With thanks to Bernice and Louis Ichikowitz and family, who kindly sponsored this publication in honour of all those working to protect and support our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This past year has been like no other. And we need to respond like never before. But how? What do we do to prepare for the new year, 5781? How do we make sense of what we have been through and find the best way to go forward? This essay is my attempt to talk through these big questions with you. Enjoy reading it, and let me know what you think.
I am deeply moved and inspired by how our community has responded to this global crisis. Thank you to all for your support, partnership and friendship through these times.
Let us pray that in 5781, Hashem blesses our community, our country and our world with health and healing. May He inscribe and seal us all for a good and sweet year, overflowing with abundance and joy.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Yom Kippur Essay 5781
This year, we have all lived through the most life-changing, unforgettable, historic experience. We have seen everything we know and trust turned on its head. Every certainty, prediction, expectation has been upended. The world has been tilted off its axis. The coronavirus pandemic has changed our world in the most dramatic way, leaving no aspect of our lives untouched.
PART I: Questions
Upended certainties, existential questions
If we just stop and think about it for a moment, it’s actually beyond belief what we’ve been through. Who would have thought that at this stage of the 21st century, with the advancements in technology and medicine the world has seen, we would be scurrying around in masks, washing our hands obsessively, isolating ourselves from human contact? It’s like a throwback to the Spanish Flu of a century ago, or even like something out of medieval times. Who would have thought entire countries would be “locked down”, industry and commerce frozen, entire populations confined to their homes. Who could have foreseen proud democracies imposing martial law on their citizens, with nightly curfews, the shuttering of shops and businesses, the abrupt closure of schools and places of worship? Who would have thought we would be waiting for a presidential address to find out if we could go for a walk around the block, or buy a bottle of wine? Who would have thought we would need the government’s permission to open up a school or a shul or a place of business?
I don’t think for a moment that we can underestimate the deep trauma this has caused, both to individuals and to society at large. Especially when we consider that hanging over all of this social, political and economic turmoil is a horrible and still-mysterious disease that has caused illness and suffering and death on scale. So many people in South Africa and around the world have lost loved ones. So many people in South Africa and around the world have lost their jobs and their businesses. Even the businesses that have been able to remain open have suffered dramatic losses. Even the people who have kept their jobs have often had to endure salary cuts. When you add together all of these traumatic repercussions, it’s no exaggeration to say that it feels like we’ve lived through a war.
As human beings, we crave certainty, predictability, familiarity. When all of our expectations are overturned – when everything becomes so uncertain, so unpredictable, so unfamiliar – it forces us to relook at life and everything we thought we knew. We ask ourselves: Can we really be certain about anything? And that, in turn, leads to deeper, more searching questions: What is the purpose of life? What do we want from life? Why are we even here?”
It’s important that we don’t just walk away from these questions – because we do have that option. Infection rates are declining. There is a vaccine on the horizon. Things are gradually returning to a new normal. In the next six months, or 12 months, or two years, COVID-19 may become something that simply happened in our past. And when it does, are we just going to move beyond all these uncomfortable questions and continue with our lives as they were? Or are we going to learn from what we’ve gone through, become wiser from this experience? Make real changes to who we are and how we live? Not to do so, I believe – to shrug this off as simply a bad passage in our lives that we just had to endure and get to the other side of – would be a real lost opportunity.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have arrived at a particularly timely moment. The Jewish New Year, part of the Ten Days of Repentance culminating in Yom Kippur, are about reflecting on the year that has been and looking ahead to the year still to come. It’s a time during which we set aside all of our certainties. We acknowledge that nothing is definite, not even life itself. We acknowledge our frailty and utter the haunting words of U’Netaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die… who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer… who will be impoverished and who will be enriched… who will be degraded and who will be exalted.” Think back to when we said these words at last Rosh Hashanah – we had no idea of the global trauma that awaited us all. There is the overwhelming sense that we are not in control – that life cannot be controlled. In a way, these are the same thoughts and feelings that have assailed us over the past six months.
