Compendium of Pesach Articles
1. Article published in the “Jerusalem Post”
We live in historic times. Just think about what has happened in Jewish history during the last seventy years alone. We often struggle to make sense of it all. There is too much information and not enough perspective. Our understanding is often fragmented as we lurch from one headline to the next, one crisis to the next, without seeing the bigger picture.
Contrast this to Seder night when we don’t just recount the isolated historical facts of the Exodus but tell a whole, coherent story in the manner in which G-d has shown us. The Pesach Haggadah is structured in such a way that in retelling the events and re-experiencing the great miracles which G-d performed for our ancestors in Egypt, we are actually putting the various fragments together to form a larger, integrated and congruent whole.
As we go through the Haggadah we see the exodus from Egypt not as an isolated event but as an event which occurred in the context of our people’s history, going all the way back to our Forefathers and –mothers. We recount not only the experience of the Exodus but how we got to Egypt in the first place, the destiny of our people and the events following our redemption – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and entering the land of Israel. We look at the full sweep of history, not just at the individual events being recounted at that moment. In the world of the Haggadah we feel past, present and future merging into a coherent and congruent story of who we are and what our Divine mission and purpose is.
Through this G-d teaches us an important lesson, and that is that we need to look at things from a broader perspective and to contextualise the events of history in order to make sense of them. Often we get pulled into the vortex of a particular event’s intensity, to the point where we are unable to see the larger picture. But one of the great teachings of Judaism is that nothing in this world is random; no event is an isolated occurrence and everything is part of the Divine sweep of history. We need to piece the fragments together so that they cohere in a meaningful way which reflects G-d’s master plan.
In our own times as well we need to understand world events in the context of Jewish destiny and from a Torah perspective. This imperative led me to produce a short, six-minute video message (ww1.chiefrabbi.co.za/vehisheamda), which looks at the miraculous sweep of Jewish history, from ancient Egypt to modern-day Iran, all underpinned with the immortal words of the Pesach Haggadah, Vehi she’amda. This short video, interwoven with the inspiring music of Yaakov Shwekey and fascinating film footage, seeks to provide a framework for understanding our destiny and the events of our times.
The video has been made in the spirit of the Haggadah, which teaches us to rise above the fragments of daily events and to see the bigger picture, to see ourselves as part of the unfolding story of Jewish destiny as guided by G-d. We must see events not as random headlines but as part of a meaningful story of who we are, which in turn gives us clarity as to our purpose and Divine mission.
One of the central symbols of our Pesach redemption is the eagle. “You saw with your own eyes what I did to Egypt; I carried you on the wings of eagles, and brought you to Me” (Shemot 19:4). The eagle symbolizes transcendence. It flies higher than any other bird, scans vast areas and sees everything. Flying on the wings of eagles enables us to rise above the turbulence of daily affairs and to see the bigger picture. Too often we find ourselves caught in the quagmire of daily complications, staggering from event to the next, from one peace summit to the next war, to yet another United Nations Resolution, instead of seeing the bigger picture of where we have come from and where we are headed. Especially in our interactions with the nations of the world, we need to come with the broad perspective of our history. There is no doubt that the modern Zionist enterprise achieved great things; but if we tell the world that Zionism started just over one hundred years ago in Basel, Switzerland, distorted perceptions and accusations of colonialism will emerge. If we do not proudly proclaim the truth, that Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish State long before Washington, Paris or London even existed, there will be always be confusion. For our own clarity of purpose and sense of mission we need to realize that we are an ancient people, whose moral vision in rooted in our Torah, given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai more than 3300 years ago.
We are indeed living in historic and dramatic times. We need to step back for a moment, view things from a broader perspective and understand that everything we are going through is part of something much larger. It is only from the commanding heights of the transcendent eagle that we can see things from a broader perspective and find optimism and gratitude to G-d when we consider the miracle of our very existence after so many enemies have sought – and still seek – our destruction. This transcendent vision also imbues us with inspiration for our Divine mission to continue our legacy as an ancient, holy and eternal people From this perspective will emerge the insight, faith and courage we need in order to rise, with G-d’s help, to the challenges and opportunities of our times.
