for the process of repentance. And that’s what Yom Kippur is about. We need to go through that process of repentance. And part of why we desist from the physical pleasures on the day is so that we can focus purely on G-d. The Maharal explains that the Hebrew word teshuva really means to return. It’s about returning to G-d and being spiritually focused. It’s a day when the Talmud says we become like angels, completely detached from the physical world. And so the afflictions on the day are really about elevating us to a higher level and almost liberating ourselves from our bodies and from our daily concerns so that we can connect with G-d.
The physical & emotional act of repenting
Connecting with G-d is a part, but we also have to deal with another : the technicalities of where we have gone wrong. And that is why one of the major aspects of the prayers on the day is confession. We confess time and time again throughout the day where we have gone wrong. Confession, verbalizing where one has gone wrong, as the Rambam points out, is a fourth aspect to repentance. What is the purpose of confession? We only confess before G-d, and not before a human being. But once we have gone through the process of regret for the past and resolve for the future, why do we actually need to verbalise it? The first way of understanding this is that when we confess what we are really doing is giving a concrete expression to our repentance. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that there are some commandments which we fulfill purely physically. For example, the taking of a lulav on Succot is a physical mitzvah. There are some mitzvahs that are purely in the mind and in the soul, for example belief in G-d is a mitzvah which is performed intellectually. He says there are certain commandments which are made up of a physical component and an emotional or intellectual component. An example is prayer. Prayer is physical in that there are words to be said, there is a prayer book to be recited, but the heart and soul of it are in the emotions and the thoughts of a person at the time of prayer connecting that person to G-d. Repentance also has a physical and an emotional component. The emotional component is the process of change – regret for the past, resolve for the future. On the other hand, there is a physical component – confession, an external manifestation of the internal process. And, therefore, confession and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Confession is really the concretisation of repentance. Speech – the verbalising of confession – says Rav Soloveitchik endows the thought of repentance with reality because when you say something it becomes real. Feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas become clear and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure says Rav Soloveitchik. So we need to make it real. It only becomes real when we express it. That is what the purpose of the confession is. Confession on the day of Yom Kippur is about making the whole process real.
Confessing is one of the 613 mitzvot. Not only is it a mitzvah to go through the internal process of repentance, of returning to G-d and of removing sin from our lives, but we need to go through the external process of the confession as well.
Paying off our debt
There is another dimension : confession itself leads to a form of atonement. How is that? Any pain that we go through in this world results in a form of atonement. The Talmud says that if a person has 30 days without any pain then they should be worried that they are receiving their reward in this world. The Talmud defines pain as putting your hand in your pocket and pulling out the wrong change. When a person has 30 trouble-free days, says the Talmud, they should be concerned. Why is that? We all do right and wrong. The Talmud tells us that G-d rewards our good deeds mainly in the next world. Our sins build up a debt to G-d. Any pain that we experience actually works in our favour in the sense that it works down the debt. The Talmud says that we should rather experience pain in this world and work off our debt here than in the next world. This world is the best place to reduce our debt.
This doesn’t mean every time something painful happens we are being punished by G-d. We don’t know why things happen. But even if not sent as a direct punishment, any discomfort that we experience in this world can be used to reduce our debt to G-d. So next time you are stuck in traffic and it’s a hot day and the air conditioning is broken and the radio doesn’t work and your cell phone’s battery has gone flat and you have got no way of telling the people that you are running late for your meeting and you are feeling all bothered and anxious and aggravated – that aggravation itself is paying your debt. Again, it is not for us to try to identify the reasons for adversity. The bottom line is that the Talmud says that every bit of aggravation we feel in this world is used to our credit to work off the debt column.
Confession is painful because, whilst we know of our wrongs, to actually verbalise them is painful : it’s hard having to admit before G-d, to apologise and say we have done wrong. Rav Soloveitchik says that confession compels man in a state of terrible torment to admit facts as they really are and to give clear expression to the truth. This is a sacrifice, a breaking of the will and a tortuous negation of human nature. Verbalising something which we know is the truth makes it much more painful. And that pain in and of itself leads to a form of atonement that can lead to a state of humility.
A humble apology
What is so painful about apologising? If you have been involved in a dispute with a person and you know that you are wrong, why is it so difficult to apologise? Because it’s humbling, sometimes even humiliating. It requires a person who is really humble to be able to apologise properly. That is what we do on Yom Kippur. We come before G-d to apologise and that requires real humility. Humility, explains Rav Chaim Friedlander of Ponovitch, is really the root of all good things. He says that arrogance and self-absorption and not being able to see beyond oneself are the roots of all evil. We are only able to be good people when we can transcend ourselves. That is why he explains the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah pg17a, “Whoever is forgiving towards others, is forgiven by G-d”. Now the conventional understanding of this is that if we can be forgiving towards others then G-d will be forgiving towards us. Meaning: we are coming before G-d on Yom Kippur and saying to G-d, forgive us. But how can we ask that of G-d if when we are involved in a dispute and someone has wronged us and we are harsh and unforgiving towards that person. Therefore, the Talmud says the way that we treat others is the how G-d treats us. If we are forgiving and we don’t bear grudges then G-d will treat us in the same way.
