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Heavenly multiplier effect found in a jar of oil

One of the great heroes of the Holocaust was Rabbi Avraham Grodzinsky, the spiritual leader of the Kovno ghetto. Until the outbreak of the war, he had been Rosh Yeshiva of the famed Slabodka Yeshiva and one of the leading sages of his generation.

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CHIEF RABBI DR WARREN GOLDSTEIN

Later, amid the horrors of the Kovno ghetto, people would attest to the open, friendly countenance Rabbi Grodzinsky carried at all times, perfecting the trait of “receiving every person with a friendly face” (Pirkei Avot, 1:15), which was a source of hope and great comfort to all those who encountered him.

In the years of the ghetto, when the situation was at its most dire and most of its inhabitants had either perished from the horrifying conditions or been carted off to the death camps, he formed a group of 10 of his former students from the Slabodka Yeshiva. They would meet every Shabbos to discuss what spiritual and physical actions they could take to improve the plight of those around them. This eternal optimism in the face of hopeless odds – this faith in the power of the few – is an idea that goes right to the heart of Chanukah.

Actually, Rabbi Grodzinsky took his initial inspiration from an earlier source than the Maccabees. In the Torah portion a few weeks ago, we read of Abraham’s tireless negotiations with G-d to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After a few rounds of negotiation, G-d eventually agrees to save the cities if 10 righteous people can be found within them. From here, the Gemara learns the foundational spiritual principle that 10 righteous people can have a decisive impact on an otherwise hopeless situation (Sanhedrin 99b). The Gemara goes even further, stating that a person who doesn’t believe in the power of 10 righteous people to save the world is guilty of heresy.

In other words, the belief in the power of even a small group of righteous people to change the world and overturn the natural order of things is no less than a fundamental principle of Jewish faith.

We see a powerful illustration of this principle in the story of Chanukah. The mighty Greek empire, which had conquered most of the known world at the time, had invaded the land of Israel and was pursuing a relentless campaign to remove all vestiges of Torah living from the society. The situation seemed hopeless. There were even many Jews at the time who were abandoning their faith due to both the existential threat and the enticements of Greek society. It was at this point that a small group of people – Matisyahu and his brothers – banded together to try and do something about the situation. What began as simply an act of defiance became a miraculous military defeat of the mighty Greek army, allowing the Jewish people to reclaim the land, reclaim the Torah, and reclaim the Holy Temple at the heart of both.

Centuries later, in the depths of the Holocaust, Rabbi Grodzinksy drew on the Maccabees’ example, recruiting 10 righteous men of his own to bring hope and strength to the inhabitants of the ghetto, and spreading light at a time of unimaginable darkness.

The prayer we read describing the great miracles of Chanukah describes how G-d delivered “the many into the hands of the few”. And, indeed, the smallness of the Jewish people and our outsized impact on the world is the story of Jewish history. As the Torah says, “Not because you are the most numerous of the nations did G-d want you and choose you – for you are the fewest among the nations.” (Devarim 7:7).

Why is that? Why is it that the Jewish people, so small in number, are able to have this seismic effect on the world? Part of the reason is that we, the Jewish people, are a living testimony to a fundamental truth about the nature of reality – that the physical world is just a smokescreen for a deeper spiritual reality. Overcoming the odds, subverting the natural order of things, testifies to the primacy of the world of spirituality over the world of materialism, to the fact that G-d, who is the creator of all matter and the source of everything, is the one in control.

So, what we see in the story of Chanukah, and in many other instances in which the Jewish people have defied their small number, is how the impact of the few is multiplied through G-d’s intervention, defying all rational predictions and overturning empirical reality as we know it.

This idea is symbolised by the defining miracle of Chanukah – the small jar of halachically pure oil the Maccabees found when they recaptured the Temple, which burnt for eight days when it should have burnt for one. This is why we celebrate Chanukah by lighting candles for eight days.

Why is this miracle so central to the festival? Surely the great military victory of the Maccabees over the mighty Greek empire was just as remarkable? The reason is that the miracle of the oil burning for longer than it was supposed to encapsulates all of the other miracles. It symbolises this multiplier effect that we’ve been discussing – that through G-d’s direction, through the mysterious workings of a deeper, essential, spiritual realm, outcomes in the physical world can be amplified beyond their input. And a small jar of oil that was meant to burn for a day can burn for eight.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, New Jersey, points to the fact that it was the oil’s halachic spiritual purity that imbued it with the miraculous power to burn for eight days, to transcend its physical limitations. Similarly, it was the righteousness and uprightness of the 10 Maccabean leaders that enabled them to defeat the great army of the Greeks. Both are small in physical quantity but potent in spiritual quality.