It is no easy thing to confront our mortality and the perilous fragility of our existence. It’s much easier to ignore the existential questions and turn a blind eye to life’s uncertainties. If we wait out the pandemic, casually navigate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, pay no heed to our existential predicament – we’ll find that these questions will fade, and we will return to a state of settled calm and certainty. It is in our nature to do so. The midrash says that one of the great kindnesses G-d does for us is to allow us to live without a paralysing sense of our own mortality. But, right now, we are confronting it head on; we are grappling with vital questions that go to the heart of who we are and why we are here. And with that comes the ability – the opportunity – to make real, lasting changes to the way we live and the way we view the world.
Global lifestyle experiment
But there is something else very significant that has happened. The past six months have been a grand, global lifestyle experiment. During the initial stages of lockdown in particular, we experienced a completely different way of living. No travelling, no outings, no dining out, no social gatherings, no events, no public celebrations. Working from home, schooling our children from home, praying at home, only leaving home for basic necessities. Keeping our distance from others when we do, wearing masks, every chance encounter with another person fraught with fear and uncertainty. Many of these experiences were traumatic, unsettling and just plain unpleasant.
But in the midst of this, there have also been moments of beauty and tranquillity. As we slowed down the pace of life, it brought our lives into focus. We became more focused on our homes, on our relationships with those closest to us. We learnt to focus on life’s simple joys and pleasures without all the distractions and noise of “normal life”. Life became smaller, simpler, more contained, and the slower pace allowed us to direct our gaze inwards. And while the world outside was in turmoil, our home became a haven; a place of safety and peace, and where we could seek refuge from our anxieties.
This grand lifestyle experiment has shown us that a simpler life can also mean a better life. And it has forced us to re-examine so much of what we once took for granted. Suddenly, businesses are contemplating the amount of space they are renting and asking themselves how much they really need. What if employees continued working from home? Or if there was a more workable hybrid model they could use? And what if societies could be organised differently? What if we didn’t buy as much as we did before?
There’s a larger point here: If we could somehow discard all the suffering and pain and devastation from the past few months, and extract all the good outcomes and positive experiences and real lessons, we surely would. Being satisfied with less. Being grateful for what we have. Being more self-reliant. Slowing down the pace of life to focus on what’s truly important, on the people who matter most to us. If we could emerge from this often-dreadful experiment with a brand new lifestyle – one that incorporates the best of what we have been through and discard the worst – wouldn’t that be an amazing gift?
Of course, in reality, it’s a package deal – the good and the bad are baked in – and none of us would take it if we were offered it in advance. But now that we have been through it, is there a way we can redesign our lives, reformulate our lifestyle, integrating the best and removing the worst, of the past six months?
It feels that we must at least try. Again, it would seem a waste not to.
Besides a better way of living, there’s something else we’re desperately seeking at this time – hope. We have come through a time of great darkness, and what we’re craving right now, perhaps more than anything, is a belief in a better tomorrow, a future that looks bright and not foreboding, and in which we rediscover the joys of living.
To summarise – firstly, the upending of all of our certainties, a world turned on its head, has forced us to confront deep existential questions about the meaning of life and our own purpose. Secondly, we have been through a grand lifestyle experiment, which has shown us that a different way of living and being is possible, that there are deep joys in life we may have been overlooking. And thirdly, we’re all looking for a better, brighter, more hopeful future.
Now, the big question: Is there something that can help us in all three areas? Is there something that can help us confront, understand and find answers to our existential questions? Is there something that can help us live better, incorporating all that we’ve learnt and all the positive experiences we’ve had over this difficult time? Is there something that can help us feel more hopeful about the future?
I believe there is.
There is, indeed, one thing that addresses all of these issues and answers all of these questions. It is a mitzvah – the only mitzvah – described as a gift from G-d. It is a mitzvah that helps us deal with our deepest existential questions, helps us devise a lifestyle filled with connection, joy and love, and gives us hope for a better future.
