Death and destiny during pandemics
I have lost friends, colleagues, and family members this year, people of all ages. How many of our legendary, most distinguished spiritual leaders have been taken from us around the world this year alone? How many wonderful young people have left behind grieving spouses and young children?
These are some of the troubling philosophical questions that arise from the COVID-19 pandemic. Others that we have thought about are:
• How are we to understand the deaths of young people in the prime of their lives from this pandemic? Was it their time? Was it part of G-d’s plan for them, or was it perhaps the fact that they broke the rules and interfered with the higher plan?
• Was the Holocaust part of G-d’s plan? Was it a punishment for something we did?
• Is there any spiritual insight to all of this?
Naturally, these are all very thought-provoking questions, and each one is deserving of a full essay – or an entire book – on its own. But this isn’t a scholarly dissertation. I shall rather share some general principles of Jewish philosophy and theology on how Judaism views the world, how G-d runs the world, and the interface of our own actions with providence, or G-d’s higher plan for the world.
First, it’s a principle of our faith that G-d not only created the universe, but that He continues to manage its affairs, even on the most micro level. He hasn’t retired, or semi-retired. He hasn’t gone on holiday to Mauritius and handed over the management of the world to a corporate hierarchy of gods and goddesses, demi-gods, or any celestial powers.
If G-d is running the world, then there can be no “accidents” and no “mistakes”, not even mere coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Do we know why bad things happen, often to good people? Definitely not. We certainly cannot see the whole reason with all the hidden meaning behind every event. Our eyes of flesh behold only the external, the superficial, the tip of the iceberg. And even when we think we ‘get it’, there are still layers and layers beneath the surface that we are completely oblivious to. Indeed, there is, in the immortal words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a “vast eternal plan”, and every single event that occurs is part of that higher plan.
When it comes to the mysteries of life, we should try to understand that we cannot understand. Maimonides and other sages of old that said “the ultimate knowledge is to know that we don’t know”. Even Albert Einstein once famously said, “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” And Einstein’s most famous line on the subject was that, “G-d doesn’t play dice with the universe.”
We mustn’t just take the proverbial “shtum powder”, shrug our shoulders, and resign ourselves to not asking questions. No, we may ask. But we should also be wise and humble enough to understand that finite mortals cannot reasonably expect to grasp the workings of an infinite supreme being who is, by definition, impenetrable.
My late father, obm, once told me a story of two great spiritual leaders of old who had the following conversation. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was a renowned defender of his people. He poured his heart out to his friend and colleague, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya.
“Why do so many of our people have to suffer the oppression of the czar? Why are so many poverty-stricken? If I were G-d, I would see to it that every Jew has the necessary livelihood and good health to enjoy a better life.”
Zalman, more the philosopher, replied, “If I were G-d, I would do exactly as G-d does.”
“What?” cried the Berditchever. “How can you say that? Have you no compassion for your people?”
Zalman answered, “Don’t you realise? If I was G-d, then I would see the world with G-d’s eyes. I would know exactly why He does things. And I would obviously understand that what He does is, in fact, correct.”
When it comes to the Holocaust, there are simply no explanations and certainly no rationalisations for such a horrific tragedy – quantitatively the worst in our entire history. An event of such enormity is inexplicable and unfathomable to finite men and women.
My saintly teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was extremely critical, even angered, by those who gave explanations for the Holocaust, when they argued that it was because of certain “sins” of that generation. No sins could ever justify such a punishment! When I hear people say such things, I cringe. To rationalise the Holocaust is an insult to the memory of the six million! Who can dare to justify more than a million innocent children being butchered? Or thousands of rabbis, roshei Yeshiva, chassidim, Yeshiva students, and millions of fine, innocent, Jewish men and women? My father was the sole survivor of his entire family in Poland. Were all those holy martyrs sinners? G-d forbid six million times! In our lifetimes it will, no doubt, remain one of the deepest secrets and mysteries of life.
Of course, we believe that G-d has His own reasons and a higher plan for everything. But this one is clearly beyond human comprehension. We will never understand it until we reach the world to come.
Now, although each one of us does indeed have a destined number of years to live, it’s possible for one to forfeit years of one’s life through irresponsible behaviour. A person can cause his own premature death if he behaves recklessly. If a fellow decides to jump out of the window of the 17th floor wearing a Superman cape, arguing that, “If it’s not my time, G-d will find a way to save me”, he is pretty much committing suicide. Yes, he did have an allotted number of years which may not have been up yet. But the problem is that he has now gone and put G-d on the line, forcing Him to perform a miracle for him. But that individual may not be worthy of a miracle. Sadly, he will have then forfeited his life.
I have heard a doctor say that, generally speaking, COVID-19 is taking people whose time had come. That’s easier to accept when it comes to 90 year olds. But what about young people?
Concerning the great flood in the generation of Noah, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says that there are extraordinary times when pandemic, chaos, and calamity come to the world and may sweep away good people with others. Is the COVID-19 pandemic such an event? I don’t know, but perhaps it may be.
