Our Jewish communities in six cities across the country have gathered today to pray and repent together. This time of year is particularly appropriate for such gatherings, as the Rambam writes in the second chapter of the Laws of Repentance:
Even though repentance and prayer are good at any time, during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur our repentance and prayers are particularly powerful, and are accepted by Hashem immediately.
The Rambam explains that the above refers to an individual, but regarding a community, whenever they repent and cry out to Hashem wholeheartedly, Hashem answers.
Thus we have come before Hashem with two merits: the ten days of repentance when Hashem is close by, ready to answer our prayers, and the merit of community. And thirdly we have the merit of unity. Looking at the large crowd gathered here today, we can see that all parts of our community are well represented. This is what makes us special as South African Jews – we are known throughout the Jewish world for the unified and inclusive community that we have.
As we look to the new year, we have many needs and concerns. At the height of our concerns is the plight of the State and the people of Israel. This is a time of concern, as the UN debates the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State. Many allies Israel has built up over many years are turning against her; the political arena is becoming much more hostile. There are military dangers in the South with Hamas, in the North with Hezbollah, and the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
As a South African Jewish community, we have our own unique concerns. There is so much that South Africa needs to do in the coming year, in the fight against poverty and crime, in health care reforms and education. As we look to the new year we seek Hashem’s blessing for a good year for South Africa as well.
Lastly, each of us has individual needs. Some are in desperate need of healing; others are in need financially; others are struggling with personal crises. When we pray during these ten days, we must think not only about the major events affecting the Jewish People internationally and specifically in Israel, and not only about the challenges facing South Africa as a country, but about the many people in our community who need personal salvation.
This time of year is a time of prayer as well as repentance; as we say in the Machzor “Repentance, prayer and charity have the power to remove evil decrees”. Repentance is an individual pursuit; we each have different areas in need of improvement. Nevertheless, there are two areas that we as a community can work on together. In the past two years at similar gatherings we have taken on as a communal project avoiding ‘lashon hara’, as well as saying our blessings with greater concentration. For the course of this year, I would like to suggest two areas in particular for us to work on together as a community.
Firstly, let us work on living and strengthening the value of peace in our lives. We must realise that peace begins at home—in our marriage, in the way we speak to our children; in the community, how committees, rabbis and community members interact. We need to focus on this because the pursuit of peace and the avoidance of conflict bring the greatest blessing. Our Sages teach us that “there is no vessel that contains blessing more than peace.” Indeed, the Midrash points out that the final words in the priestly blessings as well as the conclusion of our daily prayers are that G-d should give us peace. Conversely, the Midrash says that conflict and dissension are despicable in the eyes of Hashem. Conflict can be so consuming; often people get very passionate about their cause and believe that justice is on their side. To compromise and pursue peace often requires deep inner strength of character to overcome arrogance and self-centredness. What our Sages teach us is that even when we feel we are right, peace has to be the overriding value. So great is peace, says the Midrash, that even if Jews serve idols, if there is peace between them, no harm will befall them. As a community, we must resolve that in this new year we will all redouble our efforts to bring peace to our own homes and to improve the way we talk to each other, to ask for forgiveness and to end fighting which can consume and destroy us.
The other area to focus on is adding to our Torah learning. For some it will be a large amount of time, perhaps every day; for others it may just be a few minutes once a week. We should all add something to our learning; as our Sages teach us, the learning of Torah is equal in merit to that of all the other mitzvos combined, and it gives us direction and inspiration.
These two initiatives are summed up in one verse: “G-d will give His people strength, G-d will bless His people with peace.” The Midrash explains that “strength” refers to Torah. The verse concludes with the ultimate blessing, that “Hashem will bless His people with peace.” We can all improve in the area of pursuing peace and learning Torah. Let us dedicate our repentance and good deeds to the welfare of Israel, South Africa at large and anyone we know who needs salvation.
I thank everyone who attended the communal prayer. Let us as the South African Jewish community go forward together in this new year to pursue peace and learn Torah, and in the merit of our repentance and unity may Hashem hear our supplications and bless us all with a good and sweet year filled with peace, blessing and answers to all our prayers.