2. Article published in the “Independent Newspapers”
The old slogan of “no education before liberation” belongs in the dustbin of history. We need a new slogan for a new South Africa. We need a new slogan for a new freedom struggle: “no liberation without education”. The liberation of South Africa can never be complete until every child born in our country has the opportunity to receive an education of the highest standard. It is impossible to be free without being educated.
Of all of the inequities of the apartheid regime, one which had the longest, most devastating effect was that of the system of so-called “Bantu” education, which aimed to enslave in ignorance the vast majority of South Africans. And so the ultimate defeat of apartheid can only take place when South Africa has schools of excellence accessible to every one of our children.
In the coming days, Jews around the world celebrate Passover – the Festival of Freedom; and it is an appropriate time to think about what freedom really means. What is it that transformed the Jews who left Egypt as a broken-spirited slave nation into an independent spirited and successful society? It was education. One of the very first events after the Exodus was G-d’s revealing and teaching His law and moral principles at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people. One of the cardinal religious obligations is for parents to teach their children how to read and study the teachings of the Torah. This was formalized with the establishment of a nationwide formal educational system, with its headquarters in Jerusalem, by one of the great Talmudic sages about 2000 years ago. The Talmud says that any town without a school will not survive. Without education there is no freedom or, indeed, any prospect for a life of dignity. “No liberation without education”.
What are the goals of education? Judaism speaks about two objectives, both of which are relevant for building our country. The one is a parent’s duty to teach a child a trade or a profession, or vocation, to be able to earn an honest living. The Talmud tells us that whoever does not teach a child how to earn a living, is in effect teaching them to be a criminal. Included in this is a parent’s responsibility to teach a child basic survival skills to cope with life. For example, the Talmud says that a parent has a duty to teach a child how to swim. The second major educational objective, according to the teachings of Judaism, is to convey to our children a framework of moral and spiritual values for how to become people of integrity, faith, loyalty and responsibility.
To achieve these noble objectives we need our entire country to wage a new struggle for freedom from ignorance, for the freedom and dignity of education for all. “No liberation without education” must become the rallying cry for the nation, as all sectors of society make the education of our children our top priority. We need to build a national coalition bringing together government, teachers, parents, and students. Government must provide minimum infrastructure requirements to run schools, especially in impoverished areas, and ensure that teachers deliver the work that they are contractually and morally required to do. President Jacob Zuma, in his State of the Nation address said, “Our call to teachers to be in school, in class, on time, teaching for at least seven hours a day remains pivotal to success.” Parents need to get involved in the education of their children at PTA and governing body level, as well as on the most basic level of being involved in homework and school activities.
And students also must take responsibility and take part in this new freedom struggle. This brings us to the other aspect of education which is focused on moral values. Good education is not only about the technicalities of how to survive in this world and to be able to earn an honest living. It is also about a value system. For students to embrace this national movement of liberation through education, they need to embrace their responsibilities. We all need to work together to strengthen the national initiative for a Bill of Responsibilities, which has the support of government, religious leaders and, through Lead SA, the big media companies of our society.
This is an historic opportunity that we all need to work on and strengthen in every respect. The Bill of Responsibilities is an educational document complementing the Bill of Rights and is now part of the Life Orientation syllabus of the entire country. It needs to be supported by schools and teachers, and parents and children, as we all work together to nurture a new generation of South Africans imbued with integrity and responsibility. We must rekindle the spirit of the struggle years and with it give our children the greatest gift of freedom, the gift of an education of excellence.
3. Article published in the “Jewish Tradition”
The Torah is an unusual history book: on the one hand it is, obviously, a true and accurate account of what happened and how we, the Jewish people, came into being; on the other hand, it is not only about chronicling history but about how we should live our lives today. It is not only about the past but about eternal Torah values for the present and the future.
The Torah is further unique in that it records history through the lives of individuals. Hashem’s choosing to chronicle our history in this way sends us a very clear message about the importance of individual actions. The Book of Bereishit, in particular, dramatically shows that history does not unfold only in the headlines of politics and world affairs but more importantly in the lives of individual women and men. Bereishit is an account of how a small family developed into a great nation, which teaches us that history is formed from the day-to-day lives of people doing their utmost to live in accordance with Hashem’s will as they earn a living and raise their families.
