Pesach | Judaism Stands the Test of Time
Updated: May 8, 2020
I recently came across an amazing story, published on a number of websites. On 1 January 2000 the New York Times, considered by many as the most prestigious newspaper in the world, ran a special millennium edition with a fictional page dated 1 January 2100, and trying to depict what the newspaper would look like in 2100 and the events it would be reporting then. And so there were articles welcoming Cuba as the 51st State of the USA, an article on a debate as to whether robots should be allowed to vote. At the foot of the front page was an unexpected statement : “Jewish women : Shabbat candle lighting time this Friday is …” – unexpected because throughout the newspaper’s history of exceeding 150 years, the Shabbat candle lighting times had only appeared for about five years, when a Jewish philanthropist sponsored their publication. The production manager of the New York Times, an Irish Catholic, asked why he chose to include candle lighting times on the millennium front page, said : “We do not know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain. In the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles.”
Judaism has stood the test of time. Ideologies and philosophies have come and gone. Fashions and fads have come and gone. Lifestyles and opinions have come and gone. But what has remained constant for thousands of years are the values and principles of Judaism. We are the same Jews. The light of the Shabbat candles represents the light of the values of Judaism, which gives us the clarity and purpose of the Torah that G-d revealed to us at Mount Sinai 3322 years ago. As the verse states : “For the lamp is a mitzvah. For the mitzvah is a lamp. And the Torah is light”. Every week when you look at your Shabbos candles you see within them the symbolism of the sanctity and eternity of true authentic Torah values, of the Judaism which is so much part of whom we are and which defines our very identity as Jews. The Friday night candles burn with the stability and tranquility of our timeless Judaism, casting their golden glow into our lives each week. They bring light and joy to Shabbat, which brings light and joy to our lives.
Time is a good test of truth. Ideas, ideologies and lifestyles can seem so persuasive, so powerful and so enticing at a given moment. However, their value and significance can only be properly assessed over time; as the Talmud says: “Truth endures forever. Falsehood does not last.” There are many examples of this. On a very mundane level, sports coaches make selections and other strategic choices, which are either vindicated or repudiated by time and experience, or a businessman comes up with a new plan for his business. At the time it may seem a good idea, but over months and years the failure or success inherent in the plan becomes evident. People make decisions that affect the course of their lives – decisions on career, marriage and on other important aspects of their lives. The wisdom or unwisdom of these decisions becomes apparent as events unfold. Sometimes it takes decades for false ideas to unravel. Take, for example, communism, which was implemented in 1917 in Russia. For many decades, and to many observers, communism appeared to have the potential to become the dominant philosophy of world government. But over time its fundamental flaws were revealed and the system collapsed in the late 80s and early 90s. It took 70 years for communism to collapse to be clear. Some ideas and philosophies take centuries to unravel.
Over 33 long centuries – 3322 years – Judaism has been tested in more ways than has any other system on earth. It has been the faith and guiding life philosophy of the Jewish people throughout all these years – through all the vicissitudes of centuries of mixed fortunes. Judaism has been tested not just by time, but by circumstance and the painful challenges of persecution, exile and suffering, on the one hand, and the daunting challenges of success and prosperity, on the other. The Friday night candles symbolise the triumph of the endurance and persistence of our Divine values. Shabbat itself serves as a declaration of the foundations of our faith that G-d created the world and that He took out of Egypt. The Divine origins of Judaism, together with its awesome track-record gives us the confidence and fortitude necessary to stay faithfully on its path. We often need the inner certainty and strength to do the right thing and to understand the world through our living Divine tradition handed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. We have the unique privilege of looking at the world from the towering vantage point of our Torah inheritance; from here, from the perspective of thousands of years of experience and a time-tested Divine system of living, we can in a great chain of endurance survey the fleeting trends and fads of competing ideologies.
