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Ideas matter

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Parshot/Festivals

Ideas matter. Great leaders are driven and express big ideas. Technical bureaucrats may put policies in motion, but the leaders who made a difference throughout history are those who understood the influential power of big ideas.

Nelson Mandela championed the ideas of non-racialism, national reconciliation, unity, and the dignity and equality of all human beings. At once diplomatic and formidable, it was the power of his ideas that drove him and liberated South Africa.

Winston Churchill inspired his generation by articulating the ideas that they were fighting for. The Allied soldiers of World War II weren’t just engaged in a battle over land, but a struggle for the soul of an entire continent. They were defending freedom and human dignity from the evil forces of fascism and destruction.

President John F Kennedy rallied the United States around his vision of standing up to Soviet aggression and promoting freedom and democracy around the world. He spoke movingly about the importance of altruism and of serving one’s country. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher articulated a philosophy of protecting the independence and creativity of the human spirit, which needed to be shielded from government interference so that it could flourish and uplift society. President Barack Obama offered stirring rhetoric about a post-race America, and presented his own story as an example of the American dream and the vision of a society filled with opportunity for all.

Ideas matter. This is the essence of Judaism. Ideas – G-d’s ideas for our lives and our world. Jewish history shows how ideas can change the world. Look at how Judaism changed the trajectory of human history. What makes these ideas so potent is how they are translated into a programme of action, into a living wisdom. This is because G-d not only gave us the concepts that give meaning to our lives, but also the 613 mitzvot that help shape our days. These commandments, which are a blueprint for how we should behave in the world, are a practical expression of G-d’s profound ideas.

All of this comes to the fore at Chanukah, which was, in essence, a battle of ideas. The ancient Syrian-Greek empire had conquered most of the known world, including the land of Israel, and worked to impose its Hellenistic philosophy across the land. Having occupied and defiled the Temple and outlawed the observance of Shabbat and circumcision, the Syrian-Greeks pushed the Jewish people to worship idols of Greek g-ds and heed a philosophy that prized physical prowess and pleasures.

The Maccabees, who rose up against the Syrian-Greek soldiers, were engaged in a political and military struggle, but they were also – more profoundly – fighting for the core ideas of Judaism. Instead of a philosophy of idolatry and paganism, the Maccabees defended the Jewish belief in one G-d who created all of existence. He created every human being with a mission to improve themselves and the world through fulfilling His will, and to use their bodies and minds to do mitzvot, imbuing all with an immortal soul that carries the eternal merit of these deeds to the World to Come. The purpose of life is to do good. The Maccabees were driven to bring the ideas of Judaism back into their society, where even many of their fellow Jews were drawn to the ideas of Hellenism.

This is why the central miracle that we celebrate on Chanukah is the lighting of the flames of the menorah. The menorah, the golden candelabrum that stood at the centre of the Temple, represents the divine light of G-d’s gift of the Torah. When the Maccabees liberated the Temple, they famously found only a small vessel of untainted oil to light the menorah, yet it burned for eight days instead of one.

The miracle of Chanukah may seem modest when compared with the remarkable events that have shaped Jewish history such as splitting seas and manna falling from heaven. So why was an entire festival established to remember it? The answer is what the flames of the menorah represent: the divine ideas at the heart of Judaism that the Maccabees fought for. We light Chanukah candles to remind ourselves that being Jewish isn’t about culture or ethnicity – it’s about ideas. As we light the candles, we remind ourselves that ideas matter, that we should place the Torah’s eternal ideas and the actions that flow from them at the centre of our lives.

We are a nation and a people driven by noble ideas about being good and generous to others and improving ourselves, of drawing closer to G-d by dedicating ourselves to His will. As we light our Chanukah candles this year, let us remember that Jewish history has been one long struggle to bring these ideas to life, and that the beauty of the Torah is the way it translates these ideas into a blueprint for action. As we bask in the glow of the menorah, we must impart the lessons of these ideas to our children, because we know that the future of Judaism lies in inspiring the next generation with the eternal ideas of what it means to a Jew, and that it is the privilege of a lifetime.

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OP-EDS

How to create room to breathe while being constricted

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There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!

While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by telling them that He has heard their cries, and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim, and will be allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).” Commenting on the words “they would not listen”, Rashi creates an equivalence between “to listen” and “to receive”, saying, lo kiblu tanchumin (the people weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.

What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.