Does anyone know the deeper reason for this pandemic? In the days of Noah, the people of his generation had become completely degenerate and lost all moral perspective. I cannot bring myself to say that this is a punishment for our sins today.
Clearly, there is a bigger picture behind a universal pandemic. No doubt, we should all be doing some serious soul searching as individuals and as a society. While we may not find the reason, we should certainly try to find the message. We should listen carefully, and if we hear a message that resonates with us and inspires us to do good, to improve our behaviour, to reach out to others in need, then let’s do so, and help make the world a better place.
Thankfully, much good has already come out of this pandemic as well. Many innovative ways of teaching and working have emerged. So much kindness and outreach is happening, which is nothing short of inspirational.
Please G-d may the pandemic soon be behind us, and may our world be completely healed.
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.
Our title deed to Israel was given by G-d
Yom Ha’atzmaut is an opportunity to declare proudly and publicly our connection to Israel. This is our opportunity to remind ourselves and the world what Israel means to us.
We can draw our inspiration for this from a beautiful and powerful mitzvah – bikkurim – the mitzvah for farmers to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate them to G-d.
The Talmud paints a colourful picture of the farmers’ procession to the Temple as they brought the bikkurim. They didn’t arrive one by one in Jerusalem; rather, they would go up in a group, accompanied by music and a whole entourage to mark the occasion. At the head of the procession, there was a bull decorated in gold. And all the residents of Jerusalem – the shopkeepers and all the workers, sometimes even the king – would come out to greet the farmers. Upon arriving at the Temple, the Levi’im would sing a song from the book of Tehillim.
Then, on dedicating their baskets of produce to the Temple, the farmer would make a declaration summarising Jewish history and expressing gratitude to G-d for bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel – to the sacred ground from which these first fruits were harvested.
Why all the fanfare? And how is any of this connected to Yom Ha’atzmaut?
One of our great sages, the Malbim, explains that the declaration on the bikkurim was a response to those who would challenge our right to the land of Israel. He cites Rashi’s very first comment on the Chumash – the question of why the Torah begins with the book of Genesis, the more narrative-driven portions of the Torah, when really the Torah is a book of commandments.
Quoting from a prescient midrash, Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation is because one day, the Jewish people would be accused of unjustly appropriating the land of Israel, to which we can respond – G-d, the creator of the world, gave it to us. That is our title deed. And we underline this claim by publicly declaring and celebrating our connection to the land of Israel in the bikkurim ceremony.
There’s certainly a lesson we can draw on here in our own age about proudly and unapologetically celebrating our connection to the land of Israel.
But bikkurim has another – no less important – lesson for us for Yom Ha’atzmaut – the lesson of gratitude. Through the declaration, farmers express gratitude for the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt and brought us to the land of milk and honey from which the fruits were harvested. In this way, the entire farming experience becomes grounded in a deep appreciation. And the way we show our gratitude is by dedicating the best and the first to G-d through the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, of redeeming a first-born son, and through the mitzvah of bikkurim.
Gratitude is at the heart of Jewish identity. The word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudi”, derived from the name “Yehuda”, Leah’s fourth son. When she gave birth to Yehuda, she said, “I will give thanks to G-d.” As Jews, we know that everything we have, every blessing we enjoy, comes from our creator.
And so, as we mark Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, as we look back with satisfaction on all of the immense achievements of the past 73 years, our hearts are filled with gratitude and appreciation to G-d for His blessings that have made it all possible.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is famous for having said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” G-d’s miracles have accompanied the birth, growth, and development of the state of Israel throughout these 73 years. From the great military victories and economic and technological achievements, to the miraculous rebuilding of yeshivot and Torah learning on a grand scale beyond the wildest dreams of those who saw the destruction of these institutions in the Holocaust, the Jewish people have established, with G-d’s blessing, a thriving state in spite of all odds. Israel has, with divine help, continuously defied the natural order of things.
This Yom Ha’atzmaut, as we once again declare our historic connection to the land and celebrate all that our beloved state of Israel has miraculously accomplished, let us do so with deep gratitude and unabashed pride – and through this, let us unleash abundant divine blessings for many more years of greatness.
Beth Din works to make Pesach “lesstressingmoreblessing”
The kosher department spends nearly six months of the year planning for Pesach and making certifications.
This year was particularly challenging with the sad and untimely passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels in Cape Town. His care and knowledge added much to South African kashrut for many decades.
Various products available all over the country are manufactured in Cape Town. With the help of the Cape Town kosher team, we ensure that the highest standards are kept, and all essential items that the community needs are made available across the country.
This year, we launched a #lesstressingmoreblessing campaign, which we hoped would help make everyone’s preparation ahead of Pesach a little easier. We shared our expanded Green List, which is a list of products that don’t require a special Pesach hechsher.
We all know how expensive this time of year is and unfortunately, it’s costly for companies to manufacture Pesach items. In many cases – locally and internationally – the ingredients need to be changed, and factories often need to be closed for at least 24 hours to kasher production lines.