Rav Chaim Friedlander continues by saying that being forgiving towards others is all about transcending one’s self. A person who is arrogant and self-absorbed and the centre of their own universe cannot see beyond themselves and cannot forgive people. But if we are able to forgive others it’s not only about measure for measure, but it’s also about being able to transcend self. G-d forgives us when we can transcend ourselves and can move outside ourselves and not see the whole world only in terms of who we are. We realise that we have within ourselves the capacity to forgive because we are not the entire world.
Confession means that we have got to actually step outside ourselves. A person who is self-involved can’t see their own faults. They can’t be humble enough to say : I have actually done something wrong. Really what confession requires is standing before G-d and going through a list of sins that we ask forgiveness for. Self-introspection means stepping outside of our lives and looking at ourselves objectively but that can’t be done by a person who is self-obsessed. We need to have the humility to do this and this is what confession forces us to do. When we go through the whole of Yom Kippur, time and time again saying forgive me for this sin, forgive me for that sin; what we really are doing is saying let me step outside of myself, let me see that I have done something wrong and let me acknowledge that in a humble fashion. And that leads to transcendence. We come out of Yom Kippur elevated because we have been elevated beyond ourselves.
That’s why confession is such an important part of repentance : it gives concrete expression to our internal process of change, of return and of repentance. It forces us to go through the pain of acknowledging uncomfortable facts about ourselves. And that pain is an atonement. And giving verbal expression forces us to move beyond ourselves and to transcend ourselves so that we can become humble people who are not inwardly but outwardly focused.
Healing power of teshuva
Yom Kippur is also a day of joy because we are being cleansed by being freed from the physical, by becoming angels, and returning to G-d but at the same time dealing with all that drags us down. We become big rather than little people, who can see the big picture, and can see our own selves in perspective and see all our faults and attempt to deal with them. We come out of all of that liberated and uplifted. That’s why Yom Kippur is not only a day of endurance but also a day of upliftment and inspiration.
Yom Kippur is a day of healing and redemption. The Talmud says about teshuva, in Tractate Yoma, 86a, that Rabbi Chama Bar Chanina said, “Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world”. The Maharal explains that healing is taking a person back to the natural state as a person’s natural state is a state of health. Disease is defined as departure from the norm. So he says repentance is about healing for the person and healing for the world. Because the natural state of a human being is to be close to G-d and to be in sync with G-d’s Will and G-d’s Commandments,. the process of repentance is healing since it brings us back to where we naturally belong.
What is a guilty conscience? A conscience comes from an awareness within the soul that we have done something wrong and have strayed from our natural being. When we repent we bring healing to ourselves and healing to the world. That is why Yom Kippur is a day in which there is catharsis, a day in which there is cleansing and healing so that we come out of the day uplifted and inspired. And we come out of the day redeemed and free.
The Maharal says that that is why Yom Kippur was the day which began the Jubilee Year. The Jubilee Year of Freedom began with the sounding of the shofar immediately after Yom Kippur because on Yom Kippur we truly become free, which is why the Talmud continues in Tractate Yoma, 86b, to say, “Great is repentance because it brings redemption”. Redemption is freedom. We become freed from sin and return to whom we really are and that is why it’s a day of such joy and elevation. If we go through that process of change with sincerity and we confess our sins with sincerity and we fast in such a way that we are uplifted and not dragged down by it, then we are able to be redeemed and elevated. We are able to be healed and so we come out of the day with a sense of great joy. That’s why we are told in the writings of our Sages, in the Code of Jewish Law, that as Yom Kippur leaves us we feel a sense of great joy because we have come through a day of elevation and a day of cleansing, of inspiration, of redemption and of healing.
May G-d bless us all with a shana tova, with a good year. May He bless us with the capacity to be inspired on the day of this great gift He gave us, the day of Yom Kippur. May we be inspired, uplifted, cleansed and healed so that we can go forward into the New Year renewed with inspiration to be able to serve G-d better than we have done until now.
Thank you for listening and Good Yom Tov.
Why is Yom Kippur the Happiest Day of the Year?
How would you describe Yom Kippur? A solemn day? A day of prayer and supplication? A day of abstinence? The Mishna has a different description. It says Yom Kippur is a day of joy – in fact, one of the two happiest days of the year. This seems surprising to say the least. Yom Kippur is a day spent praying and fasting, and generally putting aside the things that bring us physical enjoyment.
