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Following in the footsteps of children

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Religion

One seder practice has always held a special mystique for me. It’s the point when Prophet Elijah’s cup is filled and the door is opened to welcome him.

As a very young child, the challenge was to stay awake until that late hour to witness the arrival of the special visitor. As I got older, I hoped to be chosen to go to the front door, candle in hand, and stand sentry until instructed to close and return to the table.

Equally exciting, however, was to remain seated and watch the level of the wine dip imperceptibly (in fact totally imperceptibly), convincing myself I had actually seen Elijah drink some of the liquid.

This year, I will be looking to Elijah to answer a question that has been weighing heavily on my mind: how do I get my community back into shul one year down the line?

It has been a long and hard year. For everyone. For rabbonim, it has been about ministering to our communities with shuls closed by law, or health concerns, for more than half of the past 12 months.

To our distressed congregants, eager to gather in prayer during these difficult times, we patiently explained that G-d listens to our entreaties from anywhere, and that one must daven at home, alone, when it isn’t possible to do so in shul.

It seems our argument was convincing – too persuasive in fact. Hence, though places of worship are now allowed to be open, our attendance is nowhere near pre-April 2020.

We have tried in every way to draw our people back, through public announcements and private pleas, but we still have a long way to go. We can preach again and again about the value of communal prayer over individual prayer. We can repeat that our shuls have set up strict health guidelines – beyond what the law mandates. But, people have learnt to enjoy praying at home.

So, I will turn to Elijah the prophet, always referred to in the Talmud as the one who will resolve an issue when an impasse is reached and no halachic conclusion is possible.

This Shabbat in shul, on the eve of Passover, we read in the Haftorah the very final of all prophecies. It’s drawn from the last of all Books of the Prophets, Malachi, and refers to Yom Hagadol (the big day) of the final messianic redemption, one reason why this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol.

And what are the last words of the last prophecy of all? “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, ahead of the big day. He will turn the hearts of parents by means of their children and the hearts of children by means of their parents.”

Before the dawning of the messianic era, the generation gap will have to close and Elijah’s job will be just that, to ensure that the hearts of children and parents are at one. This is why this prophet is invited as guest of honour on the night of Pesach, so that he can watch first-hand the cross-generational experience of the handing over of tradition.

This is the night when children, parents, and grandparents interact, the former asking the questions and the latter responding, passing over the torch of the fundamentals of our faith. It’s also why a special seat is provided for Elijah at circumcision ceremonies, so that he can be there as a new generation is inducted into the faith of the fathers.

I have a suspicion that this is the answer Prophet Elijah will give to my burning question. He will tell me that we must invest in our children, and draw them to shul with innovative and exciting activities.

“Involve the youth in the services, call them up to the Torah, let them open the Ark, chant Haftorahs, sing Anim Zmirot,” he will say. This will bring their parents and grandparents to listen to them quicker than any beautifully crafted, compelling sermon, a chazzan with an amazing voice, or a melodious choir.

Kinderlach, come to shul this Pesach! Grab your parents by the hand, stop off on the way to collect your grandparents. Elijah is watching! We want him now.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi of the Oxford Synagogue Centre, and the chairman of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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Religion

Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free

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We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.

Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.

Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:

“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.

“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”

A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.

So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.

One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.

A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.

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Religion

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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