We are buffeted on all sides by powerful forces that seek to drive or entice us away from Judaism and the Divine mission of Jewish destiny. These forces undermine and even attack the very foundations of our people, our value-system and the reason for our existence. Human beings are capable of denying the most obvious basic truths about the world. No fact, however clear, is safe from being twisted and denied. People will look at the perfection and beauty of our physical world and deny that it was created by G-d. They will deny the truth of the Holocaust, in the most brazen way and within a generation of the event, fully documented and true beyond any doubt. The deniers seek to rewrite Jewish history, claiming that we are colonialists in the Land of Israel, and that the City of Jerusalem is not a Jewish city. And yet, we know from our Torah, that nearly 4000 years ago our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in the land of Israel, which G-d promised to them and to their descendants forever. That promise was confirmed at Mount Sinai, and was delivered upon by G-d through Joshua, after the death of Moses, more than 3 300 years ago. Throughout our history we have been surrounded by people and societies who have denied basic elements of our history, values and faith. The modern generation of holocaust deniers and enemies of Zionism are the inheritors of an infamous heritage of denialism.
What could be clearer or more obviously than the history of our liberation in Egypt from slavery to the exodus and freedom? And yet even in that generation there were those who twisted the reality of G-d’s direction of events. One of the greatest moments of denial then occurred at the edge of the waters of the Red Sea. Have you ever asked yourself why it is that the Egyptians followed the Jewish people into the Red Sea? Picture the scene. After having witnessed the ten plagues, the Egyptian army chases after the Jewish people. They come to the edge of the Red Sea. A wind blows and the sea opens up a path of dry land. The Jewish people go into the sea on that path of dry land. Now, you are an Egyptian soldier. Why follow the Jewish people into the dry land between the walls of the water of the sea? Does this not look like a trap? The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of our great commentators of the Middle Ages, says that the Egyptian army attributed the splitting of the sea to coincidence, to the chance factor that the wind was blowing and had parted the water placing a path of dry land before the Jewish people. They followed in and were drowned. This means that after all they had seen, and all the miracles that they had experienced, they still did not see the hand of G-d in the events.
When people in the world rise up to deny the truths of Judaism – the fact that G-d created the world, that we have been given a Divine mission in the form of our commandments, that certain basic moral principles form the bedrock of human civilisation, that G-d has a vision of redemption for all humankind – we need to remain firm and steadfast in our beliefs. These forces of denial also seek to undermine specific values, principles and laws of Judaism – of honouring parents, getting married and having children, of Torah education, giving charity, acting with kindness, praying every day with sincerity, keeping Shabbos, eating only kosher, not speaking lashon hara, and so many instructions of life. The forces undermine the very notion of Divine morality and of a binding code of conduct. When we see the Shabbos candles, we remember that the eternal light of our Torah is infinitely stronger than all the fads of the ages and that it has withstood the test time, as has no other philosophy or system.
Candle lighting on a Friday evening is a positive and optimistic act, which represents spreading the sanctity and light of G-d’s Torah to our lives and to the world around us. Candle lighting time represents the cut-off between the rush and the pressures of the week, and the tranquility and sanctity of Shabbat. Everything stops for Shabbat. No matter how much time is available, whether Friday afternoon is short as it is in winter, or long in summer, there never seems to be enough time to get everything done, but when the sun sets, it sets. Candle lighting time is not negotiable. There is a holiness in the world that cannot be negotiated away or abandoned. We draw strength and inspiration from Shabbat, which is a day of rejuvenation, spiritual and family connectedness, a day of joy and pleasure interwoven with intellectual and emotional enrichment from going to shul to pray and bond with Hashem and to learn Torah. It is a day for families to talk, and to sing and to relax together in an atmosphere of tranquility and upliftment. It is a day away from the turbulence and crazed pace of our lives, as we search for peace of mind and rootedness in a fast-changing world.
Inspiration and Strength
Shabbat has always been G-d’s gift to create a haven of inspiration and strength for us. Even back in Egyptian slavery, it helped us through that traumatic and difficult time in our history. The Talmud relates that initially Pharaoh gave the Jewish slaves time off on Shabbat and that they then turned to ancient texts for inspiration. Rav Yaakov Kamanetsky, one of our great Rabbis of the twentieth century, suggests that Psalm 92 was composed by Moshe while the people were still in Egypt, and that they read it and derived strength and inspiration from it during their time of slavery. The people were crushed by their slavery and by the tyranny of Pharoah and all of the suffering it entailed. Rav Yaakov suggests that Psalm 92 is called the “Psalm for Shabbat” because he says that it was the Psalm that was read and sung by the people on Shabbat to give them strength. To get through life, we all need inspiration and upliftment. Like our ancestors we are often enslaved. They were enslaved to Pharaoh and we are enslaved to other things, like the philosophies and ideologies of our time, we are enslaved to work and financial pressures, enslaved to new technologies that have speeded up our lives instead of relieving, enslaved to materialism and the blind pursuit of physical pleasure, and to keeping up with others.
