A new and subtle freedom
Have you ever experienced a moment in your life when it felt as if the ground beneath your feet disappeared? Psychologists call these moments “life shocks”.
While we all might have experienced these individual moments (G-d forbid serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or job loss), it feels now as if the entire world is in life shock. The ground has disappeared beneath all our feet.
Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein says we are in a time of bein hashmashot (dusk or twilight). Not quite afternoon, nor yet evening, sometimes we are summoned to bein hashmashot for longish periods, and are asked to sit with tremendous unknowns and uncertainty.
How do we navigate our beautiful holiday of Pesach at a time when our community and our world is in bein hashmashot? The Pesach celebration that is familiar to us tells the story of the exodus in a triumphal tone. “We were in Egypt, Hashem led us out with signs and wonders, we became free to serve G-d.”
Perhaps the modern Jewish experience, in which Jews generally live in democracies, where we have the state of Israel, and are able to flourish personally and as communities, has reinforced a sense of triumph in our Pesach narrative – “we were freed … and we are free”.
This year, freedom won’t be felt in this same way as each one of us grapples in an existential way with the loss of freedom. We have lost the ease of life which allowed freedom of movement and interaction. We have also lost a certain fundamental freedom of well-being, we are frightened about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, we are worried about material security. Freedom isn’t what it used to be.
When Moshe turns off the path to behold the burning bush, Hashem addresses Moshe and says, “Remove your shoes for you are on holy ground.” As Moshe stands barefoot, Hashem says, “You are to be the leader of my people, and are to deliver them from Pharaoh.”
It’s almost as if Moshe is thrown into a moment that is bein hashmashot. The life he knew is gone, and he doesn’t know what awaits. As the gravity of his mission sinks in, Moshe asks G-d a question, “Mi ani?” (Who am I?) Hashem doesn’t answer Moshe directly but instead, reassures Moshe, “Ehyeh imach” (I will be with you).
Moshe then poses another question to Hashem. He says, “When I come to the people of Israel and say their G-d has promised to deliver them, they will ask, ‘Mah shmo?’ (What is His name?)” At this point, Hashem says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I will be that which I will be).
Rashi explains that Hashem is saying to Moshe, “I will be with the people in their suffering and slavery and in every single trouble that will ever befall the people.” Rashi teaches us that Hashem’s name, Ehyeh, speaks to the qualities of empathy and compassion. Perhaps Hashem comes to model for us that at times of terror and great suffering, like Hashem, we must walk with hearts of kindness.
As Moshe stands in his bein hashmashot moment, we might learn from the two questions that he poses to Hashem. “Mi ani?”, (Who am I?) invites us to reflect on who we are as human beings, who we are as friends, as parents, as children, as members of the community, even who we are in relation to our domestic chores!
Who we are will influence how we manage this situation. We will each be grappling with this intimate and close confrontation with ourselves. Our greatest fears and insecurities will emerge, not for critique and flagellation, but for compassion and healing.
If we can work with this question, “Who am I?” with sincerity, we have the potential to move towards a more subtle freedom, the spaciousness of awareness in our being, even as we grapple with this life-changing moment in our world.
Moshe’s second question is just as important, “What is His name?” This question also confronts us at this time. What is the name of the other who confronts me, how do I come to know and relate to this otherness?
On one level, we ask this question about the virus itself, about the new world we are navigating, so that we can take measures to protect ourselves and our communities. But we are also invited to ponder “What is His name” about all others.
We are invited to become reacquainted with our children, our spouses. We are also asked to examine our relationship with all humans, with animals, with our planet, and with G-d. As we engage with the question of “Mah shmo?”, (Who is the other addressing us?), our relationships have the capacity to enlarge. Barriers can crumble, and we can experience the freedom to relate in different ways.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised that when we don’t have clear answers, we are invited to “love the questions themselves”. This Pesach, let’s love the questions, even if we don’t yet have the answers.
In asking these questions, we might experience more subtle notions of freedom, even as our more obvious forms of freedom are curtailed. Guided by compassion, these questions may enable us to forge new kinds of relationships with ourselves and others, leading towards a healing of our beautiful and precious world.
- Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and teaches Tanach to adults.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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