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Finding the gifts in the year 2020

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Parshot/Festivals

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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OP-EDS

In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap

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About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.

It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.

So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?

Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.

So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.

What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.

But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.

Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.

Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.

Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.

The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.

Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?

  • Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.

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Parshot/Festivals

This year, be the change your shul needs

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COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.

As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.

And we need to do it together.

Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.

Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.

And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.

By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.

Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.

And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.

There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.

Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.

Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.

Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.

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The day of judgement is a day of love

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I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.

This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.

This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.

It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.

But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.

This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.

We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!

Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!

  • Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.

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