That mitzvah, of course, is Shabbos.
And as we head towards Rosh Hashanah, let us, the South African Jewish community, make the new year, 5781, the year of Shabbos.
PART II: Answers
Purpose and meaning
Shabbos gives us the answers to the most foundational questions of our existence. Why are we here? What is the purpose of life?
When we say Kiddush on Friday night, we declare to ourselves and our families that G-d created the world in six days and stopped creating on the seventh. To give expression to this truth, we ourselves work for six days and stop on the seventh. When we keep Shabbos, we testify that the beauty and sheer engineering brilliance of the universe is His work, and that the world itself is purposeful, purpose-built by an awesome Being beyond our comprehension. We remind ourselves that lives are not an accident of colliding molecules, that we originate from a purposeful act of creation by G-d, and that our lives have meaning and worth, and that He created us in order to do good. Through the moving words of Kiddush, we remind ourselves that He sanctified our lives by giving us His mitzvahs, our sacred mission to fulfil His will here on earth, that He took us out of Egypt, bearing witness to the fact that He is interested in human affairs – and that He has a special bond with us that infuses our lives with love and value.
On Shabbos, we remember that there are certain basic truths of life embedded deep into our very being. Before our soul is sent down here from up on high, and placed into a body, we had absolute clarity. We knew the truth. We knew our purpose. It was so clear to us that we would be sent to this world to do mitzvahs. But then, once we arrive here and get comfortable with our body, that clarity becomes clouded. We can so easily lose our moral compass, our clear sense of purpose. “The world of forgetting” is how the Zohar describes this world. We are surrounded by so many distractions. With all the glittering objects and transitory experiences of this world, it’s easy to forget why we were sent here in the first place. But on Shabbos, we remember. We remember that we are a soul clothed in a body and not a body that just happens to have a soul. We remember that the purpose of life is to do good, to accumulate mitzvot and carry out our Divine mission. We remember our innermost truth, who we really are and why we are here in the first place. We get clarity on our purpose in life. And that clarity gives us great comfort. In times of such uncertainty and turbulence, Shabbos gives us the answers to our deepest existential questions.
Vulnerability and humility
Shabbos also imbues us with the humility that times like these require of us. Our world has learned the limits of human power. When the Torah says we stop “work” on Shabbos, what does that actually mean? It is not about how strenuous and burdensome the activity is. The Talmud defines this work, based on our Oral Tradition from Sinai, as the 39 categories of creative activity that were used to build the Mishkan, the Divine sanctuary in the desert. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that these 39 categories all have something essential in common – imposing human will and dominance on the world through well-planned and executed acts, which shape our environment to conform with what we want.
On Shabbos, we step back. We suspend all our acts of dominating the world – and hand these creative powers back to G-d. Alone among all creations, human beings were given free choice and the creative powers to dominate the natural world. G-d blessed humankind with the ability to shape the world in accordance with our needs, wants and ideas. These Divine gifts can lead to arrogance. It can lead us to abuse our power, causing harm and destruction in the world. Shabbos helps keep us grounded.
Ceasing work on Shabbos is, in fact, a statement of profound humility, an acknowledgment that G-d is the ultimate creative power of the universe, who generously gave us our own ability to create and shape the world. Through ceasing our work, we place the world in the right order, acknowledging that our powers and abilities are G-d-given.
This attitude of humility resonates deeply at a time like this, when humanity – with all our prowess and power, all our mighty advances as a civilisation, with all our technological and scientific advances – has been humbled by a simple virus. Shabbos comes to remind us that G-d is the Master of the Universe and that, ultimately, He is in control.
There is a great comfort in knowing G-d is in control, especially during times like these. At a time when we’ve all felt so vulnerable, we put our faith and trust in our Creator. Trusting G-d does not mean we believe everything is going to turn out exactly the way we want; rather, it is an understanding that everything that happens in our lives is part of G-d’s plan, and ultimately for the good; that the world, and our lives, are in His loving hands, and that He is carrying us through this. By embracing our vulnerability with humility, we can make peace with it, and in so doing, and we can make peace with ourselves.
