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Fight, flight, pray: Jewish options in a crisis

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Jews and crises go back longer than gefilte fish and chrain. One of our earliest was the Israelites versus the sea in 2448 (Jewish calendar). With the Egyptian army on their backs and the tide coming in, they did what Jews do best – jostled about how to respond. In the Torah’s account, they split into four factions.

One saw no way out, and recommended surrender and return to Egypt. Determined to go down fighting, a second group grabbed their swords and planned a desperate attack on the Egyptians. A third crowd, with a collective, “Oy vey!” advocated drowning themselves. The more pious turned their eyes heavenward, and started to pray.

As locals face – yet another – crisis, we find four types of South African Jews. First, we have the nostalgic South African Jew. He remembers when kids rode bikes on Jozi’s streets, and you could catch a public bus to Hillbrow. Like the Israelites who knew they could never return to slavery, he knows there’s no way back to the old days. But, like the Israelite who romanticised the free fish and squash the Egyptians served, he dreams of replicating the old days elsewhere. His family plans to relocate to Sydney. Or Boca.

Uncle Barry is the epitome of the second type of Jewish South African. At least once a week, he asks you to sign a “Change SA” petition. He writes to The Star about Eskom and to his local ward councillor about broken street lights. He steers left to block taxi drivers who drive in the emergency lane. He’s furious with the leadership, but won’t give up on the Rainbow Nation. Like the ancient Jews who wished to take up arms against Egypt, he’ll fight this government until it falls. Ninety percent of petitions achieve nothing, and taxi drivers don’t care for our roadside lectures. Still, he remains committed to galvanising Glenhazel for change.

Then there is Mrs Goldzweig and company. They know it’s over. South Africa died three decades ago, and we’re stuck here. Mrs G will remind you that we’re in first class on the Titanic, and loadshedding is only the tip of the iceberg. She sends you every antisemitic soundbite from 702, and every video clip of political corruption and collapsing infrastructure. Her followers admit that, at 19-to-1 to the dollar, their chance to emigrate has sailed. Willing friends and relatives abroad feed their fears with sympathetic messages: “Are you still okay there?” and exclamations of “Shame!” Eskom has turned off the light at the end of the tunnel, and this group is drowning in darkness.

We also have a small contingent of those who pray constantly for a better tomorrow. You recognise them by their invitation to join yet another tehillim WhatsApp group. They realise that Cyril (Ramaphosa) isn’t the Messiah of Mzansi, and only G-d can save us now. As the Jews sandwiched between the sea and the pharaonic cavalry, they have come to terms with the fact that we can only daven. Hard.

At the sea, G-d rejected all four approaches. Dreaming of greener grass elsewhere robs us of the now. Investing in battles we cannot win drains us. Living in despair sucks out our souls, and prayer without action is futile. Instead, Hashem told Moses to instruct the Jews to march straight into the swirling sea. As the nation waded neck-high into the waves, they discovered a fifth option: move forward, and make miracles.

South Africa has a lesser-spotted fifth genus of Jews who live this way. They acknowledge the overwhelming challenges, and push ahead anyway. None of us knows what lies beyond those towering waves of our insecurity. Those who persevere through the swells discover unexpected blessings. When you march on, the perceived obstacles give way. As kids, we grew up with regular earth tremors and political quakes. We remember feeling relieved as those tremors subsided, knowing another would one day catch us unawares, unsettle us, and roll into the distance. South African Jews have always lived in fear of the Big One. Moshe would advise us to become the Great Ones. He would urge us to face our fears, and focus on building a strong Jewish South Africa, which would benefit the country.

A 20th century Moses, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, told our community just that. He repeatedly stated that moshiach was en route, and that life in South Africa would be good until he comes. Which other Jewish community can boast similar reassurance from an exceptional spiritual leader?

Our ancestors had no idea that the sea would part. They knew only that the prophet had told them to move forward. They must have been terrified to enter the sea. When they did, their miracle happened. Please G-d, we can do the same, and bring this country’s blessings to light.

  • Rabbi Ari Shishler is the rabbi at Chabad of Strathavon.

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  1. Leor Hurwitz

    Feb 8, 2024 at 2:31 pm

    Moshe was leading the Jews to Israel. A point you neglect.

  2. Choni Davidowitz

    Feb 8, 2024 at 4:46 pm

    Rabbi Sishler. While it is true that the Rebbe said it would be good for the Jews in South Africa- and even better when the Mashiach comes; he also said that even though we would become a “great and successful nation” in exile, one must always feel deep pain and remorse living in exile away from our Homeland (Eretz Yisrael). (Likutei sichos Vol 30 p234-5)
    Please Rabbi, explain to an old man of 91 how one can feel good in South Africa, and feel deep pain and remorse at the same time.
    (on a personal level, I feel deep pain and remorse living here, but certainly “not good”

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