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Parshot/Festivals

Finding the gifts in the year 2020

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Shoot me down if you want. Call me what you will. Throw as many vrot tomatoes as you want at me … I think COVID-19 was the next best thing to sliced bread!

Before you get really mad at me, let me qualify that up front. I’m not diminishing the pain, anguish, and suffering of all those who have suffered at her hands. I’m not minimising the sorrow and heartbreak of those who lost loved ones during this pandemic.

This has certainly been a cosmic exercise in no pain, no gain. And we have certainly had more than our fair share of pain and suffering. But I want to fly up high, leave our daily humdrum behind, and soar above into the heavens and look back at the world from that viewpoint.

What happened this year? What have we learnt? What was the purpose of it all?

The biblical story of Jacob sheds light on these enigmatic questions. Jacob spent 20 years in the company of his wicked father-in-law, Lavan, and eventually decided to relocate his now big family back to his homeland, Israel. On the way back, he must deal with the spectre of meeting up with his brother, Esau, whom he initially ran away from because Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob makes prerequisite plans, dividing the family into two camps, preparing gifts to appease his brother, and praying for his salvation.

But the most interesting part of this whole episode is that the night before this fateful meeting, Jacob crosses his family over the Yabok River, and he remains alone. There, he encounters a man with whom he wrestles throughout the night. As dawn breaks, this strange man wants to take his leave. By this time, Jacob is wounded in the hip and I’m sure exhausted from the energy needed to fight this unknown assailant. Strangely, Jacob says to him, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Now, pray do ask, if you meet a thug in a dark alley and you wrestle with him for a prolonged period, and the guy eventually gives up and asks to be let go, do you grab him by the collar, and say, “No I won’t let you go until you bless me”? Obviously, this exchange calls for a deeper answer.

The rabbis explain that Jacob wasn’t fighting some thug who acted opportunistically. He was, in fact, fighting the guardian angel of his brother Esau. And, as our rabbis explain, this was a classic example in Torah of ma’aseh avot, siman lebanim (that which happened to our forefathers was a portend of that which will occur to the children). So, Jacob’s struggle with the guardian angel of Esau was symbolically prophesying that the Jewish people would be at war with the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, or in modern nomenclature, the Christian, Western world. And doing it throughout the night is about this happening throughout the long, dark night of exile, which in fact, has lasted more than 2 000 years.

But there will come a time when the sun will rise, dawn will come, and the exile will be over. So though Jacob is wounded, as dawn comes and the angel asks to take leave (apparently, he had a minyan to attend to in Heaven), Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me”.

Now here’s the profound lesson. Exile is hard, the trials and tribulations we have gone through have been painful, agonising, and debilitating, but as a people, and yes, even as individuals, we must not let go of the hard times without looking for the blessing in the struggle.

The year 2020 has undoubtedly been a very difficult year for mankind and for every one of us personally. While the struggles may have differed, the bottom line is that we were all put in a situation where we were challenged.

Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of this year and when this difficult predicament will come to an end. Let’s hope and pray that this hideous virus takes its leave, and we can return to some normalcy. I believe though, that before this microscopic menace goes, we must demand that it blesses us.

This means that we have to look inward and find the good that it has brought in its wake. For many, there has been a reprioritisation of values, a reawakening of important relationships neglected by the frenzied life we used to live. We have asked questions about how we do business and conduct our lives on a daily basis.

Indeed, behind the anguish and anxiety, we have been gifted with a newfound sense of what it means to be human, loving partners, steadfast friends, and contributing people of society. There is a huge blessing in this. We need to recognise it and say thank you.

That’s on a personal level.

On a cosmic level, undoubtedly, we are at the dawn of our redemption. The struggle with our biblical brothers is over. Esau and Ishmael, represented by the Western and Arab world, are turning over a new leaf, and they too are looking to make peace with brother Jacob. This is a huge blessing.

That’s a sure sign that the worst is over, and we can only look forward to the fulfilment of the messianic redemption, when peace, health, and harmony will flood the world once again.

As we go to print, Jewish people over the world will be about to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It’s a reminder to us that although things may be very dark, although we have limited resources (just one jug of oil), our ability to shine and create light is enormous.

And just a little bit of effort from us will elicit divine help, and the light will miraculously grow and grow and illuminate the world at large.

So, as we wave 2020 goodbye, look for its blessings in your life, recognise the profound changes we have learnt, recommit to being a lamplighter, and make a concerted effort to illuminate the world with acts of goodness and kindness. The dawn is undoubtedly breaking and we are almost home. Happy Chanukah!

  • Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times. She also publishes a weekly podcast called The Infinite Loop, which is available on all major podcast platforms.

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