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Freedom hopelessly inadequate without rules

As limiting as laws and rules may seem, they are integral to liberty. Although the Torah establishes a system of rules which govern our lives, its guidelines actually give us a framework for navigating our freedom.





As South Africa moves through the COVID-19 pandemic, rules and laws have become increasingly important but equally frustrating. Our freedom to move, interact, shop, and exercise has been severely limited, the days of being able to do almost anything and go almost anywhere a happy memory.

The shift from boundless to boundaries seemingly parallels the progression from Pesach to Shavuot, from emancipation from Egypt to receiving a Torah full of restrictions. Similar though the two appear, however, the Torah given on Shavuot actually secures our freedom and helps us to understand the positive role of limitation.

“Torah, like its author, is eternal and is always informing contemporary life,” says Rabbi Yossy Goldman of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg. “Our current situation is no different.

“From Pesach we move to Shavuot. Pesach represents our physical and political freedom. Shavuot represents our spiritual freedom, when we received the Torah, the mandate and mission of our Jewish way of life, from G-d.”

Goldman says that the Torah has lots of laws, many do’s and don’ts. However, the rubric of this pathway provides an infrastructure that gives us vision, perspective, and a moral code to guide us through the minefields of life.

Says Goldman, “Pesach and its political freedom without Shavuot and its moral, spiritual freedom would be hopelessly inadequate. The Jewish people would have been emancipated from Egyptian bondage, but they’d have been all dressed up with nowhere to go.

“Would we wander in the wilderness and flounder aimlessly with no end goal in sight? We might be physically and political free, but what would we do with our freedom?”

We need only look at our own country, he says. “Since the democratic dawn in 1994, we are all free, but the majority of the majority still don’t have access to employment, electricity, water, health, education, and remain disadvantaged, not previously disadvantaged.

“We need vision, purpose, a way of life, an intelligent infrastructure, and the wherewithal to be able to take advantage of our newfound freedom.”

Like the Torah’s rules and regulations, Goldman says that clear and cohesive guidelines are necessary, whether to give us direction in life, or to stop a virus pandemic in its tracks.

Rabbi Gabi Bookatz of Waverley Shul says there’s a critical distinction between liberty and freedom.

“Liberty is legal,” he says. “You’re at liberty to travel, and you have your rights. Freedom is an internal mindset, a spiritual space you’re in. Not everyone at liberty has freedom, and not everyone who is free has liberty.”

Bookatz says that during the years of Soviet Russia, the refuseniks (Jews in the Soviet Union who were refused permission to emigrate to Israel, and who protested the limitations of restrictive Soviet law) would say that they were the freest people in Russia.

“Though they had no liberty and were locked up in gulags, they were certainly free to think, free to be themselves and live up to their values without the imposing restriction of the communist regime.”

Conversely, it’s prevalent in the Western world today that people with the greatest liberty are the least free.

“People in America, for example, enjoy liberties like movement and religious affiliation,” says Bookatz. “These were unheard of in earlier times, and are things their ancestors could only dream of. Yet they are far from free.

“Rates of depression and anxiety are higher, people are lost, confused, and limited by societal pressures, politics, and their own desires. They have great liberty, but are certainly not free.”

We need to gain freedom before we gain our liberty, says Bookatz.

“Here we are, constrained in our homes and hoping to get back to normal life. The one thing we always have is the freedom of our minds to gain control, and such freedom we can find only in the Torah which gives us moral and ethical freedom, a clarity of direction.

“Freedom doesn’t mean anarchy,” he stresses. “Even freedom needs to be governed by certain guidelines, and these are the rules of the Torah.

“Rabbi Hirsch explains that the rules of the Torah facilitate moral freedom. When you commit to the highest moral codes, you’re no longer limited by your own ego and personal constraints. Such freedom is therefore only possible because of rules.”

Consequently, real talent is found when people learn to maximise their boundaries not remove them completely.

“If you operate within the framework of rules, that’s where genius and talent show themselves,” says Bookatz. “Sport shows this. It doesn’t take a genius to kick a ball, but it takes talent to do so within certain limitations.

“The same is true of art, music, and poetry. Strict guidelines need to be followed, and talent shows itself when you work within the system and display your abilities within a framework.

“It seems counterintuitive: we moved from the slavery of Egypt to being dominated by the rules of the Torah. However, Egypt made us an object directed only by someone else’s whims. The Torah enables us to be a subject, and this is freedom.

“It takes wisdom, maturity, and humility to see the freedom the Torah grants us, but such freedom ultimately helps us to be free of social pressures, politics, and our own desires.”

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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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