The Handbook to Life
Someone once said: “It’s tough to make predictions – especially about the future.” People have been getting things wrong since time immemorial. “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris, said Orville Wright, “because no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping.” Wilbur Wright, said, “I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years.
Two years later, we, ourselves made flights. This demonstration of my impotence as a prophet gave me such a shock that ever since I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions.” Albert Einstein, once said, “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” He then did exactly that. Margaret Thatcher, in 1974, in an interview with the Liverpool Post said, “It will be years before a woman either leads the party or become Prime Minister. I certainly do not expect to see it happening in my time.” One year later she became leader of the Conservative Party and five years later Prime Minister of Britain.
Predictions of doom have been famously mistaken. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote in his best selling book, “The Population Bomb”: “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” In 1972, in a landmark study, a very distinguished policy institute announced that the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and gas by 1993. Notoriously false predictions are made about new inventions.
A Western Union internal memo, dated 1876, stated: “The ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” The eminent Sir William Siemens, said on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb in 1880, “Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress.” A military expert, Marshall Ferdinand Foch said, “Aeroplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.” One of my personal favourites is the prediction of Arthur James Balfour, who said, “The motor car will help solve the congestion of traffic.”
Anything can Happen
Failed predictions highlight the unpredictable nature of life. Across the world, and in South Africa, there are a number of very powerful forces which are causing uncertainty and concern. The economic crash has shaken the foundations of the financial world. All of the great economic prophets and geniuses of our times were not able to predict these momentous events. South Africa has its own uncertainties with this month’s elections ushering in a new President and government. In our personal lives each one of us confronts different issues of uncertainty and concern, whether it be in respect of earning a living, marriage, children, health or any other area of human endeavour. Uncertainty and unpredictability are the reality of our lives. Judaism is the science of life. It guides us on how to live, and therefore, also guides us on how to deal with the unpredictable nature of life. Judaism teaches us to acknowledge, with humility, that we are mere mortals who see only a blurred fraction of the true and larger picture of G-d’s plan for the destiny of individuals and the world, which is ultimately controlled by Him. History and human affairs are not operated by mechanical forces. G-d is constantly involved, and that means that anything can happen. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. For Him nothing is impossible. On Pesach we remember how the Exodus from Egypt over-turned history and all rational predictions, as G-d dramatically defeated a world super-power, and forced it, through open miracles, to release an oppressed slave nation. When we sit around our seder tables this year, we will, as Jews have done from generation to generation, relive the experience of what it was like to be a slave in Egypt, what it was like to witness and experience the ten plagues and to feel the exhilaration of moving from slavery to freedom. The very foundations of our People are based on the Exodus experience and G-d as the active driving force in human affairs. And that is why when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, 3321 years ago, to hear G-d’s words, He began with the words : “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt.” He did not say, as the commentators point out, “I am the Lord your G-d who created the Universe”. The emphasis was on G-d’s involvement Himself in history as was dramatically demonstrated at the Exodus. G-d is not a distant being who once created the universe and then left it to its own devices. He created the universe and our world in order to engage with us. The Torah is personal. It contains G-d’s instructions to each and every single one of us on how to live our lives because He is interested in us. He is interested in human affairs. He is the driver of destiny. He is not passive and detached. In particular, Pesach is a time we feel G-d’s personal presence in our own lives and in world history, when we recognise and acknowledge, with praise and thanksgiving, everything that He has done for us. And so, as we confront an ever-changing and unpredictable world, we do so in the confidence that we are in G-d’s loving hands, and that, as the Talmud teaches, “whatever the Merciful One does is for the good”. Even when we experience pain and suffering, for which we may see no reason, we humbly accept G-d’s plan for our lives. We take comfort in the fact that although events are unpredictable, they are not random accidents of fate, but rather part of G-d’s plan,which has been carefully designed for the good, and which contains within them the potential for us as individuals and all of humanity to achieve greatness.