Furthermore, runs are often done in small batches and in most cases, production is done under the direct supervision of a mashgiach. We do what we can to research products all year round to add to our Green List to make it easier and more cost-effective to keep Pesach.
We then shared some delicious recipes from Romi Rabinowitz. Next, we created and shared helpful videos on kashering some of the latest kitchen appliances, which also enabled the community to meet some of the kosher team. Most importantly, we extended the hours of our kosher desk hotline to answer all the community’s questions.
Pick n Pay again printed our Pesach Guide, and innovated by placing a variety of Pesach-specific products on its Bottles app. This is something we hope to expand in the future.
What’s most important to us is community feedback. After Pesach, we reached out to the community via a survey, and got just less than 800 responses.
Here are the most pertinent:
• Most of the community was happy with the product range available this year;
• They prefer to buy locally-made products as it keeps costs down;
• More than two-thirds of the community felt that the kosher department gave them useful information this year;
• The Green List was found to be the most useful information shared;
• There is a range of locally produced items that people would like to see available next year, namely: Orley Whip, sweets, cold drinks, diet drinks, chocolates, spices and sauces; and
• Many expressed appreciation for our team, which we are grateful for.
The survey is now closed, so if you didn’t have the opportunity to respond to it, we invite you to contact us directly with your feedback.
We are grateful to everyone who completed the survey. We value the feedback and, with the positive and useful information given, we have already begun to plan for Pesach 2022. We hope we will keep you #lesssressingmoreblessing.
- Rabbi Dovi Goldstein is the kosher managing director at the Beth Din.
Is the US losing interest in the Middle East?
The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship is a really interesting case study for those who watch Middle Eastern geopolitics closely. Some background to current events is necessary to set the context.
On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. Its human-rights record is suspect, to say the least. It was clearly responsible for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which caused a worldwide outcry. It has also been involved in a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties and hunger, malnutrition, and illness in that country.
On the other hand, it’s a strategic US ally, and a stable, pro-Western country. It entered the war in Yemen for good reason – to prevent the Iranian-aligned Houthi forces from taking over the country. It was also the second biggest oil producer in the world in 2020.
President Joe Biden was left with a difficult choice. Heading up a Democratic administration, which supposedly prides itself on its support for human rights, he couldn’t leave things as they were. On the other hand, he couldn’t damage the US’s vital strategic and national interests. To this end, he seems to have attempted to walk a fine line by taking the following actions:
He released a redacted intelligence report that blamed the crown prince for being behind the murder of the journalist, but took no further action. He has made it clear that the US no longer supports the operations of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and has temporarily paused the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, but has allowed the continued sale of defensive arms.
More importantly, he didn’t act when Saudi oilfields were once again attacked by Houthi missiles and drones on 7 March, which led to a spike in oil prices briefly above $70 (R1 021) a barrel.
The US said on the Monday that its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was “unwavering”, and in a Twitter post, the US mission in Riyadh condemned the attacks, which it said demonstrated a “lack of respect for human life” and a “lack of interest in the pursuit of peace”. However, the US took no further action.
The main issue, however, which is being brought to the fore by the awkward US-Saudi dance, is that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. The area is much less of a priority than it used to be.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the US no longer relies on imports of oil from the region. Last year, according to The Economist, the US was in fact a net exporter of oil and natural gas.
Second, the US has been involved in long and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost trillions of dollars and achieved very little.
Finally – and this has been the policy across three US presidents now – the US wants to pivot to Asia and focus much more on countering a rapidly growing and influential China. It wants to lighten its burdens in the Middle East, and instead focus its energies on what everyone believes will be the world’s leading growth region of the 21st century.
This doesn’t mean the US will withdraw totally. It still has troops all over the area, and has vital interests in preventing a nuclear arms race there and not allowing terrorist groups to grow and find sanctuary. However, given recent events, it seems clear that it will scale down its activities and no longer expend the time and energy it has in the past. Its military activities will be curtailed.
The effect of this clear signal from the US has been dramatic, and it no doubt played a major role in the Abraham Accords and signing of peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If and when the Saudis join the emerging Israel-Sunni reproachment, it will no doubt also be due to the fear of less US involvement in the region and of therefore having to face their enemies alone.
While this development has been positive for Israel in that it now has new strategic allies in the region, bringing much more diplomatic strength and regional influence, in the long term, there must be concern.
The US moves towards Saudi Arabia are a portent for it becoming much less involved in the region, and clearly show its intention not to be dragged into any more wars there.
While Israel now has a lot of new allies as a result, and it seems the friendships will be warm, none of the new allies are major military powers. Local regional alliances, useful as they are, cannot replace the world’s main superpower, and an unstable region will surely become still more unstable without the US’s active presence.
Israeli leaders have long suspected this, but the fact that the US hasn’t responded militarily to the two recent attacks on the Saudi oilfields when in the past, under any president, there would have been a robust and strong response, shows how dramatically things have changed. The US can no longer be relied on as a military ally. Israel will be left to fend pretty much for itself if and when the next war breaks out in the Middle East.
- Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.
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