However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.

The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim: external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah); and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).

Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.

In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.

This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.

  • Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

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Parshot/Festivals

Don’t lose your spirit

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Imagine you’ve been working on the job for years and years. It’s hard, manual labour and you’re not simply tired but exhausted, demoralised, drained, and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards, and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him, or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being disillusioned, devastated, and cast into despair yet again, or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?

So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years, when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moses brought a message from G-d that they were about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Jews’ response? They didn’t listen to Moses as a result of shortness of breath and from hard labour.

One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit”. In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moses’ call not only from physical breathlessness, but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost their spirit.

In the history of Egypt, no slave ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moses is a dreamer, they must have thought. It’s just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so, the people were utterly despondent and spiritless and therefore, they couldn’t hear – absorb – Moses’ message.

It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine, and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. It takes an extraordinary degree of faith and courage not to.

I have often quoted a wise proverb in the name of legendary Chasid Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing. Money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half. You are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.”

Moses brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave it back the spirit it had lost, and eventually, through the miracles of G-d, the promise was fulfilled, and the dream became destiny.

To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish people can never afford. May we never lose our spirit.

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Parshot/Festivals

From small flicker to giant flash of illumination

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One of the most memorable Chanukah holidays of my life was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, just after dark, I was deeply moved by the sight of the little candles shining in the doorways. Special recesses had been carved in the Jerusalem stone of the doorposts, where the chanukiah was placed, protected from the winter winds and rains by a glass covering. This enabled the literal fulfilment of the Talmudic instruction: “Chanukah candles must be placed on the outside of the doors of our home.”

There was an interesting architectural anomaly in King Solomon’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Windows are usually built to maximise the penetration of light into a building. As described in the Book of Kings, the windows of the sanctuary were shaped by design so that light would shine out, rather than in. According to Talmud Menachot, this was meant to convey the message that G-d doesn’t need outside illumination. On the contrary, the spiritual light of the Menorah, with everything it symbolises, must spill out and brighten the world.

Since March, we have each been transforming our homes into sanctuaries. Our personal dwellings have always been hallowed: places of sanctity and purity which serve as mini-homes for G-d. Confined as we have been for the past eight months, this exercise has intensified.

For months, synagogues were closed for worship and prayer relocated to our flats and houses. Our rabbis, previously preaching from towering pulpits, arrived right into our living rooms on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and iMacs.

Our homes also became beacons of kindness, caring, and giving. Physical hospitality was of course severely curtailed by lockdown limitations. But chesed doesn’t only happen in the home, it also emanates from the home. In counterpoint to the numerous stories of corruption, graft, and theft that dominated our headlines were thousands of acts of selfless attention to the lonely, the elderly, and others needing assistance.

Fortunately, this pandemic is playing out in an age when communication technology is extremely advanced. This made it so much easier to be connected with the rest of world even without stepping out. Today, we can reach out to show care via a telephone call or a WhatsApp message. We can wish each other a good Shabbos through cute little graphics sent out to broadcasts lists. We can help friends shop online even if they aren’t technologically adept. All of these advances became tools for kindness and chesed.

I have seen the inside of many more of my congregants’ homes in the course of 2020 than in any single calendar year in more than three decades as a pulpit rabbi. Zoom Torah classes and virtual services propelled me right into studies, dining rooms, kitchens, and family rooms of hundreds of residences. In spite of the physical distance there was a sense of presence and home-to-home connection that cannot be achieved by gathering in a lecture room at shul or in the rabbi’s house.

Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness). While we worked, played, prayed, and studied in our homes, we were busy consolidating the spiritual pillars that are the real foundations holding up a Jewish home.

Here’s the powerful message of Chanukah 2020: we have had eight months to strengthen the structure of our personal home sanctuary. To renovate it, redecorate it, and spruce it up. If it’s to be G-d’s Temple in a true sense, then its glow must shine out into the outside world, a lighthouse radiating sanctity, serenity, and shalom.

The darkness out there may be thick and appear impenetrable. The miracle of Chanukah was the victory of the few over the many. A small light can dispel a lot of obscurity.

We will start with one little candle, in our doorframe or window, solitary but valiantly radiating the warmth and purity from our home to the world out there. That light will increase, night after night, and combine with literally millions of other little Chanukah flames from Jewish homes around the world, to illuminate the entire planet with a giant flash of goodness and purity.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairman of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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