And this is the great lesson of Chanukah for the Jewish people – that irrespective of our numbers, if we remain upright and loyal to our divine heritage, then we will always survive and thrive. Rabbi Kotler’s personal life story bears this out. One of those fortunate to escape Europe before the Holocaust swept everything away, he went to America and established a small yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the 1940s and 1950s, few people held much hope for the prospects of a classic Torah institution in the heart of the new world, yet, starting with a handful of students, and in defiance of all rational predictions, the yeshiva grew to become the largest centre of Jewish learning in the diaspora, with more than 6 500 students. He started small, battling the odds, but his vision had the power of purity behind it.

This message of the few over the many, of G-d’s multiplying effect of our actions, is the story of Jewish history. Israel is such a small country, and yet its impact is so great. Wherever Jewish communities have found themselves, their impact on wider society has been out of all proportion to their small size.

But the real secret ingredient to transcending physical inputs is spiritual purity. Purity is the yeast that makes our efforts rise. It’s all about the purity of the oil, of the energy, and intentionality we put into our work in this world. Purity is about sincerity, about kindness, compassion, and decency, about spirituality and faith in G-d, and dedication to His will, His Torah. With this we can truly achieve great things, supernatural things. We can go beyond the numbers.

This seminal message of Chanukah, this heavenly multiplier effect, applies no less to our personal lives. A person may feel that they will not be able to earn a living if they close their business on Shabbos, but Chanukah teaches us that G-d can multiply all of the week’s work to more than make up for it. A person may feel that dedicating themselves to absolutely scrupulous business ethics may cost them money, but ultimately G-d has the power to bless all our efforts and multiply them. The same goes for tzedakah (charity) for which the Torah itself promises multiplied returns.

On Chanukah, a small group of righteous people made a big difference, overcoming a mighty force. If good people with pure hearts and sincere intentions band together, even in small numbers, they can bring light and blessing into the world. G-d’s blessings can multiply the effect of the limited physical world like that small jar of oil that burnt so much longer, thereby shedding so much light in the world. This is the message of hope and optimism of Chanukah.

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1 Comment

  1. Vacelia Shulamis Goodman

    Dec 9, 2018 at 5:40 am

    ‘Hi Chief Rabbi Goldstein. 

    Thank you for your Chanukah message. It’s Very much how I was brought up  – no matter how much one is mocked and made an outcast  – one sticks to trying to be a righteous person.

    Unfortunately when one wants to belong to such a group  especially in South Africa  – how does one find it/start one of one’s own when one has no financial resources and chronic ill health that’s not believed. 

    How does one move forward when decent behaviour and concern is called unsophisticated;non sponsorable; prudish and prissy.

    I feel that trying to survive in South Africa is waiting to constantly be defiled.

    Also when some from one’s own community wants one removed from one’s family  – the few that still keep in touch with one and removed from general society andone’s own Jewish community bcos one doesn’t have the ‘acceptable political correctness’ i.e. give rather to those who are hunting you down for Not joining in the depravity and corruption and violence around one  – rather than to decent peope

    people etc including oneself sometimes. 

    South Africa displays towards most of us Jews here the same attitude as the Greeks that caused some brave Jews to fight for us to still exist.

    It’s the epitome of evil in the rest of the world that doesn’t want ISRAEL or Jews globally to succeed. 

    What’s your advice PLEASE. 

    Thanking you in anticipation. 

    Sincerely.

    Vacelia Shulamis Goodman ‘

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Emotions run high as JSC denies discrimination

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called for a face-to-face meeting with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to resolve tensions following the recent JSC interviews of Jewish judges, which the Board described as discriminatory.

The JSC this week denied that its interviews of Jewish candidates for appointment to the Bench were discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Jewish applicants were targeted at interviews.

The Board told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 5 May, that this week’s JSC statement was “unfortunate”.

Said National Director Wendy Kahn, “The SAJBD had already requested a meeting with the JSC prior to it issuing this statement. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it had done anything wrong, we believe that the nature of the questions put to the candidates was irregular and discriminatory, and as such, in conflict with the fundamental constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. It’s unfortunate to politicise such an august body.”

She said the Board continued to call for a face-to-face meeting with the JSC as it believed it was a “more constructive way” to address issues than through the media.

In recent weeks, the SAJBD accused the JSC of targeting Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter when they were asked questions about their Jewish identity and practice. It also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

In a statement last week, Kahn said, “Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny. Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practice except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid. It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.”

In response, the JSC said this Tuesday that the SAJBD was selectively quoting parts of the interviews.

It rejected claims that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices except those of the Jewish faith. It also labelled the claims by the SAJBD as factually inaccurate.

“The questions relating to the association with the SAJBD dealt with concerns that the organisation supports Zionism which is viewed as a discriminatory form of nationalism and potentially in conflict with the values contained in the South African Constitution,” read the statement.

“The questions on this score were raised with the two candidates following letters of objection received by the JSC in respect of Judge Unterhalter from various organisations, including the Black Lawyers Association. This is part of JSC practice intended to afford candidates the opportunity to respond to objections lodged against their candidature.”

The statement continued, “It’s not factually correct that other candidates who aren’t of Jewish descent weren’t asked questions related to their religious affiliations.” There were other candidates who were asked questions relating to their religious or cultural beliefs, the statement said.

Said Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, “After watching Judge Unterhalter’s interview, it’s striking how many questions were about his brief stint at the SAJBD and how few questions were about his qualifications. The ratio indicates a failure on the JSC’s behalf to ask pertinent questions about his ability to hold judicial office. The volume and repetition of questions about the Board should be of concern to all South Africans who care about the important attributes of those who take up office at the highest court in the land.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein expressed outrage at the “conduct of the commissioners of the [JSC] in their questioning of the two Jewish judges”, describing it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

He called on JSC commissioners to retract and apologise for their comments. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on the entire process.

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant position in the Northern Cape. The JSC also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court Bench. Both have been referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Unterhalter didn’t make the final list of nominees.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

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Preventing stampedes ‘is a science’

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As the dust settles after the Mount Meron disaster, questions will be asked about how it happened and why. Local expert Professor Efraim Kramer says stopping stampedes requires training, expertise, and planning, as just one “spark” in a crowd can have deadly consequences.

“It’s complex, emotional, and difficult to talk about stampedes, because people die needlessly. Whether it’s a football stadium or Mount Meron, people are going there for joy, yet it turns into tragedy. There’s no real place for blame because it needs a full investigation,” says Kramer.

He shared his perspectives with the SA Jewish Report as an expert in emergency and mass gathering (event) medicine. Kramer is the former head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of sports medicine at Pretoria University.

He has specialised in emergency, disaster, and stampede medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the FIFA World Cup Russia in 2018. Since then, he has been actively involved with FIFA Medical. He is also involved in teaching and researching mass gathering medicine, including soccer-stadium stampede prevention and the management of disaster medicine, having been actively involved in assistance missions after earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and volcanoes.

“A stampede is a terrible way to die,” he says. “It’s a slow asphyxiation. You can’t breathe for two to four minutes. The weight of a crowd like that can push over a wall. It’s tons of pressure. Then, if people fall down, they have no time or room to get up, and others trample on them. People either walk [over those who have fallen] or fall over themselves. So you also see severe trauma injuries.”

Kramer says preventing stampedes requires legislation, management, planning, risk assessment, logistics, and most of all, training. “In almost every incident I’ve seen like this, there has been no training. You can have 1 000 policeman and 1 000 stewards, but if no one is trained to recognise the signs of stampedes, they can easily happen. All it takes is one ‘spark’.”

He alludes to one person falling over in a stadium passage, or one fight that broke out in a stadium, which led to many people dying in stampedes in the past.

Kramer explains that medically, responding to a stampede is often counterintuitive to what a medical professional would normally do.

“In other mass disasters, you triage people who aren’t unconscious and prioritise them over unconscious victims who you may leave. But in a stampede, you immediately do CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on the asphyxiated, non-breathing victims, because they usually have a healthy heart and you want to get oxygen back to that heart. You do CPR for half an hour to get the heart to start pumping again. You do CPR on every single non-breathing person, and then they do survive. So you don’t run it like an accident. You don’t take them to hospital – you work tirelessly on the scene.”

He says in crowded environments, it’s essential to keep the flow of people going. Even if they are walking in a narrow area, like the site where the Mount Meron tragedy occurred, as long as there is a flow of people, it’s likely to be safe. “But as soon as something goes wrong – like someone falling – it quickly perpetuates a vicious cycle.”

One way to keep the flow going is to use megaphones. “You can tell people to stop pushing, that people are getting injured, and to stay where they are. You can tell people that are being crushed to turn on their side, as then they can still breathe. You can control things verbally. Communication is crucial, and it needs to be planned beforehand.”

In his work with football stadiums, other small but significant changes have been implemented to prevent stampedes. For example, tickets are sold offsite to prevent stampedes should tickets run out. In addition, spectators are allowed only to sit in a seat, no one is allowed to stand or sit anywhere else. This controls numbers and keeps pathways open. “In 2021, crowd management is a science that needs to be learnt before disaster strikes and people die,” he says.

Kramer has seen similar numbers of deaths at other stampedes. For example, 43 people died at the Ellis Park Stadium tragedy [in South Africa] exactly 20 years ago. He says this number of fatalities is expected in the first five minutes of a stampede.

While Kramer wants to avoid laying blame, his first impression of the tragedy is that “the system went wrong … from the top, right to the bottom. Now, they’ll have to do what they should have done before – control the amount of people, manage risk, train personnel, and so on. It needs to be a well-oiled machine to stop people from dying.”

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