This deep-seated trust in G-d is symbolised by the two challahs on our Shabbos table. We know that G-d provided for our people in the desert for forty years with the manna from heaven. The two challahs at each Shabbos meal remind us of the double portion of manna that fell on Friday so the Jewish people wouldn’t have to gather it for Shabbos. They remind us that our own sustenance today is just as miraculous – that it comes from heaven even if it doesn’t fall out of the sky. On Shabbos, like our ancestors in the desert, we put down our burdens and our anxieties, and place our trust in G-d.
We may no longer be wandering the wilderness, but our future is equally unknown and unknowable, and our circumstances just as precarious. Especially now. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, we have felt our vulnerabilities acutely, from a health point of view, from a financial point of view. But each week, Shabbos instils in us the faith to meet an uncertain future with tranquillity and trust.
And it all comes together on Shabbos, when we reaffirm our belief in G-d as our Creator and celebrate the meaning and purpose of our lives, when we humbly hand our powers of creative dominance back to G-d, when we graciously accept our vulnerability and limitations, and remind ourselves that we are in His loving embrace and that He is looking after us and that we can trust Him to do what is ultimately for our own good; when we feel that sense of faith and trust and peace of mind.
Slowing down to “the pace of life”
Shabbos also offers us the remarkable opportunity to keep the best of this revolutionary global lifestyle experiment we’ve all been through, while discarding the worst. It helps us extract the joys and pleasures we’ve experienced during these past months, and make them a lasting part of our lives; while leaving behind all the trauma and unpleasantness.
One of the great joys that has emerged from this time is the nurturing of our most precious relationships, with our spouse and our children, but also with G-d, and even with ourselves – with who we are deep down. During the coronavirus pandemic, everything slowed down. There were fewer demands on our time, less expectation for immediate replies. And lockdown, itself, forced us into a reckoning. It cleared our busy schedules and ceaseless errands. It confined us to our homes and brought us face to face with our families. Suddenly we had more time at home together as families, with the opportunity we needed to nurture our relationships, and to truly savour the simple joys of life.
How do we hold onto that, but without all the unpleasantness? Is there a way to capture that magic in a bottle?
Well, we do it every Shabbos. Once a week, Shabbos slows everything down. It slows us down to “the pace of life”. On Shabbos, the frenzy ceases and our lives come into focus.
There’s an amazing passage in the Talmud which says that when we rush around during the week, we lose part of our eyesight, which is then restored when we say Kiddush on Friday night and gaze at the Shabbos candles. Obviously, it’s not that our physical eyesight is impaired and then restored. It’s that when we slow things down, we can see things more clearly, we have more perspective on our lives, we notice the people around us. We connect with our loved ones. We connect with G-d. We connect with ourselves. We see all our blessings. We appreciate. We take notice.
The beauty of Shabbos is that it allows us to savour life’s basic pleasures; the simple joys of hearty eating and sound sleeping, of nice clothes and good company, of walking and talking and connecting. We can only fully appreciate these when we slow things down. And it is the restrictions of the day themselves that liberate us; switching off our devices, setting aside our work, leaving the car in the garage – these are all remarkably effective ways of slowing down the pace of life so that we can breathe and feel and connect.
In today’s world, we are busier than we’ve ever been. Bombarded by constant information and stimulation, bound to airtight schedules, we are left with no energy, no headspace, no time for our precious relationships. The pace of our lives is increasing all the time. Today, we work and operate at a pace previous generations could not have imagined. Technological advances have enabled us to do things quicker. We have commercial airflight and cars instead of boats and wagons. We type an email and send it off in a second instead of posting a letter that could take days or even weeks to reach its intended recipient; and we wait impatiently for a reply – for that WhatsApp ping or that email to pop into our inbox.