Living with Change
The Mishna (Pirkei Avot 2:5) says: “Do not separate yourself from the community; do not believe in yourself at the day of your death; do not judge your friend until you have been in his place; do not say that something is impossible to be heard to happen because in the end it may be heard to happen; do not say when I will have time, then I will study [Torah] because you may never have the time.” The Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) says that the organising theme of these apparently disparate statements is how to live in an uncertain world beset with constant change. “Do no separate yourself from the community” – The Mishna urges us to strengthen ourselves in changing times by being part of a community, which has the capacity to endure and be more permanent than separate individuals. Strong cohesive community is a central value of South African Jewry, and one which has laid the foundation for much of what we do so well. “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death” – Beware of arrogance and complacency. Life is uncertain and unpredictable, and we can thus never rely on what we have achieved in the past. We need to strive for excellence and growth to improve in all respects as good Jews, in our relationship with G-d and with people, as well as our own personal character development. As a community, we can justly be grateful to G-d and proud of ourselves for what we and previous generations have achieved over the years. But we have to be constantly growing and improving and striving for excellence. “Do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place” – Here the Mishna warns against intolerance and unkindness towards others and inculcates in us an awareness of the frailty and the vulnerability of the human condition, increased by constant bewildering change. Instead of arrogantly condemning others who may stumble because we believe ourselves superior, we are enjoined to act humbly in the knowledge that we all, including ourselves, stumble, and that tomorrow we might ourselves do what we are intolerant of today, because no-one knows what tomorrow may bring. “Do not say something is impossible to be heard to happen because in the end it may be heard to happen” – Here the Mishna warns against predictions. Anything can happen, and events are unpredictable. We need to remain humble at all times, realising that what we have is by the grace of G-d, and can be lost in an instant.
On the other hand, when times are difficult, we should never lose hope, realising that things can improve in an instant. “Do not say when I will have time then I will study [Torah] for you may never have the time.” – The Mishna warns against procrastination, referring in particular to the mitzvah of Torah study, which can easily be delayed because of lack of urgency, even though it is such an important part of Judaism. The Mishna urges us to learn Torah now, because of tomorrow’s uncertainties. We may lose the opportunity to learn at all if we wait. The broader message here is to live in the present. We are often so anxious about the future that we never live in the present. A person who is obsessed with what is going to happen in the future is someone who cannot really live today, because the future never arrives.
When we get there, we are in the present and then faced with the future anew. This does not mean that we should not plan for the future. Our Talmudic Sages instruct us not to rely on miracles, and that means planning for the future responsibly in all areas of life. However, our focus has to be on being alive in the here and now, which means doing good deeds without delay. And it also means appreciating G-d’s blessings. That is why Judaism has many laws to enable us and encourage us to focus on experiencing the world as we perceive it in the here and now. For example, we recite blessings for “simple” experiences, such as eating and smelling, seeing the ocean and many others.
Gateway to Eternity
These are all strategies for coping with the reality of change. At a much higher level, we have the capacity to transcend this reality as well. There are some things that don’t change: G-d and His Torah. When we connect ourselves to G-d and to the principles and laws of Judaism, we become part of something eternal. Judaism teaches that eternity is to be found in every single moment of every single day. There are mitzvot to be done all the time. An act of kindness, a word of prayer, giving charity, keeping Shabbat, study of Torah, refraining from speaking lashon harah, and many other mitzvot, all present us with moments of eternity. The seemingly mundane enterprises of building a house, raising a family, earning a living are not seen from the perspective of Judaism as the pursuit of pure survival, but rather as part of an enduring eternity. “This world is the entrance hall to the world-to-come”, says the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:21). This world is the gateway to eternity when we use it for the purpose for which it was created: a physical platform for our immortal souls to do good in fulfilment of G-d’s eternal will. Through this approach, Judaism uplifts everything we do, and enables us to transcend an existence of scrambling in the dust as mortal, frail human beings, trapped in a physical world which is temporary, transient, and therefore ultimately meaningless. The eternal beauty and strength of Judaism is elevated above the vicissitudes of change and the fluctuating conventional wisdoms of the ages. Failed predictions by brilliant experts demonstrate that human beings are limited – constrained by a physical body, strong emotions and an intellect, which, in spite of its great power, can only comprehend a tiny fraction of reality. That is why the foundation of Judaism is G-d’s wisdom. Only He who created the world has the wisdom to understand it. And that is why as Jews we are able to face the world with confidence even when we challenge prevailing conventional wisdoms.
