Torah Offers Wisdom in Tough Times
Updated: May 7
Published at the time of the electricity cuts and other anxieties facing the community at the beginning of 2008
These are challenging times. These are difficult times. We need to acknowledge them as such. We are facing rampant crime, electricity shortages, high profile cases of corruption and far-reaching political changes. It is healthy for all of us to verbalise and acknowledge all of these difficulties, and not to take refuge in denialism, which exacerbates the problems. However, we need to acknowledge our problems in a rational and balanced way, not in a frenzy or panic.
Being Rational and Balanced
Panic very often causes even more problems than do the original difficulties themselves. In fact one of the greatest calamities of Jewish History occurred as a result of panic. Just a few weeks after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai the Jewish People were waiting for Moshe who had ascended the mountain to return. He had told them that he would do so after 40 days and according to their calculations, he was late. There had been a misunderstanding between the Jewish people and Moshe as to when to start calculating the 40 days. They feared that something terrible had happened to him, and they made and worshipped an idol, which had calamitous results for generations to come, as the sin of the Golden Calf became etched into Jewish history to our eternal shame.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, one of our great Rabbi’s of the last century, who escaped the Holocaust with the Mir Yeshiva via Shanghai, writes about the episode of the Golden Calf. How could it be that the people sinned so soon after hearing G-d speak on Mount Sinai? Rav Chaim says that when they thought that something terrible had happened to Moshe, they panicked. The Talmud states that their world was filled with darkness and confusion. In the darkness, their sense of desperation at, apparently having their world turned upside down by the loss of Moshe, caused them in a frenzied panic to worship the Golden Calf. Rav Chaim says that one of the important lessons of this episode is that panic and a rushed frenetic mindset can lead to terrible consequences. In our own lives, we confront problems all the time – problems such as financial, those of ill-health and many others. It is a natural human reaction to feel panicked and stressed by these problems. However, we need to find inner resolve and strength to slow things down and, calmly and objectively, to examine the issues we are facing and to find the best way of dealing with them. We need to ensure that our homes and our families are places of peace and tranquillity and not frenzied distress. Obviously this must be done without denial of our problems. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems and then to look at the broader perspective.
This means avoiding what one can call “catastrophising” – taking certain problems and focusing on them to the exclusion of all else in such a way that the future can only be seen in catastrophic terms. Classic examples of catastrophising can be found in the Torah when our ancestors faced problems after being liberated from Egypt. When they stood at the edge of the Red Sea with Pharoah in pursuit they asked, “Did you take us here to die in the desert because there were no graves in Egypt?” And, later in the desert when they ran out of water, they said, “Is G-d amongst us or not?” All of this occurred despite the fact that they were the very people who had seen the miracles of the ten plagues and splitting of the Red Sea, and was the result of their inability to see the broader context, and to rationally analyse the good and bad of their situation, and to appreciate the significance of the dramatic events they themselves had witnessed. They lost sight of where they had come from and of how difficult it really was to be enslaved in Egypt.
We can learn from their mistakes. Doing so entails that while we fully acknowledge the severity and the depth of the problems that South Africa faces, we also appreciate the brutal past of Apartheid that has been overcome. South Africa has survived many crises. It has survived the election of the National Party in 1948 under Prime Minister D.F. Malan; it survived Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd and his policy of grand apartheid as well as his isolationism. Many felt great uncertainty when South Africa became a Republic in 1961, and then during Sharpeville Riots and again during the Soweto Riots. The country survived P.W. Botha and his infamous Rubicon speech as well as repeated states of emergency. South Africa emerged from tyranny into freedom and democracy in a miraculously peaceful way through a negotiated settlement and not through inter-racial warfare as many experts predicted.
