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Finding the positive in negative space

Hey, do you know what negative space is? I’ve thrown out this question to people around me this week, and have received some interesting answers. “It’s when you find yourself in a polluted space where things are negative and uncomfortable.” “It’s a place which feels negative, physically – kind of like squishy and uncomfortable.” “It’s a frame of mind, emotionally or mentally, when things just look negative.” Well, who can argue – they are all correct descriptions.





But there’s another definition of negative space formulated by artists. For them, negative space is the space around and between the subject of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.

As an example, you are reading words in the newspaper right now. What do you see? Of course, black letters printed on a white background. But what if you stopped, and instead of focusing on the black print, you tried to read the white space found between the letters. It’s hard to change our focus. Train yourself long enough, though, and you will see things that are written between the lines.

As the SA Jewish Report goes to print, the vast majority of people are winding down the year. Summer is upon us, and the long-awaited downtime we have been looking forward to, is on our doorstep. Whether you are travelling far or near, or choosing to stay at home, there is an anticipation of long, lazy days, relaxation, and unwinding. For us Jewish South Africans, our vacations are always sprinkled with the celebration of Chanukah. The outdoor public menorahs, Chanukah parties with latkes and doughnuts, and the spinning of the dreidel colour our vacation time.

What’s interesting about the holiday of Chanukah is that it’s not mentioned in the Torah at all. That means that it’s not a commandment we received directly from G-d, as we did with the observance of the three pilgrim festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot. It’s not like the observance of Shabbat, directly mentioned in the Torah. Chanukah is a rabbinic holiday, instituted during the Second Temple period by the rabbis to commemorate the small vial of oil the Maccabim found after they won the war and wanted to rededicate the temple. You all know the story.

We celebrate another rabbinic holiday, known as Purim. Again, it was instituted by rabbis, this time to remember the evil decree of the murderous Haman, how he wanted to eradicate the Jews, and how we survived.

Now here’s a question: what separates Chanukah from all other yamim tovim (Jewish festivals), including Purim? Hint – look for negative space. In fact, the answer is negative space. Let me explain. Every other holiday was either commanded by G-d, in black and white in the Torah, or a recordal of the events of the holiday are found in black and white, as in the megillah of Purim that describes all the events that led to the miraculous salvation of the Jews.

But when it comes to Chanukah, we have nothing in black and white. We may have descriptions of what happened during that time recorded in the Talmud or by eyewitnesses, but we have no direct text that commands us to celebrate the festival, nor do we have an official, authoritative text that forms part of the holiday.

In fact, to take it a step further. Chanukah is obscurely “hinted” at in the Torah. After the Torah enumerates the commandments to keep the festivals, the very next piece of text describes the lighting of the menorah in the Temple. The wording reads, “Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually … On the pure Menorah, he shall order the lamps, before G-d continually. (Leviticus 24). Catch the negative space? Change of one lamp to many lamps … a hint of one small vial of oil, enough for one lamp, that we add to each night of Chanukah until we have eight lamps?

Let’s add one more piece of context here. Why celebrate Chanukah at all? Chanukah takes place while the Jews are under foreign rule and subjugation. A small band of Jews get together and revolt against their oppressors. Whilst the Maccabim are victorious, and restore the Temple into their own hands, their victory is short lived (about 30 years) and things again go downhill until we have the final destruction of the Temple, and the dispersion into exile – a banishment of people and place, an exile that we still find ourselves in to this very day. So, what’s the meaning behind all of this?

It’s only in the negative space that we can find the answer. In fact, it’s the negative space itself that teaches us the lesson.

It’s not about what you see and what you get. Not everything is spelt out in black and white. Chanukah teaches us that in between the lines of life’s trials and tribulations, one can find light. We are in exile, in mind and soul, even sometimes trapped in body. This world is a dark place, and apparent good is rare. Our job is to search beyond the obvious, and kindle a light of positivity. That one step will give impetus to kindle yet another light, and then another, until we have brightened the world. Sometimes it may look like we take two steps forward, and then three back. But rest assured, there is meaning behind the seeming darkness. In the negative spaces of our lives is a G-d written script which seeks out our welfare and well-being, a hand that holds us, guides us, and directs us.

In the northern hemisphere, Chanukah comes around in a time of darkness, cold, and snow. In our part of the world, there is light, warmth, and sun. Don’t be fooled in either place. Look beyond your circumstances, read between the lines, and find your purpose and direction. Light your lamp, your soul, and then go out and light the lamps of others. There’s a reason why you were created. Go out and find it.

Wishing you an illuminating Chanukah (and a well-deserved rest).

  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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