On Shabbos, we can fully enjoy the sip of wine at Kiddush; the aroma of challah; the smile on our child’s face when we give them a blessing; the look in a mother’s eye as she lights the Shabbos candles with her daughter; the cheerful table chatter of a family with time to talk and eat without distractions; the sheer indulgence of a Shabbos afternoon sleep; the smell of a cup of coffee after shul on Shabbos morning. These are the simple pleasures that make life beautiful. We tend to overcomplicate things, rushing around in pursuit of pleasures and experiences that are much more complicated but far less fulfilling. We are looking for leisure, for forms of entertainment, for something out there that can fill us and sustain us, instead of something inside. The joys of life are woven into it – seeing the blossoms coming out now in spring, feeling the new warmth of the air – they need no chasing. And when we have the time and space to fully engage with these simple pleasures – when our senses are fully attuned to them – then they are even more pleasurable. That, in turn, fills us with a deep wellspring of appreciation and gratitude.
The Talmud records a revealing conversation between the Roman Caesar and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya. The Caesar said to Rabbi Yehoshua: “Why does your food smell so good on Shabbos?” Rabbi Yehoshua answered that there is a special spice that we put into the food, and that special spice is Shabbos. Caesar then asked him if he could have some of the special ingredients. Rabbi Yehoshua answered that he would not be able to taste the difference – he explained that only one who keeps Shabbos can enjoy its unique flavour.
Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be telling the Roman Caesar that if you really want to experience the world to its fullest, you must have a taste of Shabbos. When you understand and experience the gift of Shabbos, you can fully appreciate the many wonderful pleasures that G-d has put into this world for us. It’s a day on which we rediscover our rich inner world, the deep inner joys that we can access.
Learning to access those simple pleasures, that deep inner joy, is something we’ve learned to do over these past months. We have discovered that there are many joys to be had in a slower, simpler life. We can’t live like that all the time, but once a week, on Shabbos, we can – and it can be truly life-changing.
When things slow down to the “pace of life”, we discover not just deep pleasure but deep wisdom. During these months, we have had more time to think about our lives, about the path we’re on and where we are headed. Normal life is too noisy and busy and distracting to allow for real thought and reflection. But once a week, on Shabbos, we have time and space for just that.
And it is a day to find wisdom. It gives us time to think and learn Torah, a day that enriches our mind. It is a day that G-d has infused with special spiritual powers of insight, understanding and wisdom. The laws of Shabbos clear an entire night and day from all the hassles and responsibilities of daily life, giving us not only the time, but the headspace to learn, to think, to pursue wisdom and knowledge, to read. We are liberated from the daily grind in order to be able to pursue Divine wisdom.
Shabbos also nurtures inner calm. It’s a tranquillity that only comes from being relieved of the mental load of our work. The Torah says: “Six days you shall labour and accomplish all your work, and the seventh is Shabbos… ” But how do you “accomplish all your work”? Is it even possible to complete everything we have to do in just six days? The midrash explains this verse to mean: When Shabbos arrives, we should feel as if we have finished all our work.
In fact, we can never get it all done. But on Shabbos, we can let go of the burden, because we have to stop. At G-d’s instruction, we put everything aside without any guilt – and our mental load is lifted.
I think we’ve all experienced this in some way during the pandemic. There were things we just couldn’t do, and therefore we were relieved of the stress of having to deal with them. Of course, we can’t live like that – but we can have it on Shabbos. Shabbos allows us to access the best of what we experienced during the pandemic, while discarding the worst.
Home as a haven
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, with the world in chaos, our home became a haven – not only from a health and safety point of view, but also emotionally and spiritually.
Shabbos, too, is a haven. The Zohar compares Shabbos to Noah’s Ark.