Women especially have influenced the course of history and Jewish destiny. The Book of Bereishit speaks not only about Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, our founding fathers, but also our founding mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. Often it was the women who intervened to ensure the correct path for fulfilling our destiny was taken. It was Sarah who had the vision and insight to see the greatness of Yitzchak over Yishmael; it was Rivka who saw Yaakov’s greatness over Eisav. Both Sarah and Rivka acted against the better judgment of their husbands and G-d concurred with them. In the redemption from Egypt, chronicled in the Book of Shemot, it was Miriam, together with Aharon and Moshe, who led the Jewish people out of slavery and through the miraculous years in the desert. Even as a child, Miriam guided her parents on the path of Jewish destiny. The Midrash records that after Pharaoh’s decree to drown the Jewish boys in the River Nile, Miriam and Aharon’s parents had separated from one another. It was only on Miriam’s advice that they got remarried and from this remarriage Moshe was born.
The Midrash teaches that history is constantly being written: in the same way that G-d recorded our history in the Torah through the actions of the great women and men of those generations, so too He continues to record our history in a heavenly Torah, recording the daily actions of individuals whose deeds form part of the eternal story that brings the world to its ultimate perfection and redemption.
Women play a vital role in the unfolding story of the South African Jewish community, in our families, schools, shuls – indeed, in everything. Our Sages teach us that “in the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, and in their merit we will be redeemed in the future.” The women of our community, like the righteous women in Egypt, ensure our vibrancy and vitality. And so this edition of Jewish Tradition is a tribute to them, and seeks to reflect the creativity, sparkling brilliance and loyalty of the women of the South African Jewish community, as each one plays her individual part using her G-d-given gifts to fulfil her unique – and our collective – destiny. May Hashem bless us all in their merit.
Gina and I would like to take this opportunity of wishing our entire community a joyous and kosher Pesach.
4. Article published in the “Hamodia”
Shortly before Pesach 1938, the Av Beis Din of Johannesburg, Rav Yitzchak Kossowsky, delivered an important message to the South African kehilla. One can sense the dark shadow of the Nazi threat hanging heavily over his words, though nobody at that time could have imagined the impending horror of the Holocaust, which also consumed Rabbi Kossowsky’s daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. He spoke of “an era of darkness and poverty, an era of terrible hatred to our people who are oppressed and [a time of] governments of evil and violence in the world.”
At the encouragement of his brother-in-law and confidant Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, Rav Kossowsky had come to South Africa in 1933, to assume the position of Av Beis Din of Johannesburg, in which capacity he served until his passing in 1951. The South African kehilla is fortunate to have had Rabbi Kossowsky, a great Litvishe Rav, as one of its founding fathers. Rav Kossowsky, who served as Rav of Ivye and later of Volvkavisk, was among the most brilliant of the Talmidim of Rav Lazar Gordon of Telz, and also learnt by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and Rav Shimon Shkop. He was close to many European gedolim, especially close to Rav Chaim Ozer, and was deeply involved in many of the latter’s activities for Klal Yisrael and the two remained in close contact even after Rav Kossowsky moved to South Africa.
In his Pesach ???”? message, Rav Kossowsky asked why Chazal chose for the Yom Tov tefillos the word cheirus for “freedom.” The word Cheirus, said Rav Kossowsky, originates from the Aramaic targum for the Hebrew word chofesh or dror, the words meaning “freedom” which are found in Tanach. He said that, as a general rule, when composing the words of the tefillos, Chazal used the purest Lashon HaKodesh from the Tanach. Although the Gemara and the Midrashim use the word cheirus, nevertheless it is a word which has its origins in the targum. Why, then, did Chazal use this term?
Rav Kossowsky explained that the key to understanding this is contained in the following Midrash:
At the moment that Yisrael stood at Har Sinai and said “everything that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hear,” the Holy One Blessed Be He called to the Angel of Death and said, “even though I have given you power over all creations, you will have no power over this nation. Why? Because about my children it says ‘engraved on the tablets’; do not read “engraved” (charus) but rather “freedom” (cheirus) – freedom from the Angel of Death, from [world] powers and from suffering.” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 18).
From this Midrash we see that the concept of cheirus is something far more transcendent and powerful than mere chofesh. Cheirus, according to Rav Kossowky based on this Midrash, is the eternal freedom from the ordinary laws of history, by which nations come and go. The mere fact that Klal Yisrael exists today, after almost two thousand years of dispersion and persecution, is a miracle that defies all of the normal laws of history and human civilization. He said this is why Chazal chose the term zman cheiruseinu to describe Pesach, rather than chag geulaseinu, the festival of our redemption. Geulaseinu would have implied solely the redemption from the Egyptian slavery which has since been replaced with other oppressions and redemptions; whereas cheiruseinu describes the eternal, transcendent and indestructible dimension of Klal Yisrael. Rav Kossowsky urged his kehilla to take strength in difficult times from this Divine blessing of cheirus, which emerges directly from our connection to Torah.
Since he wrote these words we have witnessed one of the most miraculous aspects of this eternal cheirus: the revival of Torah learning in a post-Holocaust world. The following incident comes to mind as an example of the scale of the miracle. I remember first hearing it from my rebbe and Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Azriel Chaim Goldfein, who was a talmid muvhak of Rav Mordechai Gifter. Soon after the war, Rav Gifter accompanied Rav Elya Meir Bloch on a fundraising trip to New York and they stopped at a Judaica shop which sold various items, including siddurim and candlesticks, but hardly any seforim. Rav Elya Meir asked the owner for a copy of the Ketzos HaChoshen. The owner managed to find a copy of the Ketzos up in the attic and when he came down from the ladder, just before handing the sefer to Rav Elya Meir, he told him that the Yeshivos which Hitler had destroyed in Europe were gone and could never be rebuilt – and certainly not in America. He then told him to treasure the Ketzos, because it could be one of the last Ketzos ever sold in America. Rav Elya Meir didn’t respond but after they left the shop he said to Rav Gifter that the shop owner was right. Rav Gifter was shocked to hear this; Rav Elya Meir explained that al pi seichel, according to human reasoning, there is no chance that Torah will be revived in America, and that in all rational likelihood they are indeed holding the last copy of the Ketzos HaChoshen. Al pi seichel, he said, there is no place here for a yeshiva anymore. But the eternity of the Torah is not al pi seichel; it goes beyond logic. He said that Telz yeshiva will be reestablished and the Ketzos will again be learned; more seforim will be printed and sold in America than ever before, and the yeshivos of Europe will be rebuilt. And so it was. This story is emblematic of our G-d-given cheirus. It is this gift of cheirus which we celebrate on Pesach.
I often think about what Rav Kossowsky would say were he to visit Johannesburg today. In the 30s and 40s, when he was the Av Beis Din, an outside observer may have wondered whether indeed there was a future for Torah in South Africa. By rational analysis, one could easily have reached the conclusion that Africa would never be a place for Torah growth. And yet, Torah and Yiddishkeit have not only survived but have thrived in South Africa. The South African baal teshuva movement is famous the world over for the depth and breadth of its reach. There is hardly a family in Johannesburg that hasn’t been touched by it in some way, and in recent decades, many new Torah schools have been established, as well as kollelim. Very dear to my heart on a personal level is the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg, established by my rebbe and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein ZT”L. Johannesburg has truly become a wonderful makom Torah.
The blessing of cheirus imposes on all of us an achraiyus, a responsibility to Klal Yisrael, to ensure harbatzas Torah, the spreading of the light of Hashem’s wisdom. In this regard, one of the most important essays for our times comes from the Alter of Novardok, Rav Yosef Y. Horowitz, in Madreigas HaAdam, in which the Alter likens the dire situation of neglect of harbatzas Torah to a boat where a person may be in his own quarters where everything in fine, yet is aware that in other rooms people are drilling holes in the floor, which will lead to the entire boat sinking. In such a situation, how could anyone say “my room is fine; what is going on elsewhere on the ship doesn’t matter”? So too we have a responsibility to spread Torah in the world. We should, says the Alter, have a sense of pikuach nefesh of the klal.
I heard from my rebbe that Rav Mordechai Katz, who was Rav Elya Meir’s partner in rebuilding Telz, would often tell his new American students, Noch aza churban, yeder ainer darft zitzen un lernen, veren grois in Torah, un gayen umetum de gantze velt tzu shaffen Torah un Yiddishkeit, “After such destruction, everyone must sit and learn, become great in Torah, and go around the whole world to build Torah and Yiddishkeit.” This is the calling of our times and this is how we repay Hashem for His eternal gift of cheirus.
