A journey to authenticity
As South African Jews, we appreciate what it means to be Jewish. We appreciate how Judaism enriches our homes and families, how it connects us to community, how it gives our lives direction, meaning, and purpose. We appreciate, also, how Judaism helps us to become better people – compassionate, giving, loving, moral people. And how it brings us close to our Creator, to those around us, and to our own inner self. Judaism roots us in a rich spiritual, ethical, and historical tradition, and connects us to Jews around the world and our beloved Israel.
Judaism enriches our lives in so many ways. But as Shavuot approaches, we are reminded that being Jewish is connected to certain foundational facts and truths of actual events that happened.
On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish people – the story of who we are, where we come from, and most importantly, why we exist. This year, we mark exactly 3 333 years since G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Shavuot makes a factual claim about the origins of the Jewish people in the same way that Pesach does. At the Pesach seder, we trace the origins of our people from slavery to miraculous redemption through G-d Himself intervening in human history. And on Shavuot, we remind ourselves how three million Jews standing at the foot of a mountain heard G-d speak and begin the process of revealing His Torah to us and with it our purpose in life.
Take a moment to think about this. It’s a radical claim. To be a Jew isn’t just to be a member of a particular culture with a shared history. It’s to be part of an eternal covenant with G-d, to be the bearers of a Divine mission in the world. This is the essence of Jewish identity and Jewish destiny. This is who we are, where we come from, why we exist.
And so, everything depends on the historical claims we make on Pesach and Shavuot. This is a time to reflect not just on the meaning and the implications of the story of the origin of the Jewish people, but on its authenticity.
Earlier this week, I had a fascinating conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen. A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles and Harvard, he is a recognised expert on comparative religion. The conversation was about exactly this subject – the authenticity of the origin story of the Jewish people, and in particular of the Divine revelation at Sinai. Kelemen compared it to the origin story and historical claims of other religions and nations, and put forward a compelling, rational-scientific argument for the veracity of the Jewish story.
What moved me in our conversation was his personal life story. He grew up in a traditional family but challenged his parents on beliefs that they took for granted. He began his own journey to search for truth through his academic studies and other sources. In the end, he came to a deep realisation of the truths of Judaism, of G-d’s existence, and the authenticity of the Torah. He wrote books – Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive – to share his findings with others. In our conversation, he told me how he found faith and belief in Judaism through rational analysis of the facts. He reminded me that we are all on individual journeys of deepening our faith. This may be why the festival is called Shavuot, which literally means week, referring to the weeks leading up to Sinai, reminding us that getting to the mountain of truth is a process, an individual journey of faith and connection.
Let this year’s Shavuot be a catalysing moment for us individually and collectively as we embark on this journey of faith together.
I’d love to know about your journey. Reach out to me, and I’ll share source material that has been valuable to me on my journey. There is so much that has been written and spoken that can guide and illuminate our paths to the foundational truths of our people.
Tradition in transition
They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?
At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.
Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?
The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!
Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.
Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.
Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.
Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.
The key to unlocking blessings
What’s the key to the blessings we need from Hashem? One such approach is hinted at in the opening words of this week’s portion, “Vayigash eilav Yehudah”, “and Yehudah approach him” or more accurately, “And approached him Yehudah”.
Contained in these three words are a hidden message. The verse merely says “him” (without specifying a name) and consequently, we can see a deeper hint here. “Him” can allude to the true Him – Hashem. So the verse reads, “And approached Him [Hashem] Yehudah.” What does Yehudah mean? The name comes from the root word “Hoda’ah” (gratitude).
Thus, we uncover a secret in this verse: how do we approach Hashem to bring down the blessings we need? “Approached Him [Hashem] with gratitude [yehudah-hoda’ah].”
We often focus on what we lack, and appeal to Hashem from that consciousness to fulfil our needs. Yes, we must ask for our needs to be fulfilled by Hashem, but what’s the posture or position most effective in approaching Hashem? This verse alludes to approaching through gratitude. By acknowledging and appreciating the many things we are blessed with, we create a channel for even more blessings.
Rabbi Moshe Schnerb recently told a story on ChaiFM that illustrates this. A family of many children had successfully been able to find marriage partners for all their children yet for some reason, was unsuccessful with one daughter in spite of the fact that she was full of chein (grace) and beauty and was certainly eligible. In spite of many attempts, there was no success. Repeated disappointment and heartache caused concern and frustration. The parents davened and prayed, asking Hashem “Why, why” she wasn’t finding her bashert (soulmate). Their mood was bleak.
Soon afterwards, the girl met another candidate, everything seemed to be going well, and the good news was expected. At the 11th hour, however, the matchmaker called the parents with a heavy heart saying that the potential chosson (groom) had decided to turn the marriage down. The girl and her parents were devastated.
The father turned to his wife and said, “We must be doing something wrong. Look at us, so blessed with children all happily settled with families and health yet all we are focusing on is what we don’t have – our daughter’s success in finding her match! From now on, we approach it differently – with gratitude. We thank Hashem for all we have been blessed with. That’s our stance!”
Rabbi Schnerb continued that within an hour, the phone rang and the matchmaker said in excitement and disbelief, “I have no idea what happened, but the family called me back to stress that they definitely wanted to pursue the arrangement and didn’t want to lose this special girl.”
The change in focus to gratitude opened the gates of heaven, and the brocha flowed.
A shining light
I’m writing this only hours after watching the online kindling of the Menorah at the Kotel on the second night of Chanukah, which was dedicated in memory of Eli Kay z”l (who was killed in a terrorist attack near the Kotel on 21 November), and which has inspired what follows below.
The shamash (the attendant candle) on the chanukiah is not included in the mitzvah candles. Yet, without it there can be no light. It’s the enabler that creates the environment for mitzvah performance. Like the shamash, Eli brought so much light to those around him with grace and humility. King Solomon wrote, “the candle of G-d is the soul of man”. Within each of us is a divine spark, which connects us to Hashem and which, importantly, allows us to ignite and inspire others. By sharing his flame so magnanimously and selflessly, Eli was able to bring the light of others to the fore.
This “shamash effect” did not cease upon Eli’s passing. If anything, it only intensified. Eli’s passing has been the catalyst for the performance of mitzvot worldwide, whether it be a commitment to wearing tefillin, or the lighting of Shabbat and Chanukah candles. People have rededicated themselves to their Judaism in a powerful and tangible way. And surely this is what Chanukah is all about. More than merely commemorating a great miracle and the rededication of the holy Temple (from which the holiday gets its name), Chanukah affords us the opportunity each year to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and to commit once again to our relationship with Hashem.
Pirsumei nisa (publicising the miracle) is an important element of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It’s for this reason that we place the chanukiah in the window or in a public place. We want the light of Chanukah to be visible to all.
Publicity, though, it’s not something we’re all necessarily comfortable with. We may feel an internal connection with Hashem and with our Judaism, but do we openly and proudly display it?
Eli had no such problem. Eli was a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. He was not just a Jew at heart or an idealistic Zionist. He directed his feelings to action.
This year, when the world seems so dark to so many, let’s try to emulate the shamash candle. Let’s emulate Eli. Let’s be the light unto the nations – starting with our own nation. Let’s help those around us to rediscover their light. Let’s stand tall and proud. Let’s ensure that our fresh commitment to mitzvot endures.
May the memory of Eli continue to be a guiding light to us all.
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