The Gemara explains the happiness and joy of the day is because it’s a day of forgiveness for our misdeeds, the opportunity to begin our lives afresh, free from the mistakes and wrongdoings of the past. It’s the miraculous opportunity, in a sense, to go back in time and change history… our history.
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuva, which literally means “return”. Through teshuva, we return to that pristine state in which there was no distance or disconnect in our relationship with our Creator and with our fellow human beings.
Of course, it doesn’t just happen. Real repentance takes heart-rending effort and application. The Rambam, in his Laws of Repentance (Laws of Teshuva, 2:2), defines the process of repentance and sets out its various components: regretting the mistakes of the past, desisting from that wrongdoing in the present, resolving not to return to this course of action in the future, and finally, confession, an explicit verbal admission of all of our misdeeds.
The process of teshuva leads to forgiveness at any time in the year, but it has special power on Yom Kippur. As the Rambam writes: “Yom Kippur is a time of teshuva for every individual and for the multitudes, and it is the climax of forgiveness… therefore everyone is obligated to do teshuva and to confess on Yom Kippur.” (Laws of Teshuva, 2:7). On Yom Kippur, the force of Divine forgiveness is at its apex, and our heartfelt pleas for forgiveness are both more potent and more readily accepted.
The Rambam points out that the process of teshuva described above is sufficient when it comes to misdeeds that have damaged our relationship with G-d, but words and actions that cause harm to other people require an extra step. To rectify the harm done to others, we need to personally ask their forgiveness, as well as make any monetary restitution if we have caused them financial loss. Indeed, the Rambam says, based on the Talmud, that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between one person and another unless that personal forgiveness has been granted. It is for this reason that, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, it is customary to ask for forgiveness from whoever one may have wronged in the past year so as to be able to access the gift of Divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The Rambam writes that it’s important for the person who has been wronged to act with compassion and graciously grant forgiveness. In this way, the relationships that have been damaged by our wrongdoing can be fully restored.
The bottom line is that the redemptive, purifying powers of Yom Kippur can only be accessed through real action and sincere intention – through a deep and meaningful teshuva process. This also explains why an important part of our Yom Kippur prayers is devoted to viduy – “confession”. In each of the Yom Kippur Amidahs there is a section devoted to confession. The fact that the confessions formula is embedded in the most intimate and personal of our prayers – the Amidah – indicates that our confession is meant to be a direct encounter with G-d, a moment of truth as we stand before our Creator, our defences down, without any pretensions of innocence.
The relationship between confession and the other components of the teshuva process is important to understand. The teshuva process is largely an internal process of transformation, buried in the heart and mind and soul of a person. Regret for the past and resolve for the future are a state of mind. It is the process of confession that gives verbal expression to the deep internal psychological and emotional process of personal change and repentance. The words of the viduy help us articulate and concretise the deep feelings of regret for the past and resolve for the future. By vocalising our misdeeds, we reinforce – and give shape and form to – the processes taking place deep beneath the surface.
Ultimately, we cannot just walk into the Yom Kippur experience without preparation. When we recite the various confessions before G-d on Yom Kippur, we need to have done the necessary spiritual and physical work beforehand. That is why Yom Kippur does not appear in the calendar in isolation. It is part of the Ten Days of Repentance, which begin with Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur. The hard work of teshuva begins, in fact, from the beginning of the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
One of the confessions we say on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge that sometimes we say a confession without meaning and intention, and this is something we have to be aware of and guard against. To merely mouth the words and assume it’s an automatic pass to forgiveness and atonement is a critical mistake. Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because of its powers of forgiveness, atonement and spiritual cleansing – but it is a gift which is accessed through the real work of personal transformation.
Confession also catalyses another dynamic, and that is self-transcendence. Rav Chaim Friedlander explains the source of most personality faults and wrongdoing in the world is selfishness and self-absorption. Egotism. Our sages call on us to transcend our ego, to concern ourselves with the well-being of others. The Gemara says we will find forgiveness and compassion from G-d when we are able to be compassionate and forgiving towards others. On a simple level, the Gemara is saying G-d deals with us measure for measure. If we show understanding, forgiveness and compassion to others, then He will do the same for us in return. But Rav Friedlander says that it goes deeper. The capacity to show understanding, forgiveness and compassion to other people is derived from a capacity to transcend our ego. This self-transcendence imbues us with a holiness and purity and greatness, and it is this that brings about the Divine forgiveness.
So Yom Kippur is a day of achieving self-transcendence. We do so through our confessions, where we take a step back from our ego and look at ourselves objectively, acknowledging where we have made mistakes and where we can improve and how we can become better people. Doing so verbally and sincerely before G-d is a very powerful act of self-transcendence.
The other dimension of self-transcendence on Yom Kippur is to transcend the physical world by not partaking in food and drink, not wearing leather shoes, not washing or anointing with oils, or engaging in marital relations. That, too, is an act of transcendence – of transcending the pursuit of personal physical gratification that can sometimes weigh us down, and can distract us from the task of self-mastery that the day of Yom Kippur is all about.
Above all, Yom Kippur is a day of Divine forgiveness, a day of redemption and liberation from our mistakes and misdeeds. It is, in short, the happiest day of the year.
Jerusalem Post – A Day For Optimism
“It is not in the heavens … nor is it across the oceans … for rather this matter is very close to you”
Yom Kippur is the most optimistic day of the year. It is the day that Hashem declares His faith in us, in our ability and power to change, to improve and even achieve greatness. This optimistic faith is rooted in the fact that the calling to become better Jews is not beyond our reach; it is in fact a journey back to our true selves. At such a time of hope and promise we cannot feel intimidated or daunted by the challenge to realise the inspiring ideals of the Torah. These ideals are not too difficult for us and are not beyond our capability.
G-d Himself gives us direct words of encouragement when He says to us in His Torah (Devarim 30:11-14) : “For this commandment that I command you today is not hidden from you, nor is it far away. It is not in the heavens … nor is it across the oceans … for rather this matter is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do.”
There is no mitzvah beyond us and nothing which we cannot attain. We often take refuge in the excuse that keeping the mitzvot is for the angels and a handful of dedicated souls, but not for everybody. But through these verses G-d is telling us something else. We are capable of achieving greatness. We are much stronger and more resourceful than we can ever imagine; and most importantly – the mitzvot are accessible, doable and close to our hearts.
It is this optimistic spirit that has been the driving force behind The Shabbat Project from its dramatic birth in South Africa last year. At the time it was first announced there were many voices of scepticism who said that to call on all Jews to keep one complete Shabbat together was asking too much, that it was beyond the reach of most and that it should rather begin with a much diluted form of Shabbat. And yet, the electric response from across the widest range of South African Jews defied all of the pessimistic voices, with its remarkable depth and breadth of support. This year’s International Shabbat Project has seen the wave of support continue throughout the world as momentum gathers in more than 350 cities in different parts of the globe, where people are actively working on bringing The Shabbat Project to their communities.
The message of The Shabbat Project is that Shabbat is not in the heavens and not across the oceans; it is not a mitzvah beyond the reach of any Jew; it does not stretch into the strange and unknown but takes us back to whom we really are. The Shabbat Project is rooted in a deep and profound optimism and faith in the Jewish people, and in our deep and natural connection to our Torah heritage in general, and to the mitzvah of Shabbat in particular. We always talk about faith in G-d, but He has faith in us, and so too do we need to have faith in ourselves.
And this applies also to our role and mission as the Jewish People. The optimistic verses of encouragement referred to above are preceded in the very same chapter by G-d’s promise of ultimate return and redemption: “you will take to heart among the nations where the L-rd your G-d has dispersed you there and you will return to the L-rd your G-d … and He will return and gather you from amongst the nations.” (Devarim 30:1-3). These words give us strength and faith in Jewish destiny. We are living through momentous times. It can feel as if the mission and calling to be a Jew seems beyond the strength we have been granted, and as we peer into the future, there seem to be so many challenges, problems and threats gathering on the horizon. The State of Israel is surrounded by military and political enemies on all sides, and anti-semitism continues to rise throughout the world. But Jewish destiny has been a journey of faith and optimism in the future of the Jewish people under G-d’s loving and watchful guidance. What greater act of optimism and faith could there be than to re-establish with G-d’s blessings Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel barely three years after the awful Holocaust? It is that spirit of faith and optimism in the future of the Jewish people that defines who we are.
And it is that spirit of faith and optimism that drives The Shabbat Project as it becomes an international movement that has captured the hearts and minds of Jews across the world. To fulfil our individual roles within the unfolding story of Jewish destiny, and to do our mitzvot are callings which can be answered with pride, confidence and optimism. No matter how far away we may drift, we are always close to G-d and His Torah because “this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do”. And so, as we prepare for this Yom Kippur, let all of Am Yisrael – the Jewish people – gather in unity throughout the world and dedicate ourselves to embracing The Shabbat Project, to fulfil the optimistic vision of these verses and of our eternal destiny and to reciprocate G-d’s great faith and optimism in our future. Together we can do it. Together we can complete one Shabbat together; together we can reach higher and become better for it is not in the heavens and it is not across the oceans; it is within us.
The Shabbat Project will take place on 24/25 October. For more visit theshabbatproject.org