5. Transcript of Vehisheamda video message
People often say they wish they could live in times of miracles. Imagine living at a time when you could see the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven, G-d’s voice on Mount Sinai – it’s incredible. And yet Rav Yaakov Emdin, one of our great sages who lived in Germany about 250 years ago, says that we today live in a time of greater miracles than all of those described in the Torah.
What miracles is he talking about? The miracle of the existence of the Jewish people. How is that a bigger miracle than all of the miracles described in the Torah? Rav Yaakov Emdin directs us to that ancient, famous passage in the Pesach Hagaddah, Vehi she’amda la’avoteinu velanu. The very existence of the Jewish people is a miracle, because we shouldn’t be here. By any of the normal laws of history and sociology, we should have long been gone. What’s left of the ancient Greek Empire and the mighty Roman Empire? Nothing. And yet we are here today. Shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu, ela sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu, “for not only one nation has stood against us but in every generation they rise against us.” These words of the Hagaddah are a remarkable prophecy. Look how they have been fulfilled: there has been a relentless, savage pursuit by enemy after enemy to eradicate the Jewish people, whether it was the Babylonian, Greek, Persian or Roman Empire, or the savagery of Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, the Chmelnitsky massacres, the pogroms and culminating with the horrors of the Holocaust. And after all that, here we are; and that is why Rav Yaakov Emdin said that to see the Jewish people alive and well and thriving is to witness a greater miracle than even the splitting of the sea. VeHaKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam, G-d has looked after us, protected us and ensured that we have survived, outlived and outlasted every single one of our enemies.
In our own lifetime we have witnessed some of the most remarkable miracles of Jewish history. After the devastation of the Holocaust, any rational observer could have said it was a death blow to the Jewish people, that they are finished; what sort of future can there be? And yet within three years of the Holocaust Jewish sovereignty was re-established in the Land of Israel, in 1948. A tiny strip of land, 600,000 Jews – many of them holocaust survivors – had to ward off ferocious attacks from enemies on all sides; and they did so, in one military victory after another, with great miracles, signs and wonders – the re-unification of Jerusalem, the recapturing of the Temple Mount. And in the midst of all of these military dangers, Israel has absorbed millions of immigrants from all over the world – from Russia, from Ethiopia – and has built a thriving economy, becoming a leader in technology, medicine and all fields of human endeavour. Indeed this is a remarkable, Divine miracle before our very eyes.
Another awesome miracle of our times is the rebirth of Torah learning. The Holocaust destroyed everything; all of the great yeshivas of Europe, the Chassidic dynasties, everything was laid to waste. What chance was there for Torah learning to be revived? And, yet we have seen the most remarkable rebirth of Torah right across the world. The yeshivas of Mir and Ponivezh are alive and well and are bursting at the seams. The great Chassidic dynasties have been rebuilt. In fact, today there are more people learning Torah full-time than at any other time in Jewish history. Torah has not only been revived, it has increased. And this miraculous rebirth of Torah learning has led to a rejuvenation of Jewish life all over the world, from Jerusalem to London, New York, Johannesburg, Sydney and Toronto; all over the world Jewish life is thriving once again with the light of Torah learning at its heart. To see that is quite an awesome sight
In our times we too face new enemies: Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons, together with its proxy armies, Hamas and Hezbollah, seek the total destruction of the Jewish people. And the world listens with silence and equanimity as once again, we, the Jewish people, face mortal enemies.
What should our response be? We have a choice: we can pretend that these genocidal threats and dangers are just part of the blind laws of history, a mere coincidence; or we can see them for what they are, part of the Divine sweep of Jewish history and Jewish destiny, and respond accordingly. Obviously we have to prepare practically and strategically to fend off these dangers. But we also need to respond spiritually. What should that response be? Vehi She’amda, “And it has stood.” What has stood? The covenant between us and Hashem, our relationship with Him. At times like this we need to return to Hashem and to His covenant because in that covenant we will find our clarity of purpose, our moral vision, our confidence and our faith in the future.
This is an historic time for the Jewish people, and how we respond really does make a difference. Let us rise to the occasion, renew our covenant with Hashem and in so doing fulfil our divine, historic destiny.