There was a time when the whole world was under water. A great flood devastated everything. And there was one man – Noah, and his family – in an Ark, which provided a sanctuary from the turmoil raging outside. And the Ark was not only a physical refuge from the flood waters, but a spiritual refuge from the corruption of the world. It was, most of all, a haven of kindness, where Noah and his family spent all their time caring for the animals within.
Shabbos provides a similar sanctuary. Like Noah’s Ark, it’s a tranquil space where we can find emotional safety and security. And, like the Ark, Shabbos is a place of kindness and love. It is a day for parents and children to really connect with no distractions. It is a day for husbands and wives to be together without the burdens of the daily administration of life to attend to. It is a day of sacred time for love and relationships. It is a day we bond with loved ones in a spirit of openhearted kindness and care, that we nurture our family on these loving foundations.
The Hebrew word for flood comes from the root of the word for confusion and chaos. The flood waters turned the world upside down, creating total disarray. We, too, have lived through times of chaos and confusion. But our homes have been havens. And Shabbos can ensure they remain havens – places of stability and security, of kindness and connection, of warmth and love.
Holding us together
Shabbos also renews our sense of community. This is something we’ve sorely been lacking these past few months. We may have connected virtually through the wonders of modern communication technology, but there has been an unmistakable sense of dislocation.
Shabbos binds us together. Its rhythms unite Jewish communities around the world. We have been scattered to every corner of the globe, encountering diverse cultures and languages, an experience that would cause any nation to fragment and then disintegrate. But Shabbos has been the unifying force in Jewish life throughout history.
On Shabbos, wherever we are in the world, we all read the same weekly Torah portion, light candles, recite Kiddush, abstain from the same acts of work, enjoy the same festivities, say the same prayers. It is a day of true Jewish unity, horizontally linking us to Jews around the world, and vertically linking us to Jews who lived in previous generations.
Hope and optimism and joy
There is another deep need we all share at this difficult time – to look to the future with hope. We want to believe that the dark clouds hovering above our world will be lifted, and we want to live with joy and optimism again.
Shabbos is all about hope, about the possibility of a better future. The Talmud says that it reminds us of the final redemption that will come to this world – a reminder that, no matter how dark things look, ultimately, the world will be redeemed. But we don’t have to wait until then. Each week, Shabbos brings light into our lives, dispelling the darkness, filling us with joy and hope. Each week, it reminds us that G-d created the world out of love, that He did it for us, that He created us to be recipients of His goodness, both in this world and the next.
The light of Shabbos is reflected in the Shabbos candles we light as it comes in and the Havdalah candle we light as it goes out. When we light Shabbos candles, we celebrate and reaffirm the light of truth, faith, compassion, wisdom and joy that Shabbos brings into our lives. And at the end of Shabbos, we light the Havdalah candles, signifying our intent to take that light with us into the week. Shabbos lights up our life. It restores our faith and optimism and reminds us that this world is essentially good and that the future is bright.
And with it, we are never alone. Shabbos is described by the midrash as the partner of the Jewish people – a true friend, our constant companion on all of our journeys through history. 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 to each other, and giving us our collective identity as a people. Shabbos has been our continual source of courage and strength. 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 – holding us close and supporting us through it all. Throughout the ages, Shabbos has been our trusted friend, holding us together through everything, giving us the hope and optimism for a bright future.
The year of Shabbos
Let us, the South African Jewish community, dedicate the year 5781: a year of Shabbos.
If we do this it gives us a way of holding onto, and internalising,on a weekly basis, the best of this intense past year , while discarding the worst of it. It gives us the tools for a brighter future.
Let us make 5781 the year of Shabbos. Let’s fill our lives and our homes with it. Every week. Switching off. Lighting candles. Making Kiddush. Eating challahs. Looking each other in the eye when we sit down to eat meals filled with intention. Singing. Dressing up for ourselves.. Devoting real time to loved ones. Walking. Going to shul. Praying. Learning Torah. Allowing ourselves to play. Being still. Breathing. Thinking. Listening. Appreciating. Keeping.
5781: A year of Shabbos