When G-d gave us His Torah, much of it was very unpopular at the time. Had changes been made to suit the fashions of the day, so much would have been lost to the world. But we deferred to G-d’s Torah, stood our ground against the conventional wisdoms of the ages and now the world has caught up with the Torah, at least in some respects. As world famous historian Paul Johnson puts it: “To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and …. of social responsibility…and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.” Johnson errs in attributing these great concepts to the Jews when, in fact, they came to us from G-d. Jewish history and destiny defy the normal laws of human affairs. We are an ancient people whose journey began almost four thousand years ago with the birth of Abraham, and who received their spiritual birthright and raison d’etre at the foot of Mount Sinai more than three thousand years ago, and who continue against all the odds of the ages until this very day. Who would have predicted that we would still be around in the 21st century? Who would have predicted that we would survive when so many other people have come and gone? Who would have predicted that all of the enemies who rose up to destroy us would have failed? As we say in the Haggadah on the night of the seder: “In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us – and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And so, when we stare down the enemies of the Jewish people throughout the world as we witness a rise in anti-semitism everywhere, we act with the confidence that we will ultimately prevail with G-d’s help. Jewish history is super-natural. We have seen over the last few months a number of high profile attacks on the reputation of Israel. As a community we have stood firmly and proudly in our commitment and belief in the justice of the cause of the State of Israel. We need to continue to do so and not be intimidated by the passing fashion of the anti-Israel sentiment that engulfs the world.
Hope for the Future
Judaism is about hope and a belief in a better future. G-d is the Architect of the universe; He is the Driver and the Master of history; anything can change, and anything can happen at any time, and, therefore, there is always hope; as our Sages say, “the salvation of G-d comes at the blink of an eye.” Personal redemption from our day-to-day struggles can come at any time, and so too can the Final Redemption for the entire world occur any day. When the Jewish people came to the edge of the Red Sea, G-d instructed Moshe to stretch out his staff to initiate the miracle of the splitting of the sea in order to save them from the Egyptians. When they got to the other side, G-d instructed Moshe to stretch out his rod again and to close the waters on the Egyptian army in order to save the Jewish people from being attacked.
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter (1915-2001) points out that the closing of the waters also required the symbolic gesture of the staff of Moshe, because both the splitting of the sea and the closing of the waters are miracles. We look at the waters of the ocean and see stability and permanence. But it is just an illusion. All of this could, if G-d willed it, change at any time. The waters could be split or together, depending on what G-d wills, at any given moment. That is why when we look at creation, our Sages remind us that we have to give thanks to G-d not only for creating the world, but for sustaining it on a daily basis. “The One who renews creation in His goodness every single day continuously,” are the words of our daily prayers, in which we acknowledge that G-d keeps the world moving and functioning at all times. Without His continuous energy and creative force, poured into the world and the universe, everything would cease to exist instantaneously. Therefore, everything is fluid and dynamic and nothing is cast in stone and nothing is fixed. There is always hope and there is always the possibility for change. And, so, the night of the seder is not only a night of remembering past redemptions and liberations, but also a night for being mindful of future ones, and the ultimate future liberation and redemption of the world. In fact, one of the concluding prayers in the Haggadah is the “Nishmat kol Chai” – “the breath of every living being” – a great and ancient prayer in which we look forward to a time when the breath of every living being will acknowledge G-d’s presence in the world. In it we give thanks to G-d for the personal bond and relationship that we have had with Him since he took us out of Egypt, and for the fact that that relationship continues to this day. On the seder night, we say these ancient words in that magnificent prayer: “You redeemed us from Egypt, L-rd our G-d, and freed us from the House of Bondage. In famine You nourished us; in times of plenty, You sustained us. You delivered us from the sword, saved us from the plague and spared us from serious and lasting illness. Until now your mercies have helped us. Your love has not forsaken us.” May the inspiring message of Pesach uplift and guide the South African Jewish community as we go forward together into the future, with confidence in and loyalty to G-d and our lofty mission to do good in His world.
Gina and I warmly wish you a kosher and joyous Pesach, filled with G-d’s abundant blessings.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein