Home for the high holy days
Round challot, apples and honey, and a roast in the oven don’t just mean it’s yom tov, it signals family time.
Lured by such home-spun memories, many South African expats head home to be reunited with their families for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Having lived in London for 13 years, Tarryn Lazarus is heading home to Port Elizabeth for the high holy days. Her homecoming will be extra special this year. “My sister lives in Cape Town, and she’s flying down for Yom Kippur,” says Tarryn. “It will be the first time the whole family will be together for yom tov since I moved to London.”
Tarryn usually spends the chaggim (Jewish holidays) in London. “I usually go to family who I’m lucky to have there. They’re quite distant relatives from South Africa, but they treat me like close family, and always make sure I’m included in their celebrations. Being so many miles away from home, it’s special to be embraced in a different country, especially during my first few years away. [Then], it’s not such a lonely experience.”
Yet there’s nothing like home. “I’m looking forward to my mom’s cooking, and special time with the family,” says Tarryn. “My gran is 91, so I get to spend time with her. Whenever we do the candles, she gives us a blessing, and it’s very special. I missed her 90th birthday, so I’m really looking forward to spending time with her. I’m also looking forward to kichel and babkas, which are hard to come by in the United Kingdom,” she laughs.
Married couple Sianne and Marc Menashe are travelling home to Johannesburg for yom tov. “We’ve been living in London for two years,” says Sianne. “When we moved for my husband’s work, we agreed that I’d come home every six months. We usually do Pesach or Rosh Hashanah. When you’re overseas, you miss your family and friends every day, but yom tov is a time where you long for that familiarity.
“I’m looking forward to being with my sister’s kids over Rosh Hashanah,” she says, “being actively involved in the lives of the next generation, and just having that family time with them. I also love the familiarity of sitting around the table and talking about previous years, when grandparents were alive and before some of the family emigrated. It’s comforting. It’s just a time when we’ve always been with our families – you don’t want to be with strangers.”
The Menashes have, however, built a strong base of South African friends with similar traditions in London. “All South Africans support each other here, so we usually go to them for meals or have them at us on Shabbat or yom tov when we’re not in South Africa,” says Sianne.
Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Yisroel Fletcher met and married Naomi, a South African girl. Though the couple lived in South Africa for eight months, they made aliyah in November 2016. They’ve since had two children, but remain committed to spending certain chaggim with their families.
“My parents are in the UK and my parents-in-law are in Johannesburg,” says Yisroel. “As a young couple who made aliyah and doesn’t have any family in Israel, it’s really important to us to see our parents and families at least once a year, if not more often. We choose the chaggim to do that because we feel they – especially Sukkot and Pesach – are big family times.” The two usually spend one of these chaggim in England, and the other in South Africa.
This year, the couple, together with their two-year-old daughter, Liora, and five-month-old son, Raphael, are coming to Johannesburg for Yom Kippur and Sukkot. “When I think of Sukkot, I don’t only think of lulav and etrog and sitting in the sukkah for meals, it’s about quality family time,” says Yisroel. “I think about afternoons with my family playing Monopoly in the sukkah, or the hikes and outings we do on chol hamoed [the weekdays of the festival]. For me, that’s part and parcel of the chag.”
For the Fletchers, being with their parents, siblings, and extended families on the chaggim is also about building special memories for their children. “Our children can sit at the seder table or inside their grandparents’ sukkah. As parents, seeing your children sitting in the same sukkah or around the same seder table, having the same experiences you had as a kid is something really special.”
During the year, their kids interact with their grandparents by video call. “Interacting physically with their grandparents, sitting on their laps, and realising that they don’t just appear on a screen, they’re real people, is really important,” says Yisroel. “I grew up extremely close to my grandparents, they were like an extension of my parents. That’s something that’s a lot harder to replicate living overseas. But when we have the opportunity to give them that quality time, we embrace it.”
Sarah*, who’s lived in the UK for two years, is planning to surprise her family for Rosh Hashanah.
“It was going to be my first chag without them, and I so want to be with them,” she says. “We’re a family who often surprises each other, and now I get to surprise them! Yom tov is really special to us as a family, it’s a time when we all get together. For us, Rosh Hashanah has always been one of the most special holidays.”
Sarah says the chaggim are different in London. “I’ll probably struggle when I have to skip a year of coming home for yom tov. The more traditional and less religious British families don’t take the holidays as seriously as we do in Joburg. They keep it small, and don’t entertain as much. But having South African family friends in London means I’ll always get an invitation over yom tov, so I’m lucky. There’s nothing like home, though.”
*name has been changed
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.
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.
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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