As the South African Jewish Community we are tough and resilient. We have survived all of these major, social and political upheavals, while remarkably at the same time building and nurturing a community that is an example to Jews throughout the world. We have built a community that would be a source of pride to our fathers and mothers who came before us. They fled from Eastern Europe where they had experienced hundreds of years of grinding poverty and worst of all, persecution and murder, which culminated in the annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust of World War II. And no doubt with prayerful optimism, they made their homes here in Africa. If they could see us today, they would see much that would bring them joy. They would see us in the process of writing one of the great chapters of Jewish history: a chapter which describes how we have built, over the last 150 years synagogues, schools and welfare institutions, which reflect the values of Sinai. They would see a community that has proportionately one of the highest levels of Torah observance and Zionist commitment in the Jewish world today, and would be amazed to find clearly marked kosher products in almost every food store in South Africa. They would see a community which has legendary unity and warmth. They would see strong and integrated communal structures with a single Chief Rabbinate and Beth Din. They would see how the Ba-al Teshuva (return to Judaism) movement is a shining example to the Jewish world today. They would see how great the Jewish contribution has been to South Africa in areas such as law, politics, medicine and business. Coming from the pain of the oppression and racism of their European overlords, our forebears would be amazed at the breadth of vision of the new South Africa, and at the great South African dream of “The Freedom Charter” that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, and at the dream of unity in diversity: a dream which sees diversity not as an obstacle, but rather as a source of abundant and rich blessing, where we can proudly celebrate being Jewish. They would see a new South Africa built on tolerance and respect and the dignity of all, with a Bill of Rights that protects all its peoples and even gives the Hebrew language special mention.
Standing on the Ground
As the South African Jewish Community, how should we go forward in these difficult times? What should our approach be? When confronting our current challenges and difficulties, we can draw so much inspiration from Jacob our forefather, who faced many trials and tribulations throughout his life. He had to flee from his brother Esau who wanted to kill him; he faced threats from his uncle Laban; his daughter, Dina, was raped and his son, Joseph, kidnapped, only to be returned 20 years later. What was the vision that sustained him through these difficulties and challenges? At the beginning of his journey far away from home, G-d came to him in his famous dream with a vision of a ladder “standing on the ground and its top reaching towards heaven”. In the dream, G-d told Jacob not to be afraid and uncertain of the future. Clearly, as he slept in that dark night alone fleeing for his life, he was filled with anxiety and fears. The message of hope that G-d gave him was based on the ladder, which reflected a two-fold approach to any situation of difficulty and challenge: We must always be firmly rooted on the ground with our heads in the heavens.
Having our ladder firmly on the ground means approaching our difficulties from a practical point of view, and trying to solve our problems through creative and proactive planning and implementation. We can never rest and accept the status quo without challenging it and trying to change it for the better. As a community we can be very proud of how this optimistic “can do” approach has been a driving force in establishing shuls, schools, welfare institutions and other organizations of excellence. We have, with G-d’s help, found solutions for virtually all our communal responsibilities and challenges – in education, welfare and other areas. Most recently our Community Active Protection (CAP) initiative has, thank G-d, drastically reduced crime in the seven areas of its operation. We will soon announce the details of a dramatic new plan to expand CAP to cover almost of Jewish Johannesburg by the end of 2008. CAP has demonstrated that crime is a solvable problem. Our noble crime-fighting efforts should not be misinterpreted. We, as the Jewish community, hold that the most basic moral duty of any Government is to protect its citizens from crime and we will continue to demand accountability for this. We come from an ancient faith that places the sanctity of human life above almost all else, and we will never lose this fundamental value. Of course, our hearts and prayers go out to those families bereaved by recent crime tragedies.
Reaching Towards Heaven
The top of our ladder reaches towards heaven. This means that together with our practical on the ground approach we live with faith in G-d. We realise that, whatever the natural means we employ to face our challenges, we are ultimately in G-d’s hands. We believe with perfect faith that, as the Talmud says, “whatever the merciful One does is for the good”. We often feel vulnerable and helpless. But like a newborn baby, tightly in the loving arms of his parents, so too are we, the holy children of G-d, tightly bound up with our loving Father in heaven, and He holds our future firmly and safely in His hands wherever we may be.