To this day, every Friday night, after candle lighting we usher in Shabbat with Psalm 92 It says : “…When the wicked bloom like grass … the righteous will flourish like a cedar in the Lebanon …” The righteous are compared to the cedar tree and the wicked to grass. Grass grows very quickly but then perishes. At the time it is flourishing, it appears to have been victorious, but it withers quickly. The cedar tree on the other hand grows so slowly that it looks for some time as if it has been outdone by the grass; its growth is slow and steady, and eternal. The image of a towering, strong cedar tree, growing slowly but surely, is compelling. G-d instructed the people to use cedar wood to build the mishkan – the holy sanctuary in the desert, and actually the world’s first shul. Where could cedar wood be found in the desert? According to the Talmud, the people took cedar wood with them when they left Egypt. The Talmud teaches us that when Jacob went down to Egypt hundreds of years before the Exodus, he planted cedar trees because he had the prophetic insight that one day his descendants would need those trees. This means that at the commencement of the exile, Jacob saw the Jewish future. He was aware of the prophecy that slavery and affliction would befall his descendants, and so already then he was planning for their future liberation. The cedar tree represents the concept of the Jewish future. It represents the growth, and also the persistence and the tenacity entailed in being a good Jew. Its height, strength and endurance symbolise the principles, laws and wisdoms of our G-d-given Judaism.
When it comes to doing the right thing, living a life of ethics and decency, it seems expedient to take short cuts and to follow the path of the grass which withers. We need to be firm in our morality and to remain with the time-tested values of Judaism, which G-d has given us to live our life by. The forces of denial and those forces which seek to take us away from our values seem very enticing at the time. Whether these are forces of ideology and philosophy, or sheer materialism, greed and desire, they seem to flourish like grass, but we need to remember that just as they flourish as quickly as grass, so too do they pass and disappear, perishing as quickly as grass. This applies in our personal lives as well. Most moral dilemmas are a tussle between the immediate gratification of flourishing like grass, and the long-term wisdom of doing the right thing. All we have is the sturdy cedar tree that continues to grow and develop. The very first chapter of Psalms teaches us that a righteous person “shall be like a tree deeply rooted alongside brooks of water; and everything he does will succeed. Not so the wicked; rather [they are] like the chaff that wind drives away.”
“Tree of Life”
People think that the immediate gratification of materialism and physical pleasure brings a life of happiness, whilst we know that in fact it does not. All the things we are enslaved to are so transient; they are like grass that grows very quickly but withers. Only when we build our life on the good solid values of the Torah are we able to achieve that ultimate sense of meaning and satisfaction from life itself; as it says : “[The Torah] is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are happy.” (Mishlei 3:18). Only when we sink our roots deep into the nourishing soil of our Judaism, can we discover and nurture our true sense of balance, purpose, inner peace and happiness.
And this is the real secret of freedom, which we celebrate on Pesach. The Talmud says that only a person involved with Torah is truly free. Judaism offers us freedom from the tyranny of materialism, and the emptiness of atheism, and the meaninglessness of a life without deep purpose. It offers us freedom from disconnectedness and the amorality of the latest fashionable behaviour. G-d has given us the great gift of Shabbat – a day when we return to these values and reinvigorate out lives with refreshing connection to G-d, to ourselves and to our family, community and friends. The light of the Shabbat candles shine with the brilliance and tranquility of these fundamental values. And, as history has proven, they will be burning in our homes every Friday night forever, bringing light to our lives and the world around us.
Gina and I warmly wish you a kosher and joyous Pesach, filled with G-d’s abundant blessings.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein