Reflections 2008 | For Everything is in It
Updated: May 7
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