Faith means living with hope and believing in the possibility of change, realising that, as the Talmud says, “the salvation of G-d comes in the blink of an eye”. The current political situation is all about change. A whole new leadership is emerging, which makes the situation open and fluid. I attended part of the ANC conference in Polokwane and felt first-hand the energetic urgency for change in the party based on a leadership held accountable to its constituents. The possibility of change can cause apprehension, but in South Africa where many problems need to be addressed the possibility of change provides hope that new priorities and ideas from the leadership can help solve old problems. For example, I recently met Mr Jacob Zuma, who made it clear to me that he regards fighting crime as a top priority of the future. There is hope that the accountability seen at the Polokwane conference will deliver better government results in the future.
We believe in the possibility of change because G-d is the real Master of the universe and therefore anything can happen if He wills it. Prayer is a vital part of our philosophy of hope: as the Talmud says, “Even when the sword is on your neck, do not stop praying to G-d for mercy, because no matter how dire the situation, it can be transformed instantly.” We must insert in the appropriate places in the Amidah special prayers for the welfare of the country, our community and our families. Pray for an end to crime and suffering, as well for the overall success of our society. The following Tehillim (Psalms) should be recited on a regular basis: 20, 83, 121, 130, 142 at shul, or at home.
We Stand on Their Shoulders
Having our ladder reaching the heavens also means seeing with a broad perspective a vision of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. We are not alone. We are the proud children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and the 12 sons of Jacob who became the 12 Tribes of Israel, whose descendants were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt until G-d liberated us through Moses, Aaron and Miriam. He gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai, cared for us in the desert for 40 years, and under Joshua’s leadership brought us into the Land of Israel. We are the children of those heroes of the Book of Books and we stand on their shoulders.
From the top of our ladder we can see the full sweep of the Divine vision for the Jewish people and all humanity. At the centre of this vision are the eternal principles of the Torah, which were revealed to our ancestors who witnessed G-d’s presence themselves, and with their own ears heard His voice at Mount Sinai. Our mission as the South African Jewish community is to be “a community dedicated to Heaven”, which is always to remain part of Knesset Yisrael, the multi-generational community of Sinai. The vision starts with Mount Sinai and ends with the vision of the Prophets for the Final Redemption and a better world, for a time which the prophet Isaiah described in these memorable words: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea … and they shall beat their swords into plough shears and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Understanding this vision imposes responsibilities on us. It is our task to continue to build and nurture our precious and unique community in South Africa with loyalty and dedication, and so to write a proud chapter in the history of the Jewish people, and of humankind, a history with spiritual roots at Mount Sinai, culminating in the Final Redemption. It is indeed a noble and meaningful mission with eternal value. This is especially so in times of difficulty and tribulation, because one of the most powerful Jewish responses to suffering is teshuvah – return and introspection both as individuals and as a community. Our Sages teach us that the following are some important areas to work on: learning Torah, chesed – performing acts of kindness, tzedaka, Shabbos, and avoiding “lashon hara” and dissension. For generations, in terms of our Divine tradition, Jews have responded to tribulation through teshuva without claiming to know why suffering occurs but rather as the proper, pro-active response to it.
Jacob saw in his dream that “the angels of G-d were going up and down the ladder”. Sometimes in life things go up and get better and at other times there is deterioration. The message of the ladder is that despite what is happening around us we must constantly strive upwards, with a broad of vision of our mission, with energetic action and hopeful prayer to fix the world – “tikkun olam”. We must remember that as Jacob looked at the ladder he realised that “behold G-d stood beside him”.
At times like this we must stand together with unity and care and concern for the entire community. Let us also go forward with strength and with confidence because we are not alone in the world. We are the children of G-d, who is our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, and the G-d of the entire world, and into Whose hands we place our trust and, of course, our future. We stand with the accumulated merit of previous generations, and we pray to G-d to bless us and have mercy on all of us, to give us the strength and understanding to continue in the ways of our forebears so that we may be worthy heirs to their great legacy which He bequeathed to all of us at Sinai. May G-d bless us all with His abundant blessings; may He bless our brothers and sisters throughout the world and especially in our beloved State of Israel. May G-d bless South Africa and all her people with peace and prosperity and may He bless our beloved special South African Jewish Community.